My Maternal Grandparents: Pioneer Homesteaders . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Elof and Egedia Johnson
Gustaf Elof Johnson and Hulda Egedia Johnson (1903 wedding photo)

During the course of my research for my memoir-in-verse, Chasing Honey: A Legacy of Hope from a Prairie Grandmother, based on the homesteading experiences of my maternal grandparents (Elof and Egedia Johnson) in southern Saskatchewan and eastern Montana, I visited the Range Riders Museum in Miles City, Montana. Every room is packed with artifacts from the areas’ pioneers, ranchers and farmers. The walls of one of the Museum’s rooms—the Memorial Hall—are covered with photographs of these early hardy and courageous residents. I wanted my grandparents photograph and story to join this amazing cavalcade of history.

Gustaf Elof and Hulda Egedia Johnson were among the thousands of homesteaders who made their way to eastern Montana in the opening decades of the twentieth century. For the Johnsons, it would not be the first time they had put down roots on government-provided land. Barely a week after they were married in the spring of 1903 in Alexandria, Minnesota, they had loaded their belongings on a train and set out for a quarter-section of land on the outskirts of Midale in southern Saskatchewan. Neither would it be the first time the couple had set out to claim homesteading land alongside family and friends. Almost the entire membership of the First Swedish Baptist Church of Alexandria had joined Elof and Gedia in their move to Canada, and some of the same parishioners accompanied them to Montana. However, it would be the first time they had homesteaded after a soul-wrenching tragedy—the death in June 1913 of their two oldest children, Florence and Reubin, to a measles epidemic while stopping over in Alexandria on their way from Midale to Montana.

Heartbroken, yet sustained by their belief in God, Elof and Gedia knew they had no choice but to carry on. So after weathering the winter in Alexandria with their youngest children—Gordon, born in Canada on December 10, 1910, and Ruby, born in Alexandria on June 10, 1913, only a few days after the eldest children’s deaths—they packed up their possessions in the spring of 1914 and headed, first by train and then by wagon, for their half-section of land outside of Rock Springs—Section 24, Township 13 North, Range 43 East. Once there, they must have looked up at the broad Montana sky and asked God to protect them and their two little ones. At the same time, they must have thought about what had lured them away from Canada, prayed that the government and railroad stories of fertile soil, plentiful rain and phenomenal grain yields would prove to be true. Of course, they would have told themselves, whether the land provided or not was up to God.

For Elof and Gedia, tilling the soil ran deep in their Swedish blood. It had been the promise of good farming land that had drawn both Gedia’s family and Elof and his cousins to America in the nineteenth century. In 1868, knowing that his extended family could acquire six homesteads in the tallgrass prairie of Minnesota, Gedia’s father, Andrew Peterson, gathered his wife, Johanna, her parents and her five siblings (some with families of their own) and set out from Ljur, Sweden, to settle in Ben Wade Township, about twenty-five miles southwest of Alexandria. Then in 1876, he moved his family to Alexandria where he established the Peterson Boarding House. It was there on May 2, 1878, that Gedia was born. Elof, born on November 1, 1865, in Hässleby, Sweden, followed his five cousins to the Geneva Woods area east of Alexandria in 1887, where he hoped to make enough money working on threshing and railroad crews to be able to afford land of his own. Taking up residence at the Peterson Boarding House, he met Gedia, age nine. Eleven years later he began to court her, writing her beautiful love poems in Swedish and English that she cherished the rest of her life. After homesteading land became available in Canada, they married, and a week and a half after their wedding on April 23, 1903, two days after Gedia’s twenty-fifth birthday, they set off for Midale. Once there, they wasted no time in gathering with their friends from Alexandria to establish the town’s First Swedish Baptist Church.

Being a part of a fellowship of believers, a group that included Gedia’s brother Edward and his wife, Annie, as well as their preacher, Olaf Sutherland, and his wife, Carrie, sustained Elof and Gedia through the hardships of prairie living, first in Canada and then in Montana. Embedded in such a closely knit community meant there would always be plenty of friends to draw upon when one of the families needed a barn built, fields plowed and grain threshed. It also guaranteed there would be family and friends ready to celebrate a birthday and a wedding, and for Elof, an enthusiastic audience for his violin playing. And for three men with powerful voices—Elof, Edward and Olaf—there would always be a congregation waiting to be led in hymn singing. But most important of all, their community, grounded in faith and built up over years, gave Gedia and Elof the strength to persevere when the rains failed and the earth turned to dust.

The couple’s first few years in Montana were good ones. Weather was their friend, and wheat yield was high. Then in, 1918, the drought moved in, and along with it, temperatures of 100 degrees and grasshoppers that devoured everything in sight. But Elof and Gedia did what they had always done, they carried on. With four children to feed—Gordon and Ruby had been joined by Judith, on January 18, 1916, and Gladys, on February 2, 1919—they made do with what little grain they could grow and what few cattle they could graze. To help make ends meet, Gedia took a seasonal job cooking for local sheep herders. It was devastatingly difficult for all of the ranchers in eastern Montana, but in spite of the challenges, or perhaps because of them, they made sure their children got an education. All the Johnson children attended the Sutherland School, a one-room school house about a mile from their homestead. Gordon would later be a teacher at the school and live in the one-room teacher’s cabin.

When Elof and Gedia thought life couldn’t get any harder, the Depression hit and the drought returned. Thousands of people left eastern Montana, including their dear friend and preacher, Olaf Sutherland. But the Johnsons stayed until the drought ended in 1937. By then—Elof was seventy-two and Gedia was fifty-nine—they were ready to become, in Elof’s words, “retired farmers,” and they sold their homestead to Axel and Elna Haglof and moved to Miles City to be close to Judith and Gladys, who had jobs in town. Six years later they moved to Washington, D.C. to live with their son Gordon and help raise their grandson Raymond. Judith also lived with them while her husband, Donald Whitesitt, served in the Army. In 1944, they made one last move, this time to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where both Gordon and Judith got jobs at Magnavox. They had been there only a few months when Elof was hospitalized with congestive heart failure. He died at home on February 16, 1945, and the family took him back to Alexandria to be buried.

Gedia continued to live with Gordon until January 1951, when she moved in with Judith and Donald in Great Falls, Montana, to help care for their new daughter, Linda. Although Gedia made occasional trips to visit her other daughters—Ruby, who lived in Butte, and Gladys, who resided in Concord, California—she stayed with Judith and her family until the end of her days, moving with them first to San Bruno, California, and then to Baltimore, Maryland. There on July 4, 1958, she suffered a stroke. Five years later, on September 14, 1963, she died. Gedia is buried next to her husband in Kinkead Cemetery in Alexandria. 

Elof and Gedia had known each other for fifty-eight years. Together, they had faced the deaths of their oldest children, shepherded their other four children through one hardship after another and worked with every ounce of strength and energy they had to give each of them a future. They had sought solace in their faith and comfort in the care and support of family and friends. And through it all, they relied on the love they had for each other to carry on, a love that Elof had prayed for in one of his courtship poems, a love that would keep Gedia “forever” at his side.


Read poems from Linda’s forthcoming imaginative memoir on her posts—Finding Our Place, Planting Love and Belonging to the Land: Whose am I?—as well as her story about looking for information about her grandparents—Looking for My Grandparents’ Story.

Linda is the story gatherer for TreeStories.

Bobba and Grandy: Memories of My Grandparents . . . by Dianne Mason

My parents were not the most reliable people. Mama suffered from severe depression and Daddy’s mood swings kept us all walking on eggshells. Fortunately, my brother, sister, and I had our maternal grandparents, Bobba and Grandy. We lived with them until I was five and then again for three years after my parents divorced.  In between, we lived next door or nearby.

Every child should have a grandmother like Bobba, someone to tell them they’re special and loved. When she hugged me against her soft breasts and told me everything was going to be okay, I believed her. She cooked for us, kissed our cuts and scrapes, comforted us when we were afraid, and made sure we said our prayers. From her I learned about unconditional love, generosity, and consideration for others. While I loved her with all my heart, I was my grandfather’s girl. 

Grandy was a short, wiry man with bandy legs and dark, leathery skin from working outdoors much of his life. The years of hammering and sawing as a carpenter caused his arms to look a bit like Popeye’s. He cursed like a sailor, loved to fish and drink whiskey, and Bobba said that in his youth he “would fight a circle saw” he was so feisty. His nickname was Snake. Snake Jones. And I loved him desperately. 

There are many stories I can tell about Grandy and the influence he had on my life – how he taught me to be self-reliant, to stand up for myself and others, and to be honest above all else. He was not perfect, for sure, but his love for me and my siblings was steadfast and abundant. Here’s something I wrote about him in a memoir class a few years ago.

It’s Time to Tell You About My Grandfather

I will tell you about the boat he made for me out of a galvanized steel washtub and an old tractor inner tube. 

I will tell you how he taught me to fish – to gently lay a fly on the water and wait.

I will not tell you that he quit drinking Folger’s coffee because he hated Mrs. Olsen in the TV commercial.

I will tell you how he trudged two miles through a rare Mississippi snowstorm for milk so my brother, sister, and I could have hot chocolate.

I will tell you how he wrapped his arms around my grandmother in the kitchen as she cooked dinner and made her giggle.

I will not tell you that he refused to watch NBC, the entire network, because a black man starred in I Spy.

I will tell you how he ate raw oysters – icy cold, on a saltine, with a dash of Tabasco.

I will tell you that he raised chicks under a grow light and held their whispery softness next to my cheek.

I will not tell you of the sorrow in his eyes when the ambulance drove away with my mother. 

Grandy died when I was a sophomore in high school. All winter I wore his red and black flannel shirt. Its soft comfort smelled like him – Old Spice aftershave, cigarette smoke, and his own special scent, a mixture of loamy earth and fresh air. I wore it to school every day, sleeves rolled up and hem down to my knees, as if it were my coat of armor. As the season turned and it became too hot to wear flannel, I wrapped the shirt around my pillow and slept on it. 

When my children were little, each night after reading to them, I’d tell them a story about my grandparents, whom they’d never met. It became a ritual they loved. Thus, I kept the memory of those two wonderful people alive. I have grandchildren now, and I’m doing my best to be the kind of grandparent to them that I was fortunate enough to have in my life.


Dianne Mason grew up in rural Mississippi. She has taught writing at Richland College in Dallas, Texas, and at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. A published poet, she has also written five screenplays, two of which have been optioned. Visit Dianne’s blog:  An English Teacher’s Garden.

Some other links Dianne would like you to explore:


Read another family story about a loving grandmother — Pam Pellegrino’s “Nana Takes Pam to College.”

Finding Our Place, Planting Love . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Finding Our Place -- Gustaf Elof Johnson

Gustaf Elof Johnson (1903 wedding photograph)

From Linda’s upcoming memoir-in-verse, Chasing Honey: A Legacy of Hope from a Prairie Grandmother, based on the homesteading experiences of her maternal grandparents in Canada and eastern Montana, Elof and Gedia Johnson. (The poems are in Gedia’s voice.)

Elof filed a claim for land
in Canada’s Western plains —

one quarter section of land
a half-mile square,

one hundred and sixty acres
in the District of Assiniboia,

five hundred miles northwest of Alexandria,
fifty miles north of the Canadian-North Dakota border.

In return for our square of earth,
we paid a small registration fee

and promised the government
we’d “prove it up” —

cultivate the land, build a permanent
dwelling on it within three years.

      Of course we’ll live there,
      I said to Elof.

      Where else does the government think 
      we’re gonna live?

Elof always had such patience,
especially with me. He had to.

A farmer can’t survive without patience.
Neither can a husband.

When I stop to think about it,
Elof was a mixture of patience

and a let’s-get-it-done-now attitude.
It just depended on what he was up against,

and that spring, he was keen to leave Alexandria,
catch prime plowing and planting time in Canada.

So he bought two tickets for a train leaving on May 4,
only a week and a half after our wedding,

two days after my twenty-fifth birthday.
For our fare, a fare made cheap by the railroad

so homesteaders could afford to take all their belongings,
we had half a railroad car for our four head of cattle,

four horses and stock feed; half a car
for our wagon, farm equipment, fence supplies,

seed grain, household goods and food stuff;
and two seats in the “colonist” car,

a car with pull-down sleeping berths
and a kitchen I could use.

      It’ll more than do,
      I told Elof.

It was a long, stuffy, bumpy trip, every seat taken
by people from more countries than we could name,

air filled to bursting with the aroma of strange food
and languages we didn’t understand.

When finally the train pulled into a baby-of-a-town,
a town we’d soon name Midale,

we unloaded our property, tied up our animals
and tried to sleep in an empty railroad car

left alongside the tracks by officials.
I don’t think either one of us slept.

Too excited. Too tired.
Too much unknown.

In the morning, we set out to find our land,
using a compass to calculate direction,

counting the revolutions of a rag tied
to a wagon wheel to gauge distance.

It was well past noon before we spotted
the survey mound and stake marking the location

of our homestead — North East section 32,
township 05, range 10 west of the second Meridian.

Overcome with gratitude for land
that was ours, Elof and I knelt down,

planted our palms on the warm,
spring ground, promised God we’d seed

love as well as wheat in the soil
He’d entrusted to us.

      Forever, Gedia,
      Elof said as he helped me up.

Standing with him, I looked over our land,
filled my lungs with sun and blue sky.

For a moment, the emptiness disoriented me.
But far from the dread that had overcome

Mama when she first saw Minnesota’s
unbounded prairie, I relished

the grassland’s openness, its freedom,
its unharnessed energy.

I knew I could grow a family there,
in that earth, under that sun.

      I am made for this place,
      I thought.

Turning to my new husband,
I smiled.

      Yes, Elof, 


Read “Belonging to the Land,” another poem from Linda’s forthcoming book as well as her story about looking for information about her grandma Gedia — “Looking for My Grandparents’ Story.”

Linda has a summary of her grandparents’ story here.

Linda is the story gatherer for TreeStories.

Save Everything . . . by Maureen Ryan Griffin

Save Everything by Maureen Ryan Griffin, Patricia Brachowski Ryan peeling potatoes

Mom (Patricia Brachowski Ryan) Peeling Potatoes

From Maureen’s upcoming “cookbook memoir” How She Fed Us: Reflections on the Recipes of a Perfectly Imperfect Mother


When I heard my mother’s familiar “Hello, dear. How are you?” that summer afternoon, I thought it was an ordinary phone call. Then I realized her voice was shaking. “If you know you have a disease that will kill you, should you tell your children?” 

“Oh, Mother,” I said. Then, “Of course you should. Please tell me.” That may have been the hardest request I’ve ever made.

Was this in 1998 or 1999? I don’t remember anymore. I don’t remember the words she used to explain her illness, what my siblings and I said to each other, how I told my children. I do remember that, when I told friends and acquaintances my mother had dementia, the first question they typically asked was, “Does your mother know who you are?”

I’m sure my siblings got asked this, too, and that it was as hard for them to see the lack of recognition in Mother’s eyes as it was for me. Mike wrote about his experience for our family cookbook:

My last real communication with Mom came when I went to visit after they’d been in the assisted-care apartment for about 5 months. Mom would fade in and out, but mostly she was lucid and entertaining, if a bit embarrassed by the forgetfulness caused by her disease. We had a very nice time just talking and I had great fun cooking for them. As I turned to wave goodbye after I had given her a hug, Mom looked at me with such a mixture of love and pain it broke my heart. I knew that her disease was progressing rapidly, but I wasn’t aware how fast it really happened. Mom stood there and looked at me as if it was the last time she would see me. I guess she knew more than I—because it was the last time she was lucid enough to recognize me and really communicate. When I saw her 6 months later, she really didn’t know who I was. 

For me, whether my mother knew who I was was not a “yes” or “no” question. I was always looking for any small scrap of my mother that snuck out from behind her illness. I took Supersaver weekend flights up to Erie to be with her as often as I could. On one visit, her face lit up when she saw me. “I know you,” she burst out. By that point, I’d known better than to ask, “Who am I?” The last time I’d done that, she’d answered, with complete confidence, “You know. You’re my mother.” 

Instead, I gave her a hug and said, “I know you, too.” 

On many of my visits, I’d get the great comfort of at least one moment when a flash of recognition crossed her face. But sometimes, there was no proof at all that my mother knew my name, or the fact that I am her daughter, or even that my face looked familiar. And how much did that matter? Why?

Here’s the thing. I’m a big fan of finding the right questions, questions that add to the quality of one’s life rather than subtracting from it, questions like this one from a woman named Oriah Mountain Dreamer: “What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am?”

Who was I, really? For that matter, who was Mother? And who could I be for her? Maybe that was a better question than “Does my mother know who I am?” Because, beyond all doubt, when I was with her, my mother knew, at some level, that I was someone who loved her. 

Granted, this was often small consolation while walking the path of losing her. I wanted the mother she had been. A shiver went through me when I read a poem by Mary Oliver called “Ice” that describes how her father, during his last winter, fashioned pair after pair after pair of ice-grips out of scraps of metal and inner tubes and gave them to everyone he knew. After her father died, her mother wrote to say she’d found “so many pairs” of them in his workshop. “What shall I do?” she asked. The poem ends with Oliver’s reply: “Mother, please/save everything.”

I have been trying to “save everything” of my mother. Each of her multitudinous recipes. The breakfast ones alone could fill a large book. A new question: What shall I let go?

Who, besides my beautiful sister, who already has the recipe, needs me to include the Plum or Apple-Topped Coffee Cake out of Mother’s original 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook with its cheery red and white cover? Mary was always the one who sliced and arranged the fruit on top, just like Mother taught her. And she’s the one who reminded me how much of Mother is in all of us. “You know, all the ways we are come from Mother,” she said. “I’ve been realizing that more and more.” 

That’s worth saving, this gift from my only sister. What matters is that we remember, as long as we are able, what Mother gave us, and who we are—to ourselves, to each other, to the people whose lives touch ours. 


An award-winning poetry and nonfiction writer, Maureen has also been a commentator on Public Radio Station WFAE 90.7. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Texas Review, The Charlotte Observer, St.Anthony Messenger (Ohio),  Potato  Eyes (Maine), Kalliope  (Florida), Chelsea (New York), Cincinnati Poetry Review, Catfish Stew (South Carolina), Catalyst  (Georgia), and Calyx (Oregon). She is the author of Spinning Words into Gold, a Hands-On Guide to the Craft of Writing, a grief workbook entitled How Do I Say Goodbye?, and two collections of poetry, This Scatter of Blossoms and When the Leaves Are in the Water. Her essay “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” appears in Marlo Thomas’s The Right Words at the Right Time, Volume 2 (Atria Books, 2006) and her poem “Such Foolishness” is included in Thirteen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003).

Read more about Maureen here and visit her facebook page here.


Read Kate Green’s story about her mother here and Pam Pellegrino’s memories of her mom here.

The Gift of Wings . . . by Maureen Ryan Griffin

The Gift of Wings; Paul Thomas Ryan

Paul Thomas Ryan


My father was never much for gifts. Every time his birthday, or Christmas, or Father’s Day rolled around, when I’d ask what he wanted, his answer was always the same — “Well-behaved children.” He wasn’t much for giving gifts either, not the tangible kind anyway. 

No, our mother was the one who noticed what our eyes lingered on in the department store window. She was the one who sat the five of us Ryan children down each year with the Sears Wishbook to make our Christmas lists. By the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I knew she was also the one who bought us the items on those lists that she deemed appropriate and affordable. Mom was the parent who cared about wish gratification, and Dad—well, Dad was the Grinch who, while he grudgingly financed the purchasing, believed that gift-giving was unnecessary, even irksome. 

Dad was an engineer by trade and a practical man by nature. It would be more efficient, I heard him say to Mom, to write us each a check so we could buy our own presents, or, better yet, to not give us anything since we already had so much. (We were comfortably middle class, while he had grown up quite poor.) This idea was one my mother, thankfully, didn’t buy. She gave me many memorable gifts over the years – stuffed animals I loved, a scarf set I’d been wanting, a Barbie kitchen that was a dream come true. It took becoming a grownup myself to realize that my dad, too, had given me an abundance of gifts. They just weren’t, with one exception, the kind you could wrap up and slip under a Christmas tree.

From him, I received the gift of perseverance, and the knowledge that I could make amends for my mistakes. When, inspired by the sparkling crystals inside the geodes my seventh grade teacher showed us, I inadvertently damaged his best wood chisel busting open rock after rock in hopes of finding a geode of my own, he had me spend what felt like an entire Saturday morning sharpening it. How could there be so many grades of sandpaper, from coarse to fine? But after the final step—oil on his whetstone—he declared the chisel good as new.

 My dad gave me the gift of knowing I could take care of myself. He wouldn’t let me get my driver’s license until I demonstrated, lug nut by lug nut, that I could change a tire.

He gave me the gift of noticing me. Once, when I was in high school, after a stormy morning with my mother, I’d left home for the afternoon, wanting more than anything to run away from home. When I walked in the door, his first words were “Welcome home.” How had he known?

He sent me my own post card every time he went on a business trip. This may sound like a small thing, but it wasn’t. Since I had four siblings, getting a card addressed just to me was special, no matter what was pictured. I teased him for years about the card he sent of a prison, with a note on the back pointing out the rust beneath each barred window. His tactic of trying to scare me into being a law-abiding citizen was too transparent, I said. 

But the truth is that, along with the gift of letting me know he was thinking of me, he was also teaching me the value of paying attention. Would I have become a writer without my dad’s influence? I’m not so sure. When, in a creative writing class, I encountered poet Miller Williams’s advice, “Notice everything,” he wasn’t telling me anything new. The smallest of details didn’t escape my father; he was fascinated by the way life worked, down to the effect rain has on iron.

It’s because of my father that I, at age ten, inspired by some fascinating bit of information (I think it was that glass is actually not a solid but a slow liquid) blurted out, “When I grow up, I’m going to learn everything about everything.” My no-nonsense father had to straighten me out. I could, he told me, learn a little about a lot of things or a lot about a few things. But no one could learn everything about everything. 

That didn’t mean, however, that one couldn’t keep learning and growing. This, my father taught me by example. Just after his eightieth birthday, he announced that he was going to have knee surgery. It was elective, he said, but he but he figured he might as well go ahead with it while he was “still young and spry.” Shortly before this, after caring for my mother through several long years of the debilitating illness that took her life, he began taking voice lessons, singing in his church choir, and donating his time and extraordinary handyman’s skills to a home for unwed mothers. He became so proficient at computer skills that he volunteered through a free program to help “the elderly” with their taxes. He never gave up his habit of reading until the wee hours of the morning.

I lost my father on January 2, 2009, this quiet, humble man with a Great Depression mentality who tracked every nickel he spent. We know this, because we found the ledger books in his office, dating back to his Coast Guard Academy days. Yet, just days before he died, my sister told me, he asked her to help him write and mail his annual checks to a number of charities he supported generously. I’d had no idea that, in addition to his other causes, he sponsored a child who lived in a third world country. My dad believed in giving. He just didn’t believe in gifts. Which is why, the Christmas I was sixteen,  it was as much a shock as it was a surprise to find a small package under the tree with a gift tag that read “to Maureen from Dad.”  

Inside was the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, a parable about a sea gull determined to rise higher than any gull ever had. I have always treasured it as the only tangible gift I remember my father giving me. But, I see now, it wasn’t so different from all the intangible gifts he gave me over the years. It whispered to me that he wanted me to reach for my dreams, shouted to me that he believed I could fly. His faith in me has been a source of strength for every dream I’ve taken on, from being a mother to having my books published to starting my own business. His example will see me through life without him, will keep me growing and learning as my own years tick by. What my dad really wrapped inside Christmas paper my sixteenth year was something he gave me over and over again—the gift of wings.


An award-winning poetry and nonfiction writer, Maureen has also been a commentator on Public Radio Station WFAE 90.7. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Texas Review, The Charlotte Observer, St.Anthony Messenger (Ohio),  Potato  Eyes (Maine), Kalliope  (Florida), Chelsea (New York), Cincinnati Poetry Review, Catfish Stew (South Carolina), Catalyst  (Georgia), and Calyx (Oregon). She is the author of Spinning Words into Gold, a Hands-On Guide to the Craft of Writing, a grief workbook entitled How Do I Say Goodbye?, and two collections of poetry, This Scatter of Blossoms and When the Leaves Are in the Water. Her essay “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” appears in Marlo Thomas’s The Right Words at the Right Time, Volume 2 (Atria Books, 2006) and her poem “Such Foolishness” is included in Thirteen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003).

Read more about Maureen here and visit her facebook page here.


Read Justin Hunt’s story about his father here.

A 200-year Present — Who lives there? Share their stories

In a recent On Being with Krista Tippett show — “How Change Happens, In Generational Time” (June 7, 2018) — John Paul Lederach (a senior fellow at Humanity United, a project of the Omidyar Foundation, and professor emeritus of International Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame) tells this story about his mentor Elise Boulding:

“I think it took us a long time to get from the writing of a Constitution to the Civil War; it’s taking a long time to come to the full understanding of how deep that actually was and how it’s left remnants. One of my big — most meaningful mentors that I had was Elise Boulding, who was one of the pioneer women of the peace studies field. Kenneth and Elise were a Quaker couple. And Elise always — she had this phrase about the 200-year present, and I think it might be useful, for us, to think about the current moment in reference to how she would frame the 200-year present. We students would be walked through this very simple exercise. You can do it right now, in the next two minutes. So here it comes.

“If you just calculate, for a minute — so when she said ‘present,’ she meant, like, past, present, future. And she’s saying, you live in a 200-year present. So if you go back to when you — at your youngest age that you can remember, who the oldest person was that held you, and then just calculate back to their birthdate, roughly. Mine would carry from Great-Grandma Miller, would go back into the 1850s — actually, into the period close to the Civil War. And then you do the second part of the process, which is, you think about the youngest member of your extended family — minus two months. And then imagine a robust life — to what decade might she or he live? And then she would always say to us, once we’ve done all this kind of work, she would look at us and say, ‘You were held and touched, and you will touch the lives, of people that cover a 200-year present.'”

Who lives in your “200-year present”? What are their stories? How have they shaped your life?

How can imaging ourselves in “a 200-year present” give us a valuable perspective on change and the time frame for social transformation?

Listen to the entire show here.

Read “Why We Tell Our Stories” for an introduction to an interview with Thuli Nhlapo, author of Colour me yellow: Searching for my family truth. 

His Heart Keeps Beating: Remembering My Father . . . by Ginger Bailey


His Heart Keeps Beating; Bud Bailey

Everett C. “Bud” Bailey

We didn’t have a lot when I was growing up, though I didn’t know it at the time. Looking back I realize our real wealth was the sense of love and security the folks provided. And, without a doubt, it was my father, Everett C. “Bud” Bailey,  who set the pattern and led the way.

I don’t recall ever thinking of my father as anything out of the ordinary. He was just my dad who worked hard. Maybe it was because he worked so hard, as a carpenter and contractor, that I didn’t realize the extent of his disability.

December 29, 1943, on the island of New Britain, he was caught in machine gun crossfire. Left for dead, he stuffed his gun belt into his opened gut and torn thigh, then dragged himself to the back of the line. Twice more he was counted for dead. Twice more he proved them wrong. He never talked about the details. But I believe it was his meetings with death that created his profound respect for life, and his intuitiveness when it came to the needs of others. For example:

It was obvious that my father loved my mother. In 42 years he never stopped referring to her as “my lovely bride.” And the warm, loving tone of his voice always spoke more than his words. He said he was “very, very fortunate” to have married her, and considered her “the most wonderful woman in the world.” After he died, Mother often said “when you’ve had the best, you don’t settle for less.” She knew her husband loved her.

He also loved his children. There were three of us, all girls. We were each very different in our interests and talents, but Daddy (“Father” was too formal and distancing) treated us all equally — differently according to our various personalities and interests, but equally in our worth and value.

I still reflect on the sense of worth he gave me when I wanted to send a fan letter to get a picture of some television personalities. Daddy said I could send my letter, but I had to include one of my pictures. Of course, my picture hit the round file as soon as it was received, but the message from my father was profound and long lasting — I am just as important and valuable as anyone else, including celebrities.

Extended family was also important to him. His parents were always close, often next door. But Mother’s parents were more than 900 miles away. Summer was Daddy’s busiest time at work, but somehow he managed to get us from northern California to the old farm in western Montana every year. He was determined his children would know their grandparents, and his wife would never feel a loss of her roots. Because of Daddy’s respect, love, and commitment those yearly “trips,” were the most memorable and purest of “vacations.”

When I was a high school senior the exchange student from Thailand lived with us. Quickly she became part of our family, and took to calling Daddy “Daddy Long Legs.” It fit. She was 4 foot 10; he was 6 foot 2. Years later, when she returned to the states, the folks met her at the San Francisco airport. Coming through customs she spotted “Daddy Long Legs” and started yelling “Daddy! Daddy!” The love and acceptance was mutual. I always enjoyed watching people’s faces when Daddy introduced Pranom as his “other daughter.” “You mean you can’t see the resemblance?” he would ask. “Two ears, two eyes, a nose, and a smile.”

Daddy never dwelt on differences nor succumbed to prejudices. One day a visitor to our home made hateful, derogatory remarks about the Japanese. The visitor, like my father, was a WWII veteran, but, unlike my father, had never seen combat. Later I asked Daddy why I never heard such hateful words from him. Certainly he had greater cause than this other man. I can still hear his response. “We were all there for the same reason. The only reason they shot me was because I didn’t shoot them first. If I hate them, I have to hate myself.”

I don’t think my father ever hated anyone. He may have disagreed or disliked or even been angry, but hate was not in him. In fact, he was always quick to correct us girls if we used the word, even in a common cliche. 

Daddy was always there for us. One evening when I was in the 7th grade he perceived something was bothering me. When he asked what it was, I broke into tears. I had a history report due the next day, and I hadn’t even picked a subject. Daddy spent the rest of the evening helping me put together a report on the American flag. The teacher gave me an “A,” but I knew it was really Daddy’s “A.” I did the work, but it would never have happened without Daddy’s coaching and encouragement. 

Daddy continued to be there long after my sisters and I reached adulthood. My younger sister, Janet, was battling leukemia when she met a great guy. Not sure what to do, they went to the folks for advice. “Dave and I are in love,” she said. “We want to get married, but I’m going to die.” Daddy responded: “We are all going to die. Use what time you have.” Janet and Dave did marry. She died one year later, but not before Daddy escorted her to her ten-year class reunion. Dave was out of town on Air Force duty, and Janet, just out of the hospital, was too weak to attend the reunion by herself. With Daddy as her escort, she didn’t have to.

Daddy was an active member of many organizations in our small town, especially the American Legion, but it wasn’t until after his passing that I more fully realized how well-known and respected he was. The funeral director postponed his vacation so he could personally see to the arrangements. The American Legion conducted the service, and members of the organization and community packed the chapel to overflowing. The atmosphere was palpable with respect and sorrow. Then the hearse wouldn’t start for the drive to the cemetery. The battery was dead. When the embarrassed funeral director came to Mother to apologize and explain the delay Mother responded, “It’s just Bud telling everyone to lighten up.” She knew her husband well.

Over twenty years after his death I was blessed to learn a little more about my father and what he meant to others. On one occasion I met a young man who said he was an airline pilot because of my father. He explained that as a teenager he spent a lot of time hanging around the local county airport, dreaming that someday he would learn to fly. Daddy, who learned to fly in the late 1960s, was also frequently at the airport. This young man said it was through my father’s encouragement that he found the motivation to pursue and achieve a career that others told him was only a dream.

On another occasion, upon being introduced, a man exclaimed “You’re Bud Bailey’s daughter! Let me tell you what your father did. We were both at the airpark, just hanging out. I was yelling at a lady at the desk when your father stepped up, said he needed to see me, and took me outside. When we were alone he said, ‘You and I are alike; we are both in constant pain. But that is no excuse for the way you’re acting. That woman isn’t the cause of your pain. You need to stop taking your pain out on people who have nothing to do with it.’ Then he walked away. Boy, was I mad, but I was too stunned to speak. So I planned to lay into him the next time I saw him. But it was two weeks before I had the chance, and by then I had time to think about what he said. He was right — 100% right.”

Physical pain from his war wounds was a daily part Daddy’s life, and it got worse as each day passed. The day he again met death was one of the few exceptions. He was feeling good that day, so he and Mother decided to visit my sister, Donna, who lived 70 miles away. On the way home, driving west into the sun, Daddy said, “I can’t see.” Mother thought he meant the sun was in his eyes until he said “I’m blind,” and slumped over the steering wheel dead.

Mother managed to turn the engine off, without locking the steering wheel, and guide the car until it coasted to a stop on the side of the highway. There she called for help on the CB radio Daddy had taught her to use. Help arrived in three or four minutes. They got his heart going, but he never regained consciousness. His heart stopped for the last time two days later.

But a heart like his never really stops. It keeps beating in the lives of those he touched.


Read other memories about authors’ fathers: Justin Hunt’s “Showman’s Pasture,” Maureen Ryan Griffin’s “The Gift of Wings,” Laura Moehrle’s “The Treasure Box,” and Linda Whitesitt’s “Honoring My Father’s Service.”

Belonging to the Land: Whose am I? . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Belonging to the Land; Johanna and Anders Peterson

Johanna and Anders Peterson

My maternal great-grandparents, Johanna and Anders Peterson, immigrated to America in 1868. In this poem, I imagine what my grandmother, Johanna’s and Anders’ youngest daughter Egedia (born ten years after they settled in Minnesota), might have written about her parents’ difficult decision to leave Sweden.

Mama loved her Swedish land, 
guardian for the memory of her mother

who died when Johanna was only two. 
She’d cared for it after Grandpa remarried, 

farmed her own tiny parcel when he divided 
a portion of his land between her and her sister Klara. 

It was land she’d tilled and coaxed, 
laid her body on when she grew tired. 

Land where she’d planted her feet 
when she cured meats and curdled milk, 

sheared sheep and leached ashes for soap, 
cut peat from bogs for heat. 

Mama saw herself in her land, in the sun 
and moon and rain who were her partners.

     If we go to America, she wondered, 
     who will I be in a land that sees me a stranger?

Papa grew up about a mile across the valley 
from Mama on land his forebears 

had worked for generations, 
first as tenant farmers, then as owners. 

Centuries of family stories were etched 
in its ground, remembered by its trees. 

Everywhere he looked, Papa read
the history of his kin. 

Every breeze that brushed his face
carried their songs.

     If we go to America, he wondered, 
     how will I live without the music that made me?


What would the trees of our childhood — the oak we climbed, the willow that held our swing, the maple we leaned against as we read our favorite book — tell us about who we are? What about the other “trees” in our lives? What would we learn about ourselves by writing and sharing stories about the people in our family tree?

A few days ago I was pondering my relationship to my family tree and the possibility of messages from people in its branches making their way to me when a daily meditation by spiritual writer and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr popped up in my inbox with these words from Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak:

. . . The Quaker teacher Douglas Steere was fond of saying that the ancient human question “Who am I?” leads inevitably to the equally important question “Whose am I?” — for there is no selfhood outside of relationship. We must ask the question of selfhood and answer it as honestly as we can, no matter where it takes us. Only as we do so can we discover the community of our lives.

As I sat at my desk thinking about Steere’s questions and Palmer’s words, I realized that the more time I spend in the company of my ancestors, conjecturing the circumstances of their lives and imagining the stories they’d like me to remember, the more I come to appreciate “whose I am.” The people in my family tree are inextricable members of the community of my life. Listening to their songs, I am led to “who I am.”


The poem is an excerpt from my work-in-progress verse novel based on the life of my maternal grandparents, Egedia and Elof Johnson — Chasing Honey: A Legacy of Hope from a Prairie Grandmother. Knowing my grandma’s love of poetry, I chose to cast her story in verse, and after many attempts at different forms, I decided couplets were the best fit for a book of her memories told in her voice. The white space reminds me of the emptiness of the prairie. The couplets suggest the love between her and Elof and the furrows of dirt they spent their life turning.


Read other stories by Linda, our story gatherer —  “Looking for My Grandparents’ Story,” “Finding Our Place” and “Reflections on Living with My Husband’s Cancer.”

Linda has a summary of her grandparents’ story here.

And read Pam Pellegrino’s story about her grandmother — “Nan Takes Pam to College.”

See writer Maureen Ryan Griffin’s The WordPlay Word-zine for her post related to TreeStories.  

Nana Takes Pam to College . . . by Pam Pellegrino

Nana Takes Pam to College; Nana and Her Valiant


I spent the summer of ’68 with her in Wheeling, WVA, working as a day camp counselor and getting to know the area around Bethany College, where I would be starting school in September.  That summer I discovered I wasn’t as afraid of boys as I thought I was.  My crushes included a fellow counselor, two lifeguards, James Taylor, and my cousin Norm.  It was a summer of daydreams and sighs.

When camp was over, I flew home to Michigan to pack for college, but within two days I was weak and couldn’t swallow.  Somehow, without even kissing a single boy, I had a severe case of mono. I was not so much disappointed that I would miss the start of my college career as I was by not having a true story to tell my friends about a summer romance. 

I was well enough to fly back to Wheeling by the end of September, where I was to stay overnight with my Nana, who, the next morning, would drive the serpentine roads of the West Virginia hills to deliver me in decent health to my first semester of college.  Bethany was where my parents met, sitting alphabetically in religion class.  My beautiful mother Joan Boyd next to the dashing young soldier Robert Boyd.  Mom loved her name:  Joan Boyd Boyd. Maybe I would meet my dream man the same way.  This is how carefully I chose my college career.

Nana was very serious about getting me to Bethany as early as possible so I wouldn’t miss another moment of my education.  That morning as I sat at the breakfast table, enjoying her town-famous cinnamon, brown sugar and butter coffee cake, she sat down across from me, her black handbag on her arm and keys jangling in her hand.  She stared at my unfinished breakfast and sighed.  “Well,” she said, “I’ll just go warm up the car.”  In a matter of seconds the engine of her ’64 navy blue Valiant roared; she revved it a few times to make sure I got the message, and a few seconds later there was the horn, that ear-shattering sound I’d come to dread throughout the summer.  

Nana was plump, and at most 4’ 10” tall.  Her head could barely be seen above the steering wheel.  Her driving was already part of family lore, how she smoked her cigarette and set it in the car ashtray, picking it up every now and then for a quick puff; how she used her horn to communicate with the mechanics checking her oil, while they were checking the oil; how she passed 18 wheelers on the highway with her foot full throttle on the accelerator and her hand on the horn the entire way. 

“Good Lord,” I prayed, wiping the crumbs from my face. I grabbed my belongings, scrambled to her car, threw open the back door, stashed the suitcase, slammed it shut. Without so much as a glance behind her, Nana gave the car some gas, and with a squeal of tires and blind determination, she and her Valiant took off without me. 

A few minutes later I saw her car heading back to where I was pretending to hitchhike. As she got closer I could see she was laughing, tears running down her rosy cheeks. Forty-five years later I still smile when I think of her lovable, somewhat high-strung personality, and how I wish I could have seen her face when she looked in the back seat to ask me why I was so quiet.

Well, I did kiss a boy or two that first semester of college, which might have caused the relapse of mono forcing me to leave Bethany before finals. Somehow that valiant car and its driver made it up the steep West Virginia hills, and there was my Nana, revving its engine, making absolute sure I wouldn’t miss my plane home.


When Pam’s husband Jimmy passed away six years ago, she found comfort in writing about her grief. She took classes in memoir writing, found her voice, and writes memoir and poetry in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She is also a Spiritual Director, trained through The Haden Institute in Hendersonville, NC. 

Read Pam’s moving story about her mother here.

Read a family story honoring loving grandparents — Dianne Mason’s “Bobba and Grandy: Memories of My Grandparents.”

The Treasure Box: Memories of My Father . . . by Laura Moehrle

I scurried along beside my daddy as we made our way down the snow-covered street. My feet, clad in red rubber boots took two steps for each one of his. Daddy’s faded blue jeans were shoved into his big black boots which made much huge prints in the snow. Dark curls peaked under his black wool hat and a few snowflakes settled into his beard. My own blond hair was pulled back into a pony tail and tucked under my red knitted hat. 

The earth was blanketed in white while the cloudy sky promised more snow to come. The whole world was empty; quietly hibernating. We were the only ones out and about on that cold December morning. Just my daddy and me. Later that night the whole world would come alive with celebrations as 1971 came to a close, but that morning I had my daddy and the whole world all to myself.

It may have been New Year’s Eve to everyone else, but, to me it was special for a different reason.

“What are you going to buy me for my birthday?” I asked, my breath making little puffs of smoke as I spoke.

“I was thinking about a pair of ice skates,” Daddy said, grinning at me. “Would you like that?”

“Yeah!” I said eagerly. Daddy was always coming up with neat birthday and Christmas presents.

I had never been on ice skates, but I had watched my big brother skate with his friends on the lake. Daddy had taken us roller skating once and that was fun. So I knew that ice skating had to be fun, too.

The store was just a little ways from our house. Colorful pictures of Santa and snowmen decorated the frost covered windows. Excitement built up in my chest. This was almost as good as Christmas morning. A bell jingled on the door as we stepped inside. It was warm so daddy undid my coat and I took off my mittens. The store was empty expect for a gray haired lady standing behind the counter.

“May I help you?” She asked in a friendly tone.

Daddy said that we were interested in a pair of ice skates for me.

The lady frowned and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but the skates are all gone. I don’t believe we’ll be getting any more in either.”

“You’ve sold out already? But winter’s only just started!” Daddy exclaimed.

The lady sighed and said, “I know. They were big sellers this past Christmas.”

My lip quivered. I tried very hard not to cry. Daddy bent down to me, resting his big calloused hands on his knees. He looked as disappointed as I was. “I’m sorry, Kitten. Maybe next year.”

I nodded, but I couldn’t understand who had taken all the skates. It wasn’t fair!

Daddy took my small hand in his and said, “Come on, let’s find you another birthday present.”

He led me to the toy section. The shelves were line with: baby dolls, Barbie Dolls, Easy Bake Ovens, Lego building blocks, board games and cars. I looked at toy typewriters, record players and even a toy telephone that really talked. But nothing seemed special enough for a fifth birthday. After all, turning five was big, a whole hand. I would be going to school in the fall, just like my brother. I could spell my own name. I could reach the knob on our front door. I could even get my own drinks from the kitchen sink if I stood on a chair. I couldn’t do those things last year. Yes, turning five was much too important a birthday to settle for a silly toy as a gift.

“How about this?” Daddy had picked up a pink metal box from the shelf. “You can keep all your special treasure in here. It even has a lock, see?”

I shoved my thumb into my mouth and studied the little box. It was pretty and would be perfect to keep things in. And the lock would keep my brother out.

“Okay,” I said. I took my thumb out of my mouth and smiled. True, it wasn’t as neat as ice skates, but even my brother didn’t have his own special treasure box with a lock.

He handed it to me. I opened it up and peered inside, imagining all the things that I would keep there. Two tiny silver keys were fastened to the inside of the lid. Mommy and Daddy had keys to the car and our house. My brother had a key for the lock on his bike. Now I had keys, too, just like a big person. I really was growing up.

Daddy pulled the new black billfold he gotten for Christmas out of his pocket and paid the lady. She put it in a paper sack and wished me a happy birthday. I put my mittens back on and eagerly reached for the bag.

“What do you say?” Daddy said in a stern voice. Good manners were important, even on birthdays.

I said “thank you” and proudly carried my treasure box home, clutching it close to my chest.

At first the box held rings from Cracker Jack boxes, Bazooka Bubble gum comic strips, pretty rocks, and shells from the beach in South Haven on Lake Michigan.

As time went by, those treasures were replaced by other treasures: notes from friends at school dealing mostly with who had crushes on whom, letters my mother had sent me while I’d been at camp, photographs of my dog that I had taken with my first camera and diaries where I’d written my about my worries and private thoughts. The lock worked at keeping my brother, and later on my little sister, out of my things. I also decorated the outside of the box with funny stickers I had accumulated over the years.

Now, forty- five years later, the little box is a bit rusty, but still pink. A sticker of John Travolta from the movie Grease still adorns the front along with one of Tweety Bird. Most of the other stickers have peeled off or are curling at their corners. The lid no longer clamps down and the lock broke many years ago. It still holds my special treasures:  birthday cards from my parents and grandparents, Valentine cards from children at the day care where I worked, a large flat rock from a hiking trip along Canada’s Bruce Trail, some Girl Scout patches and merit badges. There is even a hand carved barrette that my dad made for me when I was ten.

Most importantly, though, the box holds memories of my father: dressed in jeans and t-shirts, or cable knit sweaters when it was cold, his bright sparkling blue eye, his mischievous sense of humor, and his big strong arms that carried me when I was just too tired to walk.

I’ve had many wonder birthday gifts since, but that little treasure box will always be a favorite. (Incidentally I did get ice skates the following Christmas, just before I turned six.) 


Laura has dreamed of becoming a writer ever since she was a little girl. She recently quit her retail job so that she could fulfill that dream and is currently working on a memoir. She has written several essays, short stories and entered competitions — winning two honorable mentions.

Read stories about other fathers here and here.