Minnesota Memories: Uncle John drops in for ChristmasI tramped down Superior Street in a light snowfall in December 1945, listening to snow crunch under my galoshes, the faint, tinkly sound of silver bells in the distance. I passed Salvation Army volunteers on street corners soliciting contributions from shoppers. Moving along, I noticed the people. They acted differently. I could sense it. On the street, in the market, in the stores, throughout the neighborhood and the city — smiles were wider, handshakes firmer, pats on the back heartfelt, greetings spirited and friendly. It was sudden and dramatic — like the first snowflakes of winter. School was out for two weeks —even brothers and sisters were tolerant of one another.
By: Paul Slayback, for the News Tribune
I tramped down Superior Street in a light snowfall in December 1945, listening to snow crunch under my galoshes, the faint, tinkly sound of silver bells in the distance. I passed Salvation Army volunteers on street corners soliciting contributions from shoppers. Moving along, I noticed the people. They acted differently. I could sense it. On the street, in the market, in the stores, throughout the neighborhood and the city — smiles were wider, handshakes firmer, pats on the back heartfelt, greetings spirited and friendly. It was sudden and dramatic — like the first snowflakes of winter. School was out for two weeks —even brothers and sisters were tolerant of one another.
My father cut down a pine tree, hauled it home, placed it in the corner of our living room, and let all us kids decorate it with red, white and blue lights, popcorn on strings, cut-outs of snowflakes, snowmen and an angel plunked on top.
My sisters Dorothy, Marian and June, were good singers. They gathered with boys and girls to brave the cold, winter evenings bunched together, wandering the neighborhood singing Christmas carols, puffs of steam coming from their mouths. Doors opened to serve them with cookies and hot chocolate. Radios in homes, stores and automobiles piped White Christmas, Silver Bells, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Silent Night, filling the air with peace and good will.
At Christmas season in Duluth, seldom-seen relatives sprang up as if from a cloud of smoke. I recall my mother’s brother, Uncle John Johnson, visiting us the Christmas of 1945.
Uncle John was about 50 years old, 6 foot 2, lean and handsome. “Uncle John was a lady’s man in his younger days,” said my sister Dorothy. “All the girls liked him.” Uncle John, my mother’s brother, never married, still lived on the 160-acre farm he inherited from my grandfather in Staples, Minn., and still had several lady friends interested in him. What did the ladies see in my Uncle John, I wondered.
For one thing, he moved in a smooth, easy, controlled manner.
“Whoops ... Oooh. Bam...” we heard loud shouts outside our door on Dec. 24, 1945, about 6:30 in the evening. Lorna rushed to the door. I was hot on her heels.
Opening the door, we saw Uncle John spread out on the ice-covered sidewalk with the remains of two large paper bags still clutched in his arms. Oranges, candy, popcorn, walnuts, bottles of liquor and several boxes of presents in brightly wrapped papers were scattered around him. A light snow had fallen, concealing a thin layer of ice on our steps and walkway.
“I’m O.K.,” Uncle John said, getting to his feet and dusting off a layer of snow. All of us there, Lorna, Dorothy, Marian, June and I, even my smiling dad, helped John and his treasures into the house. We talked about the ice, the snow, the weather. We’re Minnesotans —we talk about the weather.
After Uncle John settled in, I took a closer look at him. He was kindly, had large hands, a Swedish accent and melodious speaking voice.
He’s been drinking. “Blackberry brandy is what he likes,” said my sister Lorna in the kitchen as she prepared his drink —chunks of ice, some 7-Up, topped off with the brandy.
“Can I try some?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” said my sister. “It’s only for adults.”
Sitting on my uncle’s lap, I asked him about my mother and grandmother. “Don’t bother Uncle John with that,” said my father.
“No, no, it’s no problem, I like to talk about Maggie and Christina,” he said. “Your mother was a good cook, a hard worker, a lady who everyone loved and liked to be around,” he said. “And your grandmother, Christina, was beautiful and a great skater. She won an ice-skating race when she was 16, back in Sweden —no one was even close as she came in. That’s what they told me.”
I liked being around my Uncle John. He looked me straight in the eye when I talked and was interested in what I said. Maybe it was the same with the ladies.
I was observant —noticed things and saved them in my memory bank. What I noticed about Uncle John was his character. He was pleasant. Never had a nasty word or negative comment about anyone. Shy, amiable, neat in appearance, civilized, engaging and a good listener —women like that, I thought.
Uncle John finished an entire bottle of brandy that first night, joined us in singing Christmas songs after dinner and talked with Lorna and dad late into the evening.
The next morning was Christmas and I was up early, but Uncle John slept in. Racing for dad’s makeshift mantel, made to resemble a fireplace, I spied four long, colored, bulging stockings. Mine was green and I grabbed it, reached in and pulled out a large, reddish-white rutabaga, a brown potato, then a carrot.
Hey, what kind of Christmas stocking was this? Probing deeper, I finally reached the candy —peppermint sticks, candy canes, green and red hard candy, and chocolate-covered marshmallow Santas. My dad always made us work for our rewards.
Under the tree I ripped apart a long, rectangular-shaped object wrapped in red and green paper with my name on it. A set of skis and poles —used, but still in good shape. Wow, I never had skis before. I skied all over the neighborhood that morning.
Marian, dressed in an all-white gown with a set of candles and green crown on her head, served my dad breakfast in bed as St. Lucia. She looked radiant. My mother started this custom when Lorna was 8 years old, a tradition all girls in our family carried out.
MONDAY: Diving and jumping: athletics, Duluth-style