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Sunday, January 8, 2017

My Grandparents and I Part III: My Paternal Grandfather

     My father's father, Walter Leonard Peterson, was my favorite grandparent. He was a Presbyterian Minister but he wasn't censorious or didactic. He didn't make you feel wrong or lacking or unworthy. I remember going to a Church service of his once and his sermon was on love, no hellfire and brimstone anywhere around. He was scholarly as befit a Minister but also generous, warm and friendly. His congregations loved him as my sister and I witnessed when we went to a farewell party given for him at the time he left the church in Tacoma. His parishioners gave him and my grandmother a big farewell dinner with a cake and speeches. He had a true sense of humor. At that dinner he stood up and introduced my father as "the baby of the family". Then my father stood  up. My Grandfather was 6' tall but my father was 6'2" tall-the baby of the family!

     Before I was 11 my grandparents did not live nearby but they would visit occasionally. The visit I remember was in  1959 ( I know the year because Ancestry has the passenger list that shows him arriving in the UK the year before!).  He had spent a year in Europe through a Ministerial exchange program. He had taken a Scottish Church and that Minister had preached at his Church in Tacoma. This gave him the opportunity to visit Sweden from where his parents immigrated  He and Grandma visited us in Little Rock, Arkansas on their way home. I'll never forget his telling us about Scotland and Sweden and how happy he was to find living relatives in Sweden. He gave me a Scottish bagpiper figure and a Danish doll, both of which I still have 58 years later.

     Walter was very proud of his Swedish heritage and he told us stories of his father's trip to America and of his mother's father's journey. He spoke Swedish and corresponded with relatives in Sweden  in both English and Swedish. He got me very interested in Sweden as a child, one year I even saw that we carried out all the Swedish Christmas (Jul) traditions. My mother in law was also of Swedish heritage so I continued this with my own children. My interest in genealogy largely started with hearing my grandfather's stories and wanting to know more. Two years ago, my sister and I visited Sweden ourselves and saw the places his parents came from. We even met the grandchildren of one of the relatives he visited when he went there. Throughout the trip I was very conscious of how happy he would have been to know that we were there following in his and his ancestors footsteps.

     Walter was a very tall, thin man but he had a sweet tooth and we always had dessert at my grandparents' house. I remember that he liked to drink coffee through a sugar cube. You put the sugar cube between your teeth and drink the coffee through it. A dentist's nightmare but quite delicious!  He claimed that it was a Swedish custom. When we were in Sweden I asked our cousin, Roger, if it actually is a custom.  Roger said that it was but only among the older people and he seemed amused by the question. I  always half suspected that he had made up the Swedish custom bit so it was good to get that confirmed. My grandpa always said things with a twinkle in his eye so you never were sure if he was joking or not.

     Family was extremely important to Walter. He would visit family members wherever he went, driving out of his way to see them. Unfortunately he often didn't call ahead. My grandmother would beg him to do so but he would say, no, they'll be happy to see us. He was absolutely certain that he would be welcomed by anyone in the family. I'm sure he was but I'm also sure that they were annoyed to not have any notice. So going places with my grandparents,
My grandfather with me n his knee and my cousins Jill and Ricky Jan 1950
Walter in kilts in Scotland, 1958
Margaret, Wendy, Bessie, Walter and Rhonda, Seattle 1967
Walter with Swedish cousins 1958
Wendy and Rhonda with granddaughters of  Swedish cousin, 2014
Bessie, Jack and Walter 1979
Wendy, Walter and Devin 1981

my sister and I met many relatives that we would otherwise not have met. After my Dad died I received his family papers. Included in them was my grandfather's address book. He had addresses of not only his brothers and sisters, his children and grandchildren but many cousins of both his and his wife's. There also was a typed list of birthdays, anniversaries and dates of death of everyone you could think of. This was done with a page for each month and a list of days with the name of the person born, married or died on that day. He even had the family of his wife's sister's ex-husband.
     After my parents divorced in 1959 my mother, sister and I moved to Seattle. Thus we were close     to my grandparents in Tacoma and saw them often.  My grandfather was an important man for me at that time. He listened to me and treated me like an adult not a child. I recall going on a walk with him at one point discussing existentialism, something I wouldn't have been able to do with other relatives. He accompanied me to the Father-Daughter Dinner at my High School in 1965 and I felt very proud to be there with him.

     The only person I ever heard complain about my grandfather was my stepmother, LaVerne. She felt that he mistreated his wife because he always was asking her to do things for him, get him this or that, for instance. And it was true, he did. I just didn't think she minded and I did hear her voice her displeasure at him for various other things. Their love and devotion to each other for 65 years was exemplary and I have written about it elsewhere. But one story I haven't written before shows clearly how much she meant to him. Near the end of their lives they were in a retirement home in Duarte, California. I used to visit and one time I came and found that they were in separate rooms. I asked my Dad how come? He said that my grandfather had started to not care about getting up and doing things so the caretakers had moved him across the hall. This way he had to get up and get dressed and walk across to see Bessie. And so he did everyday, spending the day with her, walking together to the dining hall or perhaps taking a walk on the grounds. She was the center of his life.  In 1982, he died 7 months and two days after she did.   He meant a lot to me and I hope to be as meaningful a person to my own grandchildren.                                                                                              


  1. You've described him very well! I regret now that I didn't ask him to teach me some Swedish other than "God Jul"! I remember he said that although his parents had been in the U.S. for a while, they spoke only Swedish at home when he was growing up. There were other Swedes living nearby, so I suppose they didn't need to speak English too much. Grandpa said he didn't learn English until he went to school. When the teacher found two or more student speaking Swedish to each other, she clopped their heads together until they spoke English! Not the way you would teach English Language Learners in schools today. But it must have been effective, since he didn't have an accent!