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On the seventeenth of July, Eunice Amalia Norberg (Sorrells) will be 101 years old. She has lived for over a century and yet today when we visited with her, she could recount specific details about her days in District 43 where she was both teacher and window washer. After a day of educating one room full of children (“the seats were all filled” she said), she’d wash the windows and sweep the wooden plank floors. She took Uncle John’s hand when he extended it to her and said, softly and slowly, “I know you…” Her short-term memory is long gone so this surprised me, as did the tears that sprang to my eyes when I heard her speak, for so many other reasons I couldn’t have predicted or known. I had to duck behind the tree and pull myself together so that when I touched her cotton-soft, timeworn hand and introduced myself to her vacant face, I’d be able to speak.
What is it about the tie of family that instantly turns me into a complete, blithering baby? (Mom’s smeared mascara told a similar tale.) I can count on one hand the times I’ve ever even met this woman, my grandfather’s baby sister, but today when I thought about the icy, immovable fact that she is the last of a generation — our very last tie to the grand line of folks who have gone before — I sort of lost my composure. But it was regained quickly, and we tripped awkwardly over ourselves in that weird space we occupy when we don’t know if someone knows or recognizes us, but the minute the photographs came out, in the dappled light below the cottonwood tree, we were off and running. Well, she was coming along at more of a turtle’s pace, but at least we were moving in the right direction.
About Eunice. Where do I begin….She liked jumping rope, playing piano, she was an expert milker (she stayed home for a year after graduating high school to do so so that her younger brother might play sports at the high school), she lost $500 in the Great Depression, she trained to be a nurse at the Good Samaritan Hospital and, along with her acceptance letter, she received a pattern for the dress and apron she’d be required to wear. She served as a private nurse for a man injured in a car accident and was paid handsomely so that she was able to buy a wool coat for $11 and a round trip Greyhound ticket to visit her family back on the farm in Nebraska, where she endured the dark red whirls of the dust bowl, as well as the plague of grasshoppers that devoured what was left of their crops. As result of the ongoing depression, there were places called “transient camps” where men who were riding the rails, looking for work during the country’s economic bottom-out, would land and need food and medical care. Eunice worked as a nurse at such a camp in Phoenix, Arizona.
One of the most tragic events that Eunice endured was the accidental death of her husband, Joe Sorrells, in 1942, not even two years after they had been married. He was a customs officer at the US/Mexico border and was fatally wounded when he and other officers were pushing a stalled car and the revolver of one of his co-officers slipped from the holster and discharged. They had just welcomed their daughter, Joanne, less than a year prior. To add to the difficulty and the sadness she had endured, her brother Lloyd died in a freak car accident in 1945 and years later, daughter Joanne died from Lou Gehrigs Disease in 1985. She outlived her husband, her daughter and every one of her remaining brothers and sisters. I can not imagine the despair and loneliness she must have felt, but she doesn’t strike me as one who would have complained or dwelled. This was not, and is not, the Norberg way. She enjoyed the role of grandmother and found joy in so many small pleasures as these. She didn’t stop driving until she was 89. She loved chocolate cake with her coffee. She loved to laugh…still does.
In the afternoon breeze and in a lull in the conversation, her tiny voice, through her dry lips, spoke plainly, “My plan is to go home this summer, to the farm…” There was an eerie moment before she completed her statement where I wasn’t sure whether by “home” she meant farm or heaven. Again, tears welled in my eyes. I put on my sunglasses. As she was wheeled back into the Belen Rehabilitation Center and her white wisps of hair caught the sunlight, I marveled at her. I wondered at the full life she lived, the lessons she learned, the battles she fought, the seemingly unbearable sadness she dealt with, the laughter and lightness with which she bore it, and the Lord she so dearly loved who waits for her.