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

Finding Our Place -- Gustaf Elof Johnson

Gustaf Elof Johnson (1903 wedding photograph)

From Linda’s upcoming novel-in-verse Hope as Wide as a Prairie Sky 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, 
      forever.

_____

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 is the story gatherer for TreeStories.

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 — Hope as Wide as a Prairie Sky: Memories of Homesteading in Minnesota, Saskatchewan and Montana. 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.”

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.