Noe Valley Voice June 1997

Florence's Family Album: Family Birthmarks

By Florence Holub

Each year on Mother's and Father's Day, I remember my parents fondly, and with a more mature understanding.

My parents, John and Lena Mickelson, were good, salt-of-the-earth people-- hardworking, understanding, and always protective of my two brothers and me.

Only after raising children of my own did I realize how much effort and concern went into the process.

My father was born on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. As a lad, he was trained as a woodworker. In 1910, when he was 18 years old, he left the security of his rural village and journeyed to a strange and unfamiliar country, to join his two older brothers in the copper-mining town of Butte, Montana.

He was able to go because an uncle loaned him the money to buy a steam-ship ticket and a tailored suit of clothes. His parents knew nothing of this until the plans had been made, so they were understandably distressed and opposed to losing another son. But the uncle intervened, urging them to let their son have his chance in the land of oppor-tunity. Reluctantly, they acquiesced.

On the day of his embarkation, John thought he looked fine in his new suit -- until he noticed a huge pimple on his forehead. The minute he boarded the ship, he rushed to the ship's doctor. However, the treatment proved more offensive than the ailment. When he looked in the mirror, the zit was no longer visible -- but only because the doctor had covered it with an enormous crisscross of white adhesive tape.

He suspected that the doctor was taking advantage of a young greenhorn. But his appearance filled him with such embarrassment he retreated to his cabin, where he remained until the ship docked in New York.

When my father arrived in Butte, he spoke not a word of English -- only Swedish. Nevertheless, he found a job in the copper mines, erecting timber bracings in the underground tunnels.

He was a hard worker by day and a spirited dancer by night -- attending every social function that the Swede-Finn colony offered (and there were many!). In fact, he met my mother on the dance floor. They had so many interests in common, they soon decided to become partners for life.

Although her two sisters were born in Finland, my mother Lena wasn't born until after her parents had moved to the United States. Educated not only in the public schools but also at a Swedish private school for the large Scandinavian colony in Montana, she was fluent in both Swedish and English.

After graduation she went on to business school, which prepared her for a secretarial position with the Montana sheepshearers union. She later told me how frightened she was when she had to read the minutes at the union meetings, where an auditorium full of grizzled faces stared up at her as though they had never seen a woman before. I might add that she was a beauty.

After my parents married in 1913, my father worked only long enough to save the money to buy a farm in Idaho. Since World War I was raging, and the Europeans were unable to farm their land, crops like potatoes were desperately needed. My father, who had grown up on a potato farm, intended to provide them. He also knew that mining was a dangerous and unhealthy profession.

As soon as he could, he packed up his bride of five years, along with their young son Clarence, and headed for Idaho. It took back-breaking labor through that first spring and summer to clear the land, prepare the soil, and plant the seed tubers in time for a fall harvest. But they succeeded.

During the winter that followed, my mother helped my father study for his U.S. citizenship exam. While waiting for me to be born in 1919, she coached him in his new language and drilled him on the history and geography of the United States. There must have been many books and maps to memorize. But of course, he passed with flying colors. About the same time, I was born with a small birthmark on my neck.

After the war ended, my father moved the family to California. In 1925 when I was 6, we came to San Francisco and settled into a flat on Chattanooga Street.

My new little friends soon took an interest in my birthmark -- a brownish smudge the size of a quarter. The more curious decreed it was the face of a cat, with something -- a mouse tail, perhaps -- hanging from its mouth. When we began to study history in school, however, my friends declared the mark looked more like a map of the U.S. The "something hanging down" was Florida.

Clearly, the birthmark was proof of my parents' patriotism. But it also owed a lot to my mother's state of mind. She later told me that during the time she was helping my father study for his citizenship test, she developed a mysterious flap of skin on her neck about the size of a quarter. She simply yanked it off, but was startled to see a reminder of it imprinted on my neck, in the exact same spot, when I was born.

This leads me to wonder if I might have imprinted each of my own children in some way during my pregnancies. Perhaps while floating around in the womb, they were listening in on some of their mother's thoughts.

When I was carrying our first son, Michael, I was wading through Tolstoy's War and Peace. It was deeply moving, but a bit heavy for an embryo. Michael's personality did reflect some of the qualities of the book, for he grew up to be philosophical but prone to extremes. One day he would be filled with exaltation -- the next day he'd be quiet, remote, and thoughtful.

As we awaited the birth of our second child, Jan, I was reading a gentler book, Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson -- a beautiful story set in a wild, untouched forest. Perhaps it was this book that motivated Jan to move to Alaska when he grew up. For three years he lived on Tokeen Island, 100 miles west of Ketchikan in the Pacific Ocean. The fishing was fantastic. In fact, he caught a fish that weighed as much as he did -- 170 pounds. He was completely happy living in this unpeopled green haven, without any of the conveniences of civilization. Only when he felt the need for a regular paycheck and a hot shower did he return to California to live in the green mansions of Grass Valley.

When our third child, Eric, was about to arrive, I was reclining in the hospital bed with the newest book club selection, Conquest by Man. My cranky obstetrician arrived, took one look at the title, and mumbled, "You should have read that nine months ago!"

Actually, I had only begun to read the first few pages when the doctor arrived, and I never finished the book. This was fortuitous, because when we got Eric home, he took complete charge of the household. Thankfully, it was only for the first few pages of his life. Then he settled down to become the good-natured, undemanding son he is today. Eric works in the printing trade, and is making his mark as a fine printer.

The job of raising children is gratifying but not easy. Only as an adult did I realize how fortunate my brothers and I were to have been given such admirable parents. Only by attempting to raise my own children with the same wisdom, industry, and humor could I ever hope to repay them.