View Full Version : Holidays with Granparents

Skip Sunnell
09-12-04, 16:39
This holiday season reminds me of when I was a youngster.

My grandmother was persuasive to put it mildly. The family polite adjective for her was “matriarch”. I found (as a child) that I came to accept and trust both her and my “Grandpa Gus’ sternness. There were rules of the barn that Grandpa enforced. The rest of the ‘laws of life’ were Grandma’s

Much to my mother’s chagrin (mom was a Swedish-Finn Johnson from Palisade, Minnesota), my grandmother (her mother in-law) made it pretty clear how the family should congregate around holidays, and what was going to be done and not done. The understanding and acceptance by us all was that the whole family was going to be at the farmhouse for one major holiday a year, albeit Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I our case, we drove 360 miles North from Eugene, Oregon to Mount Vernon, Washington for the designated holiday once per winter, per year. It took eight hours (on a real good day) to make the trip, it being old Highway 99 we traveled, which was two lanes through down town Portland, Oregon, then Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, then the sixty miles further from Seattle to the farm house. I remember dad’s comments to this day about trying to hold to a 60mph speed whenever traffic would allow because it was “a mile a minute” which made him feel good.

The Christmas holiday dinner was set in the dining room Christmas eve. The “good china and sliver” was used. The tablecloths and napkins were of a very fine crocheted design that Grandma produced and sold privately; there was never a time that I can remember that she would sit without something called “hand work” going on.

We kids (cousins) were the dishwashers. After the meal (which we kids ate in the kitchen at a separate table because there was only room for a placement of twelve at the main dining room table. We hand washed every dish, pot, pan and piece of silverware before a present was opened on Christmas eve. If it was Thanksgiving, the drill was still the same. And then of course all activities were timed around the responsibilities to the farm animals. Milking never waited, nor did feeding the chickens.

Even though there was some grumbling about Grandma being a “matriarch”, I would suppose the adults better understood her position because she and some of my aunts and uncles were left behind in Finland the first few years Grandpa Sunnell was in America and consequently in Skagit County. Later, after coming to America, she found herself a widow (on a farm) with six children when Grandpa Sunnell was killed in a truck/train accident in Conway. Later, she married Grandpa Gus Jackson probably as a matter of mutual survival, his being a widower with a farm to run by himself.

They made it happen for our family! The traditions and expectations of their nationality and the Lutheran faith are something I look back on and am eternally thankful for. Their remembrance has been strength to me during some difficult times in my life. Today, things seem more disconnected, with current trends overriding familial history and tradition.

Grandpa Gus was the only Grandpa I knew on the Sunnell Side. I remember him mainly by his heavy accent when speaking English. The English would quickly go away when he got excited, especially if he wanted to cuss. He was very patient with me considering I was a Dennis the menace type. He taught me many practical things and how to work with my hands. Also how stubbornness could be dangerous and damaging. In his later years he was diagnosed diabetic and had to inject insulin. His insistence on working past his physical limitations and emotional temperament pushed him into insulin shock more than once in my presence.

I remember Grandma primarily by the fact that you could argue “until the cows come home” but you would never win. That went with all of us. She was tough! Through that toughness though, she maintained the sovereignty of the family, and above all, the ability to apply tough love without ever reading the book. I spent my summers on the farm with these rich people in spirit and tradition.

I’m reflecting on these things this holiday season because I have twelve-year-old twins (Lars and Grace). The world moves much faster for them today than when I was their age. I doubt they would have much patience cleaning the cow barn after a milking. When one thinks of being of the age my grandparents were at these rich times in my life, I realize that we never really die. My grandparents aren’t dead to me. They live on with richness of love and spirit every time I get quiet enough to think of them and remember all the wonderful wisdom and strength they gave me, simply by practicing their best understandings of right and wrong with family when I was a boy.

I hope this rings true for you as well. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

09-12-04, 20:55
Just about this time of the season approaching Christmas, I found myself, as a kid, paying attention to that big galvanized tub in the basement, taken down from its peg on the wall and placed on the wooden bench soon to be filled with shingle-like slabs of dried cod ordered from Elmer Liljestrand's store back in early November. A trip to his store, especially just before Christmas, was good for the lungs. Step inside. close the door. stand in place, eyes closed and inhale deeply until the lungs were ready to burst, exhaling ever so slowly, allowing those tiny molecules of a dozen different cheeses, "prest silta", fresh baked limpa, and all the items of Scandinavian Christmas menu to gently tease the taste buds into delicious delight only to have such reverie interrupted by Elmer's deep gently voice to waken from such intoxicating slumber, "Can I help you?" It would have been rude to have asked for a chair in which to continue such beneficial respiration.

We came for lute fisk, not for a breathing exercize. Elmer reached up and unhooked a half dozen slabs of dried cod which hung on a long wooden rack. Senseless to try to wrap these ocean remnants in brown paper. Tied with grocery cord to make them easier to handle, who cared if the lingering salt residue got onto one's jacket as long as they were securely wrestled under one's arm for a trip back home.

Straight to the basement and that big galvanized tub. I suppose the fish could have been broken into smaller pieces so that eveythig fit. Breaking was not allowed. The soaking process was not just for a few minutes. Hours, days would pass from the initial dunking as mother would make trips don the basement stairs and check to see if the softening process had begun. Only then could the cod be bent ever so slowly to fir the tub. I never learned the contents of the liquid the cod soaked in. I know for a fact it was not just water. Soaking and softening for the better part of a week, the day arrived for the fish to be taken upstairs and carefully folded into a huge kettle only brought out for this occasion
The addition of the flame beneath the huge kettle sent little bubbles of that fish brew popping through the suface and with each tiny
explosion, an aroma beyond desription filled the kitchen and the hallway and the stairway to the bedrooms uptairs where one coud go and lie down and just breathe in all the promises of dinner. Seated at the table, set to perfection with tableware that only saw daylight once or twice a year, I enjoyed keeping track of Uncle Lennart, a wounded veteran of the Winter War, as he carefully lifted a piece of fish from the platter, much like a surgeon handling his intruments, careful to keep intact the aromatic morsel, and then with the ladle slowly allow the thick, rich, heavy cream sauce to blanket the plate with little black whole cloves swimming anxiously hoping to remain unbitten. Meanwhile, Uncle Max, seated opposite Uncle Lennart, waited his turn. Uncle Max met my sister Esther while they were teachers at the Minnesota School for the Deaf, in Faribault, Minnesota. Both deaf and very much in love, it mattered little to Esther that she exchange her surname from Forsman to Cohen, and here, seated around this festive holiday table, mother retreats to the kitchen to load up the platter with more lute fisk and potatoes while Uncle Max readies himself, fork, upright, in his left hand: knife in his right.

Oh, to be a kid again.


June Pelo
09-12-04, 21:42
Skip and Bill, I loved your stories. They brought back such memories. I can almost smell the lutfisk!! My uncle worked in a fish market and he made sure we always got some lutfisk when it was available.

When I lived in Wash., D.C. some of my friends always had a lutfisk supper around Christmas, and one year I invited my boss and his wife to eat with us. They had never tasted the fish before so I was worried about their reaction, but they loved it!

My youngest sister and her husband and son wouldn't eat a bit of the fish, so we had to fix meatballs for them - which meant we all had that much more fish to eat! My brother-in-law still can't understand how we can be alive after eating fish cured in lye..


09-12-04, 23:51
Hi June.

I'm heaving huge sighs of relief at your identifying that "stuff" that went into that strange elixir, producing such delicious flavoring for the humble cod. I was hesitant although I thought it might have been lye, but why chance a phone call or a knock at the door from someone demanding an explanation for my slipshod research.
I do remember my mother using lye in her making homemade soap. I think I got that right. ???


Lasare 2

Bill Wright

June Pelo
10-12-04, 01:37

My father told me how lutefisk was prepared. He said lutfisk is called lyefish. Here's how it is prepared and another article to read. I read somewhere that someone thought Scandinavians ate putrified shark meat, but what he didn't know is that it wasn't shark - it was lutefisk! Yes, lye is used when making soap. We had a neighbor who cooked her soap in a big pot in the backyard. Here's how to make lutefisk:



10-12-04, 03:22

It is with admitted shame that I approach the microwave, Stouffers or HealthyChoice in hand. to prepare our supper and by the push of timer buttons wait for the final buzzer to be seated.

Breakfast is a bigger falsehood. Open the lid on the box and pour out pre-prepared cereal. With contributory gusto slice the banana, dropping each piece into a design of my creation, pour the skim milk from the plastic jug that has never seen a cow and enjoy the warm slurp of perfectly-brewed coffee poured from the Farber pre-timed electric
coffee pot, not too weak, not too strong....just right....rethinking, as I chewand slurp, of the "Holiday Seasons Past" of the endless hours and days required to
prepare, cook and ingest that one simple meal held in honor of the humble cod.

Somewhere from deep within our rusty souls should squeak forth a plea for mercy and forgiveness.

10-12-04, 04:38
I remember the Christmas Eves with the finest table settings and silver with which to eat the lute fisk with the cream sauce and freshly ground pepper. As a teenager I wondered how my stomach could manage to survive such a light fish that could turn the finest silverware black! That's why my mother taught me how to polish silverware.

June Pelo
10-12-04, 19:31
I just received Christmas greetings from my cousin Marvin in Montana. Despite cancer and heart surgeries that removed many of his organs, he is getting ready for Christmas - has his lutefisk ready and will be Santa Claus at the home for Senior Citizens, where he has been Santa for over 19 years.


June Pelo
10-12-04, 19:38
Carl's letter about table settings and silver reminded me that when Christmas Eve came and we were ready to eat lutfisk, not only was the table set with the best china and silver, but everyone dressed in their "Sunday" best. Nowadays people seem to come to the table dressed in jeans and T-shirts, or whatever they were wearing during the day. It's not a festive occasion any more.:(


Skip Sunnell
11-12-04, 02:23
I was thinking about tradition after reading the messages on this thread. It is my feeling that perhaps I’ve “been too busy” to demonstrate in my immediate family, those cultural gems I remember so fondly in my childhood. One striking thought came to me that they were never too busy to enjoy the Christmas Spirit, their church community at Christmas Eve service, and congregated family even amidst the clock not stopping ever on the farm(s).

Lutefisk dinner during the holidays, candy making, scones, etc were probably continued by our families after arriving in America partially because the family missed their homeland, language, and customs.

These thoughts are good for my soul this Christmas.

And BTW, do we all remember what happens to the sliver cutlery when exposed to lutefisk?