THE RASPBERRY MAN:
Proud Immigrant Living the American Dream
One lazy summer day in 1968, I ran away from home. I ran all the way across the street from my house to go and find out just what exactly was behind the mysterious old white house surrounded by tall pine trees.
I stopped at the gate and stared. Directly behind the gate was a white wooden archway covered with hundreds of red and pink blooming roses. A narrow cement walkway wound around the enchanting house. In the center of the lawn and also covered with countless blooming roses was a gazebo. Inside it were two empty wooden chairs.
In front of the gazebo, an unusual structure that looked like a miniature fairytale castle was sitting on top of a tall pedestal. There was a small round hole in each of the columns and towers in the castle. To the right of the gazebo, another white cottage-like house nearly identical to the one I was facing was hidden in the evergreens. An assortment of fruit trees and flowers, growing from fertile ground covered with soft field grass and laden with pine cones, created a peaceful atmosphere.
With bold little fingers, I opened the gate and followed the irresistible narrow cement walkway around the house. Nestled in the back of this secret garden was a magnificent raspberry patch. Row upon row of bright red blossoming raspberries dotted the green leaves of the raspberry plants and lit up the raspberry patch like lights on a Christmas tree.
“ ‘Vell, hello ‘dare, you sveet young ‘ting,” I heard a voice behind me say.
I turned around to see a little old man holding a lighted smoking pipe in his hand. He had twinkling blue eyes, a cheery smile, wrinkly face, and an almost-bald head.
“Do you like my raspberry patch?” The old man asked.
“Yes. It’s very pretty,” I said.
“ ‘Vell, ‘den, ‘ven ‘dare ripe, you may come eat until your face is red,” he laughed.
“Really?” I asked.
“ ‘Vhy shure! ‘Till ‘den, let’s go inside the house and eat a cinnamon roll and a glass of milk.”
He gently took my hand. I could feel rough calluses likely caused by hard work on his warm hands. He led me through the wooden doors of his house. The house was dark and smelled of tobacco smoke, coffee, and raspberries. A large coal furnace heated the house which was furnished by antiques including a glass cupboard filled with a collection of odd items.
“Sit down on ‘dis chair and I’ll fix you a roll.”
I plopped down on the kitchen table chair while he prepared my treat.
“ ‘Vell, little girl, ‘vat’s your name?”
“Jan. What’s yours?”
“Jan, ‘vat a charming name for such a sveet girl. My name is Hans Sorensen.”
“Mr. Sorensen, what’s that thing that looks like a castle in your front yard?” I asked with my mouth full of cinnamon roll.
“ ‘Dat ‘ting is a birdhouse. I built it to look just like a castle ‘dat’s in the far avay country that I used to live in called Denmark.”
“You mean you made that all by yourself? Well, did you grow all those raspberries, trees, and flowers all by yourself, too? Everything is so beautiful and pretty!”
Hans looked proud to receive a compliment from little girl.
“Aw, it ‘vas notink.”
“This cinnamon roll is delicious, did you make it? This is a cute little plate, too!”
He laughed, and his eyes got a far-away misty look in them.
“Ya know, I’ve alvays ‘vanted to have a little girl like you to take care of. ‘Vhy don’t you come over to see me again?”
“O.K! I’d like that! Well, I better go now before my mom wonders where I am. Thanks for the cinnamon roll!”
Hans took my hand again and led me to the flower garden. I watched him as he picked an assortment of flowers—among them his beautiful roses. He carefully cut off the thorns so they wouldn’t prick my fingers and arranged the flowers and roses into a splendorous bouquet and handed it to me.
“Put these flowers in some ‘vater and please don’t forget to come see me again!”
I visited Mr. Sorensen nearly every day and bombarded him with questions about the country he came from, the treasures he kept in his glass cupboard, and his raspberries. It was my dream to someday be old enough to pick raspberries from his magical and spectacular raspberry patch.
He delighted in telling me about his childhood and all the beautiful tourist attractions in Denmark and other places he had visited. He showed me all his photo albums of his old homestead, famous churches, buildings, and his family back in Denmark. He wanted to take me with him someday to see his native homeland.
He told me he was born in 1891 in Karbol, Denmark. He left his loved ones behind and immigrated to the United States in 1912 to live the American dream. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and honorably fought to defend the USA during World War I. After the war, Hans moved West and spent several years as a cowboy and a lumberjack. He married Pearl Burkholder from Pennsylvania, who was five years older than Hans. They married on July 26, 1930, when Hans was 39 years old. They did not have any children. Hans and Pearl settled in the small town of Shelley, Idaho, where he built his small white cottages, his gardens, and his raspberry patch. He worked as a bartender for about 30 years in the small town of Shelley. He loved America and loved working hard and living “the dream.” Pearl died in 1962, leaving Hans alone, again. Alone for another 22 years.
One day he took me on a tour through some of his old sheds including his woodworking shop. He told me that he had built everything on his land. As a child, I couldn’t figure out how a man as old as Hans, then 78 years old, could build anything. I only knew he made me happy because he taught me how to build little birdhouses, boats, and cars out of his scrap wood.
Hans had a pair of real wooden shoes from Denmark. I would slip my tiny feet into them and clomp around the house. This would always make Hans laugh out loud.
“Oh, ho, you make me laugh,” he would say. “I ‘vish you were my little girl. I’d never make you do any ‘vork. You could just eat raspberries and cinnamon rolls all day long.”
I adopted Mr. Sorensen as my grandpa. And he said that I was his “best little girl.” Every note or card that I gave to him was taped on to his walls. I never left his house empty-handed. Candy, flowers, raspberries, and antique souvenirs from his native Denmark were given to me by this generous old man.
Mr. Sorensen was a Christian and walked to church every Sunday. He had been baptized twice. The Lutheran Church had baptized him, and the Methodist Church had baptized him. He proudly displayed his baptism certificates on a wall in his living room.
My family gave Hans a Danish Book of Mormon and introduced him to the Mormon missionaries. He loved visiting with the missionaries. He loved everything about the Mormon Church. He visited Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, with our family and was simply overjoyed when he heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He hummed right along with them. He said he didn’t need to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Afterall, he had already been baptized twice already. The Reverend of Hans’ church had a powerful influence over Hans and kept a watchful eye on Hans when he found out that Mormons had become close friends of Hans.
We considered Hans a member of our family. We understood that a condition for Hans to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be for him to give up his lifelong best friends—a pipe to smoke and coffee in the morning. These were the old man’s happiness, comfort, and satisfaction. How could we ask him to give them up?
One day my dad announced the sad news that our family would be moving out of town to live near the farmlands surrounding the City of Shelley. We packed our belongings and said a reluctant goodbye to our dear friend, Hans Sorensen.
“Don’t forget me, Jan, my best little girl,” he said with tears in his eyes.
The years passed quickly. I made visits to my enchanted wonderland whenever I had the time. Hans continued to tape the cards and notes I gave him on to his walls.
Hans’s health began to decline. But still he continued to nurture and care for his raspberry patch even though many people tried to convince him to quit growing raspberries because of the amount of hard work it takes to maintain a thriving raspberry patch. Raspberry season was his big moment of the year. He was famous for his berries and people came from miles around to purchase the pickings from his crop. He charged considerably less than his competitors, but his customers paid him top price and a generous tip for his delicious fruits. His customers loved him, and he thrived on their company. He was known as “The Raspberry Man.”
When I was old enough to drive, I was able to fulfill my dream of picking raspberries with Hans. Although his health was declining, he picked raspberries with me. When he wasn’t looking, I would pick his row again to pick the berries that he missed because of his failing eyesight.
While we were together in the patch, Hans would sing Danish love songs and tell stories of his past—the same ones I’d heard many time before. Sometimes we’d have raspberry fights, and I’d even smash berries on his face. He looked so cute. And he never knew he had smashed berries on his face until his customers told him. Then he’d say a couple of Danish cuss words under his breath about me and explain to them that his best little girl smashed them on his face. Then they understood. He told everyone about his blonde-haired little girl.
I didn’t pick berries for the money. I tried not to accept it, but Hans insisted. If I had been working for the money, it wouldn’t have been worth the time it took to pick the berries. But the love and time we shared was worth every second spent in the patch.
Shelley, population near 3,000, was the “big city” for the surrounding farming communities. Kids as far away as 20 miles or more attended Shelley schools. During the school year, I would drive past his house—only to see Hans sitting alone in his wooden chair underneath the gazebo. My heart would nearly break. I hesitated to stop, though, because I knew how he always begged me to stay longer, and I was very busy with many church and high school activities. Nevertheless, I would always turn around and take him to get an ice cream cone or eat a cinnamon roll with him.
In the summer of 1982, a year of college completed, I returned home for the summer to work. One night I drove past Hans’s house and saw him, now 91 years old, sitting all by himself under the white wooden gazebo. I needed to hurry to get home, but I turned my old 1965 Chevy pickup around and stopped at my favorite magical enchanted wonderland.
“Hello, Mr. Sorensen. Do you remember me?” I said as I gave Hans a great big hug.
“ ‘Vell, if it isn’t my best little girl. I ‘tot you had forgotten ‘dis silly ‘ole man.”
We walked around his yard. I had to shout so he could hear me, and I was taller than him. I noticed the roses and flowers were almost dead, and they no longer draped over the archway and gazebo. The paint was peeling off all the wooden structures, the birdhouse was dilapidated, the yard was not as beautiful as it once was, and there were only a few rows of raspberries left.
I listened with renewed interest and joy as he told his stories. He took my hand and led me to his woodworking shop. His hands felt cold and weak, likely caused by old age and loneliness. He proudly showed me his new “Roto-tiller.”
I took a good look at his shop. It was a basic shop with tools and other gardening equipment, but it was immaculately clean. There was no clutter or junk anywhere, and all his equipment was shining clean and in excellent working condition.
I learned something about Hans by looking at his shop through the eyes of a 19 year-old woman, no longer a five-year old girl. I had always wondered what had motivated Hans to continue living an active life. Afterall, it would’ve been easy for him because of his failing health and loneliness to just give up and even stay in bed and have other people take care of him.
A picture of Hans came flooding back to my mind. A memory of Hans, every time he finished mowing his lawn, he spent a long time cleaning and servicing his lawnmower. Everything Hans did was a first-rate job. He took time to do things right. He was a good neighbor. He always irrigated his neighbors’ lawns and gardens for them. The neighbors would be pleasantly surprised when they went outside and discovered someone had irrigated for them. He always helped people in so many ways.
What was Hans’ secret? Pride. He took pride in his work and the things he owned. Pride motivated him to continue to take care of his beautiful yard and home. Hans was a proud immigrant who left everything in Denmark including his family and his friends to come to America and live the American dream. He took pride in himself and his country. Oh, how he loved and fought for his country. His country was the United States of America.
I realized I had been staring at Hans’ shining clean equipment and lost track of Hans. I found him outside the shed pulling at a couple of stray weeds. How I admired him. How I loved him. How he inspired me!
He invited me into his home. Everything looked exactly the same as it did the first time I saw it. It even smelled the same. He opened the refrigerator to get a cinnamon roll. I peeked inside. The fridge contained the same foods on the same shelves just as they had been back in the summer of 1968.
So this is what it meant to become set in your ways. Hans woke up at 6 o’clock (although as he got older, he woke up later and later) and ate the same breakfast every morning. It consisted of coffee, two boiled eggs, oatmeal, toast, and a cinnamon roll. Then he tidied up his house and went to work on his yard. There was no telephone in Hans’ house; he did not want one. He also did not own a car because he said he didn’t need one, and he didn’t like traffic. He’d yell at me when I took him on rides if I speeded up to over 20 miles per hour because he said it was too fast!
So Hans walked everywhere he went. He took a walk to the store every day in his same “going-to-town” clothes and bought the same foods year after year. He read the newspaper every day and kept abreast of current events—especially politics. He watched his 13” black and white television set at night when all his chores were done. His life had become a comfortable pattern. Keeping his daily routines and surroundings the same year after year seemed to ease the loneliness of this old man.
Before I returned to Ricks College for the Fall Semester, I went to see Hans again. I teased him about finding a lady friend. He asked me when I was getting married; although I think he found it hard to think of me as a grown woman. I think he always thought of me with my blonde hair in pigtails wearing his over-sized wooden shoes and my face red with raspberries from his patch.
I hid my tears as I stood up to leave, for I wasn’t sure when I would see him again.
“I really love you, Jani. Take care of yourself and try to remember ‘dis silly bald-headed man every once in a ‘vile.” He handed me a bouquet of flowers.
With a shaky voice I said, “I love you too, Hans. You better take care of yourself ‘cuz I want you to dance at my wedding. You ought to marry one of those ladies you’ve been chasing so she can help take care of you!”
He laughed and said, “Oh, you’re full ‘o prunes!” That’s what he always said when I teased him.
He laughed and said, “Oh, you’re full ‘o prunes!” That’s what he always said when I teased him.
I climbed in my old pickup truck and slowly drove away. I looked in my rearview mirror at my cute little ‘ole grandpa. He was leaning on his cane watching me leave. A tear rolled down his wrinkled cheek as he reached in his front shirt pocket to get his pipe.*
*Hans did not dance at my wedding. He passed away a couple of years later at age 93.