The gift of why

Harry Welty

Charlotte Seanor Robb reading to her granddaughters Mary Jane and Georganne in 1934.
Charlotte Seanor Robb reading to granddaughters Mary Jane and Georganne in 1934.

My Mother told me that her beloved grandmother had a nightmare as she raised her four sons in the wilds of Kansas, just spittin’ distance from where a tornado transported Dorothy Gale to the Land of Oz.

It wasn’t the wild winds that frightened Charlotte Seanor Robb. It was the possibility that one of her boys might marry a “dirty” Swedish girl.

When I first heard this story, like my Mother, I thought it was humorous. I didn’t think the Robbs could have been that that much different than their Swedish neighbors. They all dug holes, “dugouts,” into the banks above the Smokey Hill River to raise their families. They were all waiting for a propitious time to build a home on the flood plain. Thomas Robb finished his just before the birth of his sixth and last child, my grandfather.

When I moved to Minnesota, I learned that Swedes were clean living, sauna loving, civically minded people. Heck, even the addled Adolph Hitler thought Scandinavians were perfect representatives of his god-like “Aryan” race.

So, why did my Mother’s beloved grandmother take such a dim view of her neighbors? I have an answer now but it’s not THE answer.

I have this opinion in large measure because my Mother taught me through her example the gift of Why. She loved having deep conversations with her friends and neighbors about the people they knew. I suppose it was gossip but, if so, the word has earned an undeserved reputation for mean spiritedness.

Mom was simply doing what our ancestors did long before they took fully human form. They watched each other taking everyone’s measure. It was a means of survival.

Which member of your group would pluck tasty pests from your back?

Which would share food?

Which would pummel your offspring if they were in a bad mood?

A few million years later this observant behavior made us what we are; the most social of animals, including some mighty insightful novelists.

Being observant might have offered her survival tips but for my Mother talking with and about her neighbors was simply an expression of her great desire to understand why. Why are we the way we are? Who isn’t interested in that question?

Every time I write the stories my Mother told me about family and friends the question of Why is foremost in my thoughts. As for the why in my Grandmother’s anti-Swedish attitude I’ve given it a lot of thought.

A lot of white Americans (We’re talkin’ melanin deficiency here, not Aryan blood) are afraid, they are about to be “replaced.” That’s what the alt-right, tiki torch bearers who ran over a liberal-minded girl in Charlottesville, Virginia, were afraid of.

The odd thing is that genetics proves that these marchers are an amalgam of peoples who in earlier generations regarded each other the way Great Grandma Robb regarded the dirty Swedes – as contaminated.

She was born into Pennsylvania in 1852 at the peak of the Know Nothing Party. Also known as the American Party, its members wanted to keep Germans and Irish out of America. The farthest back we’ve traced Charlotte Seanor’s ancestors was to her grandfather, John George Zehner. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1794 or 95, 12 years after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War.

One result of the peace was a momentous decision by many Hessian soldiers who had been rented by King George to fight the Americans. Given a choice of a sea-sickening voyage home to get shot up in some new war or the temptation to settle in a lush and empty land they chose to stay.

John George’s father was probably trying to kill General Washington during that war, but when the dust settled, pragmatic Pennsylvanians welcomed him to move next door. His labors would give them a customer for their goods and help make Pennsylvania prosperous.

Not that everyone was thrilled to have German-speaking neighbors. The Zehner’s lost their German language and became the almost English sounding “Seanors.” They shrugged off everything but sauerkraut, which the Robb boys helped their mother make five generations later.

Now thoroughly American, Grandma Robb couldn’t help but fret about her Swedish neighbors even though they would follow her great-grandfather’s example. At least that’s what “the why” my Mother taught me practice, leads me to believe.

Of course, the Americans bringing guns to the border to keep the Central Americans out have taken things a step or two farther than Charlotte Robb. My why tells me that they see the Indian gene pool, returning north to the U.S., the same way Charlotte saw her Swedes. But that’s just my, why.

Not everyone likes a why. A lot of kids have learned to stop asking it. I’ll be honest though. There are few things that unnerve me more than a head without a little why in it; especially with the promiscuous rights our Second Amendment bestows upon us.

Harry Welty wonders why at lincolndemocrat.com.