10 April 2007


A barrel-chested, skinny-legged, fair-blue-eyed, farmer-tan-sporting man, this was my grandpa Norberg. He had something smart to say in almost any circumstance. When needing badly to find a restroom, "my back teeth are floating." When his grown children wouldn't let him pay for a meal, "aw, but i've got money i haven't spent yet." When he was riding shotgun with me as his young driver and I rolled through a stop sign, "you're going to stop next time right?" On obviously bright evenings, "good moon for a town this size." On pitch black nights, "dark as the inside of a cow." And when finished with pouring gravy on his roast, he'd sniff as he lifted the spout of the pitcher, "sniff, sniff," as though gravy could defy gravity and flow in reverse.

As result of an elbow injury, grandpa always had trouble bending his arm (can't remember anymore whether it was left or right). He had a genius little invention for buttoning his top button since he couldn't reach it. It was simply a string tied to a safety pin, and with his chin set forward in deep concentration, he'd loop the string around the button, guide the safety-pin-end-of-the-string through the button hole, pull tight and, presto-change-o, done! It was a sight to behold. Because of this same ailment, he had a signature head scratch (usually the index finger only) that resembled a gorilla's, much to the amusement of anyone who saw him scratch his forehead and then smooth his wispy white hair.

On those lazy summer afternoons in little Siloam Springs, Arkansas, as we played board games and had countless Uno matches on the golden shag carpeted floor, grandpa took the blue lidded tin from the shelf in which he always kept Switzer's black licorice bites. He always shook the can heartily to loosen the bits and told us to take a few more. Even later on in our teenage years, my sister and I still thrilled to reach our hands into this wealth of chewy candy.

On Sunday nights, as the news broadcast wound down and the Disney Sunday Night Movie came on, he would get out the black stovetop popcorn maker and the small yellow enamelware butter warmer with the extra long handle. As soon as the kernels hit the metal measuring cup with a loud clatter (1/3 cup fit perfectly in the pan and just barely popped the lid off as it finished), we all knew what would soon be on the table and tried to wait patiently. his giant hand steadily spun the bright red handle around and around, and the cheerful pop!pop!pop! quickened until the lid of the pot began to rise and stray kernels tumbled onto the countertop.

Alongside this massive, perpetually full bowl of white popcorn with fresh butter and plenty of salt, root beer was inevitably set out. IBC brand only, in the glass bottles -- never any sort of impostor, not even A&W, and generic was unthinkable. If we were really fortunate, ice cream landed on the table somewhere in the evening's spread for making floats. For us cousins, this was understandably a magical and giddy weekly tradition. Even still today, for me, popcorn and root beer makes everything feel right as rain.

In the low, golden light of the small kitchen, as fingernails scraped the bottoms of brown and white melmac bowls and ice cracked in glasses, rich laughter echoed in their small home as Uncle Willard would mischievously plop a toy car in the popcorn bowl and some unsuspecting soul would fish it out. The laughter continued throughout the evening and traveled further still, out through the windows that were open to the dusky sky, now filled with stars and fireflies. The warm, grass-scented summer air blew through the room, as did the moths that entered and swirled around the ceiling light. The kids licked the salt off of our fingers, slurped the last of the creamy root beer, and settled happily back into our spots in front of the television.

Eventually the bowls and glasses were pushed to the side as the adults played Dominoes or Rummikub around the kitchen table. I always snuck in and, from the safe place behind mom's shoulder, watched grandpa's extra-large hands scoot and nudge the game pieces with wonder, dazed by the white dots on the black. What could the point of this game possibly be, other than making a small model of a very complicated road system? I didn't know, but it was still fascinating as they seemed to be part of a "Smart Adult Person Only" club, that I could only hope to aspire to someday.

Later in his life, after grandma had been gone for quite a few years, grandpa became a member of the Wal-Mart Coffee Club. The group was about eight strong, and they were some of his best buddies with whom he reminisced and laughed every morning, almost daily, in fact. He always bragged about being able to get a five cent cup of coffee. He even had a personalized baseball cap bearing his nickname. On royal blue, in yellow lettering, it read "Swede." A handful of these men were the honorary pallbearers when he passed away in October of 2000.

Philip was a wheat farmer and a carpenter. He toiled faithfully, kept an eagle eye on the weather, and left the rest up to the Lord. On hot summer days, especially during harvest time, he would come into the house, stick his arms as far under the tap as he could, and scrub up to his elbows with the cool spring water and lye soap. After midday dinner, he would lie on the floor, flat on his back, for about 20 minutes. This was his secret for good health, along with never taking second helpings at the dinner table. He was a deeply grateful man, and always began his prayers, "We thank you Lord for this another day..."

One of mom's favorite memories of grandpa from her childhood was a recurring one. After they had finished a meal at a restaurant and were walking out, grandpa would deliver one of his signature, colossal belches with a hollow, loud, "aaahhhhhp" sound. After one of these escaped his lips, grandma would smack his arm lightly and whisper through her smile, "Daddy!" And they all laughed.