During the year of 2004, Gudrun was the most popular name given in Iceland to newborn baby girls. It also happened to be the name that a pair of first generation Norwegian immigrants gave their first-born daughter in the year 1914. My grandma, as the memorial card read, grew up in a small Chicago flat with her twin sister Elsie and her two younger siblings- Edna and Florence. Two of the sisters had passed away before the year 2014; Elsie of a heart condition while just in her 50s, Florence of pure old age a year or two ago. Edna lived a couple months more than Gudrun, passing away last month at the old people’s home across the street from my first house in Williams Bay.
My grandmother grew up in the city, and as with most people of a certain age, her past now needs to be brushed with a wide brush and a healthy splatter of detail-smoothing paint. She grew up in the city, attending high school but likely not college. She took a job doing something menial, we’ll assume. Her work history as known to me didn’t develop until sometime later, when she would become a roving Avon saleslady, walking her route in Arlington Heights near her home on the corner of White Oak and Vail. Was she a great saleslady? I don’t really know. I do know towards her later years people would buy Skin-So-Soft from her, and I always assumed they did so because they wanted to help her out, not because the wanted their skin to truly be all that soft.
As I sat in the memorial last Saturday, I watched and listed as a crowd of gray and graying heads spoke of my grandmother. They praised her, as people are want to do at memorials, and when the overheard projector showed images of her life, from infancy to what would be her deathbed, I didn’t expect to be quite as sad as I was. It wasn’t that I didn’t expect my 99 year old grandmother to die, but there was something rather absolute about watching images of a generation that is now, at least for my family, entirely and completely gone.
My grandmother first came to Lake Geneva as a child, though I’m not sure if it was as a real little kid or as a teenager. I do know, from the lore and the photos, that she visited Lake Geneva frequently in the summer months, where she and her sisters would dance at the Riviera Hall. It was said that she liked dancing, but I’m well aware of what it was my grandmother was looking for on these shores. She wanted to meet a man, preferably a rich man, who might buy her a house on this lake. That had to be her dream, and when she met my grandfather, who himself found Lake Geneva by way of two dead parents and a sentence to live with relatives in an old house in the Maple Park District, I’m guessing she thought he was somehow something that he wasn’t.
He was an orphaned Lake Geneva kid, likely the kind that smoked cigarettes and ogled the pretty ladies at the dance hall. He was a good man, if a lush, and some part of the family history is lost between the time that he met my grandma and the time they settled into a small house in Niles, or maybe it was an apartment, and welcomed my father into their house in the year 1944. My grandma had married a milk man and started a family, likely a far cry from the life she envisioned living while she twirled away on that wooden, lakeside dance floor.
Later in life, my grandfather would become a maintenance supervisor at Harper College, or so that particular story goes. My grandmother and her sisters remained close through their lives- unnaturally close- and I imagine it gave life to my grandfather’s smoking and drinking habits. I know that part of the story from first hand experience, though it would be strange if I admitted today that my grandma’s relationship with my great aunts spawned my own drinking and smoking habits. I do neither, thankfully. Watching my grandpa slowly choke to death on his own mucus was counted as a lifetime lesson learned for this kid.
Some years after my grandma dreamed of owning a home on this lake, her son bought his own lakefront home. It’s a curious dream that came full circle in a most astounding way, as instead of finding a dashing millionaire to whisk her away to these shores, she instead found it was her own school teacher son who would provide the house and the pier that she would swim from, with remarkable joy, until her very mid-90s.
I suppose there are many things I’ll always remember about my grandma. The memorial celebrated her love of jokes, but now that she’s gone I can admit to finding her jokes boring and superficial. I think she told them not to make people happy, as was the consensus at the memorial, but to make herself happy by receiving false laughter and superficial attention. I’ll instead remember my grandma for her lifelong devotion to her family, and her simple love of this lake. She wasn’t impressed by shiny appliances and shiny cars, though she would marvel at each. She didn’t care about money, not one bit. She found fulfillment in a swim under a sunny sky, and she wouldn’t for a second pretend she’d rather be anywhere but here.
As my part time Realtor father would seldom sell homes, she found it particularly surprising to learn that I had sold “a” house. She’d be so happy when that would happen. Now, I’m stuck in a rut where I must sell lots of houses to keep pace, lots of big ones with shiny appliances and coiffed lawns. She wouldn’t have cared much for these houses, as to her, a pier was a pier was a pier, as long as it jutted out into this lake, and as long as the water was deep enough for a swim.