By Barbara Jorgen Nance
I woke early this morning and turned on the small reading light at my bedside. A forest of shadows was cast on the wall. Grandmother Wicodema’s wardrobe looked more like the tree it once was than an early American oak clothes closet.
Wicodema Jo Mattler was born in 1882 in Galactia, Austria. She made the journey to the United States alone, around 1901. Wicodema Jo was one of many immigrants that went through Ellis Island to enter the US. The details of why she made the journey alone were never spoken of in my family, but I have admired her all my life for having the strength to do so.
Wicodema worked as a maid in a hotel, where she met my Grandfather, Andrew Wesley Jorgen of Norwegian descent. Born in 1852, he was 30 years her senior. They married in Chicago, then moved to Clear Lake, Iowa, where she spent the rest of her life, alone again after Grandfather died in 1942. I never met him. Our family did pack up the Pontiac Chieftain station wagon and drove to Iowa to visit Grandmother Wicodema when I was fairly young. I do recall the two-story house being quite dark inside and the furniture also being dark, but beautiful with interesting designs—carvings of the moon on the secretary desk; floral carvings on the chests of drawers and wardrobe; candle holders; revolving mirrors; and ornate handles. It all made an impression on me. I don’t think I cared for the bland, blonde furniture we lived with in California, but it was the popular thing of the times. Grandmother’s root cellar was full of haunting smells. It’s funny how we store memories of scents. I don’t recall my dad saying much about the house, but he did tell us about sitting on the back porch steps shooting the double-barrel shotgun.
I always wanted to return, but we never did. Grandmother Wicodema spoke in such broken language, I couldn’t understand much of what she said. I felt somehow cheated. Wicodema died in 1964 and my Aunt Teny lived in her house for many years, until she was to remarry and move. My husband and I shipped a large portion of Grandmother’s furniture to our house in California in the 1980s and again to our home in New Mexico in 2005.
Now, when I wake every morning, the towering wardrobe is the first thing I see, alongside my Grandmother’s chest of drawers and oak rocking chair. My eye is always drawn to the carved keyhole of the wardrobe. The skeleton key is still in place after all these years. What secrets could Grandmother Wicodema Jo have locked away in the towering wardrobe that doubled as a treasure chest? In this shadowy light, it still could be a giant tree that grew in my bedroom overnight. I can almost hear the sound of the leaves rustling and the roots growing, now uprooting my carpeting! The low-pile carpet doesn’t hold enough dirt to grow a tree, but it did look like it needed vacuuming! Then, I noticed some dog slobber on the door as the morning sun broke through the blinds and flooded the room with light.
The tree I was admiring turned back into my treasured piece of furniture. Grandmother Wicodema’s secrets will stay guarded behind the wardrobe doors. The morning sunlight has diffused all the shadows on the wall, and I’m left once again with my mind wandering pondering about Grandmother Wicodema Jo, whom I only met once, but have admired all my life.