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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Torgny's Story -or- Things I learned From Torgny

Torgny is 95 years old and still working as a soil engineer in this area. He is spry with alert, blue eyes, an easy laugh, and a spattering of freckles that brings to mind Alfalfa from the Little Rascals. His parents came to this country from Sweden in the 1890's when they were about twenty years old. His father was a Swedish Methodist Minister and settled in central Texas, about 30 miles north of Austin, to serve the rural communities there. Torgny was born in 1910 the third of four boys.

He remembers life as a young boy in the pre-modern era. Danger and toil were ever present then, but so was wonder. His father served several churches in the area because the congregations were too poor to have their own pastor. So, Sunday morning he would preach at one church and Sunday afternoon another and so on. Sometimes these churches were as many as twenty miles apart and the only mode of transportation was horse and surrey. His father would sit on the front bench holding the rein with his two older brothers next to him and his mother would sit between he and his younger brother on the back bench with an arm around each of them, holding on tight. The surrey had no rails and the traveling was bumpy. If the little ones were to fall asleep they could topple right out.

"When I think of my mother..." Torgny lets escape a crushed sigh and shakes away tears at her memory when telling how it was.

Do you think times were better back then? Would you ever want to go back to the way things were when you were a little boy, I wondered.

"No. You wouldn't want to go back to that." He doesn't hesitate to answer. His speech is clear and his thoughts are lucid although his voice is faint as if his vocal chords have lost power somehow. "We have such tremendous advantages now, opportunities. Even the kids in those days were required to work. They were required to help the family, meet the needs."

Back then, he explained, Texas was mostly agricultural and the crops were mostly cotton. Farmers grew cotton until the soil wouldn't support it anymore and then they planted soybeans. Children 8, 9, 10, years old were expected to pick and chop cotton. This was grueling, bone aching work. If you stood you had to remain hunched over to pick the cotton out of the bowls and if you kneeled, well, each row was about 100 feet long and you better be sure to be wearing leather pads. Either way put a substantial strain on the body. That's men's work, or work that'll make a man, I thought. Back then children worked hard and grew up when still young. Now, kids play lazily and are lucky to reach adulthood by middle age.

But when he remembers the tremendous value an apple had back then or how rare ice-cream was he is glad to have experienced life when it was so simple. He tells of the first time he ever saw an airplane. He was twelve and word had gotten around that a plane would be flying over his town and landing in a certain dairy farm. The whole town came out to the field to see the plane land. Life went from nothing, as he described it, to everything.

When he was thirteen his father moved the family up around Chicago where he's lived ever since. He received his master's in civil engineering from Armour's Institute of Technology named after the man who made his fortune in meat packing. Today it is known as Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1935, he married Lillian, then 23. Today they have been married for 70 years.

"I'm so glad I have a spouse. " He tells me. "I can't stand the way people get divorced now days." I can only agree.

In his life he has worked for the railroad, as an engineer for Douglas aircraft during the war, run a turkey farm, and built about a dozen churches in and around Chicago. It was while building churches that Torgny discovered his avocation: whittling.

The Albanian Orthodox Church he was building wanted their chancellor furniture to be carved. So Torgny hired someone trained in Sweden in the craft of wood carving to do the job and was fascinated by what he saw. He asked the man if he would sell him some tools to get started and when the man did, Torgny had a craft. Perhaps not skill, not then, that would come later. But he had a craft and it would become part of who he is. Today he has dozens of chisels most of which are made in England. Among them are the ones he first received from that Swede long ago.

Tupelo wood is the medium he works in. Water Tupelo is a swamp tree with an attractive cream-colored wood that grows down south. Torgny likes it because the surface shows almost no grain and so doesn't interfere with the delicate details he invests into every piece and because he can carve it to a fine point, such as found at the end of the beak of a sparrow, and it will not break off. The scientific name for Water Tupelo means, "water nymph." There is indeed a goddess trapped in the core of the wood, her spirit it beautiful, and Torgny calls her out.

"I started out with ducks." He explained. "And then I shifted over to birds. I like them better." I wondered why. He squirmed in his seat in an attempt to verbalize something that he primarily understood viscerally. Finally he threw up his hands. "I don't know." He said. "I think they're prettier." And then he laughed heartily at his admission. And this truth came shining through to me: God made man to be moved by beauty.

His artist loft is a large, square room with brown linoleum floors and tan walls, an addition put onto the home just for his passion, this past time of his. Tools hang on magnetic strips against one wall and consume half his desk that is pushed into a corner of the room. Half finished birds line shelves behind his desk. I assumed these were the ones he was working on but learned that he was unhappy with them for one reason or another. I noticed that he doesn't destroy them or rid of them, but puts them behind him where he doesn't have to look at them while working. Every so often he'll go back to the reject pile, pluck one up and redeem it, making something beautiful out of what was a mistake. The verse, "And the grace of God makes even my mistakes to prosper," comes to mind and I think it is the God kind of creativity that an artist exorcises when he makes good out of something that went bad. Against three walls are shelves with his finished pieces. They are crowded together like a large family posing for a picture at a family reunion. My camera can not capture all of them in one frame. They are too many. Collectively they are a splendid display. Individually they are priceless in intricate detail and unique character.

I wonder why he's kept at it for so long. "What do you love about it?" I ask. He answers immediately seemingly certain of what drives him.

"I guess it's the satisfaction of doing what you set out to do 'cause I'm never satisfied with any one of 'em that I've finished." I am startled into laughter by his confession.

He pauses as his eye searches the room and finally gestures towards a hummingbird he's just completed. It's wings are pulled way back, suspended in flight, and it's needle-nose beak is thrusting into a trumpet shaped flower to draw nectar. He captures the motion and energy of the moment spectacularly.

"No. I don't like this. You say, 'Oh, why don't you like this?'" He asks himself the question and answers, "Well, in the first place I think this is too heavy and too thick." He is pointing to the stem of the flower. "And my kelly green should have some brown in it." Again, referring to the stem. He shakes his head, bothered by the flaws. "No. I'm not happy with this but the composition satisfies me. This is the composition that I like. But I guess if you were to be satisfied with what you do you wouldn't do it anymore."

His conclusion strikes a chord that resonates loudly within me. It is a revelation to me. I am a person who struggles. I am not satisfied and that is why I seek out my art, my craft. Torgny understands this and is at peace with this. He has made me to understand, too.


Wes said...

Excellent story. His art takes dedication, skill, and talent. Great stuff.

Good photos, as well.

Arielle said...

Really neat story, Flicka! What a neat man!

Flicka Spumoni said...

Torgny lit up my day when I met him. How fabulous to be living in your own home, driving your own car and working at the age of 95. That's how I want to be.

So glad you two like my story.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story of God's grace and gifts. Grace; because it is the favor and blessing of God to live out your life in such abundance. Gifts; because it is God who gives us the ability and talents to be productive,to enjoy His beautiful creation and I think it must give Him pleasure to see us replicating it in paintings, sculptures,photos and the written word. Flicka your writing is as splendid and beautiful and moves me as much as Torgny's exquiste birds.

Justine said...

Thank you for this beautiful testimony to a life well-lived. An enjoyable read!

Peace to you,

Serena said...

I can only echo what these others have said. Keep up the good work and I hope to get to read portions of your novel as you post them for us. Bless you!

Love and shalom,