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?

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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.”

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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.

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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.  

 

 

Looking for My Grandparents’ Story . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Looking for My Grandparents' Story; Elof and Egedia Johnson

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.”

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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.

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Read Linda’s reflections about her husband’s battle with lung cancer.