Minnesota Memories Part 3: Back to basics: A summer in Orr with Aunt MyrtleThe summer of my seventh year, in 1942, my dad sent me to stay with Aunt Myrtle, my mother’s sister, who lived with her husband, Sulo Ollela, and son, Raymond, in Orr.
By: Paul Slayback, Duluth News Tribune
The summer of my seventh year, in 1942, my dad sent me to stay with Aunt Myrtle, my mother’s sister, who lived with her husband, Sulo Ollela, and son, Raymond, in Orr.
Sulo, a wood-cutter, worked at a sawmill. They lived in a rustic cabin on the edge of a five-acre meadow backed up to a thick forest of birch and pine. The meadow was filled with yellow and purple flowers — brown-eyed Susans and lupines.
Entering my aunt’s cabin was like stepping into a home of the early Minnesota pioneers. The cabin had three rooms framed with rough-cut timber, a kitchen/dining room combination and two bedrooms. It was warmed by a wood stove in the middle of the kitchen, with no electricity, no phone, no radio and no indoor plumbing. Oddly shaped oil lamps with a sweet, oily odor produced good light for reading.
That summer, we were awakened by some wild howling. It seemed to be right outside my window.
Sulo came in. “Gray wolves — can’t hurt you —be gone by morning,” Sulo said. I remember he always made sure we were inside after sundown.
Sulo, 6 feet tall, 210 pounds, was a powerful figure — a “woodcutter” with wide shoulders, checkered shirt, square jaw and calloused hands. Sulo used machinery at the sawmill, but no power tools at the cabin —not even a motor for his boat. My brother, Ralph, told me Sulo built the cabin with a friend from the sawmill using a 6-foot push-pull band saw — one man on each end of that enormous saw blade.
Raymond, my age, looked and acted like his father — strong, silent, good-natured — a miniature woodcutter. All summer we shared the same bedroom. Our conversations were brief and to the point. I’d ask a question and he’d answer it in short, clipped phrases. “What things you do in the summer?” I asked. “Nothing much,” he said. And on it went.
Aunt Myrtle was dark-haired, brown-eyed, rosy cheeked and unflappable with a sweet disposition. She had a tendency to give everyone, including the dog, a long, affectionate hug.
Neither Sulo nor my aunt smoked nor drank hard liquor. Coffee pot always on, they drank sweet, creamy coffee with spoonfuls of sugar and ate oatmeal cookies.
Some might think my Aunt Myrtle, a handsome woman, led a life of hardship; that she had given up living in the city with its luxuries and excitement; that she had chosen to marry a dull, uneducated guy and was far removed from people and the comforts of civilization.
Don’t feel sorry for my Aunt Myrtle. She had a good family who loved her. She lived on the edge of a beautiful meadow. She had a cow that produced fresh milk, 50 chickens for fresh eggs and fried chicken whenever she wanted, and patches of wild strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.
Less than 50 yards from their cabin was a dark-colored pond about the size of two football fields filled with fish and surrounded by heavily wooded birch and pine trees. My aunt also had a shadow. A friendly dog they called Sunny that looked like a mix between a wolf and a black bear that followed her around all day. Here at the cabin, the air was fresh, There was no pollution, no crime, no bills to pay, and the neighbors were pleasant — although some distance away. My Aunt Myrtle was contented.
One Saturday morning as a buttercup-yellow stream of sunlight pierced the pane of our bedroom window, Sulo opened the door. Carrying some long bamboo fishing poles, he announced, “Boys wantah fish?”
“Whoopie,” I yelled and Raymond smiled. Sulo handed each of us one of the poles. My pole felt light, and I liked rubbing my hands over the knobby joints where bamboo shoots once grew.
Sulo kept his boat tied to a pine tree on the edge of the pond. With Raymond and I each straining at one of the oars, we headed out. There was nobody else on the pond. The pond was deep, calm, with a clean, bluish-green color. Sulo waved us over to a spot 50 yards from shore; we dropped anchor, baited our hooks, attached our bobbers and dropped them in the water.
Within 10 minutes I felt a pull on my line and saw my plastic bobber disappear from the surface. I yanked my pole upward, feeling a strong, squirming draw on my line. Pulling my line backward and lifting my pole, I manuevered a wiggling, thrashing and lively 4-pound sunfish into our boat. It had marvelous colors of green, blue, silver and yellow. Sulo placed in on a stringer, and I re-baited my hook. Fishing for five hours, we caught 20 fish, mostly bass and sunfish.
Pouring out of the boat, excited and proud of our catch, we rushed to Aunt Myrtle. “We got lots of fish,” I said happily. Raymond smiled, and Sulo said, “They did good.”
I grew fond of my aunt, my mother’s sister, that summer. In my mind, I imagined she talked and acted like my mother. Like my mother, Swedish was her first language. She knew many Swedish songs, and sang to me and Raymond.
One Sunday, we all attended a country picnic held at one of the nearby lakes. The picnic was arranged by a local church group, and each family contributed something to eat. My aunt made and brought a large tub of potato salad to the picnic. Besides the potato salad, I liked the roasted hot dogs, watermelon, Jello and fresh lemonade.
The men played horseshoes, had a baseball game for both kids and adults, and some kids flew kites. Raymond and I entered some running contests. As kids of different ages lined up at the starting line, a man yelled “go” and off we went.
A rich, warm beauty enveloped my aunt’s place. It was quiet and peaceful. No one lectured me. No one yelled at me. There was little if any traffic. At the end of August, my aunt told me my dad would be picking me up the next morning. She told me she wanted me to come back the next summer. I promised I would.
That evening, I went down to the pond and looked out over the water. Dark shadows from nearby trees crept across the pond, and the surface was as smooth as glass. The calm was interrupted by the piercing, haunting call of a loon. I’ll never forget that sound —a sound like no other. A sound of something wild, something primitive. A sound that curled the hairs on the back of my neck. This unmistakable call of the loon and the chilling howl of the wolf were my Minnesota lullabies.
After my dad picked me up the next day, I never saw my Aunt Myrtle again.
THURSDAY: Grandma Baker: Living the Ojibwe way of life