The Van Down by the River / The Discovered Heritage of the Hopeless Romantic
Since my mother died in 2012, I’ve mentioned that when I escape into my writer’s brain I feel closer to her. So, it is with this otherworldly notion that I share a story of how I spent Labor Day weekend and discovered my long legacy of hopeless romantics going back five generations to my great-great grandmother, Fredrika Hawkinson.
In 1983, my grandfather and namesake, Glenn Snook died in the house he’d built during the depression. Complete with crystal doorknobs, coved ceilings and Swedish hardwoods, the house on the corner of 22nd & Friendly Street was as much an expression of his artistic ability as a monument to the love he felt for my Swedish grandmother, Edith Benson Snook, who’d preceded him in death in 1979. She was raised in Minneapolis and came out to an uncivilized Oregon with her maternal aunt, Violet Hawkinson Hegberg and her uncle, Gustav Hegberg. They were appalled to discover that there weren’t even sidewalks in Oregon in the early 1920’s. I’ve been told I resemble Violet, who died in 1939. I’ll let you be the judge. Her pocket watch sits on my desk. (You can see it pinned to her chest.) Sometimes it ticks of its own accord. Alas, not today.
Back in 1983, my mother, a grieving only child, cleaned out her parents’ house and put the contents in a forty foot storage container/van my father had purchased for her. It was placed on an equipment lot owned by our family business down by the Willamette River. Over the next few years, Mom occasionally pulled out odds and ends for my brother and me as we journeyed thorough college and then bought houses of our own.
My marble topped coffee table and recovered kidney shaped couch and sofa along with my Duncan Phyfe dining room table all came from The Van Down by the River.
There was an intriguing picture that used to hang in my grandparents’ living room of a couple at the end of a fight. I used to stare at it and create different stories in my mind, the fight that led to the scene in the picture, the possible and hopeful resolution that we would never see. My grandmother used to tell me she felt sorriest for the dog who didn’t know whom to comfort, as he was caught in the middle. It was an ironic picture for the fact my grandparents were so happy and deeply in love.
When I bought my house in 2002, I asked my mother for that picture. She could never find it despite fairly extensive searches of The Van. The summer after my mother died, we found the picture in my parents’ attic. It is by Franz Skarbina and called: Das Ende einer Liebe, ‘The End of a Love”. (Unfortunately, it appears that unlike me, Franz didn’t believe in happy endings.)
For the most part, The Van Down by the River remained untouched for thirty-one years until last weekend when my brother called and said he thought it was time for us to clean it out.
It took all day. Boxes of National Geographics hung out with blue mason jars and newspaper articles. And in a little box entitled, “Stuff to Keep”, my mother kept every dance card from college and inside each one she’d written my father’s name next to her own. She had cocktail napkins from their engagement party and everyone else’s engagement party/wedding who married the summer after graduation in 1956.
I found the ornate Swedish wedding certificate from Violet and Gustav’s 1902 wedding, which is being framed and will hang in my dining room. I wear the diamond from Violet’s engagement ring along with diamonds from my grandmother and mother’s engagement rings on my right hand in a ring my mother had designed in 1979. I feel the depth of the each promise and the years each woman wore their sparkling stones and what the stones meant to each of them. There were three happy marriages between them until death took them away from their grieving husbands. There is an irony that I’m the only divorcée among the group to wear any part of their engagement rings.
In among a box of books in The Van was Lalla Rooka, an Oriental Romance by Thomas Moore, inscribed to my Grandmother Edith Benson from her Grandmother, Fredrika Hawkinson. Published in 1817, it is one of the first romance novels.
“When Lalla Rookh enters the palace of her bridegroom she swoons away, but revives at the sound of a familiar voice. She awakes with rapture to find that the poet she loves is none other than the king to whom she is engaged…”
And not to be forgotten is the photo of Rudolph Valentino, which my mother gave me in 1983. My grandmother must have gotten it about the same time Rudolph starred in the 1921 movie, “The Sheik”, which was based on the 1919 novel by Edith Maude Hull, reputed to be “the first romance novel”.
When he is better, he explains to Diana in a tense climactic scene that he is sending her away. She is upset, especially as he confesses to her that it is because of his love for her; he can’t bear to mistreat her any more. Although she begs and pleads, declaiming her love, he stands firm. In utter despair, she reaches for a revolver in a desperate attempt to die as her father died. Ahmed wrenches the gun from her and clasps her to him, declaring he will never let her go…
So on those days when I wonder why there is a need in me to write romance novels, to live in the bittersweet misery of a good story, it would appear that it is a part of my heritage. I come from a long line of hopeless romantics. I just wonder if they’d ever thought of picking up a pen and writing it all down.
– Mary Glenn Oldham 9/7/2014