[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January.]
I don’t know if I’m brave because I’ve never been in a situation requiring bravery. I could offer insignificant bits of times when I’ve been microscopically brave, but those examples are dust and easily blown away. However, there are stories of bravery among my family, mostly it’s the kind of bravery needed to get through the beating life sometimes hands a person.
My great-grandparents Mary and Joseph, both orphaned young, traveled from New York City to West Bend, Wisconsin, on different orphan trains when they were small children, most likely with notes pinned to their clothing, listing their names, their destination, and the names of their new families—who they met for the first time at the station. Later, Mary and Joseph fell in love and married. But Joseph died young, leaving Mary with seven children and one on the way.
My grandpa George and his three younger siblings became orphans at 11, 10, 8, and 3. They went to live with an aunt and uncle. But young George felt it was his responsibility to provide for his siblings, so he went to work at a copper mine. While riding in a wagon and holding a container of kerosene between his legs to keep it upright, some kerosene slopped on his legs and caused serious burns because George didn’t tell anyone until he got out of the wagon. His aunt put her foot down, refusing to let him work at the mine. He was, after all, only 11, and she and his uncle had the means to welcome the four orphans into their brood of children. Later, George started a business, married, and had three children. For the rest of his life, he quietly helped people in need. In his old age, he lost his sight, and to keep busy he cracked pecans, filling jars with nuts to give to family and friends.
My grandpa Howard fought in World War II for four-and-a-half years. He was shot in the leg while fighting in Italy, and for that bullet he was awarded a Purple Heart. I don’t know if Howard ever carried a wounded soldier to safety or saved his fellow soldiers from enemy fire. He never talked about the war that gave him two permanent souvenirs: a limp and nightmares. The limp was constant, and the nightmares were frequent. The war wrecked his first marriage. He became estranged from his children. And he drank heavily until he became sober in his late 50s, eventually helping other alcoholics.
My sister has a special needs child who almost died from seizures at three months old. My sister was brave on that night and has been brave many times since. Doctors told her that her daughter suffered brain damage and would probably never walk or talk or feed herself or learn to use the toilet. My sister spent as much time with her infant daughter as she could, stimulating her, talking to her, moving her limbs. Now an adult, my niece walks, talks, uses the bathroom, swims, plays soccer, and much more. Was it my sister’s love and bravery? Or the neuroplasticity of an infant’s brain? Or a combination? Because of my niece’s cognitive disabilities, she still struggles, and my sister is still brave.
Someday, I will probably need to be brave. And I hope my family stories will give me courage.
My mother-in-law, Audrey Smith, loved learning about her ancestors. During her 60s and 70s, she took genealogy classes, but in her early 80s, early dementia slowed her down. Then a broken femur required surgery and an extended stay at a nursing home. Audrey balked at being in the nursing home. To help her pass the days, I interviewed her about her life. When she returned home, we continued working on her life story, and we used her genealogy research to add stories about her ancestors.
One of Audrey’s favorite relatives was her paternal great-grandmother, Malene Fylling, née Tenfjord. Audrey remembered her great-grandma as “the sweetest old lady” who was always happy to see her. When Audrey traveled with her parents from Superior, Wisconsin, to Crookston, Minnesota, Malene doted on her, giving her cookies, asking her questions, and telling her stories. When Audrey and her parents traveled to Crookston for Christmas, they ate lutefisk cooked by Malene. Audrey’s great-grandparents had a large house, so they put their Christmas tree in the middle of the living room. After dinner the family held hands, circled around the tree, and sang Norwegian and English songs, blending their old world with their new world.
Malene was born in Geiranger, Norway, on September 14, 1863. She had an eighth-grade education. On May 7, 1886, she married John Fylling. They had seven children in Norway, but a daughter died before they emigrated. I wonder what it was like for Malene to know that after she left Norway, she could never again visit her deceased daughter’s grave. After they settled in Crookston, Minnesota, she and John had two more children.
In June 1903, Malene, John, and their six children, ages 16, 12, 10, 7, 3, and 8 months, arrived in Quebec, Canada, on the SS Bavarian, a steamship owned by the Allan Line. Steamships were faster and more comfortable than sail ships, but imagine making a transatlantic crossing with six children. From Quebec they traveled to Winnipeg and applied for permission to enter the United States. Their destination was Crookston, Minnesota, where John’s brother, Ole Fylling, lived. Ole wrote to Malene and John about opportunities in Crookston. For Malene and John, having family in Minnesota eased the pain of leaving their families behind. By 1920, both Malene and John were naturalized citizens.
Economic hardship motivated Malene and John to immigrate to America. During the second half of the 1800s, Norway’s economy deteriorated. Steamships made it easier for Europeans to immigrate but also caused widespread unemployment among Norway’s shipbuilders, dockhands, and sailors. Farmers, who never had an easy time in Norway, were undercut by low-priced grain from Europe because of cheap transportation. Audrey often said, “The Norwegians had nothing but rocks.” She heard this repeatedly from her Norwegian relatives, who told her how difficult farming was in Norway.
Malene was forty when she came to Minnesota, but she learned to speak English. Her status on the U.S. Census was always “wife” and “homemaker.” She didn’t need to work outside the home that she and John owned by 1910. John worked as a carpenter and later had a small grocery store. After John died in 1937 at seventy-three, one of his sons ran the store. Another son and a son-in-law owned a creamery. Their youngest daughter became a bookkeeper and worked for the public school system then at her brother’s creamery. At a time when marriage was the usual occupation for women, their daughters married well and had comfortable lives. Malene and John’s dreams of a better life in Minnesota, for themselves and their children became reality.
Malene stayed in the family home after John’s death but later lived with one of her daughters in Crookston. She died in 1960 at ninety-seven. Her funeral was held at Trinity Lutheran Church, and she was buried with family at Oakdale Cemetery in Crookston.
Years later Malene and John’s home was either razed or moved (along with other homes) because the Red Lake River, which ran behind their home, flooded so often. “Imagine living on the bank of a river—a good-sized river—and watching those kids,” Audrey said—shuddering as she pictured Malene raising children near the river. But, Malene never lost any of her children to the river. Her census status as “wife” and “homemaker” may not be exciting family history, but Malene was an important force in the lives of three generations of children, most of whom made Minnesota their permanent home.
When I finished interviewing Audrey, I organized and typed up her stories. She had loads of wonderful photographs of her ancestors and family, so I was able to scan photos and add them to the book I made for her. When I finished, I took my file to a local printing shop, and they printed it on 8 ½ x 11 paper and spiral bound it. It was 257 pages. When I presented it to my mother-in-law, she thumbed through it, then looked up at me with tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe you did all this for me,” she said.
“It was fun working with you on this,” I answered. What I should have told her was that she’d been the best mother-in-law a daughter-in-law could have. But neither of us were good with sentimental speeches. And we were both already choking back tears. A year later she passed away, about a month before her 87th birthday. When she started taking all those genealogy classes, it had been her dream to write a family history. I have so many fond memories of Audrey, but working with her to complete her book is my fondest memory.
Yost Yost, my great-great-grandfather, was born in Nottwil, Switzerland, on November 19, 1829. At the time his double name was a common practice by Swiss parents. Yost’s father, Jacob Yost, was a nail maker and taught his son the trade. Yost, too, made nails before emigrating in 1854. But after he arrived in America and settled in Rochester, New York, he became a blacksmith.
On July 16, 1855, Yost married Agatha Gassman in Rochester, New York. She’d arrived in New York City in January 1855. She was born in Switzerland, but her birth year is a mystery. It has been listed as 1820, 1823, 1825, and 1827. I can only guess why so many different birth years appear on documents clearly referring to the Agatha Gassman who married Yost Yost. Perhaps vanity tempted her to misrepresent her age. Perhaps others made mistakes and recorded her birth year incorrectly.
In the fall of 1856, the availability of land enticed Yost and Agatha to move to Columbus, Minnesota. Yost used his blacksmithing skills during the winter of 1856-57 to support himself and Agatha, pregnant with their first child, Maria, born in April 1857. They had six more children: Josephine, Joseph, John, Agatha, Anna, and Rose.
In the spring of 1857, Yost and Agatha attained land and built a log house. They were successful farmers, and their farm grew to 440 acres. They ground their own flour, sewed their own clothes, and made their own tallow candles. According to family lore, when they bought their first kerosene lamp, they proclaimed it was “real progress.” In spring and fall, Yost walked from Columbus to St. Paul, a distance of 50 miles, to buy supplies they couldn’t produce. After a road was built, he drove a wagon to make the trip.
In August 1864, Yost, 34, enlisted in the Minnesota Cavalry, Hatch’s Battalion, Company E, serving until his honorable discharge in May 1866. I wonder how Agatha coped on a farm with five children, ages 1 to 7, while he served in the military. But he was granted at least one furlough during his enlistment. He was stationed on the Dakota-Minnesota frontier about 50 miles northwest of Mankato. According to a family history written by his grandson Fred, Yost “stopped a cannonball with his leg.” However, Yost’s military records tell a different story. In 1886, Yost applied for an invalid pension because of an injury he received near Fort Ridgely in June 1865. While out on patrol, his horse threw him, and he injured his back. It never completely healed, and as he aged, he developed rheumatism in his spine. How did an injury from tumbling off a horse become a story about being hit by a cannonball? Perhaps Yost was trying to impress his grandchildren. Perhaps once, when asked why he limped, he joked about getting hit by a cannonball, and that became the story.
While living in Columbus, Yost served as a town clerk, a justice of the peace, and a supervisor. The Compendium of History and Biography of Central and Northern Minnesota by George Ogle and Company, published in 1904, states, “Yost has resided in Anoka county for nearly half a century, and he has formed a wide acquaintance and is held in the highest esteem as an agriculturist and worthy citizen.” Yost became a naturalized citizen of the United States on March 23, 1897.
As Yost aged, his back injury made farming difficult. He retired, and his sons, John and Joseph, ran the farm. Yost died on November 3, 1906, just short of his 77th birthday. Agatha died on September 20, 1913. They’re buried at St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Wyoming, Minnesota.
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.