An Ode to an Old Blueberry Picker

My Grandpa Olsen died almost nine years ago, which means it’s been thirteen years since we last saw each other. I don’t think either of us could’ve imagined we were saying goodbye for good when we shook hands in the driveway of my parents’ house in August 2001, but soon after driving from Thunder Bay to Victoria and moving in with my aunt, uncle, and four cousins his health began to rapidly deteriorate. He died July 15, 2005. At his funeral, Cousin Cam and I gave a eulogy that referenced both Pearl Jam and U2, as well as our grandpa’s infamous tendency to play golf shots with his foot.

Our Uncle Rich, meanwhile, gave a moving tribute that talked about his father’s love of golf, his job at the mill, his church community, and above all his family. A copy of his speech arrived in my inbox last week, and I was so moved upon reading it that I’m sharing it with the rest of you. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t miss my grandparents, all four of whom passed away between 1999 and 2007. Reading this you’ll understand why I miss my Grandpa Olsen.

First of all on behalf of the family I’d like to thank all of you for the flowers, cards, condolences and other support you’ve shown to us during this time. Your thoughts and prayers are very much appreciated.

We traced the Olsen family back to 1761. My great great great grandfather Thor Olsen’s family came from Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, in a group of Islands called Vesteralan. They were fisherman, boatbuilders, and probably scoundrels like their Viking ancestors, rugged and hardy with a zest for life and adventure.

It’s interesting to note that nobody knew anything about our family in Norway until 2002. To Stu, the Norwegian part of his family was a mystery. Scraps of paper, a few conversations, the odd letter. He had no idea about even basic details–the names of his aunts, for example. The internet is a truly amazing technological advance. Now we have a record of more than 26,000 people in our family tree. I had great pleasure in providing this information to Stu several years ago. However, his health at this point had started to deteriorate and he really couldn’t follow up with some of his relatives.

Stu’s father Olaf Johan Gjertsen was the youngest of 8 children, 5 girls and three boys, and he was born October 31st, 1892. All three boys came over to America on March 3rd, 1909, landing on Ellis Island in New York. Olaf, or Olie as he was called, was sixteen at the time. He traveled overland to Vancouver and worked at the Britannia mine until about 1912. He worked his way back toward the east coast, spending some time in Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and finally Port Arthur. I guess The Lakehead reminded him so much of Norway that he settled here.

Olaf was married in 1922 to Hilja Nickelson and Stu was born on June 26th,1924 at Port Arthur General. He lived on Hill Street in Port Arthur for most of his childhood, with a panoramic view of the Sleeping Giant. He had two dogs, Jippy and Lobo. One of them actually would find its way to his school every day and walk him home. One of the saddest moments of his life was when he put Jippy down when the dog was seventeen years old. He never got over it. When Stu left school to work at a local machine shop in 1941, with his first paycheck he bought his mother a vacuum cleaner. [This might explain my adolescent fascination with vacuum cleaners. Yes, this is an actual thing. – ed.]

Stu was the only child that Olaf and Hellen had. Hellen died in May 1956 in Winnipeg at the age of 54, Olaf in June 1976 in Thunder Bay at the age of 84. He had a couple of cousins who he saw from time to time, children of his two uncles Fredrick and Peder who lived in Duluth/Superior. But he didn’t have a large family, and really appreciated his brother and sister in laws on my mothers side of the family–Steve [my namesake! – ed.] and Evelyn Kross, Annie and Joe Merko, Liz and Ron Gandrud, Bill and Nettie Kross , John and Ollie Kross. These were his extended family. On his mother’s side, both Earl Nickelson and Ted Rome were people who we saw from time to time.

He grew up in pretty tough times–the 30s. I remember him telling me that his father made a living during those times by collecting wood in remote coves out on Lake Superior with his boat.

Stu grew up as a bit of a rebellious youth. He was an avid biker. In the early years he rode both Indians and Harleys. He and a pal rode to Mexico on a trip he would recount for many years. He talked about putting the bike down when he went around a curve in Louisiana and a gang of cotton pickers dragged him out of a cornfield and got him back on his way.

He got into trouble a few times with his Dad and uncles. He told me about a road trip once when they ran out of money in the US and had to be creative on where they got their supper one evening. Enough said.

He had a physical problem–flat feet–that prevented him from fighting in World War Two. He worked in a machine shop in Port Arthur on Simpson Street during that time before getting a job at Great Lakes Paper, where he started out as a machinist.

He met my mother, Nina Kross, in the mid 1940s. She was working at Can Car building plane components for the war effort. Mother’s dad was a former minister; rumour has it he was a bit miffed at this biker from Port Arthur that she brought home one day. Anyway, they got married on August 20th, 1949 and Stu got domesticated.

They built their home on Francis Street shortly after they were married. It was a home where they would live for the next fifty years.

Stu and Nina were pretty simple people. They enjoyed things like gardening, picking blueberries, car trips, swimming, and spending time with family and friends.

Through Nina’s influence Stu became a Christian and for the rest of his days led a life exemplary of the title. He was a man of conviction and resolve. There were very few gray areas for Stu. He became active in [Westfort Baptist Church], and it was the focus of their lives for many years. He was a Deacon in the church and the head of the building committee that built the new church that we are in today. He and Nina enjoyed the Bowling Gang and other social activities at the church. He loved moose hunting with Mr. Bennet and others–it seemed every year we had moose meat in the freezer. He even played hockey on Friday nights in a church league–I must say that when you play in a church hockey league you keep your head up. He was a capable hockey player and I remember him skating and shooting hard.

Like any Norwegian, Stu enjoyed fishing and boating. He spent a lot of time building a cabin cruiser in 1960 and 1961, named after his wife–the Nina. In later years he got pretty serious about wooden boat building and constructed two oak boats–a sailboat and a run-about. This was a labour of love for him–these boats were worthy of the master craftsman that constructed them. I spent hours with him listening and watching his construction techniques that he learned from an old Swede in Westfort. He traveled out to the east coast and spent many days and weeks in marinas in places like Boston and Connecticut. He loved the classic lines of a sailboat’s hull and a schooner under full sail.

Growing up as children we remember things like swimming at Oliver Lake on Saturdays, camping trips, long road trips to Toronto and Minneapolis, cottages on Lake Superior, hamburgers from Coney Island, ice cream at Scollies, skipping stones at Brulie Bay, dogs that came and went all too quickly, fun weekends when our parents went to Duluth, sugar pancakes and rice pudding, Christmas dinners with more food than we could dream of, a grandfather whose sole purpose on life was to stuff us with chocolate and French fries, and getting hassled about our hair, music and clothes in the 60s.

Stu was a very dedicated employee, having worked at the Great Lakes Paper mill for over 40 years. He took his work very seriously. I found this out one April Fools’, when I set all the clocks in the house back one hour. Stu was late for work the next morning. I thought this was pretty humorous, but needless to say it didn’t go over too well. I know he was respected in his work, because I knew people who worked for him. He was “on the job” 24 hours a day, being a maintenance superintendent. When something went down, you called Stu and he and his crews would get it back working. I remember the phone going off at all times during the night when I was young.

He was talented at working with his hands–from rebuilding motorcycles to building boats. He knew a lot about many things.

He was a real hockey fan. He loved the Detroit Red Wings for some reason. He used to talk about the greats of hockey–Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, and those guys. Stu and I spent many Saturday nights watching Hockey Night in Canada–him rooting for the Red Wings and me the Leafs [Rich, if you’re reading this, I’d like to refer you to a Facebook conversation we had earlier this year – ed.]. He knew how to get me going, when it was clear the Leafs were going to win he started cheering for them. It drove me nuts–somehow it breached the laws of fairness.

Before he discovered golf, every Saturday morning it was fishing with me and my grandfather. I remember the three of us eating steak and eggs at 4am, loading up the boat and driving to Lac De Mille Lacs, fishing at the crack of dawn, eating chocolate bars and drinking coffee when I was eight years old, fried pickerel over an open fire on the beach at lunch, and the long drive back. These moments really solidified the generational connection between my grandfather, my father, and myself.

I remember when Stu discovered golf. I was ten, he was forty. With Stu, it was all or nothing. You either golfed or you didn’t. I have to say I have tried to live up to this standard over the last forty years. We played a lot of golf together with guys like Larry Schulz and Ron Zager, pretty well every weekend and one or two evenings through the week. He often told me these were the best times for him, he and I playing golf in the twilight. I have to agree. I can honestly say I have never met a more avid golfer. Rain or shine, snow or hail, we were out playing. He was a great student of the game: he studied technique and the mental approach to playing well. I remember playing with him on my wedding day in Kingston. I remember the days at Municipal, Strathcona, Chapples, and the Fort William Country Club. Our games were very competitive; he didn’t like to lose.

Each golfer has his own life journey, and Stu had his. He started out as a lefty and played off ten. He then switched to right and got down to about the same level. He simply loved the game. I was thrilled to be with him when he got his first hole-in-one, and I’ll never forget it.

I know he really enjoyed the game with his friends and grandchildren when he retired. He was thrilled at the chance to play with the second generation– Steve and Cameron. I’m sure they have many stories they could share about Stu’s idiosyncrasies on the golf course and his famous foot wedge [you have no idea – ed.].

He and Nina bought a house in McAllen, Texas, and they spent many years wintering there, golfing at the adjacent course. They loved to go across the border into Mexico to shop. Stu even began wearing a 10-gallon hat and snake skin boots. They had a great group of friends there and spent many enjoyable winters prior to my mother’s health problems. Giving that up was really hard for him, and the Thunder Bay winters eventually drove him to seek warmer climates in Victoria. After my mother’s death, he moved out there to live with Patti and Rob.

Stu suffered from Lewy Body Syndrome, a form of dementia. In the last two years he really deteriorated. I recall his 80th birthday in Victoria last year: he didn’t recognize people and his conversation capability was very limited. It was a tough way to finish up, on everybody. We all thank Patti and Rob and their kids for making things as good as possible for him under the circumstances. Almost in anticipation of his illness, for many years he kept a daily diary. We now have cartons of his thoughts and observations we can sift through.

I have many things to thank Stu for, and I know I speak for my sisters as well:

  1. The value of a good education. This was drilled into our heads for many years and I think between my sisters and I we have eight university degrees between us.
  2. The value of a stable marriage. He and Nina were married for almost fifty years and they set a fine example for us in commitment.
  3. The importance of Christ and the church–that it is a real part of the way you live.
  4. The importance of family–that when all is said and done families need to stick together and support each other.

One lasting memory I have, a snapshot in time:

My Father standing at the kitchen window in our home on Francis Street, peering out at a blackening sky with thunderstorms on the horizon.

He turned around to me and said, “Looks like we’ll only be playing nine today.”

Re-reading this I’m reminded that my grandfather truly was an extraordinary individual. He was a devoted husband and father, a devout Christian, a hard-working and dependable company man, a skilled craftsman, and a doting grandfather (I choose to remember his penchant for “taking” me to McDonalds then leaving me with the bill as a sign of his affection). His integrity was unimpeachable. Above all, Grandpa Olsen was a good man. I know I speak on behalf of his nine other grandchildren by saying that if I become even half the person he was I’ll consider my life to have been successful.

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