Grandmother Mathilda Kreymborg was born in 1898, the fourth daughter of German immigrant parents. She was raised Catholic and trained as a nurse, graduating in 1921. Mathilda was employed at a Sioux City hospital where she cared for a man by the name of Daniel Cooper. He was a widower, a thresher who had come from O’Brien County to undergo surgery on his sinuses. (All that dust from threshing!) Mathilda fell in love and later married her patient from Primghar, Iowa.
Grandmother gave birth to her first child in 1925. Lee arrived in 1927; my father Ray, in 1928. A fourth child was born in 1929. Clement, named for his grandfather, died at birth in 1933. This fifth child was born after Mathilda Kreymborg had begun a terrifying spiral downward into what was later diagnosed as schizophrenia This illness resulted in extended hospitalizations at the State Hospital in Cherokee, Iowa. Life without a mother at home had a pronounced effect on her four young children. My father has carried this burden with him through all his days.
I never got to know Grandmother. I remember visiting her one time in the nursing home. She was a large woman, dressed in a light blue house dress with pockets stuffed full of tissues. She talked about Lee, her first son, but could not put a finger on who my father was. She struggled with trying to remember who these four young children were. Lined up before her, we were each nudged forward by my father, to say hello to our grandmother.
Grandmother Mathilda was locked away, not only behind the doors of a state hospital, but also inside my father’s childhood memories. He guarded his secrets (along with his shame), for years. We never knew who she was or why we were kept away. She was not a part of our lives, so we never asked about this woman, our German grandmother.
After my children were born, my father changed. He started sharing stories and pictures of his mother. He wanted us to know who she was. This photograph hangs on the stairway wall with all our family pictures. My children have been greeted every morning by their ancestors, as well as bid good night on their way to bed. I treasure this photo with all my heart, for this young girl would become my grandmother.
She sits outdoors upon a pressed-back chair, her legs casually crossed at the ankle. Dressed in a belted frock, she wears black stockings and roller skates upon her feet. Standing close by is a younger brother Heinie (Gerhardt Heinrich). At six or seven years old, he is leaning on his sister, with a forearm casually draped upon her shoulder. His shirttails are loose from the waistband of his trousers, his shirt collar open, the cuffs of his sleeves unfastened at the wrists. A rounded cap with a short brim sits down on his ears, pushing them out away from his head. Heinie’s boots are tightly laced, scuffed, well-worn hand-me-downs. His pursed lips almost give way to a smirk for the camera.
The girl in the photograph is holding an open book on her lap, a soft-covered, ragged-edged reader. Her hair is thin and pushed back behind her ears. Over the crown of her head, the wispy strands are wind-blown, parallel with her brow line and her lips, set straight across her lower face. Her ears mimic her brother’s in that they, too, are set out away from the side of her head.
When I study Mathilda’s face in this photograph, sometimes I see my older sister Cathy. Sometimes I see my father. Sometimes, my daughter Tess. Who are these two children captured in this moment? I know them to be sister and brother; a daughter and a son; my grandmother and her brother from a long, long time ago. This picture reveals my ancestry, my German bloodline. This is a photograph of Mathilda Kreymborg, frozen in time, forever in roller skates. Forever, who I am.