Life on the bright side
A conversation with Grandma Roman (full version)
My grandmother, Mary Louise Roman, has led a fascinating, joyful life. After years of hearing anecdotes, I asked her to help me string her story together from beginning to end. In this interview, she presents her advice for living life to the fullest, staying happily married, raising children and choosing a career that suits your lifestyle all in one lifetime. I’ve added a few notes from my family in parentheses for clarification. Grandma Roman has always had a knack for positive spin, even when she lived in a trailer park…read on. (This is the full version. Read the abridged version here.)
Growing up in the Depression
A: I wanted to start by talking about your childhood because I actually don’t know that much about it. Can you talk about your early childhood and how you grew up?
G: I was such a lucky girl. I had a wonderful childhood. I went to a Catholic school two blocks from my house and I just thought the world was quite wonderful. I think back on it now and think about how lucky I was. My parents were such good people and they just used common sense. I never had a curfew. I was the first one to say I’d go home because I didn’t want to disappoint them. It just was pleasant. We didn’t argue.
A: But you grew up in the depression era. Can you tell me about that?
G: I’ve been lucky all my life, Lex. My father worked all the way through the depression because my uncle owned the Minneapolis Star [newspaper]. My father worked for him and he had a job even when the people around us were out of work and on welfare. I missed all that. There were a lot of kids whose parents were out of work and they had a terrible childhood. It was a hard time in this country.
(Note from John: Bert bought this farm weekly and he decided to turn it into a daily newspaper in Minneapolis. He became a rich man. His brother traded in the pits - agricultural gambling. All the Frizzell brothers lived very well through the 20s. Grandma’s Dad, Art, worked in the accounting arm of the paper. When Bert died in ‘36, all that was stipulated in the will was that Art got another year.)
G: I still see some of those people I went to grade school with, isn’t that something?
A: You do? Where?
G: Mary Roland, she lives outside of Atlanta. When I went to see your Dad, we drove up to see her and she’s a wonderful lady. Her husband was a Southern gentleman. If you were sitting with everybody and you got up to go to the bathroom, he stood up and waited until you got back. And I thought “Oh! I can’t have this, what’ll I do?” [laughs]
A: That’s pretty funny
G: He was just a very nice man. He was a Lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. They took us to the Officer’s Club for breakfast once and my goodness, his children had to almost salute. A lot of his underlings were there and his kids didn’t dare step out of line. He had seven children. But Mary and I are still close after all these years.
A: You guys went to elementary school together?
G: Yes, we went from elementary school through 8th grade. Mary and I were good students, you understand. Obedient girls. Because of that, Sister chose us to clean the bathrooms for the kindergartners. That’s how goofy we were then, we thought that was an honor.
A: Do you have any other funny stories from Catholic school?
G: You know, we were such naive kids when I think about it. This is one funny story. One girl was nervous in Math and she started kind of picking at the pew and she picked her name and initials out like they’d never find her. That was kinda dumb, girl.
Those days, we were out all day long and the weather was horrible. It was very cold in Minnesota; we had lots of snow and I was out in it, every single day.
A: Doing what?
G: We skated, we used our sleds. We went up and down, just the hills at home. It was really funny. And I remember going skating. I carried my skates after school and walked down about eight blocks. And we just had a wonderful old time.
A: Are there any other people that you stay in touch with from that time?
G: Oh, some, yeah. But you know, I’m not there anymore so the ones that stayed home I never saw again. Jeanne Berens was one girl I kept in touch with. She liked the same guy that I did in 8th grade, Curt. This is a funny story — he asked me to go to the movie with him. I thought I had a date; I was quite impressed. So we went to the movie together and on the way in, he went to get the ticket and I waited very patiently inside. He asked for one adult and one child. I guess I was the child because I was short. Then, he put his arm around the chair — not around me — around the chair we sat in. I thought oh, that’s terrible and on the way home, you can believe it or not, I went to confession.
A: Oh my!
G: That’s how very conscious stricken we all were. I look back and think of the funny things we did. Anyway, when we moved to Chicago, Jeanne came up to me and said “You’re moving, so can I have Curt?” and I said “Sure, he’s all yours.” They got married and had eight children. That was a happy thing for her. She was glad I left.
A: That’s so funny. When was it that you moved to Chicago? How old were you?
G: I was in 9th grade
A: And what was the other job that your dad got?
G: He was doing the same thing he was doing in Minnesota. He was handling the money for a company. I don’t think it was a newspaper, but it was a connection he got through the Minneapolis Star. My dad was so wonderful, so whatever he did was fine by me. We were there for about four years. Then, we moved back to Minnesota.
(Note from John: I’m pretty sure he was selling farm wagons. He was successful at that, but the guys couldn’t deliver the wagons fast enough. The business petered out while they were in Chicago. By the time he went back to Minnesota, they stumbled along. I think he and Hazel [my great-grandmother] did real estate. By the 50's, he retired.)
Meeting Grandpa Roman
A: When you were in Chicago, that’s when you met Grandpa Roman? Is that right?
G: Yeah, we met in high school. He said he remembered me walking into this class that he was in. He said I put my foot on the chair and looked like I was so confident. And I didn’t feel confident. I was the new girl on the block and I was very uncomfortable.
Anyway, his friend asked me out on a date and I went out with him. Then, one night at a party, he broke up with me. Your grandpa and I were sitting outside this apartment on the steps. I told him about how his friend had broken up with me and Grandpa asked me to go to the prom with him. We went to the prom and then, we went together all the next year. And from then on, forever…
G: When we had our 50th anniversary, he woke up in the morning and said the same thing I thought — “Where did fifty years go? They just all disappeared. How did we do that?” Fifty years is a long time but we had wonderful friends and the kids were healthy. Everything was fine but time just disappeared. I look back and think the biggest thing I am grateful for — all of my children were healthy, mentally and physically. And that, you know Lexa, is a gift.
A: You said your parents moved back to Minnesota four years after you moved to Chicago. How did you stay in touch with Grandpa?
G: Oh, well, we graduated in 1941 or 1942. The war was just starting so he immediately enlisted. He wanted to go into the Air Force. And you know, poor Grandpa had one bad eye and so to pass the test for the air force, he memorized the chart. He passed, but he couldn’t see well enough to pass the pilot exam which is what he wanted to be. But he stayed in the Air Force anyway in Denver.
“You run into these things in your lifetime and people that you know suffer terrible tragedies. You just have to stand there and hope that they’ll get through it and help them with what you can.”
A: Denver, Colorado?
G: Yes, and other places the Air Force moved him. He tried to come and see me whenever he got a leave. And those were precious, treasured times. One day, he came back and the war was over and he said “let’s get married” and I said “ok, fine with me” [laughs] and we got married and we had five wonderful children.
(Note from John: Pearl Harbor happened. America freaked out so everyone raced to join the army. Grandpa joined the army in 1942. Basic training in Florida. I think St. Petersburg. Dad spent almost all of the war at Chanute Field which was 60 miles outside of Chicago. Because he was blind in one eye, he been assigned to a film/photo strip/drafting unit for the Army Air Force. His official title was “Motion Picture Technician.” As the war was ending, they did not muster everybody out right away. Especially if they had not seen combat, like my Dad. He spent the last six months of his service in Denver. He didn’t get out of the service until around 1946.)
A: But there was no proposal? Are you being facetious?
G: We’d been going together for so long. We just thought, it was time to do this now.
A: So you guys stayed together during the whole war?
G: Yeah, we did.
A: And he was in the Air Force for three years? Four?
G: Yeah, three years I think it was.
“You can make a problem out of anything and we tried not to do that.”
A: Where were you at that time?
G: I went to college at Beloit in Wisconsin. It’s a private school and we had small classes and good teachers. I enjoyed that very much but then, my folks moved again that year. When they moved back to Minnesota, I went to the University of Minnesota. I was in theater there, I met all kinds of people and I was in plays. I had a ball. It was fun.
(Note from John: I think Uncle Bert left money for Grandma to go to school.)
A: Tell me about the theatre stuff. What were some of your favorite plays?
G: Oh, I had the lead in The Cherry Orchard. That was fun except the guy that played opposite me drank too much at lunch one day. He was tipping over the edge of the stage and I had to catch him.
Theatre people are so much fun because they put their whole heart and soul into their acting.
One day, the guy that ran the theater said to me “Are you going to try and stay in acting when you get out of school?” and I said “Well, I haven’t really thought about it.” I did go to Chicago in the summer between my Junior and Senior year and I thought I’d try to get a job and see what happens. But you know what I found out about myself — you have to be willing to take a lot of knocking down to try out for a part and I didn’t want to do that. What I really wanted to do was go home, get married and have kids. And that was what I was supposed to do because I had fun being a mom.
(Note from John: Summer of ‘44, when she’s in Chicago, Grandpa was only 60 miles outside of the city. They stayed in touch more easily then. Grandma was working typing scripts in the Wrigley building. It was like Hollywood in those days. There were so many companies supporting the radio industry.)
A: When you were in Chicago for that summer, what did you end up doing? Were you going to auditions?
G: I did radio. My professors, a couple of them, had given me very nice introductions to people and so I did try out for radio parts. I didn’t get any permanent ones; I got a couple daily ones. One time I got one and I thought “Oh! I’m on my way to stardom!” but it didn’t work out that way. At the end, I thought, I don’t really want to do that anymore. Later, when I got my first job teaching, I produced a play with the Seniors and that was fun too. You carry on what you’ve done in the past and do it again.
Onward and Upward
A: How did you get into teaching? What happened with theatre and …
G: Being a drama queen? Well, it was Dr. Whiting, my acting teacher at the University of Minnesota. He took me aside and said “Are you going to go into acting?” and I said “I don’t think so” and he said “Well, why don’t you start taking some teaching classes? It can’t hurt and when you graduate, you’ll have that to fall back on”. So I took the classes and got a job in Rock Falls, Illinois. It’s a dot on the map; it’s such a small town. We had farm kids that came to class.
(Note from John: They got married in Minneapolis in 1947. I think Grandpa was with her in Rock Falls, taking classes at the Art Institute for his undergrad degree.)
“One day, the war was over and he came back and said ‘Let’s get married.’ ”
A: Where did you live after you were married?
G: Well, I taught there in Rock Falls for a year and then, when we got married I had to get another job near Chicago so that we could eat. It was very important, I thought, that we could eat.
A: Yeah, that sounds important.
G: Grandpa was going to school on the GI Bill. We got a room in this lady’s house [in Hammond, Indiana]. See nothing was built during the war; nobody built anything because they were all building airplanes, trucks and tanks. There was nothing to rent or buy so we got a room in this lady’s house. She and her daughter drank after dinner and they got kind of nutsy. That wasn’t very much fun.
On the Trailer Park
A: Tell me about the trailer that you lived in with you and Grandpa first got married.
G: That was in the little town near Chicago (Note from John: probably Hammond, Indiana). It was a crazy place. At that time, the people that lived in trailers were people that couldn’t find any place else to live. You didn’t know my mother but she was a very proper lady. When she came to visit, I tried to talk her into liking [the trailer park] saying “Everybody’s so nice, Mother, you’ll like them all.”
But the lady next door stuck her head out; you know we were so close in the trailer park. I said to her “Did you get that stuff that you wanted from the grocery store?” and she said “Oh, shit. No” and my mother was horrified. [laughs] I had to revamp everything I was going to say to her.
A: Where did you live after the trailer park?
G: I got a different job and we moved back to Minneapolis.
A: Really? With Grandpa?
G: Yeah, and Grandpa went to the University of Minnesota then. We both graduated from there.
(Note from John: I have no clue what Grandpa did when they moved to Hammond, Indiana. I think he might of continued his undergrad at the Art Institute in Chicago. Somehow they got to Detroit by ’51 and Grandpa started his Master’s at Cranbrook. After they moved to Minneapolis, he finishes his Master’s at University of Minnesota while he starts teaching. By 1955, he was teaching at Wayne State.)
Just Don’t Mention the South
G: We also moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and I found out that I am not a Southerner. I couldn’t stand it. It was hot and it was sticky. I thought it was a terrible place.
A: That’s so funny. What made you guys move to Baton Rouge?
G: A job.
A: Whose job?
G: Bill’s, not mine.
G: Yeah, he was teaching at LSU.
A: I didn’t know that. Did he teach art?
G: Yeah, for one year and we decided this wasn’t for us and we went to Michigan.
A: Why Michigan? When did Michigan become a thing?
G: We had lived there a year because Grandpa got a job there at Wayne State. We liked that and went back there. So we were Michiganders from then on.
That’s one thing your father said to us. He said, “You know, Mom, you had such interesting friends. We all enjoyed your friends.” Because you know we used to have a lot of parties. The kids would talk to our friends. They were very interesting people. A lot of them had their doctorate and traveled around the world. Stanley Kirschner was somebody that they learned to talk to. He was such a wonderful man. When he retired, somebody wrote to him and said “Stanley, you are a man of the universe.” and I thought, what a nice thing to say about somebody. Whenever he would go to a new country and had to give a speech, he had somebody translate his speech. He gave his speech in the language of the country they were in. It took him a lot of time and effort but he did it. That’s the kind of a man he was. He was a good man. It was impressive. He was in Chemistry and every year, he said I want to teach a Freshman chemistry class.
(Note from John: Neither the Kirschners nor the Romans had their extended families in Detroit so it became a tradition to have Thanksgiving together for my entire life.)
G (cont’d): We met an awful lot of nice people. One of the couples we became friends with in Baton Rouge came back to Michigan, Tom and Betsy Fern. They had six kids and we had five. We’d get together; you can imagine it was kind of a wild party. But nice kids.
(Note from Jenny: They met the Ferns at LSU, Tom and Betty, who had two children, and also the Wendels, Jim and June, who had six children.)
A: What are you doing at this point?
G: That was the time that I took time off and I was home with the kids. I’m glad I did that. I think everybody ought to be able to do that when their kids are born, especially between ages one and two. I don’t think we’re heading for that, but I think we should.
(Note from John: Yeah, it was great having her home. My dad lost his job in 1970. That’s when Mom went back to work.)
[Pic of Lansing house]
(Note from John: I loved that house. That bottom left window was Steve and my room. It had a big ass two car garage with a basketball hoop. Look at all that landscaping. There was no lawn when we moved in. Just dirt. That was all my mom and dad.)
“And I look back and think, he was the only genius I ever spoke to personally.”
On Buckminster Fuller
A: This is a total departure but I want to talk about the time you cooked dinner for Bucky Fuller.
G: This very day I was thinking of that man. Isn’t that funny? It just went through my mind. I was telling a young person that we knew him. When we went through Greenfield Village, I told one of the boys “We knew Bucky Fuller.” and he said “You didn’t! You knew Bucky Fuller?” [laughs] He couldn’t believe it.
He was Bill’s teacher. He was so nice, I thought we’d invite him for dinner and he came. And I look back and think, he was the only genius I ever spoke to personally. He was so damned smart; it was almost unbelievable. He’d start to give a lecture in the art department that Bill was in and I can remember thinking — oh, I understand this part. And then, he’d veer off and I just got totally lost. I’m not totally stupid, you know. But I could not follow his thinking. He was a brilliant man and a nice man.
(Note from Jenny: When Mom was teaching in Hammond, Indiana, Dad was at the Illinois Institute of Design in Chicago. It was there that he met Bucky Fuller and Bucky was the one to suggest that Dad go to Detroit to finish his MFA at Cranbrook.)
[I confirmed with the Cranbrook Academy of Art that Grandpa graduated in 1951. He was one of the first M.F.A. recipients at the Academy studying Industrial Design and Fine Art. Marsha at Cranbrook even dug up part of his thesis.]
G (cont’d): He was such a good man. And when Bill went to look for a job, he asked him for a recommendation and Bucky sent a recommendation letter. He was one in a million with that brain and that creativity.
I said to him once, “I get a lot of articles in the paper about you. Should I cut them out and send them to you?” and he said “Yes, if you’ll send me the whole page. I want to know what was going on in the world when they quoted me in the paper.”
A: What was he teaching?
G: He was teaching art but he was also teaching design. And that was what Bill was there for. He said to Bill "What we're doing right now is seeing if we can find another way to get people to be able to live in the desert. Can we do something about saving water?" So, they were doing something at night to put a tent over your roof to collect enough dew to wash your hands, for example.
He did another experiment where they would put air on your hands to see if they could get it clean. They did get it to be as clean as using water. Bill learned a lot from Bucky. And of course, I did too, but I didn't know what I was learning. [laughs]
A: Was he as famous then as he is now?
G: Sort of because he did design the Ford building and the geodesic dome. He was well known in Detroit.
(Note from John: One year, Grandpa made me a collapsable, geodesic dome for the science fair. It was made out of dowels and elastic strings. The nuns were quite impressed.)
“Know your stuff. If you don’t, the minute you stand up, people will know that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
A: I wanted to ask about your teaching.
G: I loved teaching. I learned so much. The first year I taught, I thought the kids wanted a friend. After about two weeks, I realized they have loads of friends. They need a teacher. And I changed my way.
I used to say you don’t smile until Christmas. If you’re teaching, that’s what you do. You have your rules and you’ve got to stick to them. And if you can’t do that, you can’t teach. First, you have to have the students attention.
A: Yea, I remember you saying you used to start the year really harsh.
G: I believed that the teachers should set an example for the kids. I followed all the rules the kids had to follow. I never took anything to drink into the classroom. One of the kids had put something bad in one of the teacher’s coffee and it made her sick. I thought, well, you shouldn’t have had coffee in there. I always felt I should be in the class and sitting down before the bell rings. You have to do a few things to set the stage.
I gave them a list of the expectations I had for them. I also gave them a list of what I would do for them. I will get papers back as fast as I can and tests will be returned the next day. I had a wonderful time teaching. I like kids and I liked these kids.
I had a good rapport with the parents too. If they feel like you care about their kids, you’re their friend. We also had good people in the administration which is very important.
A: You taught English, right? Did you teach any electives?
G: I taught drama for a couple years and had a one act play that I put on. It was a good experience. I was very happy at the high school.
David’s [my Uncle] teaching at the high school now and I asked a friend of mine how he was doing. She said “You know David. He runs his own ship.” One of the kids came in and said “My mother said your mother used to be her teacher. Is that right?” He couldn’t believe that his mother had me for a teacher. You feel like your high school years are the only time that’s ever been. You don’t think of your parents at that age.
A: Did kids ever come back to see you?
G: Oh yes and I loved seeing them. I got a note from a girl in my speech class that said “I started your class with my knees knocking so bad I couldn’t stand. You taught me how to stand up and talk. Thank you.”
A: You taught speech, too?
G: I loved teaching speech, I’d like to teach it again.
A: What’s your advice for giving speeches?
On what happened to Detroit
A: I wanted to ask you about Detroit because you've been there for so long. Can you talk about what it was like when you first got there?
G: We lived in the suburbs from the beginning. We never lived downtown. I always liked Detroit, I thought it was a fun place to be because there was a lot of theatre that came this way. We had season tickets to Wayne State’s theater (in downtown Detroit). We went every Friday night to a play which was my idea of entertainment.
One of the blessings of living and working in a university area is that you meet lots of interesting people. Our children met them too which was very good for them. [The Ferns] who we met in Baton Rouge moved up and taught at the University of Michigan. They were friends of ours for years and years.
A: Is Wayne State near Detroit?
G: Yeah, it's right there in the city.
(Note from John: That’s exactly what we felt like as children in Lansing. One time this chemistry professor came to the house who was visiting from abroad; his name was Wolfgang. My parents always welcomed visitors and let us hang out with them.
At one point, we bought a house in Detroit on Asbury Park, when I was about two or three. Detroit was still a bit suburban. I could walk to my kindergarten, St. Mary of Redford. My dad could take a bus right into downtown to work in the city planning department for Detroit. The reason they went to Wayne State every Friday night is that Grandma’s college friend, Dick Spear taught and directed at The Hillbury theater with the MFA program.)
A: So what happened to Detroit between when you guys got there and now?
G: Oh, Kwame Kilpatrick happened. He stole from Detroit by the thousands of dollars. Then, we went bankrupt after he was out of office. He's in jail now because of what he did to the city of Detroit. He was a terrible man, just awful.
A: Tell me about the riots.
G: People were very angry and they had every right to be angry, it was a terrible time. When we moved to Baton Rouge, I saw things I couldn't believe. I thought "how do you treat people like that?" After the riots, people didn’t want to live here any more and they left their houses. They just walked away and left the house empty. Isn’t that sad?
A: Yeah, it's crazy.
G: It is crazy. They felt they wouldn't get enough for it, so they walked away. It was a very sad thing.
A: That was in the city or in the suburbs?
G: In the city. The suburbs were a bit separated from that.
(Note from John: What happened was my parents lucked the *%$# out. We moved in 1961. They got top dollar for their home in Detroit. Cut to the late ‘60s. Malcolm was killed in 1965, Martin in 1968. 1967 is this bubbling stew of cops beating the crap out of people. Cities like LA, Chicago and Detroit are just powder kegs waiting to happen. Watts blew up in 1965. In Detroit, cops went in to do a raid on an illegal bar, “a blind pig”. The entire police force was all white. The residents had *@&#^! had it with the cops. Detroit riots happen. In 1960, I could walk to my kindergarten by myself. By ‘71, that couldn’t happen for Detroiters. Detroit was never the same. Sadly, a series of political corruption kept Detroit down for years. Luckily, the city’s turning around these days. However, my parents supported the arts and enjoyed living near Detroit throughout their lives.)
A: What do you think would turn Detroit around?
G: They’re trying really hard now. We have a new mayor who is smart. What they have to do is get the money under control. All these people that were hired by Kilpatrick used up so much money. It’s going to take a lot of time to straighten it all out.
The League of Women Voters
A: The next thing I want to ask you about is your work with the League of Women Voters. How did you get involved with the League?
G: I personally sought them out. They wanted more people to vote but we want them to vote intelligently. Honestly, when I look back at what we did, it was wonderful. Every election, we would send out a questionnaire and ask the candidates to answer the questions. Then, we’d print a sheet with the exact quotes, even if they made a [spelling] mistake in their answer. We’d also have an election night and invite the candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, to speak and take questions. What better can you do to prepare people to vote than that.
If the candidates didn’t answer, we put “did not respond” and that was a bad thing too. You know, I was the President of the local league for a while.
(Note from Jenny: While we lived in Detroit, around 1958, Mom loved being home with us but was also missing teaching and adult company so she worked for the school district teaching English as a second language at night. This was a time that many immigrants had come from Czechoslovakia and Mom was quite fascinated by their stories. This was also the time she started to get involved with the League of Woman voters as a source of adult conversation and the company of smart women.)
A: I didn't know that! That's a big deal!
G: It really wasn't [laughs] but it was work that I enjoyed doing. I thought it was urgent and important. The League of Women Voters has a good reputation. People feel that they are not prejudiced because when we have those meetings, we invite all the parties that are running.
Not too long after I stepped down from the presidency, I got a call asking if I’d like to be on a television program. It was for an election and I was to ask the two candidates a set of questions. They told the candidates that I was from the League of Women Voters and they felt that was a blessing because I was not biased in either way.
A: But secretly you're a democrat?
G: Oh, absolutely! Dyed in the wool. And if anybody asks me, I tell 'em that.
A: Let’s talk about when you were teaching and running the print shop. How did the print shop come about?
G: Oh, Grandpa lost his job. We had to do something and he decided we could handle this. We had money from his other job. I said ok, let’s go, let’s try it and it was a lot of work. Oh dear. But, we made it. It worked enough, so we kept it going for the few years that we had to and then we were ready to retire.
A: How many years was that?
G: I can’t remember. I think it was five or six. And Eric is [my uncle] still a printer, you know?
A: I know.
G: So he got something out of it that was worthwhile. I thought it was a lot of work.
A: Why printing, though? Out of the history of what you both had done. Why not an art store or a book store?
G: I think he was reading about it. This one guy made a franchise out of printing and Dad read about them and thought since they were just starting out, it would be a good thing for us. Kathy and Eric wanted to take it over and they also found it real hard. When they had kids, they couldn’t get home in time for the babies. They decided they didn’t want to keep it so we sold it. He’s still a printer, though.
(Note from Kim: Grandpa was an artist. He thought he could handle the graphics.)
A: Man, kids ruin everything
G: We all adjusted our work to our life.
A: Let’s talk about having kids. Do you have any advice for new parents?
G: Love your children. Love them to pieces and everything will be alright. If you really love your kids and they’re the most important thing in your life, they’ll be fine. I just think people don’t make their kids a priority. Your parents have made you and your sister Mallory a priority and so you’re doing fine. But when parents don’t, then they have problems.
(Note from John: Even though they made us a priority, they were not Thoth-Amon. They had their lives and we had ours.)
A: It’s so difficult though because of what you said. Adjusting work to your life. With the minimum wage being so low, that’s challenging…
G: Oh, it is. There’s no question about it.
A: My parents said you always had a plan for taking everybody on vacation. I wonder if you can talk a little about that.
G: Well, we couldn’t afford very fancy vacations. You can imagine taking five children with you but we always had a plan so that we could entertain the kids. Many times, we were visiting family. We went to Minnesota to visit and that was fun for the kids too because there were cousins up there.
A: Are there any funny stories of things that went wrong on vacation?
G: Oh, something always went wrong. We forgot something or something caught on fire. One time, I had forgotten Grandpa’s pants. He had one pair of pants to wear for the whole week. And it rained the entire time.
A: What did he do?
G: I think we went absolutely wild and bought him another pair but he wore those one pair of pants the entire week.
(Note from John: We didn’t get him another pair of pants. He rolled them up like Robinson Crusoe. They were filthy by three days in but there was no wear to get pants near the campsite. It was raining like hell for the whole week. Eventually, we gave up and stayed in a hotel for one day. Then, we finally went home. It was the worst vacation we ever had.)
G (cont'd): That time we had the bon fire, the shoes got ruined and the jacket almost got in it and somebody else’s stuff burned out. So we had kind of a bad time trying to rescue everything. Oh, dear.
(Note from Jenny: The FAMOUS flaming flip flop story is this…Grandpa only bought one pair of flip flops for all the Roman males to wear to the showers on this trip. It was a fancy trip as we had rented a camper trailer not a tent. Steve or John had worn the flip flops to the shower and they were sitting by the fire to warm up and possibly dry off a bit more. Steve or John kicked the flip flops off and they got too close to the fire and started to burn. Grandpa grabbed a dishtowel that was laying on a picnic table and started to beat the flames out since they only had one pair and as he whipped the towel back and forth , it started to burn and the the flames from it caught Dad’s jacket on fire. It was this weird polyester foam thing and it melted. I laugh just thinking about it.)
A: How did you travel with that many people?
G: We had a station wagon. We put three in the front [Grandpa, Steve and John], two in the middle [Jenny and me] and the little boys in the back. John complained about being in the front with us because he got the brunt of the impact when we’d turn.
A: Tell me a bit about our diverse family ancestry!
G: Well, Great-Grandpa Roman lived in Sweden. He was Swedish through and through. Grandpa and I went back to visit the little town he was from. It was just a tiny town. Everybody we met knew him.
We found out about [one of Grandpa’s relatives] Par Westberg and he sends me a beautiful plant at Christmastime. He sent me a plant this year that’s almost as big as I am. I’m looking at it right now, it’s just huge. I water it every day and I noticed it grew a sprig and I thought, “Oh, don’t grow any bigger, I’ll have to move out!”
A: What about your heritage? Where are your parents from?
G: My mother was French and Irish. She loved the French. She had a very different background from me. When people ask where I’m from, I say I’m an American girl. I’m English, Irish, French, Scotch and Norwegian so pick your party.
(Note from Jenny: Since Dad was pure Swedish [His dad was born there his mother born here but total Swedish blood], Dad used to tell us that mom had been born at a Heinz 57 plant that we passed on the way to go swim in Lake Erie. For many years I thought this was true as it was a big brick building that looked like a hospital.)
A: But were both of them born in the US then?
G: Yes, they were.
A: How far back was the ancestry in the US?
G: I don’t know, that’d be interesting to answer. I think my dad’s parents were the first generation on his side. His mom was a farm girl and his dad worked on the railroad. His railroad went through their farm and that’s how they met.
(Note from John: I’m pretty sure the Frizzells [Grandma’s Mom’s family] were Huguenots. The Huguenots got kicked out of France which is how Hazel’s parents made it to America.)
(Note from Jenny: The Frizzells, Mom’s mother family. came from France to Baltimore and then off to Minnesota. Hazel told me they traveled in a prairie schooner. Hazel’s father was born here [I am pretty sure]. Mom’s father’s mother was from Norway. I don’t know when she came to the US. His Dad was born in the US.)
It wasn’t luck, my dear lady. We tried very hard not to argue about everything.
On Staying Married
G: I’ve been a very lucky person. All my days, we had a wonderful marriage. Jenny said, “Oh Mom, you were lucky, you both got along so well.” I said “It wasn’t luck, my dear lady. We tried very hard not to argue about everything." We each gave in a little. You can make a problem out of anything and we tried not to do that.
A: That’s good advice
G: She thought it was real easy the way we got along.
A: Well, it certainly came across that way to the rest of us.
G: Isn’t that nice? That’s good. Janice gave me a wonderful compliment after my 90th birthday. She said “Aunt Mary, you and Uncle Bill did something right because all your children like each other and that is so nice. It’s so much fun to come here because we all have such a good time.”
“I would say this to young people — try to live your life looking for the good things because people find unpleasant things and sometimes they get so involved in that, they can’t see anything else.”
How to live on the bright side
G: I try to make the best of my situation. You know we have a book club here! [At the assisted living home]
A: I know!
G: Yeah! There are ten of us that read! Imagine! Our library lets us borrow books in groups of ten. We’ve read a couple really good books. One was The Zookeeper’s Wife — about a lady who hid Jewish people during the Holocaust where the animals lived. She saved a lot of people. You have to question yourself and say “would you have the guts to do that?” You are putting your life and your children’s lives in danger.
We’ve never been in that position in the United States. I mean, the War didn’t come here. Our sons experienced it, but we didn’t experience the war in this country. We don’t know how bad it was.
A: At least not since the Civil War.
G: Yeah and it was awful for those people [who suffered through it]. And you know, Lex, I would say this to young people — try to live your life looking for the good things because people find unpleasant things and sometimes they get so involved in that, they can’t see anything else.
A: Yeah, I know what that’s like.
G: Then, you miss a lot of things in your life that you could have had. I think that’s the way my mother and father brought me up. They taught me to look for the good in people and things. Sometimes, you have to live with stuff that you’re not thrilled with.
A: Well, that’s the end of my questions. Is there anything else you want to add?
G: I just think my grandchildren are wonderful. Do you want to add that? I’ll tell you what. I’d rather spend time with my grandchildren than anybody in the world. They are the smartest, most fun, up to date people.
A: Yeah, we’re cool people.