Most of my family is descended from Swedish, German and Polish Pioneers. These were the people that decided to settle on an open treeless prairie. A land which had temperature extremes that went from 110 degrees to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and thought “That’s not so bad!” My ancestor’s survived grasshoppers, draughts, prairie fires, Indian wars, blizzards, and diseases that weaned out all but the strongest. To say they were “hardened” was an understatement. These people were resigned to a tough life and did not waste energy on showing emotion.
Our particular combination of stoic skepticism was passed down through generations and was refined into a culture that was described as “restrained”. The mantra of my family was “We’ll see!” and my people did not appreciate foolish displays of sentiment. To this group “uff-da” was overkill.
For example, I can’t recall my maternal grandparents or even my parents displaying any overt signs of affection. It wasn’t that there was no kissing, hugging or hand holding allowed; it just wasn’t in the thought process. This did not mean we weren’t a functioning family! My “restrained” ancestors routinely produced families of 8-16 children (or whatever it took to man the farm.)
That restraint was evident in the females of the family too. I remember when I riding in the car with my mother and we passed a couple holding hands. My mother’s immediate response was “Yechh!” It was plain she thought any display of that sort should be kept hidden and was not for civic consumption. She believed we all knew we were loved and there was no sense in bragging about it to her children or the public.
This did not mean that there was no room for nurturing. If one of us came down with an illness, the combined knowledge of potions and cures were brought to bear on us. The family remedy for a cold was legendary. Grandma Holm’s formula involved water, chocolate, cinnamon, mustard, and pepper heated to just below boiling and served in a huge mug with clouds of steam rolling over the brim. I had seen it with my own eyes, that when faced with drinking that simmering brew a miraculous healing would occur. The stricken child would beg to return to chores or school before the drink hit their lips.
Grandma Holm’s knowledge of medicine was not limited to potions. Her understanding of the physical nature of pathogens was inspirational. For instance, when faced with the daunting task of lancing a boil, she would calmly explain that the “mean-ness” needed to be let out. When asked what caused the white spots on fingernails, she expertly replied that it was caused by lying. Grandma instinctively knew that disease was nature’s retribution for past acts.
Now combine this background with a Midwestern Catholic School upbringing and you had a system guaranteed to wring out ardor. The nuns patrolled their schools with a vengeance and looked to snuff out any type of emotional outbreak. When tending to the students who were occasionally injured, it was common to overhear the nuns say “Offer the pain up for the poor souls in purgatory!” or “Stop crying, this pain is nothing compared the burning fires of hell!” Now I didn’t know much about the pain of purgatory or the fires of hell, but I did know you didn’t go crying to a nun with an injury, unless your bleeding was messing up the school hallways. It was not surprising that one of the first religious lectures taught during the school year was based on the Stoics and their philosophy.
Once a year, our school took part in a religious retreat. It was a time of self examination and reflection. For some odd reason sex education was also incorporated with this experience. Because of that subject matter, the participants were divided by sex, with the boys’ lectures being led by the priests and the girls being lectured to by the nun’s.
I don’t pretend to imagine what experiences the nun’s had to share with the girls, but I can divulge some the thoughts shared by the priest on the subject of sex. We were exhorted to control impure thoughts that could consume our minds. We were to offer our personal struggle up to heaven. To help us, we were given blessed holy cards to focus our thoughts on. I’ve got to admit praying to a picture of the Sacred Heart with blood dripping from it did seem to have the same effect as a cold shower.
If a young Catholic boy were to select a saint to control our impure thoughts, if might have been appropriate to bend a knee to St. Christopher. St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers and even more importantly, bachelors. Most Catholic had his image placed in their car to prevent accidents (even though, as we told by the nun’s, over 60 mph his intervention did not apply). If there ever was a need for a divine supplication, it would have been by a Catholic boy getting past first base in a car with a girl whose morals had been pledged to a life devoted to God by the Catholic Sisters and reinforced by the Sodality Club.
The last afternoon of the retreat, we were all brought back together with the boys on one side of the church and the girls with their heads covered with pieces of lace on the other. After being led through the Rosary, a special guest priest was brought in to conclude the event. I don’t recall the priest’s name or much of what he said, other than that the nuns were all aflutter. I do recall his last advice addressed to the girls concerning what to do if a boy offered them alcohol. “Drink! … Drink it all! Then, throw up all over them!” With that we were thrown back into the secular world, better prepared for any adversity.
With all that praying, chanting and drinking going on, it is no small wonder that most of us found happiness in mates who were from other religions. Restraint had its place, but now and again a little uff-da was nice.