Women’s History Month: Frieda

FriedaThe theme for Woman’s History Month (2013) was ‘celebrating women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics’. The names of famous women who’ve done impressive things is too long to list here. But I can think of several women in my personal history who are worth a mention when talking about outstanding females.

I think of my Grandma Frieda who made homemade root beer (science), fetched water from a hand pump (technology), made rag rugs on a loom (operating engineering), and had to budget every dime (mathematics).

She was born at the turn of the 20th century to Swedish farmers, spending most of her life near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border where the Rock Creek bends and turns through beautiful country.  A typical girl of that time and place, she lived a simple life on the farm, then as a young adult married a local man.

They had four children, my dad being her youngest. A house fire became a milestone for the family. My aunt, an infant at the time, was thrown down the stairs as the family fled. Everyone was safe, but they lost everything. Grandma kept melted coins in a tiny box and would tell me the story about the big fire. She had to set up housekeeping all over again, this time with small children and a babe in arms.

My grandfather started a successful business in town by selling the first cars between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Frieda was busy with the house and children and opened her home for the local song club meetings. The family went rollerskating every week. Those were happy days.

But the untimely death of her husband left her a young widow. Now a single mother, she worked as a housekeeper and candling eggs. From here on it would be a struggle. She finished raising the children by herself.

Her daughters left home and started their own families. Frieda married a local widower so that my dad, the only child left at home, could have a father again, but according to the step-father Frieda’s son painted the barn wrong and was one more mouth to feed. My dad went to live with relatives from then on.

The marriage could not be saved and eventually, Frieda went through a divorce. She was one of the very few, if not the only one in her circle, to get a divorce. That was almost unheard of in those days. But she lifted her chin and kept busy with family and friends and working odd jobs.

When I was born, Grandma Frieda lived in a tiny house about a mile down the country road from us. My older sisters called her ‘grandma in the country’. (Our other grandma was ‘gram in town’.) Grandma in the country was a tiny person. I doubt she weighed over 95 lbs. I thought she looked like a small bird just drying off after a birdbath. By the time I knew her she was hunched over and worn by arthritis, but she still raised raspberries, baked wonderful bread, and pies and was driving herself to church, into town, and entering her handwork in the county fair, always winning ribbons.

She was poor. I remember tagging along with my big sister when she’d haul water for Grandma, from the pump down the driveway to the house. Two buckets would be enough for cooking and the dishes. The screen door holes were stuffed with cotton to keep the bugs out. Only a few low wattage lightbulbs gave dim light in the quiet country evenings and they were never all on at the same time.  She never had dollar bills in her purse, only change. She didn’t have a lot of things. I’m sure the few pretty vases and any rhinestone broaches she owned were gifts. The few dresses she owned were well worn. Most were faded and mended and then re-mended. Later on, she did have a pretty pink dress, probably a gift too.

Her house was nothing modern or fancy but it was spotless. You could eat off of her mismatched cracked linoleum floor.

This slight woman always surprised me with her bravery at things that other women I knew would run from such as mice or a wind storm surrounding her rickety house or driving on icy winter roads. When our family would leave from a day of mowing her lawn and it was getting dark I wasn’t sure I wanted my little grandma all alone out in the country with one dim light on in the house, but she looked so calm and relaxed as she smiled and waved, that I knew she was just fine.

A cheerful person with a good sense of dry humor, she was quick to smile and laugh and tease us kids, pretending to pinch off our noses with her crooked fingers. Sometimes she would just grab me to plant a kiss.  She sang funny kid songs. But she could be very serious too. No goofing off when it was bedtime. She’d rub my dirty summer neck raw until it was clean.

Grandma suffered from numerous aches and health issues. She’d line up her pills in a long single row on the kitchen counter. At the end of the row was a glass of water. She’d tell me how the water was the best medicine of all. I know she was in pain much of the time but she never let it get the best of her.  

She was not shy about her Christian faith and was always ready to talk about it. She really knew the Bible and was passionate about it’s teachings.  After all, she knew first hand how God had been faithful over and over during loss, heartache, divorce, poverty and physical pain and she felt blessed to have wonderful children, who adored her.

I remember her soprano voice as she sang the old Swedish hymns while playing the autoharp. Even as a tot I could sense the deep feeling she sang with. She could play the pump organ also the harmonica, which she called the mouth organ. Everything and everyone were interesting to her. She had a wide range of interests. I can still see her rocking back and forth in the rocking chair while she cheered on Mad Dog and The Crusher while watching her favorite wrestling show on a very small screened black and white TV with horrible reception.

Always an independent woman, it was hard for her to give up driving and leave her home. I remember the very day the family gathered at her house dividing her few possessions. She sat there looking very sad with her skinny arms folded tight. It was the only time I remember her not being in a talkative mood. Now too feeble to live on her own, she took turns living with my aunts and us.

I liked when it was her turn to stay with us. She thought I was good at anything I did and she was so nice to my friends. I remember the night the ambulance came. She was never well after that and died when I was just starting Jr. High.

Grandma Frieda (77) & me (11)

How fortunate I am to have had a grandmother like Frieda. Part of who I am today is because of her. I learned from her to do the best you can with what you’ve got, and that a person doesn’t need a lot of things to be happy, also when life gets tough there is still reason to sing a song, preferably a funny one. So at this time of celebrating and honoring women in history who have done great and big things, to which I’m grateful for, I want to also celebrate and honor the regular and ordinary women like Frieda and all the other inspiring women in my life and yours who have been mentors to us.