, Gloucester, MA

January 11, 2013

Memories of Oscar: patriotism and poetry

Journal Pages
Susan Emerson

---- — My maternal grandfather was perhaps the most patriotic person I’ve ever known. Born to Swedish immigrants who spoke their native tongue at home, little Oscar refused, pretending not to understand it.

My mother liked to tell that story to illustrate his “stubborn” streak that followed him through his life.

He would teach his daughters one day to press their right hands over their hearts when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played at a band concert. And the adult Oscar was not ashamed to let the tears roll freely down his cheeks singing “America the Beautiful” with me.

A proud, hardworking man, he rose with dignity above the intolerance of my Nana’s family, who dismissed him as a foreigner. He apprenticed and became an upholsterer of good reputation, cutting and fitting fabric to cover the furniture for wealthy families on Gloucester’s Back Shore and Eastern Point.

His talents would take him also to several Boston hotels where, even during the Depression, elaborate furniture and drapes remained in vogue. He traveled into the city by train, staying through the week, returning home to his family on Sunday.

My Nana packed his five lunches disguised in brown paper tied with string like a parcel to be mailed, so that no one would suspect him to be a man too poor to take his meals at a restaurant.

It was not until I was a young adult that I stumbled upon a little cache of his poetry in some bottom drawer in my parents’ house. The pages were penned in my grandfather’s hand on thin, yellowed paper, and I was delighted to discover this talent. He had a lovely voice, too, and sometimes sang aloud in the car when he rode with us.

I don’t know now (and sadly, there’s nobody left to ask) if he wrote the words and melody to a song he used to sing to me, a song that I then sang to my own children, soothing them to sleep when they were young. All three of them remember, “In a Cool, Shady Nook by the Side of a Brook.”

My grandfather’s poetry was mostly about Gloucester, his beloved home. I regret that over my lifetime, I have lost track of that thin folder of his verse; perhaps it will surface some day.

I was thrilled, recently, when my cousin and her daughter, JC, offered me a poem by my grandfather, typed by someone on an old manual typewriter.

This poem shared a theme of those I’d read so long ago: rowing his dory on the Annisquam as a boy, and then a man; sunsets on the water; clamming in the mud flats of Essex.

Titled “November Beach,” this poem was written on Thanksgiving Day, 1947, by Oscar Haselgard. JC, being a thoroughly modern woman, took a picture on her on her iPhone for her mother, and gave the paper one to me. I’ve read it so many times this week.

It concludes: “A single pair of seagulls talk, along the edge of lake and land, and print a pattern where they walk, of stars, on sand. And I, too, walk along the shore, but leave a clumsy, human track, that ties me fast to my own door when I look back.”

How lovely a gift that poem was to me. We three girls, his progeny, stood together smiling. He would have smiled, too, clear blue eyes twinkling, to see my cousin and me now — both aging, white-haired women, and JC, a younger woman of the next generation, photographing his poem on an iPhone.

How dearly do I wish I could tell my grandfather that my grandchildren, who are his great-great-grandchildren, love to swim and kayak in the Annisquam River. It is there where his ashes were scattered, and, I am certain, there where his soul is at rest.

Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.