One recent morning, both Andy and Pete wanted their new straw hats shaped to their liking. Andy turned away from the cupboard and asked, “Mom, don’t you have a tea kettle?” I said, “No, I never use one anymore.” And then Pete said, “But what about that one up there?” Pete was pointing to a large copper kettle I had inherited from my mother when she moved from her long-time home in Western Colorado. It had been one of my favorite iconic objects from my childhood home. It was never used in my mother’s kitchen but always sat in a prominent place in the living room.
A tea kettle is essential to the art of home steaming and shaping of cowboy hats. Andy is well versed in the technique of holding the hat over the steam and bending and drawing his hand over the brim and crown to achieve the perfect crease and fold. So, after retrieving the kettle from above the kitchen cupboards, Andy set the kettle on the stove and began heating the water for the first hat.
As Andy worked, my mother, who was visiting the ranch, sat on a stool in the kitchen watching her grandson hold his straw hat over what was once her 200 year-old family heirloom. We all wondered about the journey the kettle must have taken, from a prominent place in daily use in a Swedish-Finish kitchen to my paternal grandmother’s kitchen in Loveland, Colorado and then to my childhood home. I tried to imagine the 200 hundred years of the kettle’s existence and the importance it held for four generations of my father’s family.
The copper tea kettle had come to the United States with my paternal great-grandparents, Beata Mattsdotter Ramus and Walfrid Julius Bjorkland, who lived in Swedish Finland. My brother, Dutch, who has done extensive genealogical work for our family, had fortunately tracked down Beata’s and Walfrid’s histories, including a copy of Beata’s Swedish Lutheran Church membership. I was curious about the reference to their residence as Swedish Finland. Historically, from the 1500s all of Sweden and Finland were under Swedish control. In the late 1800s a number of Swedes lived inland from the West Coast. About 30% of the inhabitants of the area between Vaasa and Turku, where my great-grandparents lived, emigrated to America in the late 1800s. So, it was truly remarkable to me, that from their hands to my father’s and now to mine, the copper tea kettle sat on my stove ready to provide steam to soften the straw in Andy’s hands.
While the tea kettle never heated water for tea or cocoa when I was a child, looking back, it’s presence continues as an enduring touchstone to family lineage and memories of childhood. In my mind’s eye, it’s indelible shape and color has always drawn me into the living room where I can still hear my brother playing Exodus on the piano under the window; where the brick fireplace provided the backdrop for a Christmas card in 1956; and the black rocker my mother painted and decorated with a gold leaf stencil sat off to the side near the kitchen door.
As Andy shaped straw cowboy hats and his grandmother watched that morning, I quietly imagined the moment tying him, not only to a copper tea kettle, but to a precious memory when he and his grandmother experienced one another as part of a long and rich family history.