Most of us have an oral history that is passed down from generation to generation, instilling the wisdom, humor, and resilience of our forebears. Most of my familial stories come from my maternal grandmother, Cora Peterson, who grew up on the Minnesota countryside where her Norwegian immigrant parents had a farm. With eight brothers and no sisters, Cora was certainly a tomboy; her chores were the same as the boys’. One fall day she was out splitting wood with a hatchet to make kindling for the cooking fire. Her brother Sherman was nearby, scattering feed for chickens. He was teasing her about something and she was becoming angrier by the minute. Finally, she’d had it. ”Sherman, one more word out of you, and I’ll chop your fingers off with this hatchet.” Sherman, being an ornery young farm kid, took threats from his sister as fodder for more teasing. ”A little sissy girl like you is gonna cut my fingers off? Ha! Sure you will.” Sherman approached boldly and stuck his pinky finger out on the chopping block. He said “I dare you,” knowing she wouldn’t do it.
When I was a kid, there were big family gatherings at Grandma’s house in Minnesota. The place would be chock full of human energy and brimming with the smell of coffee and freshly-baked goodies. Cora’s ginger-snap cookies were the best thing I ever put in my mouth, close runners-up being her cheesecake and authentic Norwegian lefse. All the surviving Great Uncles would be seated around the big old dinner table having a raucous time; I would steal glances at Sherman’s right hand (he was missing his pinky finger) and then I’d look at Grandma with a feeling of great reverence and a little fear. Also, I’d have this certain sense of ”How on Earth can these two be in the same room after she did that to him!?” I knew never to mess around with my Grandma…if she got cross, I’d mind her.
I live with my honey, Shannon, in an International school bus here in the Chihuahuan Desert of the Big Bend region of Texas. Recently, I was writing in my blog and this old bus became the focus of my story, so I checked to see what year the bus was made. An inscribed metal plate near the steps told me that the bus was completed on January 17, 1979. Later that day, I was pleasantly surprised when my Mom saw the blog entry and informed me that January 17 was also the birthday of Grandma Cora. Despite the story about her moment of violence towards her brother, Cora was a wonderfully happy character with a wide laugh and the best sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever met. She also helped me to see the world in a different light. Grandma Cora is the one who taught me that some flowers, such as the columbines growing in her garden, are edible. When she’d make lefse, I would sit and watch her closely, anxious for the final product. After she prepared the dough and formed it into a cylinder, she’d cut it with a special knife. When it came time to do this, she’d look at me with a grin and say “Mark, put your finger up on the cutting board.” I would put my finger up on the board for less than half a second, then pull it away dramatically…and she’d laugh that classic Cora laugh.
We parked our bus so that the front windshield frames the Chisos Mountains. Each morning, when the light reaches her fingers over that unique horizon, I peek tentatively out from under the covers like a turtle, curious to see if it’s worth dragging myself out of the warm bed to get a photo. Some mornings, there’s simply no way to resist that light; blood-red skies get me vertical the fastest. You have to be quick to catch the best part of a sunrise…sometimes I jump up, get my camera out, set it up, then realize the sky has already changed into something not quite as eye-popping. Of course, even half of a Big Bend sunrise would knock the socks off a regular person.
If only Cora could come here and witness the beauty and wonder of this place. I know she took an epic Greyhound bus trip to the Southwest to visit relatives, but I’m not sure if she spent any time in the desert. I do know, from my Mom’s story, that Cora knew every single person on the bus by the time she got to her destination. I imagine her coming to visit us here for a while so I could show her where and how we live; she would get such a kick out of it all, helping me build a wall out of mud with her strong hands and doing some gardening with Shannon. I can hear her laughing about how we have the most modern and the most archaic things going on at the same time…solar panels and clothes-lines.
Last Fall, I stayed for a couple months at my folks’ place up in Preston, Minnesota, as has been my routine for the last six years or so. One afternoon, my Mom got out some of her old photos. In the pile was a wedding photo of Cora and her husband Louis. There were extra copies and I put one up in my bedroom. I remember hearing that she was a handsome woman when she was young. That always sounded funny to me, a woman being handsome. Looking at that photo of my Grandma every day, I realized that she really was handsome; her jawline strong yet softly curved, a sturdy brow, and genuine eyes which transcend the boundaries of time. Every time I walked by, Cora’s eyes stared into mine.
This old steel behemoth we live in was used as a school bus. Next, it became river-company transport. Then, the Terlingua Fire Department bought it. Once a year, they took the bus to the chili cookoff and used it as a treatment room for drunk idiots who hurt themselves. After a permanent structure was erected for wounded chili-heads, the bus was essentially retired. It could have been crushed, melted down, shipped to China, made into other metal things, and shipped back to the States. In our case, the bus was much more valuable, not to mention efficiently-utilized, as a living space. Instantly, we were protected from wind, rain, and the occasional (very occasional) snowstorm. We rigged her with a wood-burning stove and a bamboo wood floor. Every night, we crawl into bed, our heads resting under the Emergency Exit sign at the back of the bus. I lie there sometimes and just stare at the curved steel above us, my eyes focusing on the rivets holding it together.
|I have the distinct feeling that Cora would have loved and respected our way of life…and seen the humor in it. I carry my Grandma with me everywhere I go; when I’m depressed, I bring her to mind and it lifts my spirits. “Things could be worse,” is a quote from Grandma that my Mom has always used regularly…and now I do too. As a kid, if ever I was pouting, she’d say “Look out, a bird might poop on your lip!” and I’d instantly smile. I’ll never forget when Grandma was leaving our house after a long visit. She could see that I was sad, but when her parting words were “See ya in the funny papers!” I imagined being a cartoon character and actually running into my Grandma inside some comic strip, and I couldn’t help but laugh. Now, I see her in so many things…she’s eternal, her sense of humor comforting me to this very day.
Part of this article was previously published by The Big Bend Gazette.