I don’t remember where I bought these earrings, but I loved them at first sight.
These earrings have no connection to a person or place. So, I put them on and decided to see what the day would bring.
What the day brought was a Swedish Bible sent by my aunt and delivered by mail. I don’t read Swedish, so I can’t read a word of scripture in this Bible. And after looking at the pristine pages inside this Bible, I wonder if anyone else read it.
But I translated the inscription: August Ljungquist, Minne af Confirmation dagar, 28 Maj 1882. (Memories of Confirmation Days, 28 May 1882.)
On May 28, 1882, my great-great-uncle Patrick August Ljungquist received this Bible for his confirmation. He was born in Sweden in 1868 and called by his middle name August. In 1869, at the age of one, he sailed to America with his family, who settled in Stillwater, Minnesota, where August grew up. As an adult, August worked as an insurance agent in Pennsylvania where he married a school teacher named Elizabeth and had one son. August died in 1952 at eighty-four.
Between 1909 and 1911, August had two brothers and a sister-in-law die from tuberculosis, and another sister-in-law die from heart failure, leaving a total of seven children orphaned. Makes me think about children who’ve become orphans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
August’s Bible is 139 years old. When I first held it this morning and fanned through its pages, I wondered if August’s parents, Johann and Eva (my great-great-grandparents), ever held it.
I know this Bible was given to August for his confirmation. What I don’t know is why he didn’t take it with him when he moved to Pennsylvania. Maybe August never learned to read Swedish, even though he most likely spoke Swedish before he learned English in the public schools. He and his family would’ve attended a Swedish church where Sunday services and religious classes were presented in Swedish. The Swedes, like many other people uprooted from their homelands, worked to maintain their language and culture after coming to America.
Immigrants or not, at some point we all reach into our past with grasping fingers, hoping to hold a remnant of a past life that’s unraveling and fading.
About 1892, Frank Youngquist left Stillwater to work as a blacksmith in Gordon for Musser-Sauntry, a logging company with interests in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1897, Rose Yost left her parents’ farm in Columbus, Minnesota, to work at the Smith Hotel in Gordon, owned by her sister and brother-in-law, Aggie and Jim Smith.
Frank, 32, handsome, brown-haired, and blue-eyed, met Rose, 29, pretty, dark-haired, and brown-eyed, at the Smith Hotel where he lived. They fell in love and married on September 21, 1898, in Hennepin County, which gave them an opportunity to visit family in Minnesota before returning to Gordon.
FRANK’S MINNESOTA CONNECTION
Before Frank’s and Rose’s lives intersected in Gordon, they grew up 32 miles from each other in Minnesota. Frank’s father, Johan Youngquist, came from Sweden to Minnesota in 1868, and settled in the Stillwater area. A year later Johan’s wife, Eva, arrived with their four young children, including 2-year-old Frank. They would have four more children.
Johan’s family probably emigrated because of economic hardships. Sweden’s rapid population growth in the 1800s diminished job opportunities and caused farmland shortages. Crop failures in 1868 and 1869 deepened economic woes, pushing more Swedes to seek opportunity in America. After reading letters from family, who spoke highly of their lives in Minnesota, many Swedes chose to settle there.
Johan, Eva, and their children prospered as laborers, farmers, blacksmiths, lumberjacks, and business people. The railroads and lumber industry provided plenty of opportunities for immigrants. Five of Frank’s seven siblings spent most of their lives in Minnesota, and his parents lived there until they died.
ROSE’S MINNESOTA CONNECTION
Rose’s parents, Yost Yost and Agatha Gassman, emigrated from Switzerland around 1854. Yost and Agatha, both Catholic, might have left Switzerland because of religious unrest during the 1800s. Yost lived in the Canton of Lucerne, which became embroiled in religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants after the Jesuits, reinstated by Pope Pius VII in 1814, returned to Switzerland.
Yost and Agatha married in Rochester, New York, in 1855. A year or two later, they moved to Columbus, Minnesota, to homestead 160 acres. They raised seven children, all born on their farm. One son became an engineer for the Great Northern Railway, working on the mail train out of St. Paul. The other son ran the farm when Yost retired. Their five daughters all married, but only one remained in Minnesota. Yost served as a town clerk and justice of the peace in Columbus. From 1864 to 1866, he served in the Minnesota Cavalry, Hatch’s Battalion, Company E, and was stationed on the Dakota-Minnesota frontier. He and Agatha are buried in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Wyoming, Minnesota.
In 1910, after twelve years of marriage and four children, Frank and Rose, still living in Gordon, died a month apart, Frank, 44, on October 18, and Rose, 41, on November 17.
Frank lingered four months before dying of tuberculosis. He wished to be buried in Stillwater at the Fairview Cemetery with his father and two brothers. Frank had lived over half his life in Minnesota, and his mother and some family members still resided there. After Rose died from heart failure, she was buried next to Frank. Their children, George, 11, Elmer, 9, Leslie, 8, and Lola, 4, stayed in Gordon. Aggie and Jim Smith, Rose’s family, looked after them.
GEORGE’S COMFORTING TRADITION
Perhaps because of a mysterious, debilitating illness George had when he was about 1½, he was close to his parents. The illness left him unable to walk, so his father forged railings in his blacksmith shop and attached them to the walls of their home. Encouraged by his parents, George pulled himself up and held the railings. He regained strength and learned to walk again. However, as a young schoolboy, his illness left him unable to run and play with other children. To entertain George, Frank taught him blacksmithing skills after school. George cherished the time with his father. Thirty-some years later, a doctor told George that he had had polio.
From the 1930s until 1979, because George never forgot his parents’ love and kindness, he drove 120 miles from Gordon to Fairview Cemetery in Stillwater, Minnesota, to visit their graves either on or near every Memorial Day. By the time George and his family arrived, any Memorial Day services were over. But in the hushed cemetery with spring unfurling, George remembered his parents.
Whenever George had company, he always bid farewell to his visitors by saying, “Come again now.” Perhaps, each year when he left the cemetery, he imagined his parents telling him, “Come again now.” And he did until he lost his eyesight in the winter of 1979, two-and-a-half years before he passed away just shy of his 82nd birthday.
[I was inspired to write this account about my grandfather, George, after reading one of Chris Marcotte’s blogs at chrismarcottewrites. Chris writes about the history of the everyday lives of people, bringing their stories to life in a way that lets the reader connect to people in the past. She incorporates information from newspapers in her blog. After reading Chris’s article, “The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread,” I remembered both my grandpa’s dislike of store-bought bread and his admiration for an electric clock.]
Grandpa George would never have uttered the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread.” Detesting store-bought bread, he’d have thought it was a poor standard by which to measure some new technology that impressed him. I can imagine a conversation with a customer at his gas station going something like this:
Customer: Heard you and Olive bought one of those new color TVs. The best thing since sliced bread. Wouldn’t you say, George?
George: You’re setting the bar pretty low. Sliced bread isn’t a second best to anything.
Fortunately, Grandma Olive baked a good loaf of bread. Over George and Olive’s forty-five years of marriage, they had, at one time or another, one foster son, three children, George’s brother, Olive’s parents, their daughter and her children, and me living with them. Olive baked a lot of bread.
George, born in 1899, might’ve been old fashioned about his bread, but he welcomed other technology. In 1913, when George was fourteen, the first car arrived in his hometown. He’d learned blacksmithing, so he shod horses before he changed car tires. But, by 1920, George knew cars were his future. He and his cousin Frank embraced innovation and opened an auto garage with gas pumps, a business George owned and ran until 1979.
George appreciated smaller innovations too. In the early 1950s, a relative, who was dear to George, gave him an electric clock, the first one he ever had in his house. The clock hung on the wall in the living room where he watched his TV. He not only cherished the clock because of the giver, but he relied on it. He checked his pocket watch against the electric clock daily, believing it was more reliable than the mechanical clocks in his home.
Like most of us, George both praised and disparaged new advancements. He gave a thumbs up to cars, gas pumps, TV, electric clocks, a modern kitchen, washing machines, and planes (taking a trip to Italy in his 70s), but he gave a thumbs down to sliced bread. And he didn’t like store-bought desserts either, for which I’m grateful. During the three years I lived with my grandparents, I enjoyed scrumptious homemade cookies; divine chocolate cakes; pies baked with fresh fruit; light, heavenly angel food cake; and moss cake, a rich, nutty confection made with the egg yolks leftover from making the angel food cake.
Because of my grandparents’ influence, I make my own desserts. But I don’t bake bread. Sorry, Grandpa!
My nana, a petite woman, had merry eyes and a high-wattage smile. Her face was framed with large curls of chestnut brown hair. She played games with us and sang to us. She took us to parks and pushed us on swings. She turned on the radio in her kitchen and danced with us, her moves livelier than the orange and yellow pattern prancing across her linoleum floor. Occasionally, we walked ten blocks with her to the grocery store, and she kindly let us carry the bags of groceries back to her house, all ten blocks.
Sometimes she bought us Cracker Jacks. Nana was a widow on an egg-and-toast budget, and she counted her pennies like Silas Marner, but Cracker Jacks were cheap and came with a toy surprise. For Nana, who worked as a waitress at a pancake joint in downtown Milwaukee, it was a bargain.
Nana was a reader but rarely read to us. Instead she regaled us with stories, and like all story tellers, she retold them, like her Cracker Jack story. So, when she gave us Cracker Jacks, she gave us the story too.
I can close my eyes, smell the sweet and salty Cracker Jacks, and recall Nana and myself sitting on her front stoop . . .
As she starts her story, I open my box.
“One day, when I was a little girl,” Nana says, “my brother Jake brought me some Cracker Jacks.”
I start nibbling caramel corn.
“I sat on our front steps, eating my treat,” she says.
I tip my box, letting caramel corn and peanuts fill my left hand, which I have cupped into bowl.
“I savored each piece,” she says. “But my brother could’ve done more for us than bring us Cracker Jacks now and then. He only gave my mother a dollar a week.”
When she was a child, Nana’s family became Tobacco Road poor. Her father died of typhoid fever. He left behind seven children and a pregnant widow, who donned a black dress and never recovered from her grief. Shortly after her father died, a representative from the West Bend Aluminum Company, where he’d worked, delivered a life insurance check to his widow. It was a lot of money, but not enough to care for the family long term. Nana’s mother handed the check to Jake, her oldest son. He wanted to buy a gas station. It was 1922. He told his mother, “I can support the family. The automobile is on the rise. Our family will be on the rise.” Jake was half right. He made lots of money, but only he rose. Jake broke his promise to help the family. Instead he bought crisp white shirts, snazzy suits, and a new car. He lavishly courted girls. When he landed a beauty from a well-to-do family, he bought a grand house and fancy furniture.
I squeeze the short sides of my box, creating a circular opening at the top. I peer into it.
“It took me a good part of the morning to eat those Cracker Jacks,” Nana says.
I tilt my box to the left and look, then tilt it to the right and look.
“Finally,” she continues, “the only thing left was my toy surprise.”
I set my box on the stoop next to me. With my free hand, I grab the bottom of my T-shirt, pulling it out and up, forming a cloth bowl. I dump the Cracker Jacks from my left hand into my T-shirt bowl.
“Slowly, I opened the toy package,” Nana says. “It was a diamond ring! I’d never seen anything so sparkly. It fit my finger perfectly.”
I grab my Cracker Jacks and pour some of them into my T-shirt bowl. I look in the box again and see the package that holds my toy surprise.
“I went to play,” she says. “I felt like a princess.”
I hold off retrieving my toy surprise and start nibbling again. My favorite part of the story is coming. It involves Mean Mildred.
“Mildred,” Nana says, pressing her lips together before spitting out the name, “noticed my diamond ring and asked to see it.”
I put a piece of caramel corn on my tongue. I don’t chew. The caramel coating melts in my mouth.
“I didn’t want to, but I took off my ring and let Mildred see it,” she says. “That r-a-t ran off with it!”
In Nana’s world, calling someone a rat is so bad that when she calls Mildred a rat, she says she has to spell it. I wonder if this is because Nana is Catholic. My mother was Catholic but married a Presbyterian, so we’re not much of anything.
“Why didn’t you keep the ring on your finger and just let her look at it?” I’ve asked this question many times. I pick a Spanish peanut out of my T-shirt bowl and rub it between my thumb and finger to remove the red skin.
“I never thought she’d steal it,” Nana says. “The r-a-t refused to give it back.”
I ask the same question I asked the first time I heard this story, “Why didn’t you tell your mom or her mom?
“Her family was rich and important.”
“But it was your ring.” I say this every time—I know my part in the telling of the story.
“No one was going to care about my troubles. I was poor and lived on the wrong side of town in an old log house,” Nana says. “That house had no bathroom, no electricity, and no running water.”
Each time Nana tells this story, I want it to end differently. In my version Mean Mildred’s mother marches Mildred to Nana’s house and makes her daughter return the ring.
Nana starts another story, and I reach for my toy surprise at the bottom of my box.
When I was young, I believed Nana’s story about the diamond ring. I was joyful when she found the ring in her box, sad when Mean Mildred stole it, and angry when Nana was powerless to get it back.
As I grew older, I came to doubt Nana’s story. All the rings I’d ever found in my Cracker Jacks were made of cheap metal and plastic gems. I wanted to ask, “How could a real diamond ring get inside a box of Cracker Jacks?” But didn’t. I wanted to tell her, “You were so young—you just thought it was a diamond ring.” But I didn’t.
I didn’t because half a century later, she still mourned the loss of her ring. The unspoken part of her story was her life might have been different if she hadn’t lost her “diamond” ring. For Nana that moment stamped a lifetime of struggles in concrete: going hungry, picking beans in the fields when she was nine, being told she couldn’t go to high school, marrying a man who became an alcoholic and couldn’t hold a steady job. But Nana survived. She scrimped and saved and bought the smallest house in a middle-class neighborhood. She worked in the cafeteria at a Catholic school to pay for a proper education for her two children. She put meals on the table and paid the mortgage while her husband drank and was, at times, out of work.
In 2012 Cracker Jacks celebrated their 100th anniversary of toy surprises by giving away thirty winning tokens that could be traded in for real diamond rings valued at $1,000 each. But Nana had passed away. If she’d been alive, she’d have said, “That’s nothing! When I was a girl, I found a real diamond ring in my Cracker Jacks!” And, she’d have told her story again.