Latent memories work in strange ways and sometimes I find myself nostalgic for no apparent reason. Other times I can sniff out the breadcrumbs that took me here. Today is one such occasion.
I read a fascinating article by John Butterworth titled “How the rainbow illuminates the enduring mystery of physics” and before I knew it, I was sitting back on my Grandma Fengstad’s bed learning all about prisms. You can read Butterworth’s article here: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-the-rainbow-illuminates-the-enduring-mystery-of-physics
I recall fondly the couple of weeks each summer vacation spent in my early years at Crooked River, Saskatchewan at Grandma and Grandpa Fengstad’s home. Mom and Dad insisted that our mornings were spent in the Evangelical Lutheran Summer Bible School – both to instill a sense of moral values and to please Grandpa, also known as Reverend Fengstad, the founding pastor. Generally, it was good fun with lots of arts and crafts. Still, as the prairie heat baked the church and the aroma of baked wheat grew toastier as the sun scorched the fields, we were relieved when the sessions ended. We’d race home, gulp down fresh well water before shedding our Bible School best for summer wear. Lunch was a fast affair of sandwiches, soup and sometimes Dad’s Oatmeal cookies. Then we were off to the outdoors, mostly to play in the shade of the caraganas with that season’s litter of kittens. Sometimes it was so hot, we went down to the reservoir for a refreshing dip with a prayer we’d be quick enough to avoid the resident leeches.
More of an introvert than shy, I cherished opportunities when I could recover from the bustle of Bible school and the din of other children. In those last years while Grandma Fengstad was still alive, the house was a dark sanctuary. We were all warned to be quiet because Grandma wasn’t well and needed her rest. On those occasions, I’d slip into a cool corner of the house and read books in the dim light.
Despite my efforts to tiptoe past her partially closed door, on days when she was feeling slightly stronger she would smile and beckon me into the bedroom. Tears well up even now as I think of her sweet smile and the joy I felt in being invited to climb up beside her. Sick as she was, she spied my fascination with the prisms hanging off the lamps by her bedside. She reached over and released two of the hooks, handing me one of the prisms while dangling one herself. Grandma taught me how you could make the light dance on the walls and ceiling. She showed me depending on the angle and whether you just used the lamp’s lights or drew the curtains back to enlist sunlight, how the colours could change.
For me, it was my first encounter with magic. Grandma told me rainbows were Mother Nature’s prisms. While she gently explained the physics of prisms and rainbows, her words only made the mystery more compelling and magical.
If Mom noticed me there, she’d always ask Grandma if I was too tiring. Whatever the truth, Grandma’s answer was always no. She’d assure Mom we were having fun and she’d let me know when it was time to go. It was our time. I have no sense of how many minutes or hours we played this game together rather that time stood still. Grandma Fengstad died when I was 4 ½ years old.
We got the news at home in Ottawa and I remember Dad cradling Mom as she sobbed. I recall finding privacy for my tears by climbing on to the top shelf of the linen closet in our small basement apartment. I didn’t quite comprehend the finality of it until the next summer. There was barely budget for Mom to travel alone to Crooked River for Grandma’s funeral.
Our annual visits to Crooked River continued long after and were always filled with joy. Still Grandpa’s house seemed much emptier and I longed to see Grandma’s smile again.
Grandpa was often busy those afternoons when Grandma Fengstad and I played so he never really knew about our special game of light. One visit when I was a teenager, Grandpa saw me in her old room admiring the crystal lamps. He said to me, “Oh, how Ma loved those lamps.”
I said, “Yes, Grandpa, I remember. We used to play with those prisms together.” When he questioned how I could remember such a thing because I was so young when she died, I described in detail our magical moments. He just smiled and nodded his head.
That year when we were saying our goodbyes, Grandpa gathered some old newspapers and a couple of brown paper bags and lovingly wrapped those lamps and handed them to me. I said, “Oh, Grandpa, I couldn’t.” He just gave me a big hug and said, “You must. In them, you keep Ma alive.”
I never tire of rainbows or prisms. In those refractions of light, in every hue of colour, my Grandma’s smile lives on and comforts me.