Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Storks in the Attic and Skeletons in the Closet

The European white stork (Ciconia ciconia), a photogenic iconic bird that is as much wrapped in mythology as it is with ecology.  I've first seen the bird back in 1980, in Germany on my way to a tortuous day watching the Passion play, but the photo above was taken in Denmark in 1964, two years before I was even born.  Yet, the photos and the rights to this and below are controlled by me, as executor of my Grandmother's estate, but that isn't the be quite honest, I will never know who the rightful owners of these pictures are or for that matter how they came to be...treasures in the attic or better put skeletons in the closet.  So, I'll share this story.
               An odd thing happened to me on the last scheduled sorting party held at my dearest departed Grandmother's house.   I found something odd and it perplexed me for most of the fall.  It made me sleep poorly and caused me to be uneasy, to be honest, it is still bothering me.  It bugged for a kind of odd reason, too.  Who are we?  Why are we?  Do our lives have meaning?  What if you have nobody and leave no one behind, did your life have purpose?  Does it matter?  All this emanated from a large box of old slides found in my grandmother's attic, hidden in a corner.   
               I looked at them, from two huge trips, mostly scenic pictures of a epic three-month Scandinavia tour in 1964 and a huge western US National Parks trip in 1962.  But who previously owned these slides?  They weren't from our family.  I looked at them all, old Kodachromes, and wondered, where did my grandparents even get these and why.  Who are the sporadic people in them.  It was bewildering as to why?  Who?  A wise person would have just chucked them but it bothered me as to all of these memories and stories, now lost, they would be owned by someone, an heir, or even the real person, maybe still alive, and it was my job as Executor to find them.
              Then in the bottom of the box, under smaller boxes of high end slide, almost hidden and never seen was a carefully handwritten travelogue written in third person.  There were no names, no references and only one clue, they left from Waterloo, IA on a specially chartered SAS plane for a two-month trip (I'll get into the extra month).
Back in the days when you could all stand by the plane for a photo!
Who could even afford something like this?  I thought it odd that almost all of the people going on this were women, but then I realized, the men had to work, these were housewives or widows.  This was the Sixties.  It was an odd deal, these pictures, It was like I was being a voyeur into someone else's life, someone's past but maybe, they were meant for me?  Maybe the person from the grave was talking to me.  Then it hit me, it had to be cousin Verda.   How I even remember her is surprising.
It is hard to describe her.  Words like nice and sweet would never ever come to mind.  Manipulative, is a better word for her, as is condescending.  You could use eccentric but only that wouldn't describe her.  She wasn't Disney's Corella DeVille, but kind of a mean version of Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping up Appearances.  She was the classic Bertha Better-than-you.  It is odd thinking about her now, as she had no reason to feel superior.  Yes, she had money, but she didn’t have children, she had no legacy, she lived kind of a hollow life.  Her husband was the only son of a high-ranking railroad official for a regional railroad in Waterloo, IA.  But he wasn’t anything important and never made a mark in life that I ever heard of.  In fact, the one time I met him, he gave me the creeps and seemed like a Hollywood Creation himself.
I met Verda a handful of times.  They weren’t happy memories.  Verda was the only child of the oldest son and heir of the Iowa Brenizer family, my great grandfather Brenizer was the third born son, he and his older brother (#2) moved to Wisconsin since they were not the heir.  My Grandmother was Verda’s youngest cousin.  Her mother got divorced from her father when she was six. There was something odd there and some story, but I don’t remember being told anything and I'm sure it was lost.   
It is not good to speak ill of the dead, but from what I heard, Verda was entitled and spoiled as a child, and it didn't improve as she got older.  When I was conscious about her, she struck me as an odd bitter woman.  My Grandmother didn't like her, but was tolerant since she was family.  My grandfather despised her like few others and made himself scarce when she was around.  He didn’t trust her husband at all and when he died somewhat young, Grandpa Allwin seemed somewhat happy or at least relieved that he wouldn’t be visiting again.  My grandparents would always say snide things about Verda while playing cards with my grandmother's sister and husband.  Uncle Martin could go on a tirade about Verda.  He hated her most of all.  Then he’d need a whiskey sour to wash the sour thought of her down. 
She'd show up once a year, usually in summer (I was never in her house, despite visiting Waterloo twice as a child in tow to visit another sister Grandmother had down there), but Verda would get funny about not getting invited properly and she offended easily and might not show up for a few years.   It was always a tense time when Cousin Verda showed up.  She was also known to no show, which would be considered rude by everyone else.  We just seemed relieved.  When she was around, she'd frequently talk about what my grandmother didn't have, and what she, as in Verda, had.  Never understanding that what my grandmother had of most value was her family.  She'd bring odd gifts and sometimes would say she had just the right thing, she'd order it, and then send us the bill and expect being paid.  When Grandmother died, she had saved every letter her cousins had sent her including Verda.  The letters were oddly in third person narrative and about Verda and her father, her life and never mentioning much from any other perspective.  I guess it was good and right that these two should end the family lines of the two respective families.  In the end, I don’t think anyone got any of her money, and all we got apparently were these slides.  I still wonder when she gave them to my grandmother.  I’d ask what Verda was thinking, but her mind was different than everyone else’s so even the answer could be confusing.
Cousin Verda Opal McDonald right, her most flattering picture of the set, the scowl is subdued. Unknown traveler on left looks more interesting and happy.  Maybe she is laughing at Verda?
Verda with her father John Brenizer, taken circa 1911 long after her mother had left the family, one of two photos of her I know of.  She is also pictured at the side of my Great Great grandfather Eli Brenizer, the last known picture he ever had taken
Verda was a good writer and her prose was enlightening, but in 3rd person, it was odd, she always wrote like that.  She even stayed after the tour to find out where her mother's family was suspected to be from, Mora, Sweden of all places, according to the manuscript.  Mora is the home of Anders Zorn.  This was near where the Danielson clan hailed from, which is odd since her mother has been forever listed as German.  One wonders if there was more to her mother’s story than what is known.  She never mentioned her by name, just her mother's family.  Why was she hunting for her home?  Sweden?  Was she adopted?  Was her mother someone else and Verda was adopted?  Maybe she had spent her 88-year life compensating for inner insecurities.  Something sure seemed odd, but it isn't worth my digging any further, it isn’t my life.  Verda, and everyone on that side of the family is gone, buried at graves no one visits, she is long forgotten, or on pictures I’m not keeping.  She is referenced here, but not fondly, and this isn’t how I’d like to be remembered.  All I can say is she did go on one cool trip, and I guess there was that.  The old cars in Wyoming were also neat.
I’d like the story behind this picture…the bus is parked on the right so it is in Norway.
Interesting bus passengers in Norway
       Then I found something interesting, pictures of the Kon-Tiki raft by my hero, Thor Heyerdahl, I had just dedicated an adventure project to him and here, Verda and I had crossed paths, fifty years apart at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo.  We met our Norwegian exchange student outside it.  I just sent my 65 year old copy of Kon-Tiki Expedition narrative to a business associate in Oklahoma two weeks ago.  Everything in my life comes full circle, even this.

So that was it, there were some stork nests on roofs in Denmark, some pretty waterfalls, Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone and more bears, lots of bears, and in the end, I guess since she does not have an heir, I know of, I will chuck them all.  What had taken a lot of money and many, many hours of careful organizing will now be just waste in a landfill.  Such is the fate of history.  The keys to stories are memories shared with family members and friends.  It is too bad that old Verda never had anybody, but that is the price many pay.  I've been castigated by some as a breeder for having children.  Well, that is what life is.  I don;t plan on being alone in my olden golden years, sending old slides to a first cousin I think is beneath me.
           Why didn’t she pay to bring Aunt Ethel or Grandma Lucille with?  They seemed to be the only relatives that cared a little about her.  Three months with Verda pulling the strings in Europe?  OMG!  That would have been an adventure,
            I’m glad I have my children.  I’m glad I have all the we’ve done together.  I’m extremely glad we had this last Thanksgiving cleaning Grandma's house, but please, PLEASE, though, take these Kodachromes away!
Yellowstone bear, can you ID those cars?
The classic old Yellowstone bear photo, this one 1962, and the photo is all mine...well sort of
Swedish train
Norwegian Stave church
Norway as the driving is on the right
They still drove on the left in Sweden in 1964
Oslo, S√łttene mai, May 17th, 1964
Fishing Bridge, Yellowstone Park 1962
Norway 1964
Norwegian Road, 1964
Storks in Denmark

Swedish Swans and Ducks



  1. I would imagine that we all had a "Verda" in our families. I know I did. Thanks for your sharing this perspective.


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