Mrs. Sundberg's Rugs - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Mrs. Sundberg’s Rugs

I lost almost all my young manhood to sickness, alcohol, and drugs. When I came out of it, at the age of 36, I found myself for the first time in nine years living in an apartment of my own. The sunlight shone in through big windows on bare expanses of hardwood floor. Across those floors I scattered Mrs. Sundberg’s rugs.

Mrs. Sundberg lived across the street and four houses down from my grandmother in the little South Dakota town where I grew up. She was old, of course — everyone I knew in that town seemed old. My grandmother used to send me to Mrs. Sundberg’s house two or three times a week to draw Artesian water from the Sundbergs’ well; city water was so awful-tasting. We used that clear sweet water to make coffee and iced tea, lots of iced tea in those days before air conditioning.

I’d find Mrs. Sundberg on her back porch, seated at her loom, throwing a wooden shuttle back and forth with her skinny, wiry old arms. Throw to the left. Tamp the thread down tight with a piece of two-by-four suspended from the upper framework of the loom. Throw to the right. Tamp again. Back and forth between the threads which angled toward her where she sat, making a rug grow.

It was always summer.

Mrs. Sundberg would rise, grinning, and take me to the well, where we’d draw water, and she’d talk — I couldn’t understand her much, her Danish accent was so thick. I was always a little excited and a little uneasy. I was excited because she’d always give me something. Best of all were the cardboard spools her thread came on — tough gray cylinders and cones I loved to play with, they made such wonderful forts and logs and cannon. Not so good was the candy she insisted — “Leetle boys must heff kendy” — that I take: hard peppermint twists that didn’t suit my highly discriminating eight-year-old sweet tooth.

And I was uneasy because Mr. Sundberg would probably be there, sleeping fitfully on the sofa in the living room of the little linoleum-floored shingle house. Smelling beery, he’d toss and mutter into his great brown beard. He was an abrupt fireplug of a man with a stout brown cane, baggy trousers, a worn cardigan, cracked brogans, watery tiny blue eyes, and a voice that never rose above an incomprehensible old world mutter. I have found out since that he built the loom — freehand, no plans — on which his wife wove those marvelous rugs, rugs that everyone in town owned at least one of, because Mrs. Sundberg sold them to make what was almost the only income the couple had.

Mr. Sundberg helped some, too. He had a treadle-driven whetstone in his back yard on which he sharpened scissors, knives, scythes, and lawnmower blades. Suspended above the circular stone was an enamel saucepan with a little worn hole in the bottom, through which — this I admit, though I was afraid of Mr. Sundberg, was a wonder to me — dribbled a lubricating thin stream of tobacco juice, which Mr. Sundberg expectorated as he worked.

Mr. Sundberg drank.

In the 1950s, in a South Dakota town of fewer than 1,000 people, everyone knew it. Once a day — he was too old to attempt it more often — we’d see him, a stumpy figure with his dark brown cane and his smashed fedora, walking slowly up the dirt road toward the center of town, toward the town’s only bar, the one in the pool hall, the one I had glimpsed the sawdust depths of only distantly, the one with the dark brown smells and the salted peanuts. And once a day he’d come home, not noticeably less steady, walking a little slower, carrying a brown paper bag.

Even when it’s always summer, sometimes storms come, and sometimes the threat of a tornado. The sky turns yellow-green and black and the wind howls, driving the rain almost parallel to the dusty ground. On a late afternoon like that, I found my grandmother standing on our back porch, watching. Mr. Sundberg headed for town with his cane and his smashed fedora. Gusts of wind grabbed at him and almost blew him over. He kept walking, taking his short old man’s steps, holding his hat, supporting himself with his cane. Across our street and four houses down, Mrs. Sundberg stood on her back porch, wringing her apron and crying. I had never seen her cry.

When I looked back up the road, it was as if the wind had swallowed Mr. Sundberg.

I had five of Mrs. Sundberg’s rugs in my then-new apartment, all of them exactly 26 inches wide, but varying in length from about four feet to over eight feet. I still have them now, 20 years later.

Four of them are among Mrs. Sundberg’s best, worked in dusty grays, blues, lavenders, and browns. My grandmother must have bought them. They are genuine folk art, and they’re worth a lot now. But the biggest, and my favorite, I think Mrs. Sundberg must have given away. My grandmother used it as a hall runner. It’s almost entirely gray, woven of leftover threads in no particular color pattern. Material runs out on three of the corners, leaving them ragged. Mrs. Sundberg made it with what she had.

So did I.

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