Before my family moved to North Dakota in 1970, 51 years ago, I had spent the first thirteen years of my life involved in mostly southern cultures. Upon arriving in the Red River Valley of the North, I was introduced to a very strong and mostly monolithic culture of Scandinavia, brought with the persons who settled in this northern wonderland from their ancient home in northern Europe. At that time, there were a significant number of citizens who were either first generation Americans, or even immigrants from Norway and Sweden. Granted, there were pockets of Polish and some Germans, although they tended to settle further west (probably because they didn’t get along…), which left the overwhelming language, customs, food and cultural stories to the Scandinavians. Although it has changed in the last 20 years or so, for decades you could see on the census that there were “almost everyone” Scandinavian, and “a couple of folks” not that way.
All that meant was that when you moved into the Valley, you were bombarded with the stuff of the culture, from lefse and lutefisk, to hardanger and rosemaled and painted trunks and spoons, to winter celebrations, and of course, mythological creatures that existed in Sweden and Norway, and now came to live in America. I’m not sure I could count the number of towns that were named after towns in those countries, like Grygla and Oslo, or how many high school teams were known as the Vikings…
Living on the air base provided a little buffer from the overwhelming sense of the culture, but still, if you shopped at the grocery stores, or went to the mall, you more than likely would end up at least looking through the Scandinavian stores, and food aisle, especially at Christmas, when things went pretty well over the top.
Besides meatballs – Swedish, with a white gravy – and those types of things, we also were bombarded with gnomes and trolls. Gnomes, also known as tomte, if you had Swedish roots, were supposedly intelligent, well-groomed, insightful and helpful beings, often living in gardens or in the corners of homes with fireplaces. They are the ones with the tall felt conical hats, and nicely kept beards.
Then there were the trolls. The description was usually of “stinky, ugly little devils.” They would live deep in the woods, and were unfriendly, ugly, barefooted, and looking for a fight. Kind of the antithesis of gnomes. They did not look anything like the “trolls” that kids would get out of gum machines for 10 cents. They were not cute, and their smiles seemed to only come when they did something disgusting.
Still, both creatures had places in the homes of the folks in the northland. Stores would sell manufactured creations of both types of beings, to be displayed either at Christmas or on the top of tall cupboards, if you were a Scandinavian true believer.
This brings us to today’s story. My folks were married in 1949, and so in 1974, it was time to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Apparently, between the two of them, they made a decision not to spend a lot of money on giving each other expensive gifts. Supposedly. However, Dad… well, Dad probably couldn’t help himself, and so besides giving Mom a silver tray that was engraved with their names and the date of their wedding, he also, somehow, and somewhere, secured a product of the culture to present to her. No – not cute gnomes, with gentle smiles and a clean disposition. No – Dad, probably on a whim, discovered a couple of almost foot tall trolls – the male troll wore only a pair of overalls, with no shirt, having a big nose, half-bald and carrying a walking stick. The female had long stringy gray hair, a toothy smile, and carried a dead goose. These were the treasures Dad offered to his bride of 25 years, along with the comment of “We’ve survived pretty well, I guess…”
I remember Mom smiling, slightly, accepting the gifts, and then reminding him, “You said we weren’t going to give each other anything…” all the while looking around to try to figure out where she was going to put the – grotesque – figures. Mom was most always pretty gracious, and she loved Dad, but you could tell this was not their finest hour.
Later on, Dad gave her yet another troll, larger than the other two, and far more mysterious, with a face half covered with stringy hair, and really pretty hideous. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what his purpose was in these gifts, except perhaps to display the example of irony or something.
Years after Dad died, as Mom and I were talking, I inquired about the trolls, banished to a high shelf among the books. She then had the freedom to speak honestly: “I’ve always hated them. I think they are the ugliest things ever created.” When I think about all the art projects the seven of us children bestowed on Mom through the years, her estimation of the trolls was pretty telling…
So, of course, after Mom died, and we were cleaning out the house, the trolls appeared before the group. I suggested that I might like to have them, knowing their story, and my siblings, to a person, said, “Those ugly things! You can have them, or we can just throw them away!” I carefully packed them, and transported them home, showing my own family with delight the treasures I had come away with.
You might be surprised to know that my Scandinavian bred bride, and her two half-Scandinavian offspring all looked with disdain at these marvelous works of art. I also noticed a slight sense of pity for me, that I would be caught up in the life of trolls. They reside in my office, on the top of the bookcase, where they can keep an eye on me.
You might also be surprised to know that I checked on the value of those three characters, and their combined worth approaches nearly $350. I’ve owned a lot of ugly things that never had that cost. I know they are ugly – they are supposed to be. But I too can see Dad’s irony in buying them for the celebration of marriage, to laugh at themselves for where they were, still in love after a quarter century together. They are my treasures now.
There are times when our intentions are not the best intentions, or even if they are, they don’t always display as coming off well in the real world. Sometimes our imagination of what things could and should be – even if we “will” them to be so, still turn out to be a bit troll-ish, and end up on the top of shelves.
I would contend that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we intend something wonderful, and in our mind’s thinking, they fit well into the reality we are trying to produce. Sometimes from practical view, we may miss the mark, but what makes life interesting and something to be cherished is when each of us does his or her best, intentionally, to fill our world. At least it makes for a great story…
Word for the day: capricious. Pronounced kuh-PREE-shus. I have to admit that I always considered this word to be pretty negative, as though it were the actions of a mean-spirited individual, but I was wrong. The word at its root comes from two Latin words, capo “head” and Riccio “curly or frizzled.” The word really refers to something that makes your hair stand on end! The word also refers to capreolus, which is a wild goat.
The word as we have it today is an adjective that describes something that was determined by chance, or the result of impulsive action, rather than by necessity, or thoughtful, careful, balanced consideration. Like buying a troll for your 25th anniversary. When your parents tell you to use your head, and to think before you act, they could get a bit high-falutin’ and tell you not to be “capricious.” Look before you leap, don’t run off half-cocked, marry in haste, repent in leisure. All good anti-capricious sayings for today.
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.