Elof and Egedia Johnson (Linda Whitesitt’s maternal grandparents)
From Linda’s forthcoming book Hope as Wide as a Prairie Sky: Memories of Homesteading in Minnesota, Saskatchewan and Montana based on the life of her Swedish-American ancestors.
I have prairie dust in my bones — dirt from the sod my Swedish great-grandparents broke on the tallgrass prairie of Minnesota; traces of soil their youngest daughter, Gedia, and her Swedish husband, Elof, tilled on the Saskatchewan plains; bits and pieces from the plowed earth of their second homestead on the shortgrass prairie of eastern Montana — every speck as much a part of me as the stories Gedia tells in this book.
Born Hulda Egedia Peterson, my grandma Gedia (pronounced Gid-ja) came to live with her daughter and son-in-law (Judith and Donald, my parents) shortly before I was born. It would be her job to take care of me while they worked, her labor of love to feed me and change me, play with me and potty train me, read to me and teach me how to read. I am who I am because of my kind-hearted, steel-willed grandmother.
Today I’m almost as old as she was when she first held me in her arms, and I’d like to see her again; hear her strong, gravely voice tell me tales of her life on the prairie; have her introduce me to Gustaf Elof Johnson, the grandfather who died before I was born. What would she tell me about her parents’ and grandparents’ immigration to America? What tales would she share about how she fell in love with a man thirteen years her senior and decided to follow him in the great turn-of-the-century adventure of transforming grassland into the world’s granary? How did she and Grandpa live through the deaths of their children?
Thinking there must be something left of their rugged, pioneering lives, I started to root around in my attic for remnants of who they were and what they did, gleaned box after box for any shred of family history. In a large trunk, I found a shoebox from Penney’s department store labeled “Daddy’s things,” recognized the writing as my mother’s. Seeing the curve of her letters was a treasure all its own. Inside, I picked out Elof’s love poems to Gedia; his small, red-velvet autograph book filled with greetings from his first American friends; a few letters and documents; a couple of photographs; his diary, in Swedish, from his last years; his funeral album; an old Baptist hymn book. Stacked around the shoebox were letters Grandma wrote to my mom during World War II, Gedia’s favorite book of poetry, my mother’s high school diary, the journal of family stories she started to write a few years before her death, and an envelope marked in Mom’s hand — “Linda, you will want this. Aunt Minnie’s story about their Swedish parents.” Grandma’s sister! What a delicious discovery!
Returning to the Penney’s box, I picked up in my hands what Grandpa had touched with his own. “You have his thumbs,” Mother used to tell me as she outlined mine with her finger. “Even when you were a baby, I could tell they were the same.” Perhaps, I thought, Grandpa and I share the same memories as well.
I turned to the Internet, scoured it for information not only about Grandma and Grandpa, but also their prairie friends, the ones they knew in Minnesota who went with them to Canada and then to Montana, and Grandma’s brother Edward who, with his family, accompanied Gedia and Elof on their homesteading moves. Slowly, click by click, I uncovered memories of my grandparents tucked away in local histories, and most astonishing of all, I found Edward’s grandson Jim Peterson, who shared family photos along with his meticulously researched book on our shared ancestors. Equally as fortuitous, I stumbled on the family in eastern Montana who bought the old homestead from Gedia and Elof. They still live there and invited me to put a visit to “the old place” on my bucket list. They’d show me around. Tell me family stories.
I basked in what I’d found. Gathered the stories around me. Started to write. Stopped. Realized I would always want to know more. So I listened. Listened for Grandma Gedia, who always was eager to put in her two cents. Heard her say she’d like to tell me about my ancestors’ pioneering lives in her own words. I paused, then I started to write again, this time in her voice, imagining myself inside her story.
Knowing her love of poetry, I chose to write in verse, and after many attempts at different forms, I decided couplets were the best fit for her book of memories. The white space reminded me of the emptiness of the prairie; the couplets, the intimacy of their love and the furrows of dirt she and my grandfather spent their life turning.
Hearing Gedia’s “two cents” has filled me with awe for my grandparents, dreamers called “honyockers” — chasers after honey (land and opportunity). With hope as wide as the prairie sky, they chased land to grow a future on, then fought to keep going when the unthinkable threatened to tear their lives apart. As I’ve continued to gather information and sift through memorabilia, all the while trying to discern how Grandma would describe her life on the prairie, I’ve become filled with gratitude for all my prairie ancestors and the dust they’ve mingled in my bones. In searching for their lives, I’ve unearthed endless nourishment for my own.
After years of looking and listening, writing and rewriting, I’ve begun to share Gedia’s story with others and in the process, I’ve noticed how hearing about her life has encouraged them to recall anecdotes from their own family history. It’s as if her memories have triggered their own. Then, like me, they want answers to long-held questions about their ancestors’ lives and wonder what information they might uncover on their own Internet treasure hunt. As I tell them about my adventures finding Gedia and Elof, they embrace the possibility that if I’ve been able to forge a link with my grandparents who have been gone for more than half a century, then perhaps they can as well.
I coax them to start looking, tell them that perhaps they’ll find stories related specifically to their forebears. If not, I’m certain they’ll chance on bits and pieces of what their grandparents’ lives must have been like in stories about other people’s ancestors. They might even light on their own story. I suggest that as they take on their own pilgrimage of discovery, they’ll learn, as I did, not to be surprised by the connections they come upon, relationships past and present that feed their soul. And finally, I urge them to take counsel in Frederick Buechner’s reminder that “all our words are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here.”
Linda is the story gatherer for TreeStories. Read her poem about her immigrant great-grandparents — “Belonging to the Land” — another selection from her forthcoming book Hope as Wide as a Prairie Sky.
Read Linda’s reflections about her husband’s battle with lung cancer.