My grandfather was short and round and Norwegian. He was the kind of grandfather who thought it the height of humor to make faces at the grandkids by dislodging his false teeth out over his lips and growling. And when we would all scream and laugh and run away, he'd stick them back in his mouth an giggle. My grandfather didn't laugh. He giggled, "Tee hee hee, oh, golly," in a little high-pitched wheeze, and he would slap his knee and jiggle in a short, round Norwegian way. His son Lowell, Uncle Lowell, who became a major in the air Force and flew SAC planes for a living, looked just like him and giggled too. Sticking his teeth out at us was the scariest thing my grandfather ever did, and we all loved him very much.
His name was Louis. Louis Ponsness. Most everybody called him Louie, but my grandmother always called him Louis, my mother called him Dad, and we all called him Grampa. My dad called him Louie. They went into business together sometime around 1949 or 1950 - let's say 1950, the beginning of one of the socially significant decades. I was seven years old. I had a fifties childhood. The fifties were a great decade for being kids. But I'm not talking about me or kids or growing up in the fifties. I'm not even talking about growing up with my grandfather. I don't remember that much, right off the top of my head, because I was a tomboy and I spent much of the fifties up a tree somewhere or hiding in the bathroom with a book. I couldn't stand my family and most of the time I pretended I was adopted and put long hours into pouring over a Rand-McNally Atlas planning get-away routes into uninhabited areas of Quebec. But I loved my grandfather and I kept him in the family. I adopted him.
Before he went into business with my dad, Grampa was an Iowa hog farmer. He and my grandmother ran a farm not far from the town of Badger, Iowa, up in thee northwest corner of the state about 10 miles from Ft. Dodge. They called it "the home place" to distinguish it from all the other farms and places in the neighborhood. I remember my grandmother killing chickens for dinner and once, when I was very small, hearing a bumping and thumping in the walls. "Louis, the civet cats are in the walls again," my grandmother said, and started hitting the walls with a broom. Wikipedia says that civets are native to Asia and Africa, so where my Norwegian grandmother got the term "civet cat," I'll never know now. I have pictures of me playing on the cellar door, teasing the chickens, petting a rabbit and sitting on Lady, my grandfather's work horse, . I look very happy.
It seems I can remember the Christmas my grandmother bought me my first doll, a beautiful porcelain thing in white satin or something and lace, with blonde curly hair, and how she couldn't wait to see my face when I opened it. I opened the box, threw the doll aside, and played for hours with the tissue paper. I seem to remember the room and the tree and boxes in the middle of the floor. The rest of it has been a family story told so many times, I only think I remember it. It still makes me feel bad. I loved my grandmother too, and even now the thought of her excitement and anticipation and delight in giving me that doll fills me with remorse for the cruel apathy with which I received it. It's one of the things I would have done differently. I would have been socially sensitive at two.
My grandfather isn't in this story. I don't know where he was - probably there looking on, and then out feeding the hogs before Christmas dinner. Maybe he was bringing in the cobs and coal. Whatever kind of furnace they had, it ran on corn cobs and coal. My grandfather raised the corn to feed the hogs. Red Durocs. I still seek them out at county and state fairs in honor of his first and probably his happiest profession. I'm proud to be the granddaughter of an Iowan hog farmer.
My grandfather invented stuff too.Pin Pool was a combination of pool and bowling, played on something the size of a shuffle-board table. Now, my grandfather was a non-drinking, non-smoking Norwegian Lutheran. More importantly, he was married to one. No Bible-thumper he. My grandmother wasn't a Bible-thumper either, but she knew what was right and what was wrong and Louis didn't drink or smoke. But he must have hung out with the fellas a time or two and he came up with this game. It was actually manufactured and put in a few places here and there, but it never really caught on.
His big item, though, was the Ponsness shotgun shell reloader. Louis Ponsness and his brother Lloyd Ponsness invented it. Somewhere along the way, they acquired a partner named Warren. It didn't make him rich, but it helped. The army gave them a contract for the thing, and I think you can still buy one off the shelf in gun shops. I read mysteries, and several years ago I was reading "F" is for Fugitive by Sue Grafton with a plot turn around a shotgun. And there, in the back of the book, in the solving scene, is the pivotal item. "On the closet floor, dead ahead, was a Ponsness-Warren shotgun shell reloader with a buit-in wad guide, an adjustable crimp die, and two powder reservoirs filled with rock salt." Grampa had made popular culture.
Meanwhile, as I said before, the fifties passed with me up a tree and then the sixties came along with me in Chicago working in public relations and shouting civil rights and anti-war slogans in my spare time and then the seventies came along and I married for the second time and moved to Wisconsin and entered my hippie earth mother stage living on an eighty acre farm in Door County with my then husband and two children. Life was good.
My grandfather had lived most of the rest of his life, going into business with my dad and selling out fifteen years later and inventing games and shotgun shell reloaders and finally he and my grandmother retired to northern Minnesota close to his two sisters, Myrtle and Mabel who helped run a resort on Leech Lake, way way up north where the big woods begin and run to the Arctic Circle and the Mississippi River begins and runs to the gulf of Mexico. And finally I began to get word that maybe Grampa's clock was running down. He was forgetful, my mother said. He rambled and he didn't always know where he was. She and my grandmother had to fuss at him all the time. They were very annoyed. My grandmother's husband and my mother's father had lost it, and even though they knew he couldn't help it, they acted as if he did it on purpose. Sometimes I think he did.
He was in his late eighties and almost blind and very nearly totally deaf. Unless you mentioned something that interested him. My mother and grandmother could scream at him all day (they weren't screaming women, they screamed so he could hear them better or so they thought).
"Louis, Dad, you have to put your shoes on before you go outside. It's 30 below."
At suppertime, he would space out into the ozone while mom and grandma dished up his food and cut up the meat for him, and then he would eat slowly and carefully, off in his own little world. Unless someone happened to mention fishing.
Someone was almost always sure to mention fishing. That's what you do in northern Minnesota. In summer you go out in the boat or down on the dock, and in winter you haul your little fishing hut out on the lake, saw a hole in the ice and fish through that.
"Fishing? Say, did I ever tell you about that walleye Elmer and I caught? Musta been last year, year before. Tee hee hee, oh, golly."
It was 30 or 40 years ago, and my uncle Elmer, my mother's brother-in-law, had been dead since 1960 or so. He lived in Portland, Oregon, and he loved to fly until one day he flew up a little box canyon and hit the far side of the box. He was a great guy, too, and he loved to fish.
Most of us wanted to keep our mouths shut and just hear the story, but my mother and grandmother, who unwisely valued honesty above all else, would interrupt with corrections.
"You didn't go fishing with Elmer last year, Louis. Elmer's been dead for 15 years. Don't you remember?"
"What? Elmer dead? No. No. I just talked to him the other day."
"Oh, dad, no, no you didn't talk to Elmer."
And on and on the argument would go and one of the younger kids would ask, "Who's Elmer?" and so we would have to hear the Elmer crash story again, and Grampa would space off, oblivious to news of death, old or new. It wasn't about fishing and he wasn't interested.
(to be continued sooner or later)