Sweden at last: Pigeons and Slut Soup

We made it to our destination yesterday after two ‘days’ travel (since there’s a time difference of six hours), lengthened by a pigeon incident at Newark airport. 

Apparently, while the good folks at Continental were getting our plane ready for boarding, two pigeons flew through an open door at the back of the plane. The captain was trying to be helpful and opened the front door, but without first punching in the code to de-alarm it.  So when he opened the door, the emergency inflatable ramp flew out and quickly filled with air!  That poor guy will never live this down, I’m afraid.

Unfortunately, the incident also delayed our flight for over two hours.  The airline was very gracious about it, I thought.  After all, they TOLD us what happened, so that was a good laugh right there.  And then they gave us a free dinner voucher to use at the airport, and they gave us a 10% off your next flight coupon. I was fine with just the story….

When we boarded, I asked the flight attendant if the pigeons were okay.  She laughed and winked at me, ‘No pigeons were harmed in the making of this flight…’

Upon arrival, we caught a train straight from the airport to Göteborg, Sweden.  The ticket lady said, oh, about two hours, when I aksed how long the trip takes.  Hmmm.  Try four.  Unfortunately everything closes so early here that we couldn’t get to go to the emigrant house museum, the archives, or the Göteborg museum.  But we did walk around town maybe two or three miles worth in search of just the right place to eat supper (fun to see the town, actually).  FInally got a recommendation for a place that has real Swedish food that you can take out.  Swedish Meatball take out brought back to our lovely Eggers (pronounced egg-ish) Hotel, where we ate on our balcony.  Ah.

What we did NOT order was soupa somethingerother slut. Turns out that is actually some kind of Greek soup, but honestly slut soup??  We stuck with meatballs and mashed potatoes.

On to meet the relatives this morning.  More later…

And Then She Died

Two years ago on this day, Grandma died. She had a massive stroke the day before and let go on July 3, 2006. She was 92.

As fate would have it, this date is important to our family for another reason. On July 3, 1879, also a Thursday like this year, my grandmother’s grandparents left Norway for America. I know this because last week I finally found the information for which I have been searching for the last several months. (Thanks to Norway Heritage: Hands Across the Sea.) All passenger lists of ships sailing from Norway have been destroyed from the time period through which I was searching, but I just learned that the police in Norway kept records of emigrants. The Norwegians passed a law dictating that emigrants had to sign contracts with shipping companies in front of the police. This was to help prevent scams! The further benefit is that these records remain and fill the gap.

Here is what I discovered:

Rikard (Richard) Skaug, though he had changed his name at twenty years old, registered for emigration by his birth name, Hanson. His wife, who went by her middle name, Maria, registered with her first name, Hannah. They sailed from Trondheim, which is the biggest city south of their hometown of Bodø, far above the Arctic Circle. Out of Trondheim, they sailed on the Wilson line’s steamer, S/S Tasso (1).

A total of 48 passengers boarded that ship in Trondheim, including another young family from Bodø, headed for Minnesota. Their ship stopped in two cities in Norway before heading across the open North Sea to Hull, England. The journey took 3 or 4 days, so they probably arrived in England by Sunday.

In England, Maria stayed on the ship until the emigrant train was ready to leave the station at Hull on Monday morning. Women and children were not allowed on the docks. Richard may have stretched his legs and strolled by the Minerva Hotel where many emigrants congregated. In any case, on Monday they took the train to Liverpool, a few hours journey across the industrial midlands. One more leg of the journey over and a welcome stopover in a strange land before braving the trans-Atlantic crossing.

After a couple of days in a rooming house in Liverpool, they boarded one of the Inman line ships, most likely The City of Brussels, bound for New York City. The ship left on July 10th, and it took eight days to cross the oceam in the steam liner. They took their passage in steerage, at about $30 a person. There were 363 passengers. Inman was known as a middle-class liner, with more comfort than some of the most notorious shipping companies, but Richard and Maria would not have been able to afford more than the basic fare.

Once in the United States, they made their way from New York to Decorah, Iowa, where they wintered with friends. The following spring, they headed north to Beltrami, Minnesota, where Richard’s sister Caroline and her husband had already settled. They homesteaded land that is still in our family four generations later.

What must it have been like to leave Norway and all their family and friends, the familiar sights of mountain and harbor, and head thousands of miles away to a land where they did not speak the language, where they would never see the ocean again?

Turns out I found another source, a diary that I didn’t know that I had, written by Grandma’s uncle, who visited Norway in the summer of 1939. He met several people in Bodø and the surrounding villages who knew his parents and grandparents. They told him of the night before the family left and how all the people of the little town of Skaug gathered at the Hanson home crying and singing hymns in unison long into the night. Sounds like a wake. I guess it was.

On this anniversary of my beloved grandmother’s passing from this world, my tears mix with those of my ancestors, mourning and celebrating. Loss and love. On Monday I will “return” to the land of Richard and Maria, my great-great-grandparents. I will walk in their village, pray in their church, sit and face the sea they left behind forever, a beautiful but dangerous companion. Life in this frontier was beyond difficult. I have no romatic notions of how lovely it would have been like to live like that. But, still, it was home to their families as long as anyone could remember. I can’t, as an American, imagine feeling so rooted. How painful, physically excruciating, it must have been to be ripped out of the soil and transplanted into the American Midwest.

I will honor their sacrifice, a sacrifice for the child Maria was carrying inside her during that dangerous journey that began this day one hundred and twenty-nine years ago. The sacrifice they made for me. They braved it all to try to make a better life for us. My grandmother appreciated their sacrifice and wanted to convey its enormity to the younger generations through her book. I have taken up that challenge with her death. I am writing grandma’s book; I am finishing what she started.

After a Brief Intermission… Getting Back to Grandma’s Book

So, yeh, I’ve kinda had a hard time actually writing Grandma’s book this year (meaning academic calendar).  At first it was pure grief.  I couldn’t face it.  Then it was exhaustion.  Then it was other things like galivanting around in the Southern Hemisphere or editing an essay collection.  But the time has clearly come for me to face this writing project and get back in gear.

I was thinking that maybe the best approach would be to come up with some questions to ask The Last Living Relatives people. I mean, time’s a wastin’ so I gotta start somewhere, and I’m sure I’d enjoy the conversation, too.

Anyway, I decided to brainstorm a little in this post about what I need to find out.  If you readers think of anything else I should ask, please jump on in. 🙂  Also, if you have done this kind of research before and have suggestions on how to conduct the research, I’m all ears!

(1) Grandma’s first cousin, Delores:  I heard that her mom wrote letters to someone back in Sweden.  Does she know who it was?  Did anyone keep the letters from Sweden? (WOULDN’T THAT BE COOL?!!)  Does she remember hearing who her grandparents lived with when they first came to Minnesota?  Was it Uncle Carl?  Does she know anything about our mysterious Chicago relatives?  The ship’s manifest says the great-grandparents were to come from Sweden to Minn. via Chicago, but why?  Does she remember her cousins from Thief River (Grandma’s family) ever coming to visit? What were her aunts and uncles like, especially my grandma’s parents but also Aunt Anna, who played a big role in my great-grandparents’ early married life?

(2) First Cousin John: Who lived in Chicago? What was Uncle Carl like? Did he have any children?  Was his place the same spot as what later became Great-Grandpa’s or was it merely adjacent property? Did we ever find out what happened to Aunt Sophie?  Do any of her decendants survive? What ended up happening to Aunt Ricka, the one who moved to Beltrami and who sent for great-grandpa after her husband died?  Did she re-marry? Do we know what happened to her son, William?

(3) First Cousin Julene: What were the Aunts and Uncles like in terms of their personalities?  Who lived in Chicago?!!  (His family moved west early, so I’m not sure how much contact he really had with the midwesterners.  I’ll have to ask him more about that to see if the other questions I’m asking relatives might be able to be answered by him.)

(4) Grandma’s sister, Delores: What does she remember about the Norwegian relatives and their way of life in the old country?  Does she know if they were really fishermen?  Does she know what town they lived in (in case it doesn’t exist any longer, I need to find out what other small town it was near)?  Does she know who the Norwegians came to live with in Iowa before settling in Minnesota?  Does she know from which port they left Norway?  Does she know in which port they arrived in the US?  What relatives lived in Chicago?!!!!

(5) First cousin on the other side of the family, Marvin: same as above except no Chicago question for that side of the family!  Does he know if there was a sewing school in Crookston around the turn of the century?  We couldn’t find mention of it when I visited the archives there, but maybe he has a clue…?  Does he remember which families his grandparents and parents were friendly with?  What were the neighbors’ names?

Okay, so that ought get me started.  I’ll call them all this weekend and try to get in touch.  I’ll let y’all know if I find out something interesting.  Then it’s on to that manuscript.  Seriously.  I’m determined to get back to it now that I’ve almost cleared my plate of other obligations.  True, it kinda scares me.  I’m worried that it’ll be difficult emotionally to go back to it.  My heart still aches when I let myself think of Grandma more than a couple of minutes.

But, I must finish what she started.  She.  We. Me.

What to Serve with Lefse (plus stories, of course!)

What to serve with lefse…? Nothing! Eat a stack of lefse for your whole meal 🙂 No, seriously, there are a few items that go really well with lefse. I’ll be putting up recipes in the next few days, so you’ll have time to shop for ingredients. (P.S. Bonus story at the end of this post!)

The first thing that springs to mind is rommegröt (ROOM – UH – GROOT). Grandma told me that in the “Old Days” folks would milk a cow right after it gave birth and make a special dish from the ultra-creamy milk. I guess the calf was out of luck! But since they raised cows to produce cream and butter to sell, they wanted to wean the calves off the momma’s teat as soon as possible anyway. In fact, Grandma explained how they did this by dipping their hand into a bucket of milk and letting the calf lick their fingers, moving every closer and closer to the bucket of milk. I can imagine the rough tongue eagerly lapping the dripping milk from my hand….

Anyway, whatever the genesis of rommegröt, these days we make it with heavy cream from the supermarket! Buy a quart of the heaviest, richest cream you can find and heat it in a heavy pot very slowly — very slowly. Do not scorch or boil. The point is to heat until some of the butter rises to the top. You want it to separate some. Once you see the butter rising to the top, you are going to add a half teaspoon of salt (to bring out some flavor) and some all-purpose flour (add a tablespoon at a time, starting with 2 tablespoons — you can always add more if it doesn’t thicken properly) and whisk mixture to prevent lumps. Stir continuously. Heat at this point might need to go up a little to make sure the flour cooks, but again, do not scorch!

Cook for a few minutes or so until the mixture resembles cream of rice or sour cream (sort of). What you are looking for is a creamy porridge-like consistency. Pour the glop into a pretty dish and set on the counter top. Do not cover and do not refrigerate. Why? Because what you are after is a layer of melted butter floating on top of a cream-porridge. After the butter rises, sprinkle liberally with white sugar. As the dish cools, the sugar and butter will combine to make a crunchy top to this creamy dish.

If no butter separates out, do not panic. Just melt some butter and pour it on top. Voila! Rommegröt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to pull that little trick. Every year I would talk to Grandma on the phone and ask her for help with my rommegröt: “It’s just not separating, Grandma!” Every year she’d ask if I coooked it slowly enough, etc. I think I’ve been in too much of a hurry too often (big surprise), and that has been my rommegröt’s downfall. When I slow down, it works fine.

A story about rommegröt…. When my husband and I were in graduate school at Washington State University a dozen or so years ago, before my son was born, we invited a Chinese exchange student (Boudi) and her son to share Christmas Eve dinner with us and another couple at our home. Now, every Christmas Eve, I always prepare a Scandinavian dinner in honor of my grandmother’s family (recipes to follow in coming days!) I figured that our Chinese friends would find this custom interesting, and they graciously accepted. In addition to the items I supplied (Swedish meatballs, rice, potatoes, carrots and peas, lefse, and rommegröt) our American friends supplied their own Scandinavian favorites (potato sausage, creamy cucumber salad, rice pudding, and fruita soupa). Yes, makes your mouth water, eh?!

Well, we sat down to eat and explained all the dishes, and Boudi and her son sampled everything. Then this boy — about 16 as I remember and tall as anything — asked if he might have seconds of the rommegröt. “Of course,” I said. I was surprised, though, because I had thought that, generally speaking, Chinese people tended to be lactose intolerant or at least did not care for dairy all that much. Boudi then explained that in their particular region of China, one of their regional specialties is a kind of fried cheese. AH!

After his fourth helping, the Chinese teenager polished off the last of the rommegröt! We adults all stared with gaping mouths. Then we shared a hearty laugh. Eeghads, that boy can eat, I thought. Of course that was before my son was born, as I’ve said, so I had no idea yet how much a growing boy can consume.

Eventually, we all got bundled up for the drive to town to take Boudi and her son home and to head to the Christmas Eve service at our church. We lived 17 miles from Moscow, Idaho where we went to church — our own town of 1,000 souls was smack dab in the middle of miles and miles of rolling wheat and lentil fields. Now covered with about a foot of fresh snow. Uh, oh.

After a wild ride into town with our international guests, we made our way to church. Candles and friends greeted us, and as we sang the old, familiar carols, we could see the snow continue to fall outside the windows.

The next morning, we awoke to a brilliant blue sky, dazzling sun, and two and a half feet of snow. That Christmas day we snuggled under the covers, snuggling with our dog and watching old movies, and we ate leftovers — minus the rommegröt, of course. Ah, but there was still lefse!

eighteen months without Grandma

Snow Day! Those words are enough to send a thrill right through me. Growing up in the central valley of northern California, I don’t think I even knew the concept. When my husband and I moved to eastern Washington state to attend graduate school, we discovered the joys of the Snow Day for the first time. Now that we live in New England, we still find these brief respites a wondrous thing. Of course, working for a university has this benefit — we get snow days just like the kids do!

So yesterday was a Snow Day. And here’s what we did. My son played in the snow with the neighbor kids, whom he rarely sees since he attends a private school in another town. I took a long time to enjoy my morning cup of tea, the dog keeping me company. Then my son came in, soaked to the bone but with glowing cheeks. I made us both a cup of hot cocoa (diet cocoa is 0 pts on Weight Watchers, so I added a little regular cocoa to mine to make it taste better and called it 1 pt.) Then we made gingerbread cutout cookies (1/8 of a package is about 5 pts., so with the shape and number of cookies we ended up making, that meant one cookie = 1 pt. I figured that wasn’t going to put me over the edge, so we went ahead and baked!)

In between batches, we snuggled on the couch with a soft blanket and a warm dog, reading Arthur’s Christmas (I think that’s the title). We listened to various Christmas CDs (Elvis Presley, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Jingle Bell Jazz) and finished the cookies and then had tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Eventually the kid went off to his room to read, and I got busy with other things. My husband, bless him, shovelled the driveway and went and got the snow tires put on the car. Last night Dad and Son went to an evening activity while I stayed home and put up more Christmas decorations, blogged, and just plain enjoyed the time alone.

A fine Snow Day.

But while I was sitting on the couch last night in an empty house, feeling happy and content, I turned my head halfway to the telephone on the side table. I should call Grandma and tell her about our day! Then it hit me. You idiot, she’s dead, remember? A wave of sadness.

Yesterday was the eighteen-month anniversary of Grandma’s death. This is a staggering fact to me. In true cliche fashion, it feels both like her death was just yesterday and that it was forever ago. I am struck once again by how intense and painful these moments of yearning for the lost loved one can be. How on earth, after a year and a half, I can continue to expect to pick up the phone and call her defies explanation. I mean, I know this sort of thing happens with grief, but when it happens, it’s still such a shock.

I used to love hearing Grandma’s winter stories. For her, as a Minnesota native, snow was a bother. Though she moved to California with her family during the Great Depression to escape starvation in Dust Bowl Montana, she stayed in California all of those years with good reason. Her stories of the frigid winters of northern Minnesota, frozen toes and fingers on the way to the Busy Bee school, frozen laundry hanging on the line, frozen washbasins in the girls’ “dormitory” upstairs (she was one of seven girls, plus four boys) — these stories, told to me as a California girl, made me desperately wish for snow. Alas, we had to drive to Lake Tahoe to see the stuff, barring the one miraculous day a light dusting fell on Sacramento.

Anyway, I fully appreciate the white stuff. I know it’s more fashionable to grump about the weather, at least here in New England. But even when it’s me out driving in it or shovelling it, I still can’t help but see snow as a miracle. Those light puffy flakes just floating out of nowhere, covering all the mess of the earth, the dirt and dead leaves and fallen branches, with a pure whiteness.

Grandma’s gone. But we still have Snow Days. The miracles keep happening. We must live in love and do the best we can. May all your Snow Days be miracles.

Grandma’s House; or, The Fine Art of Decorating

I used to love touring Grandma’s house. It was filled to the brim with all manner of bizzare items accumulated over the years. The glass eyes of the dead deer head on a panelled wall of the family room commanded me to pet the carcass. Sick, I know, but I found it necessary to oblige.

Then there was the old-fashioned crank phone on the wall by the stairs — it didn’t work but provided all manner of good fun winding it up and pretending. “One ringey-dingey,” we intoned with a nasally voice. Yes, I’m old enough to remember Laugh In!

By the window in the music room, a glass church with steeple and movable doors caught the light. Grandma had taken up the art of stained glass making after retirement, and this piece was her crowning achievement.

On the wall across from the bar, hung a massive crocheted tapestry of an English hunting scene, complete with jumping dogs with tongues hanging out. I never quite got the point of that one. My Scandanavian Grandma was not the English hunting party type. It was executed well, but never seemed to fit.

In the front foyer sat a deeply carved chest with an old military uniform in it (WWI, I think?) and on top rested a velvet-covered photo album, with garishly painted plate on the front … of cherubs, was it? Or a plump beauty? Behind the chest sat a large vase filled with peacock feathers. The mail would fall through the slit in the front door and land next to the chest. Whenever I went to pick it up for Grandma, I had to touch the carved trunk, velvet book, and luminescent feathers.

In the kitchen above the counter hung a “kitchen witch” doll. And slid into the space between the stove and the dishwashing machine, hid the lefse griddle and formica rolling board. Catching a glimpse of these from time to time could evoke all the wonderful emotions associated with our annual lefse-making marathon. Mom sent me the griddle a while back. It hides in my pantry now.

Dear sweet Grandma. Such a mountain of stuff left behind in that house and yet so utterly empty it feels. How difficult it is to part with the things she made so patiently with her own hands. Yet we do not have room in our homes for such things, and we don’t really want them. Honestly, the charm of these objects was entirely depenedent on Grandma imbuing them with meaning.

Yesterday a box arrived for me with Grandma’s beautifully framed photographs of her family (my first request when asked what I wanted from Grandma’s house was these photos): her parents’ wedding picture, two enlarged candids of kids with wiggling toes sitting on a porch and mounds of children piling into an old Ford, and Great-Grandma’s sewing school graduation picture with ten women solemly sewing for the photographer. Plus Mom sent me the photo of Grandma that I had brought to the funeral, an enlarged photo in black and white that I had taken on our last trip to Minnesota. Grandma is looking out into the distance with her back to the corner of the barn her dad built on the homestead. In fact, this is the photo I use on this blog for my avatar. I had matted and framed the photo for the service and given it to Mom to keep. But she gave it back to me. The corner of the frame was crushed from shipping, so I’ll need to get a new frame if I want to hang it. But I didn’t ask for that picture and didn’t really want it on my wall. It’s one thing to have the long dead and gone hanging there, but Grandma lives too much in my heart still to hang her up in the hall of the dead.

I don’t mind posting the photo here, though, so you can get a better look!


Back on the Homestead: Grand Tour part 4

On our mega road trip this summer we spent a total of nine days in Minnesota. Out of seven weeks traveling through twenty-two states, that’s a big chunk of time. But it felt like we could have stayed there much longer. For one thing, I had no idea how interesting and enjoyable the state would be from a purely recreational standpoint. The plentiful lakes are not just some butter company slogan — they (the lakes not the butter — though there was a lot of that, too) are everywhere and are lovely little waystations for wildlife. Driving to Itasca State Park we saw a bald eagle dipping towards a little gem of blue water and two deer leaping across the tall cement barriers on the divided highway to cross to a shaded glen by another little pond.

I felt an interest in Minnesota for its own sake (not just as a research site) that I had not anticipated. “Let’s come back here some other time and do some exploring, ” I suggested to my son, who was, at the time, dutifully working on his scrapbook pages for Crookston, Beltrami, Itasca, and Bemidji that morning that we left for Grandma’s hometown of Thief River Falls.

“Yeh. Let’s come back and fish!”

Fish. Fish. Fish. That’s all this boy can think about now. A smile lifted the corners of my mouth. He was so happy.

On the drive up to TRF, a fairly short one, I plopped a taperecording of Grandma into the car stereo and listened to her voice telling about her grammar school years at the Busy Bee School in Smiley township, Hazel, Minnesota. Soon my son set aside his scrapbook and began to listen, too. He got particularly quiet when she talked about how the neighbor boy, Leonard, stole the honey from a bee hive and was stung all over by the angry bees. My child, for years, had an almost paralyzing fear of bees. (That phobia had pretty much gone away except — wouldn’tcha know it — he just got stung at school on Thurs.! Time will tell what fallout there’ll be from that one.)

Next Grandma launched into the story of the old haunted house in the woods by the school house. The kids explored the building one day during lunch hour and were frightened by a banging noise and what they thought to be a figure in the upstairs window.

It felt so normal to hear Grandma’s voice as we drove along closer and closer to her birthplace.

We met my mom’s cousin and her husband for lunch in TRF near our hotel and they accompanied us to the local museum/archives. Thank goodness, too, because cousin Melba was a wealth of information. We found some needed facts at the archives and then decided to head out to the house in town where Grandma lived for a year, working for her room and board so she could attend high school (there was no HS in Hazel, so she had to wait to attend 9th grade until she was strong enough and mature enough to go to hire as a maid/nanny). We walked the few blocks from that house to the school, and I could see how easy it would have been for Grandma to come home at lunchtime and make lunch for the kids and then return to school. I mean easy in the sense of do-able, though clearly this duty would be tiring and inconvenient. But when the alternative is to stop your education at grade eight…?

The next day Melba took us out to Grandma’s birthplace, the homestead her parents claimed and developed in the early 20th century. The current residents are so kind and were very happy to extend hospitality to us. We got a tour of the barn (original) and granary (original) and I walked around taking pictures. The original house had burned down a number of years ago but sat on the same site. I decided to walk the LONG drive from the house down to the mailbox because Grandma includes a story about doing this in the book. Her younger brother and her cousin (same age as her brother) joined her one day when she had to go get the mail. It was about a six or seven minute walk to the box. When it was time to return to the house, the four-year-olds refused to return with Grandma (six yrs.) But when she got back to the house sans kids, Aunt Hanna beat Grandma with a stick (she was carrying firewood into the house at the time). Grandma ran like crazy back to the kids and brought them home again. Wow!

After we left the homestead, I asked Melba to take me to the remains of the town of Hazel, thinking there would be a footprint of sorts, despite being told that there was nothing left there.

There was nothing left there.

Shoulder-high grass, a deeply rutted road looping through the area, an old mattress dumped off to the side. Nothing discernable. I was so intensely saddened by this erasure. All that those immigrants had tried to create here was utterly gone. Not even a foundation left. All had crumbled. I guess I thought that Minnesota would be more tame than out west and thus more would remain. But this wasn’t really true. A town can disappear in green Minnesota just as easily as in bleak Montana, perhaps even more completely. On the dry, rolling hills of Montana, remains were exposed to the elements, yes, but whatever was left could be viewed from far away.

But Hazel had utterly disappeared and a great sadness came over me. Grandma was gone. Her town was gone. The family farm was all carved up and gone to highest bidders. An Indian gambling casino bustled not a half mile from her parent’s homestead. And as we drove back to town through a driving thunderstorm, I discovered that one of Grandma’s tapes had been ruined. Nothing remained of the recording of her discussing her high school years and last Christmas at home before they lost the farm in 1929.

For the first time on the trip, I cried.

Facing Fears in Minnesota: Grand Tour part 3

Before leaving on our grand road trip across America, I was worried about two potential crises: (1) we would encounter bad weather, by which I mean tornadoes (and I wouldn’t recognize the warning signs and we would be swept away in a terrifying ordeal, brought to a bitter end in the land of our foremothers and fathers), and (2) we would have car trouble (again, with terrifying results such as axe murderers picking us up on the side of the road). On our next leg of the journey, I found the opportunity to face those fears.

We left Alexandria, Minnesota, early on a Sunday morning to arrive in Crookston, MN, before the archives there were supposed to close. I already had hotel reservations in Crookston for two nighs and had arranged to go out to the family farm and see our relatives there on the following day. The Museum in Crookston was a pleasure to visit. The volunteers there greeted us enthusiastically and tried to help me find information. In Crookston, I was searching especially for more info on where Grandma’s mother, Emma, went to sewing school around the turn of the century. I figured that it wouldn’t be too difficult to track this down. Obviously, it was quite an establishment — I have seen the professionally taken photograph of Emma’s sewing class.

Unfortunately, we were unable to track this information down, as it turned out. Nobody in the museum/archives had ever heard of there being a sewing school in town! We did track down a few entries in the phonebook of dressmakers and one who had a “studio.” My best guess is that this was the place. I was told that the area where that place had stood had been torn down to build the new firestation, but I was given directions to get there. Before we left, we also figured out which church Emma probably attended while she was at the dressmaker’s. That church, though boarded up, was still in situ. It was within easy walking distance of the dressmaker’s studio.

We left the museum and headed to the church first. It was in a fairly run-down neighborhood and the building was a mess. I was suprised to see a couple of Star of David wood designs on the sides of the church. Had it been used at some point as a synagogue or is there some other explanation? I took some photos by holding the camera aloft next to a broken window to see the inside of the church (which I couldn’t see directly because of the height of the window). The church seems to be used for storage, though I can image how dirty it must be inside with the broken windows letting in all manner of critters and dust. Still, I got to see the building. I tried to image Emma walking there from her boarding house and entering, taking her place in a pew near the back.

We left the church and drove over to the firestation to take a look around that immediate neighborhood. There is a railroad embankment right behind the station and the Red River in front (on the other side of the street). When I pulled up, there were a few firefighters in the open garage and I approached them to ask permission to poke around. The man whom I first encountered just pointed behind me and remarked quite casually, “You have a flat.” Eeghads, I hadn’t even realized it! Wonder where I picked that up?? Of course, it being at a firestation and all, the guys lent us a hand and changed the tire, putting on the “doughnut” for us. “Tire shop ‘ll be closed now, M’am. Sunday.” But the spare would see us through to the next day.

Of all the places we could have run into car trouble! I kept laughing and laughng. I wonder what the firefighters must have thought of me. I was just so relieved to experience the dreaded car trouble at last and have it be no trouble at all. For some odd reason, this gave me confidence. Illogical, but I figured this crisis was now checked off my list, as if it were inevitable that we would have car trouble, so good thing it happened in that specific place. Now we’d be safe. Funny things is, this really happened. We were “trouble” free the rest of the trip.

Hungry, we decided to go to dinner and then check into the hotel across the street. After a very “Minnesota Mayonaisey” kinda meal (if you’ve been to the midwest, you know that of which I speak), we at last arrived at our hotel. “Guests are just now leaving the breakfast area, so it’ll be fine for you to head up to your room,” said the clerk, to my blank stare.

“Pardon me?”

“You know, the sirens have stopped. The tornado warning is over.”


“Yeh, didn’t you hear? The siren’s been blaring for a few hours.”

“Nope. Must have missed that.”

The gal at the front desk stared at me now and handed me our room key. “Yeh, well, there wasn’t actually a tornado. I knew there wouldn’t be. You can tell, ya know. Something about the air.”

So there it was. “Bad weather” and we missed it! I laughed again. It was face your fears day in the land o’ lakes. And, just as with our car trouble, so too did we not experience a single bit of weather trouble after that. I mean, I don’t count thunderstorms, ’cause how could one escape those in summer in the midwest? But no tornado warnings, at least that we knew of!

The next day was beautiful and clear. We got the tire plugged for $15 at a shop on our way out of town south to Beltrami, to go see the family farm. We had a lovely visit with our family’s fourth generation farmer, Mike, and his wife DeAnn. My son got to ride and eventually drive a four-wheeler, a treat that equalled fishing in “awesomness” — though fishing has since risen back up to the top, I’m happy to say. We went for a drive out to the family cemetary and then visited with Mike’s folks, now retired. I got a few tidbits of info that day that I can use for Grandma’s book.

Emboldened by my giddy sense that we were unstoppable, we left the family in Beltrami and drove a considerable distance that afternoon to see the headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca State Park. This was simply a marvelous experience. If you ever are in that part of the world, it’s well worth the trouble to get there. We headed to Bemijdi after that to see the land of Paul Bunyan and have dinner. Driving back to Crookston in the dark, we made up tag lines for Patsy Cline songs. (She feels so sorry for herself all the time — we couldn’t resist giving her some advice about how to turn things around!) Though we got back to the hotel very late that night, it was worth it. We were living it up.

Roadtrip to Grandma’s home state of Minnesota: Part 2 in my continuing Grand Tour series

I was out of town for a few days and have missed bloggin. Sorry about that! Picking up where I last left off in my reflections on our summer road trip…

We arrived in Minnesota at my husband’s aunt’s house on the afternoon of the 4th of July. After the intense driving for three days to get there, it was a relief for my son to run around in a bona fide yard. He kept zooming through the grass and halting only to ask for instructions on his next feat. “Tell me what to do next, Mommy!” And I would make up some ridiculous sequence that included zig-zagging from this tree to that with jumping jacks every five steps, dribbling the soccer ball while patting his head, walking like a chicken, etc.

The next morning we moved on to Alexandria, where my grandmother’s paternal grandparents settled. We stayed with Grandma’s first cousin, John, and his wife Dee. What wonderful folks–so helpful! They had arranged for a visit to the local Historical Society, called various people who now lived on “our” land to make sure we could visit, and arranged a little family reunion, inviting cousins from around the area to come and meet us.

I had rather assumed that I would find little of use for the book on this part of the trip, mostly because we are talking about a very long time ago when the great-great-grandparents, JA and Lotta, settled there (1885). But I was surprised to discover a great deal while there. Like the fact that JA and Lotta had given up farming on Lake Victoria in 1898 and had decided to try their hand at logging in another community further north called Spruce Hill. They abandoned that attempt in 1900, when it became clear that the town was not going to thrive. The railroad had been persuaded to build a station in a neighboring town, so the Spruce Hill saw mill lost it’s chance for easy transportation of lumber. JA and Lotta gave up and returned to “Alec,” this time farming on the eastern shore of Lake Burgen. I had always though Grandma’s Dad grew up at Lake Burgen, but he never lived there. It was Lake Victoria rather.

When John and Dee took us out to Lake Burgen, I felt the strangest connection to the place. I had been there before on my last trip to MN in 1995, when I chauffered Grandma around the area. We had come out for Aunt Evelyn’s 90th birthday celebration. Anyway, this time, I saw the place in a new light. Such a beautiful beach, with the point still named after our family. Water lilies floated along part of the shoreline, the water was a brilliant blue and clear as glass, and the sky that day was a stunning turquoise with a few white, puffy clouds dotted here and there.

My son went nuts as soon as we walked down to the point. Frogs a plenty. Water. Sand and dirt. And big fish lazily swimming along the shoreline, almost so close you could grab em. My son is nine years old. And he is a nature fanatic. He zipped along the shore, carrying an irrepresible grin. And then it got even better. The teenage daughter of the current residents came out with a fishing pole and some bait. My son’s eyes flashed as he caught my eye. I nodded.

Thirty minutes later, after repeated losses of assorted minnows (“Those fish are so sneaky, Mommy, stealing our bait!”) he caught his first fish ever, a good size sunfish. Yes, he tossed it back in. For the rest of the trip it was fishing this and fishing that. “Ya know how dinosaurs were my big thing from 4 to 8 years old? Well, fishing is going to be my thing from 9 to … uh … 70!”

Grandma’s maternal grandparents came from Norway, above the Arctic Circle (more on that in another entry). They were fishermen, catching cod off the Lofoten Islands. I guess it’s in my son’s blood, eh! In any case, Lake Burgen fed my great-great-grandparents’ family during many lean years. Grandma’s cousin, Mildred, who made a recording for posterity (Lord, bless her!) talks about the frequent fish-fries they held at the lake. The men used nets and caught scads of fish. Mildred complained about having to help clean them (UGH) and then they would fry up a couple dozen fish to feed the guests who were picnicking on the lawn/beach.

Back at John and Dee’s were two suitcases full of old photos, one of which showed Grandma’s father, Oscar, and all of his siblings in a boat on Lake Burgen. Oddly enough, Aunt Gerda was the one holding the oars and not any of her three brothers. I suspect she was a feisty one! I heard that she had wanted to marry a Norwegian and was prohibited. She was married off to a local Swede instead. At least that’s how the story goes!

Since my return home, I’ve been able to put a few more pieces together in the puzzle of that side of the family. I’ve finally placed who Aunt Sofie is (JA’s sister, who emigrated from Sweden a year after JA brought his family to America). Figuring out this part is important because I have, through Gerda’s granddaughter, made contact with actual Swedish relatives. They were eager to find out whatever happened to Sofie, so I’m glad to be able to give them some info. I’m really hoping that I will get a chance to visit the “Old Country” next summer. Still some gaps to fill in the first chapter.

We managed to pack quite a few activities into our stay in Alec, inlcuding a visit to a local museum where a real Viking runestone is kept. Oh, and “Big Ole” a giant statue of a Viking. Plus we saw the house and land at Lake Victoria (not so clear a lake but alos lovely people living on “our” land). The only problem was that my visit had uncovered so much that I was a bit spoiled, with too high of expectations for the other locales to come….