An Unlikely Teacher

By Arlene Shovald

An Unlikely Teacher

One of my favorite teachers was not really a teacher at all. Mrs. Sandstrom was an elderly Swedish woman who probably didn’t finish grade school and she was my landlady in the early 1960s.

When I was married in 1959, we bought a small house with one tiny bedroom. That house was soon overflowing with two babies and another on the way, so we found a bigger apartment we could afford to rent and put the little house up for sale.

I was overjoyed. Moving into a two bedroom downstairs apartment was like moving into a spacious palace. Rent was $15 a month and affordable on my husband’s income of  $118 every two weeks. With two babies there was no way I could work and besides, “working mothers” weren’t socially acceptable at that time.

The only worry was Mrs. Sandstrom. She was our landlady and lived next door, and I was warned by several people that she was impossible to get along with. She was “crabby” and would probably stop by regularly to inspect the apartment to see if I kept it clean enough.

What I had heard about Mrs. Sandstrom proved to be totally unfounded. Two weeks after I moved in she did stop by to “inspect” but instead of reprimanding me to keep it cleaner, she actually told me I was keeping it too clean!

“You don’t need a dustpan,” she said. “You could sweep this dirt onto a bottle cap.”

She was talking about the round cardboard stoppers that used to come in glass milk bottles in the 1940s and ‘50s. It took me a minute to realize what she was referring to.

“You need to rest more,” she said, referring to my “condition” since she knew baby number three was on the way. She warned me about sitting in a “cross draft” with screen doors in the living room and kitchen both letting a pleasant breeze into the house. I never did understand the superstition of the “cross draft,” but it had something to do with my “condition.”

“Condition” was Mrs. Sandstrom’s word for pregnancy – a “four letter word” in her day. She told me that when she was a young girl in Sweden, her mother took her and her three sisters aside one day to tell them about the birds and the bees. That proved to be simply a stern warning to “never let a man touch you.” When she fell in love and followed her fiancé across the ocean to marry him, the wedding night was quite a shock, and she was totally unprepared!

Coffee with Mrs. Sandstrom was always a treat. I made mine in an electric percolator I bought with Gold Bond stamps, but there was no comparison to her coffee. She made hers in a big blue and white enamel pot and would scoop out the exact amount of coffee she needed. (It amounted to about a tablespoon per cup.) She mixed that with an egg, shells and all. The first time she did that I couldn’t believe it. It looked like something that should go in the garbage. Once the water was boiling, she would dump the coffee and egg mixture into the pot; let it simmer awhile, and then pour a cup of cold water into the coffee, causing the egg/coffee mixture to sink to the bottom. After a few minutes she’d pour the coffee and it was the smoothest, best tasting brew I have ever had.

Mrs. Sandstrom was a recycler before the term existed. When I was short on cupboard space, she suggested I make use of an old icebox in her shed. It was an ugly green, but a coat of white paint and some contact paper to line the shelves transformed it into a cupboard. I wish I still had it.

When our little house finally sold, we were able to buy a two-story house two doors down from Mrs. Sandstrom. That was good because I would have missed her if we had to leave the neighborhood. We moved out on October 7, 1964, the day baby number three was born. A few days later she came over with an envelope that held $10. It was a refund on the $15 rent we’d paid for that month. I knew she could have used it, but she also knew we could use it with the new baby.

As crippled as she was with arthritis, she’d walk downtown and shop at three or four stores in our small town to save money on groceries. It might be 10 cents on a bag of oranges or five cents on a bag of that freshly ground coffee from the A & P Store that she always used. She reinforced the lessons in the value of money that I had learned from my parents.

When the baby had diaper rash, she recommended Bag Balm, a product used for cows with mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands. She even brought a tin of it over to our house. It sounded bizarre but with her standing there, I couldn’t refuse to use it. To my surprise, that Bag Balm cleared up the diaper rash in no time. Another thing she recommended was browning flour in a pan on the stove and powdering the diaper area with it. That worked too.

When she passed away, new neighbors with a young family moved in. But I will never forget the lessons I learned from the “crabby and mean” old landlady I had been warned about. She was a wonderful mentor, and I miss her still. It just goes to show, you have to make up your own mind about a person. It’s kind of like cleaning out an attic. One person’s junk is another one’s treasure. And Mrs. Sandstrom truly was a treasure.

About this writer

  • Arlene ShovaldArlene Shovald lives in Salida, Colorado, and has been a newspaper reporter and freelance writer for about 40 years. She is also a clinical hypnotherapist and past life regression therapist.

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3 Responses to “An Unlikely Teacher”

  1. I loved reading your wonderful memoires. My friend’s son, Duke and his wife Tammy live in Salida.

  2. Erika Hoffman says:

    Using that adage about one person’s junk being another person’s treasure took on a new meaning for me when you applied it to the way we view people. As a young gal, I too had an older woman who welcomed me to the small Southern town, Siler City, NC, where my husband took a position. Many felt Mrs. P– outspoken; I found her refreshing. Your essay on your Swedish mentor brought back many fond memories for me. Thank you for writing it.

  3. Rose Ann says:

    Special isn’t always wrapped up with a bow. You were both lucky to recognize such a friend in each other. I’ve known a few spectacular, crabby people. Also, my favorite mentors. Nice essay!

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