Ways of Seeing by Laurie Cox: Grandpa’s writings add to his legacy
My mother’s father, my Grandpa, was a tall, slender man with thin gray hair, usually wearing a flannel shirt unless the occasion called for more formality. He was born in Denmark in the 1880’s and immigrated to Seattle when he was 24. By the time I was old enough to be aware, he was retired, living on his own in a small house, my grandmother long passed away. Grandpa liked camping, classical music, and talking politics. Probably he had a range of interests I never knew; he died when I was thirteen.
There was a fairly large Danish population around Seattle, with an active Danish Brotherhood lodge and a weekly Danish-language newspaper. During the 1950’s, Grandpa wrote a regular column for this paper. I was vaguely aware that he did this writing, but had never read any of it since I neither spoke nor read Danish. I’m not sure how many of those columns were originally saved, but sometime, many years later, my mother decided to do some translation. She did not grow up speaking Danish but had taken classes as an older adult, and with the help of a Danish-English dictionary took on the task. I have copies of three of his columns.
When I read these, I feel a connection with him I never really had as a child. Here am I, at a similar point in my life, writing for a weekly newspaper. Here am I, using some of my memories in my subject matter. I think about this act of writing: why we write, why we tell stories, and which stories we end up sharing. Of Grandpa’s three columns I have, two are memoirs of his years growing up in Denmark, while the third is a remembrance of his wife, my grandmother, who died three months before my birth. I’m sure the content is why these of his columns were saved, or at least why they are the ones my mother chose to translate. Along with the descriptions of his town, family, and childhood activities, he chose to include some social and political references.
Sharing that he hardly knew his father during his younger years, he explained the reason: his father worked from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. six days a week and on Sunday until noon, all for the total of 12 kroner a week. In later years, when there was a workers’ union, the workday ended at 6 p.m., no Sunday work, for a paycheck of 18 kroner. My Grandpa began an apprenticeship at a foundry when he was 13, and initially had to work more than 13 hours a day. When the trade union got established, his workday was reduced to 10 hours.
The shortened workday allowed for him to continue his schooling for three hours every evening. I take note of his writing about working conditions not just because it was a part of his life; I notice his focus on the way the unions changed those conditions for the better. I shared earlier that Grandpa liked to talk politics. He was a strong “union man” during his working life in Seattle, an area of the country that had gone through some significant labor battles that resulted in well-established unions by the time I was growing up.
He loved to debate such things with my father, who was in “management”, but the debates were always friendly, as my father also had a strong respect for the function of unions in the workplace.
Grandpa shared his memories in his writing, but he also shared his point of view. This happens for me also (as you, the reader, may have noticed). Writing of our lives or telling our stories, we shape what we tell by our beliefs and our sense of what is important. That is something that happens in all relating of history, whether casual talks or formal texts. I know the important role unions have played in our country’s development of safe workplaces, decent wages, and fair working conditions so I add this to my narrative.
Few stories are pure entertainment; they are a way of sharing ideas. Certainly, they can be slanted or biased, and it is always the task of the listener or reader to be an active thinker, to question or look deeper into the topic.
At one point in his writing, my Grandpa talks about the graveside farewell of an old friend and neighbor, who had served as the local mayor of Edmonds, Wash., during the Depression. “He was a quiet man, not altogether agreeing with my politics, but always willing to listen.” When we write, when we tell our stories, we are not always looking for agreement (although that is certainly nice!), but let us all be willing to listen.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.
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