Category Archives: Family History as Poetry

Winter Chores During WWII

     This is one anecdote in an anecdotal childhood. No overarching meaning or underlying theme, no fatherson conflict, no prepubescence struggle; it is just an incident that if aggregated with those of similar youths, becomes a picture of growing up in the time and place.
     This barn was built be Tom Porter in 1912; the field is the one I crossed to go home when the fences were split cedar posts and barbed wire; and we had an excessive snow storm in Dec.-Jan., 1944-45.

                          Winter Chores During WWII

Six animals in their stanchions. Mangers filled. Freshly bedded. Gutter emptied. Shit-splattered floor scraped clean.

It’s a warm, moist, bovine world in this old barn. Temp will drop to ten tonight.

A pale moon, almost white, rises over Porter Mountain, cast the barn’s long shadow over its yard, down the bank, and onto the field below.

High above Sauk Mountain, Queen Cassiopeia and “Big Bear” dance around North Star.

Snow covers ground. Path through the field packed. Been there a week. No rain. A miracle.. No slush. Splashing girls at school is fun, splashing in the barnyard, not.

When the Skagit is high, the meadow swales in the old river bed pond. When a northeaster blows, enough ice freezes for kids to play. Don’t let Mom or Dad find out, or fall in.

Crystalline droplets glisten on straw poking through crusty snow. Ice settling on swale slopes crack. I’ll follow a fencerow home. I can almost see it from here.

Siste Dans (“Last Dance”)

Mary and Andrew

Background

    I first learned about my great-grandparents Mary Anderson (1856-1925) and Andrew (Hanson) Vestrem (1856-1938) from my mother’s recollections, an 1895 portrait and several pages in a hand-me-down scrapbook.

    Both were born in Hallingdal, a mountain valley in Buskerud County in 1856. The residents of Buskerud County, where agricultural land was scarce, frequently migrated to Vesterålen district, Norderland County, an island and fjord island county above the Arctic Circle, and the cod and herring fisheries.  When economic conditions or lack of skills precluded fishing they immigrated to North America, eventually making their way as farm laborers, to north central Iowa. Independently, Mary Anderson and Andrew Vestrem sailed steerage on the same boat in 1875.

    They knew each other socially in Hallingdal, met again on the boat and by happenstance, worked off their passage as cowherd and milkmaid on neighboring farms owned by Buskerud immigrants. Records show that they were married in 1876. They lived in Palo Alto County and Estherville, Iowa. Some records show they Mary had 12 pregnancies. Nine children lived into adulthood. Andrew worked as a laborer and carpenter.  Both were awarded citizenship in July 1881.

    Sometime in 1920, the Vestrems moved from their home in Estherville, Iowa, to live with their youngest daughter Mai and husband Glen Eggleston and their family, first in Worthington, then in Mankato, Minnesota.

    During her later years, Mary carried a small bundle of papers with her, no matter where she went. Mom guessed that these were personal papers, quite possibly certificates of baptism, confirmation, naturalization and marriage, including those brought from Norway.

    My mother recalled that in June 1925, her mother was too sick to care for Mary. Mai was, herself, ill after a premature birth, and exhausted from caring for a family of six small children and her parents in Mankato, where they had recently moved. (My mother, the oldest, would not be ten until October.) Additionally, Mai did not have family or neighbors nearby for support, as she had in Worthington where they had always lived. Also, Mom’s dad was out of town on his railroad job most of the time.

    During my last visit with Mom, then ninety-years-old, she reached into her memory as a nine-year-old and remembered how sad her family was the day the taxi took Great-Grandma Mary to the train to live in Sibley, Iowa with Mary and Andrew’s son George and daughter-in-law Grace.

    Although not the dialect spoken in the rural valleys of Norway in the 19th century, I used Norwegian Bokmål for native terms or phrases. These are:

  • bygdedans: traditional “village” dances
  • datter: daughter
  • favel: farewell, good-bye
  • hallingdans: rhythmic, acrobatic male solo dances originating in Hallingdal.
  • lausdans: “free” dance during which the dancer attempts to kick his hat off a stick held aloft by his partner.
  • fra hus til hus: from farmhouse to farmhouse.
  • samdans: a slow couples dance
  • underdekk: steerage deck, frequently crowded with upwards 450 passengers
  • siste dans: last dance

 

   Siste Dans (“Last Dance”)

(In the manner of a Norwegian Visionary Poem

[Draumkvædet] told in the Middle Ages.)

for Mary Anderson Vestrem, 1856-1925 &

     Andrew Herman Vestrem, 1856-1938

Hear Great-Grandma Mary’s story

remembered in a portrait and family

scrapbook; how illness and the moment

illuded her, and seven decades were timeless.


Mary was born in Hallingdal

in the mountains of Norway,

the year Andrew was born

in a village nearby.


In their youth, they danced bygdedance.

By steerage, they came to America,

to labor in Iowa for their passage,

marriage, and to rear nine children.

Now old, they live with their datter.


Holding tight her son’s arm,

Mary leans over her datter,

whispers “farvel” in her ear and

kisses the tiny bundle in her arms.


In her other hand, she holds papers

neatly folded, tied with faded ribbon.

Her life she holds in these papers,

to remember when memory is gone.


As straight and tall as pain allows,

Mary clings to her son even more.

Slowly, they shuffle through

an open door into blinding sun.


Andrew standing along the path

with datter’s children, their arms

outstretched, tearfully pleading,

“Grandma, do not go!” are shadowy

silhouettes fading into Mary’s past.


Andrew, his thoughts with Mary,

helping her from her sickbed,

dressing her for this day, reaches

to touch his wife one last time.


Bewildered, she smiles ….


You are best hallingdans,

We applaud your head-spins,

you kick so high! I will hold

your lausdans hat-stick.


Papa was a logger.

He drowned in the rapids

of Hallingdal River.


I must be with mamma,

to go fra hus til hus,

baking farmers’ knäckebröd.


You must go to Vesterålen,

to the arctic islands

and fish. Hallingdal has

no skills, no trades to learn.


I love you, Andrew.

I will dance samdans.

Do not hold me tight

or talk of marriage.


I go with our son.

He will care for me


I hear your voice, Andrew, I know

your dialect. Do not leave me in the

dark of this crowded underdekk.


“Farvel
,” Andrew,

I dance siste dans with you.