Tag Archives: grandmother

Norwegian for the Holidays

My sister says I get “Norwegian-y” around the holidays. She means I go a little overboard with my Norwegian sweaters and “prairie tree” made by my father from dowels to imitate the twig Christmas trees of early Norwegian immigrants. I unwrap the Norwegian Nisse doll knitted and felted by a newfound Nordic cousin. John and I fire up the Norwegian woodstove in the milkhouse sauna for chilly winter nights. We even make lefse—a thin Norwegian potato pancake–for Christmas eve dinner using my Grandma and Grandpa Short’s lefse griddle and fancy rolling pins. My holidays wouldn’t feel complete without these Nordic customs.

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This year I’m feeling even more Norwegian-y because I’ve been researching my father’s Nordic heritage on my grandmother’s side. Her father—my great-grandfather Martin Jacobson—came from Oslo as a young child in 1883. Her mother—my great-grandmother Jossie Dokken Jacobson—was a first-generation American daughter born to Norwegian immigrant parents. It’s these great-great-grandparents for whom I’ve been searching recently, aided by Jean, an expert genealogist who keeps me pointed in the right direction with her generous guidance and lightning-fast retrieval of archival information; Janet, my dad’s cousin-in-law who shares her own valuable discoveries; and a handful of Minnesota historical librarians and genealogists. With their help, I’ve reconstructed a good bit of information about these ancestors.

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Genealogical research is one part methodical fact-finding (pouring through census and other records; checking and rechecking names, dates, and places), two parts sleuthing (following up leads, pursuing hunches) and three parts serendipity. Jean reminds me that some of the best clues are found in places where we aren’t even intentionally looking for them. I enjoy this meticulous kind of work, and the connection to my own family makes it even more satisfying.

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Searching for Norwegian ancestors in the winter makes a certain kind of sense because Norwegian immigrants settled first in the colder mid-Northern areas of the United States. Norwegian immigration is really two movements: emigration from Norway, where economic opportunity was limited by lack of land for the growing population, and immigration to the United States, where land was becoming available as states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa “opened” (a euphemism for claimed and taken by settlement and force from Native people) for white, European homesteaders.

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Norwegians immigrated to the rural northern climate to continue the agricultural work they’d known back home. Garrison Keillor jokes that Norwegians came to the US to try horizontal farming, meaning they were leaving the mountains of Norway behind. These immigrants weren’t daunted by the cold winters of the mid-Northern states. In his 1909 study Norwegian Immigration to the United States, scholar George T. Flom remarked on the affinity of Norwegian immigrants to colder climates: “Even Kansas is too far south for the Norwegian.”

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My great-great-grandfather Ole Olson Dokken came to the United States in the late 1860s or early 1870s with his older brother Arne. Census records show two different entry years for Ole—1868 and 1872. Census records are notorious for imprecision and error, but at least we have a range of dates from which to work.

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We have yet to find the entry year for my great-great-grandmother Anna Engebretson Dokken and we may never find it. Women in those days weren’t usually asked for such details on the census since the husband was considered the head of household whose information was most important. I’m still searching for Anna’s death record. My great-grandmother Jossie—Anna’s daughter–noted on the back of her own wedding license that Anna died at age 50 in Swift Falls, but research there has yet to turn up anything with Anna’s name. The last official document we have for Anna is the 1895 Minnesota state census in which her name appears with her husband and children. By 1900, she was gone and Ole was remarried to Karen Thompson, another Norwegian immigrant.

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I may never know much about my great-great-grandmother Anna but I’m willing to keep looking until the all leads are spent. Finding connections between the women in my family helps me understand my own life better. In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote of how my Great-Grandma Flora Hunsley Smith’s teaching and farming life was passed down to me. I hope to find a similar resonance with Great-Great-Grandmother Anna. After all, she came to a new country as a young, unmarried woman and raised her seven children on a farm. She must have valued education since her daughter Jossie went to school through eighth grade, which was equivalent to high school in those days. I imagine she made the most with what she had without complaining because that’s the ethic I observed in the Norwegian family and community of my youth.

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I’m further south than my Norwegian ancestors, but it still gets cold here on Colorado’s Front Range. If I feel like whining about the frigid, snowy weather that occasionally descends on these dark winter days, I remind myself that I come from hardy Norwegian stock. When the snow’s falling and the days are short, I can put on a Norwegian sweater and stoke up the Norwegian woodstove.  I can get “Norwegian-y” for a while and warm myself with the customs passed down to me from ancestors who took a long ship’s ride across an ocean to reach new land where they could make a home.

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Still Winter

In the bleak midwinter

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone.

Christina Rossetti,  1830-1894

It’s January, and still winter. Still winter because nothing is moving. The ice in the ditch is frozen; we have to haul water for the chickens in a bucket filled from the kitchen tap. Laundry freezes rather than dries on the line. I pin towels and socks as quickly as I can but my fingers numb and slow me down. At least the sun is shining. At least the snow stays in the mountains for another day.

In my grandmother’s diaries, she starts each entry with a weather report. Farmers depend on the weather so recording its changes helped her mark the years, but in rural North Dakota, the weather meant something more.  My grandparents lived in the country so snowstorms meant no trips to town and no visitors dropping by until the weather cleared.

One entry makes me smile at the typical understatement of her voice:

Sat Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today.

In my grandmother’s make-do world, “Won’t be very warm” means “Won’t be going anywhere today.” I can imagine her watching the wide wintergray sky from the kitchen window while she baked her weekly loaves of bread. She was a slim woman and in her later years, never seemed to get warm. For her last Christmas, we gave her a thick wool sweater to take away the chill; after she died, the smell of her face powder lingered for years.

Winter in North Dakota is unforgiving. An incautious mistake—an empty fuel tank, bad tires, turning down the wrong dirt road–can mean death in a blizzard that shrouds the prairie in icy white. And winter stays into spring there, as my grandmother’s diary confirms.

Fri March 4, 1966: 12 degrees above hi for today. It’s nice here today but not so warm. Is close to zero. We were lucky to miss being in the storm the last three days. Some lives lost in S. Dakota.

I baked a pie.

Here and on the next page, my grandmother tucked two newspaper clippings about the days-old storm.  “Snows Wrath on Our Path” warns one. “Holy Cow! No Snowplow!” cries the second.

Luckily, my grandparents missed that blizzard and got to town so that my cousin could try on the dress our grandmother had been sewing for her of “tissue gingham.” But, Grandma Smith admits again in her understated way, “The wind was so howling, I didn’t like it.”

Christina Rossetti wrote the Christmas poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” as an allegory of the life of Christ. I learned the poem in junior high choir as set to music by Gustav Holst and never forgot its austere yet eloquent first verse. I think of it often in January when it’s still winter.

I think too of my grandmother, watching the sky for snow and waiting for the roads to clear so that she could venture into town to visit family and buy supplies, perhaps even some fabric for my Easter dress in Colorado.

Here at Stonebridge, winter is a time when both the land and the farmers rest, at least until it’s time to plant onions in the greenhouse. The land sleeps under a coat of white and the frozen ditch quiet silent in its banks. But even in the stillness, small movements stir the air. Wooly mice and voles tunnel under the snow for harvest remains; red-tail hawks with their snowy breasts survey the fields for any movement that portends dinner.

And inside the house, the busy-ness of our lives turns inward: we knit, spin, write, and plan the next season’s gardens. With the fire glowing in the woodstove and the root cellar stocked, we are safe in our farmhouse, waiting and watching for spring.

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SABLE

I learned a new craft term at the Lunafest Women’s Film Festival recently: SABLE—Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy. Everyone in the audience who was a crafter laughed at that one because we know exactly what that means. Boxes and bags and drawers of craft supplies that we plan to get to someday but probably never will.

I think the most longterm project I still haven’t thrown out is a gathered “peasant” style blouse for which I bought the fabric and the elastic but then used the elastic for something else. The pattern and fabric (really cute!) have been in a drawer since (and I blush to write this) 2003. I know because I was teaching a particular class that spring and had planned to make the blouse before the end of the semester.

Besides running out of elastic, I think I haven’t made that blouse yet because I don’t sew much from a pattern anymore. The last thing I made from a pattern needed considerable altering so I’m a little skeptical about the fit for the blouse. Or maybe I’m just not as patient with tissue-thin paper and cutting on the lines as I used to be. Today I mostly alter vintage clothes or sew things for the house like tablecloths and curtains. But someday, I may find the time and the patience again.

I have the craft gene. With two grandmothers who excelled at making useful items out of burlap, cheerios, and sequins and a mom who sews, it’s gotta be genetic, going far back in genealogical history: my great-great-grandmother was a professional dressmaker in St. Louis and she helped my grandmother make her wedding dress, the same one I wore ten years ago.

My grandmothers' dolls; Grandma Smith made the one in the middle for me

My grandmothers’ rural crafting ingenuity is something to admire. They even made dolls out of hand-sized turkey wishbones. They sewed fabric heads and arms to cover the pointy end of the bone and wrapped fabric around the “wishing” part for legs. They embroidered hair and faces and made little blouses and skirts and hats to dress them. I still have those dolls, a testimony to crafting something out of nothing and my grandmothers’ “make-do” spirit for using whatever was on hand.

I started making doll clothes as soon as I could sit at the sewing machine, but the first craft I remember making was a “sit-upon” in Brownies. A sit-upon is an essential part of Girl Scout gear because you need your sit-upon to sit upon at meetings and while camping. Mine was a red and white gingham square of vinyl fabric folded around a one-inch stack of newspaper and whip-stitched with red yarn around the edges, leaving enough yarn at each end to braid for a carrying string. Look at the craft skills we learned: measuring and cutting fabric, stuffing, stitching, and braiding, as well as color coordination.

In Girl Scouts, we also dolls out of a clothespin, presumably because clothespins were easier to come by than giant turkey bones. Plus, clothespins—the old round kind—already had heads. We painted on the faces and, using our new braiding skills, glued braided yarn on top for hair, then sewed tiny sack-like dresses and perky aprons for clothes.

By junior high, I’d graduated from doll clothes to making my own. Hemlines were high in those days so it didn’t take much fabric to make a straight skirt with an elastic hem, usually in plaid. Once I learned how to put in a zipper, I made a lot of dresses too. In high school, I used the scraps from those dresses to make a quilt. It took me three months to quilt it—and I was only grounded one of those months for conduct unbecoming a young lady, but that’s another story.

Somewhere along the way, my Grandma Smith taught me to crochet. My first real project was a red, white, and blue granny square vest. In the 70s, you could wear something like that. I still like to crochet, especially baby things (see my post “Round Your Garden” for the baby hats I’ve been making).

I didn’t take up knitting until my daughter was born but next to sewing, it’s my most enduring craft. I make one or two sweaters a year, all a variation of the same pattern I’ve perfected for fit, which to me is the hardest thing about knitting.

I like to craft handmade gifts, especially for my mom who appreciates old family photographs or bits and pieces I’ve saved from my grandmothers, like this shadow box of my Grandma Smith’s letters and sewing supplies.

Along the way, I’ve accumulated a paper cutter, fancy scissors, exacto knives with various blades, a rotary cutter and cutting board, crochet hooks and knitting needles of all sizes, and lots of different glues.

And then there’s the SABLE. A couple tubs of fabric, most of it vintage, boxes of buttons, and baskets of yarn. Sometimes I “destash” at our knitting group, but mostly, I hang onto it. Every crafter needs a little SABLE. It gives us hope that someday we’ll make the sweater or quilt or blouse we’ve been meaning to make when we finally have the peace and quiet to do it.

And here’s a shout-out to all my crafty friends and to Etsy for all the great crafters they support: www.etsy.com

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Marking Her Days with Grace

Recently I took out the few diaries I have from my Grandma Smith and re-read her sparse entries. A true farmer, she always noted the weather, both the high and low temperatures and noteworthy conditions like sheer wind or a blinding snowstorm. Some days in July she would just write “Hot.” My favorite weather entry reads:  Sat, Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today. Even in a North Dakota winter, that could be considered an understatement.

Another series of weather entries in 1966 reads like a poem:

Wed, March 9: 45 degrees above

snow melting

just like spring

Thurs, March 10: No need for a weather report.

Fri, March 11: Weather is fine.

Re-reading her diaries this time, I looked for clues about how she spent her days. She sewed a lot and she baked a lot of bread—six or seven loaves at a time. She kept her flour in a deep pull-out bin in the kitchen cabinet that held a 50-lb bag. She would bake once a week, making enough for morning toast, noon sandwiches, and evening bread and butter. Covered by thin cotton dishtowels embroidered with vegetable people or sunbonnet girls, her loaves rose high in their pans.

Sometimes she would make cinnamon rolls along with the bread, letting my siblings and cousins and me roll out the rectangle of dough and spread it with real butter from our uncle’s creamery. Then we would spoon on brown sugar and sprinkle the dough with cinnamon, roll it up tight, pinch the seam, slice into a dozen thick rounds, and pack them carefully in the cake pan to rise. Fresh and hot from the oven, the sugar and butter-filled rolls melted on our fingers and tongues. No “store-boughten” cinnamon rolls could ever taste as good.

Grandma Smith worked hard on the farm, even after she and my grandfather weren’t raising animals and crops anymore. A typical entry of her busy life reads:

Tues, Feb 11, 1966: I baked 2 apple pies/ put in freezer/scrubbed the kitchen floor/fed the cats at the barn/burned the papers/this pm I’m going out visiting.

I remember my grandmother down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor in case someone stopped by. I marveled that she wore dresses around the house with her old pantyhose, not wanting to waste a brand new pair. When I would ask her why she didn’t just go bare-legged, she would exclaim in disapproval, “No, I can’t do THAT!” She was fashionable her entire life, even when scrubbing the floor.

Because the Smith farm was on the highway into Williston, the county seat, many of my grandparents’ farming friends and relatives would stop by unannounced for coffee on their way to or from town. In her diaries, Grandma Smith noted who had visited that day and what she had baked, like lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, or a kind of cookie she called “Matrimonial Chews.” Visitors were so common at the farm that one entry comments on not receiving guests:  Sat, March 9, 1985: I was home all day. Baked a pie but no company.

My grandmother rarely noted her feelings or reflections about her life, but one of the few reflective passages she wrote makes me laugh: Tues, Jan 25, 1966: I’m cleaning the basement—and it sure looks better. That “sure” sounds just like her, a mix of practicality and positive thinking. If you’re going to do something, it seems to say, do it right—and be happy you’ve done it.

Why weren’t her diaries more personal, more revealing of her thoughts and feelings? I don’t think she worried about someone discovering them. After her death, we found these few diaries stuck in an old cabinet in the basement, more tucked away for safe keeping than hidden.  I think instead that she didn’t feel a need to express personal feelings in diary form. What was important was recording the everyday events of her life, keeping track of the weather and the visitors, the comings and goings of a farm on the edge of town.

In a few entries, though, I catch a glimpse of a more private side of my grandmother, moments of the solace she found in the natural world. In her diaries, she would note signs of the seasons changing, especially when a long, cold winter was turning away for spring:

Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

Tues, April 12, 1983: No snow yet. Cleaned house. Saw a meadowlark today. Gophers are running around and also saw a pheasant and two rabbits.

In entries like these, I can imagine her looking out the window over the prairie, although “prairie” is my word, not hers. She would say “pasture,” since the long grass is where my grandparents grazed their cattle. I can imagine her walking to the creek to look for mayflowers, grateful for a sign that spring had finally made its way to the north. She paid attention to the creatures around her because they inhabited the same piece of land. She marked her days by the weather and the seasons because they formed the backdrop of her life on the farm, determining each day’s possibilities. These diary entries reveal an intimacy with nature that seems a private part of my grandmother’s life, quiet moments of grace in the midst of her busy days.

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Seeds of Never-Seen Dreams

Rather than write this week, I created a digital story based on a previous post called Our Great-Grandmother’s Gardens. I loved putting old photographs to Flora Hunsley Smith’s story. Although she was a quiltmaker herself, none of her quilts have survived, so for background images I used quilts that were passed down to me from my Grandma Short on my father’s side of the family. I had fun with the transitions between quilts and flowers, looking for similar colors and textures. The music came last. I knew I wanted a traditional piece but hadn’t imagined something this melancholy. I loved the title–and Rayna Gellert’s liner notes–and its driving tone captured the sense of perseverance I associate with my great-grandmother’s life. “Coming through the rye” says it all for me–you come through life the best you can by making the most of each day.

Watch Seeds of Never-Seen Dreams:

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