Noe Valley Voice December-January 1998-99

Florence's Family Album: 'Tis the Season to Be Jolly

By Florence Holub

Now that the elections are over, the Holubs, like all loyal Democrats, have reason to be excessively jubilant! Thanks to voters throughout the nation, we shall be spared the mean-spiritedness that has been plaguing us for too long.

And Noe Valley can be proud of its voter turnout, which was greater than any other district, with the exception of our next-door neighbor the Castro. What a vale of wisdom we are, nestled between the hills of a beautiful city that boasts so many inviting distractions.

Life is now especially stimulating for my man Leo, who has two of his photographs, enlarged to poster size, featured in a stunning retrospective exhibition of the works of Richard Diebenkorn, whose extraordinary paintings, drawings, watercolors, collages, and cigar-box lids have made him one of the most celebrated artists to emerge from the Bay Area in this century.

One of our books on modern art describes Diebenkorn's style as falling "somewhere between abstraction and figuration." I'd say that his work fits loosely into the category of abstract expressionism, but he's not one of those drip-and-smear artists. In my opinion, his work has structure, dignity, and a subtle use of color.

A CD-ROM documenting the life and work of Diebenkorn can be viewed on computers installed at the exhibit. A number of Leo's photos are on this CD, for Leo began shooting photos of Richard in 1963, when Richard was teaching at Stanford University.

The exhibition will run until Jan. 19 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, near the Moscone Center on Third Street. This handsome presentation, which includes an elegant catalog, has been lavishly funded by J.P. Morgan & Company. Leo and I were invited to attend a gala reception and enormous sit-down dinner. Of course we accepted, and enjoyed every minute and every morsel.

But this was only a head start on the feeding frenzy that occurs every year during the holidays (adding weight to almost every body). We enjoy Thanksgiving feasts with our son Jan, who lives in Grass Valley in the house his grandparents built, and where countless turkey dinners have been served.

On one of our Thanksgiving visits to Grass Valley, we attended a local art fair. As I stood before an exceptionally fine display of textiles, wall-hangings, and place mats, I could not resist buying a small piece with a woven border that framed this touching verse:

A Weaver's Prayer

Oh God, the warp you gave me,
My life,
I got it tangled.

I broke some threads, I made mistakes,
I wove too bright a border.

You take the shuttle out of
My hand
And let me rest awhile
And mend my threads, correct my faults
And put it all in order.

--Valborg Gravander

I purchased the woven piece from a frail-looking gentleman, Mr. Gravander, who lived not far from the Holub home. Mr. Gravander told us he spent most of his time weaving on his loom and writing for the local newspaper, The Union. Some time later, we noticed Mr. Gravander's passing in that same paper, and saw that he was listed as Axel Gravander, not Valborg.

The writer of the verse, I came to find out, was Axel's wife. Valborg had once lived in San Francisco, as had her husband. In fact, I once saw her at a Christmas "Fest" at the Swedish American Hall, located on Market Street near Church. This was more than 50 years ago. I was accompanying my father, who was performing at the Fest with the Glee Club, which often presented a bit of Swedish harmony on social occasions.

In Scandinavia, where winter days are dark for almost the entire 24 hours, residents find reasons to celebrate often and enthusiastically. So, early in the middle of December, they happily announce the coming not of Santa Claus but of Santa Lucia, Goddess of Light. In each community, a comely girl is chosen to fill the role of Lucia. Wherever Swedes have settled, the custom continues to this day.

The reenactment I saw as a girl remains vivid in my mind. The Swedish American Hall darkened as the air filled with the rich tones of the Swedish Chorus singing Stilla Natt, a Swedish rendition of Silent Night. Then the melody blended into the familiar tune of the Italian Santa Lucia, with the words adapted to the northern mythology and language.

As they sang, a lovely vision in a long white gown emerged from the shadows. On her head she wore a large tiara studded with brilliant candles that sparkled as she moved, highlighting the silver tray she carried, which was heaped with cookies. The cookies were served with coffee for the adults, and cocoa for the children. Those in need of a more potent beverage drank glögg, a wicked hot concoction made of port wine, sherry, brandy, sugar, cloves, and raisins.

Many of the cookies -- a tempting array of ginger cookies, butter cookies, almond cookies, coffee fingers, and holiday meringues -- came from the kitchen of Valborg Gravander. I remember this because someone pointed her out to me -- a smiling plump lady in a colorful costume, known to be a talented weaver who had once run a weaving school in town with her husband, Axel.

Now that I am recalling what a treat it was to see the holiday observed in such a strictly Scandinavian manner, I think I'll include a bit of Swedish culture in my own celebration this year. There'll be no Swedish butter cookies to add to my own plumpness, but I will make Swedish meatballs served with imported lingenberries, which grow only in Scandinavia and resemble small cranberries.

Maybe I will brew up a batch of hot glögg, too, just in case one of the Santas -- Lucia or Claus -- drops in on us at Christmas.

Let's all have a jolly one! We deserve it.