(I'm working on a memoir, NORTHERN BOY. I suspect I'll be working on it for a long time, as it takes shape in my mind and on the page. It's frankly pretty sprawling and really needs shaping. Anyway, I think I'm going to publish snippets from time to time here. These opening pages of the chapter "Young Vagabond" seem to have gotten taken over by my mother, which is fitting. She was a very strong personality and a person who loomed very large in my life, and still does. For good as well as for bad. While she's been gone nearly twenty years, I find myself thinking about her all the time.)
I was born during a late-February snowstorm in St. Ansgar Hospital in Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the meandering, north-running Red River from Fargo, North Dakota. My parents, Orbin and Yvonne Brandvold, were living in a forty-foot mobile home in a court devoted to married student housing at North Dakota State University. My father was getting his undergraduate degree in agronomy.
It has always amazed me that I was born in a Catholic hospital, because my mother hated Catholics. Or, at least hated the Catholic-ness of many of the people she knew. She hated that Catholic-ness despite her father having been a Catholic until her mother had made him convert to Methodist. She hated that Catholic-ness despite her twin sister marrying a Catholic, a guy she otherwise loved and admired, at age eighteen. She hated Catholic-ness despite many of her cronies being Catholic themselves though she always tried and often managed to get an anti-Catholic dig into their conversations now and then, which never failed to make her happy.
I’ve never really understood what she hated so much about the Catholic faith. I asked her on many occasions, because I really wanted to understand, but my mother wasn’t always good at articulating her prejudices, of which she had many. I think a large component of her Catholic prejudice was the Pope. She saw him as mere a flesh-and-blood jake acting all “high and mighty.” Flouncing around in silk robes and carrying a big fancy stick and having folks kneel down to kiss his ring. She also didn’t like what she saw as all the pretentious hoopla of the Catholic service, though I can’t remember her ever attending a Catholic service outside of maybe a wedding or a funeral now and then. Throughout her entire life, my mother hated people who put on airs, who saw themselves, or who she perceived as seeing themselves, better than she, the daughter of an itinerant farmer and coal miner who grew up “barefoot poor” on the far northwestern prairie of North Dakota.
I think another reason she hated Catholics was because it got under her skin that, unlike she, who had converted to my father’s Lutheran Church, Catholics could attend church on Saturday night and then hit the bars all night long without having to worry about getting up to attend services with a hangover the next day.
The more I think about it, the latter reason is probably as real a reason as any that my mother hated Catholics. She loved partying in the bars of the North Dakota small towns we lived in during the 1970s. She’d grown up in a big, boisterous family in a tiny town, and I think the small town bar was an extension of that familial atmosphere. She loved to tell, over and over, about how a judge got so drunk one winter Saturday night in Napoleon, North Dakota, that he and a barmaid passed out together behind a propane stove. She far preferred people getting drunk and passing out and being “real” than people swaddled in expensive furs driving around town in big cars, their noses in the air.
My mother was extremely extroverted and social to an almost pathological degree. She would have hated the idea of having to cut out of the party early because she had to get up for church the next morning. Right there was another rub against the Catholics. But, then, who knows why my mother hated one thing and loved another? More and more over the years after her death, I realize that there was very little about my mother that I fully or even partway understand, try as I seem obsessed with doing.