Sunday, July 14, 2013

James Franklin Swenson

This was my Dad: James Franklin Swenson, or as we knew him, "Jamie."  I pulled this photo out of one of my old albums of family photos - all of them losing their color now, and all needing to be scanned or in danger of being lost. I chose this picture because there are so many reminders in it of my childhood home and my family.

The Christmas Tree

Jamie liked to find a tree with something other than the traditional shape, so we'd go out to a state park with a permit to cut down a tree. The Christmas we lived with this tree, it took up most of the living room and anyone sitting on the right half of the couch sat with a lap full of tree branch. It was so lop-sided that it would tip over several times throughout the day and night until Jamie finally managed to secure it to the bookshelves behind it. I still remember the "WHOOMP!" mingled with the sound of tinkling bells and glass ornaments hitting the floor in the middle of the night.
(*I realize as I look at the tree again, there aren't any ornaments on it. I think the only thing left is stuff made from cloth.
At some point, we decided it wasn't worth breaking any more of them, and we stripped the tree and put them all away.)

The Bookshelves

Jamie built those himself, as well as cutting and fitting the boards that they are attached to. That paneling is rough red cedar, but the shelves were made of plywood and stained red. All of the books that sat on those shelves were stained red eventually as well because he was probably on to his next project before he got around to sealing them. He was always building, learning or planning something. Those books still read just as good (if not gooder).

The Rocking Chair

That's my Mom's rocking chair. I know the sound of that chair and the feel of every curve and upholstery nail. All through my years growing up, that chair was most representative to me of my Mom, and I have flashes of memory of what it was like to climb into her lap while she was sitting on it all the way up to leaning over to kiss her cheek before going to bed.

The Carpet

My folks bought the home where this 1976 photo was taken in 1969, when the house was ten years old. It has hardwood floors throughout, but they had 4 kids, 5 1/2 years apart total, and always at least one dog and a couple of cats, so it was pretty noisy. They had this carpet put down in the early 70s - a kind of coat of many colors pattern. I liked it then, and probably still would today, mostly because I doubt if I would ever see the same pattern anywhere else. That is something they taught me to appreciate: unusual things are interesting.

The Plants

I think one of those is a Strawberry Plant my folks brought from Michigan. It was the only one they took with them when we moved to Oregon in 1967 in our Ford Galaxy 500 with the U-Haul trailer behind us. The pots were hand made, and I think my dad's brother was the craftsman. The hangers were probably macrame my Mom did.

The Artwork

Jamie built that ship in the glass case. He built the case also. Then, there's a wooden mask my Uncle Jan bought in Mexico and some skulls Jamie mounted on velvet covered boards. That mantle is the one where, as kids, we knocked one of the clay figurines onto the floor, shattering it, and spent the next 20 minutes arguing about which one of us would take the blame so the others wouldn't get in trouble. We wanted to protect each other and we knew we had done wrong. As it was, my folks just said, "Accidents happen." (Man, that WAS a really good pillow fight, though!)

The Presents

A quick glance shows several gifts that couldn't almost be anything other than record albums. This might have been the Christmas Hanna gave me The Pointer Sisters' live album recorded in San Francisco, or Liz gave me Elvis' "Aloha Via Satellite From Hawaii." We all gave each other records, though, and that is one of the most lasting and important legacies of my folks. They used to tell us a story of how, when they were first married, they saved up enough money to buy a set of dishes, but on the way to shop for them, they stopped at a record store and blew every last dime on records. Music was always important to my Dad and he even taught himself to play some on the banjo and guitar. He was a great singer and he could appreciate any style of music. The last gift I gave him was a couple of CDs from the folk singer, Taylor Pie.

Jamie passed away on Friday, just a little over two months past the diagnosis his doctors gave him of stomach cancer. I got to talk to him on Monday, with my sister Katie holding the phone, and I told him about how I loved him, and I was proud of him, and that I hoped I had as much dignity as he when my time comes. Then, I played a song for him on the piano that his mother taught me. None of us know the name of it, but I play be ear, so I remember it. Jamie told me once that she would play it for him and his brothers every night when they were tucked in bed, and they would call down from their bedrooms, "Play it again, Mama! Play it again!" I did play it through twice, and came back to the phone, and Katie told me, "He's moving his feet a little in time to the music, and he squeezed my hand. I think he wants you to play it again."

And so I did.

This photo is the last time I saw my Dad, when my folks were driving back to Oregon from visiting me in Texas in October of 2011.


  1. <3 a beautiful tribute to a very interesting man, and father.

  2. I love that you played that song for him, and twice at that. I know it warmed his heart and helped with saying goodbye without words but just the music in both your hearts.