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.
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.