The Storied Past

Joan inherited a keen and abiding interest in the history of her (very) Scandinavian family from her parents and grandparents. She inherited documents, letters, photographs, and a variety of treasured heirlooms from both her Swedish paternal side and her Norwegian maternal side. Family histories done the old way, from personal accounts and letters, library research, and maybe a paid researcher from the old country, were passed down along both lines. These treasured manuscripts—links to an exotic, fascinating past, shaped Joan’s lifelong interest in her Swedish and Norwegian family roots.

But maybe it was the stories—most of all—that captivated her. To a young child, especially one as curious as Joan, stories of distant places and olden times bore a special fascination. Especially vivid in her active imagination was Norway.

From an early age her grandfather, Martin Cornelius, had regaled her with tales of that far-off country. He even used to read to her in Norwegian—because he simply wanted her to hear the distinct cadence and tone of his birth language. Grandpa Cornelius also revealed to her the truth about the discovery of the Americas—a truth that all right-thinking Scandinavian-Americans know.

Martin Cornelius (1886-1975)

Martin Cornelius (1886-1975)

He told her about distant Vikna, a group of islands in the north of Norway, where he was born. He told her about fishermen in the Lofoten islands, about shipwrecks, and about lives lost tragically at sea. He told her of his mother’s birthplace, Leka, a place that seemed unimaginably distant in both time and place to a young girl sitting fascinated at her grandfather’s knee. Leka was home to trolls and ogres—like the poor “Maid of Leka” (the Lekamøya) frozen in stone forever—although Joan’s family called her the “Leka Lady!” And it was home to a little girl, Svanhild, a relative of her grandfather, picked up, the famous story goes, by an eagle and deposited high up on a rocky crag. One can imagine the wonder in her eyes at hearing this tale—and seeing the evidence—because he even showed her a letter, all in Norwegian, from his second cousin Haldor Hansen with a picture of Svanhild inside!

Stories—whether folktales, myths, legends, or the more personal narratives of our forebears recounting their triumphs and tragedies—have a greater longevity than we imagine. In Scandinavia, the oral tradition, the passing down of stories by word of mouth, was an important means of preserving history—the record of one’s ancestors and the recounting of their deeds, both great and small. Many such narratives have survived in Norway, about kings and jarls and farmers and fishermen, to be captured eventually in writing and passed down again in the great poetic sagas, in books and magazines and, yes, even in blogs like this one.

Many stories have been preserved in Norway’s so-called “farm books,” the bygdebøker. Compiled over the last century, they contain not only the results of research into church records, land transactions, and wills, but the textual remnants of people’s lives, hints of tales not completely told, of mysteries yet to be uncovered—of a mysterious silver belt of tremendous value owned by a distant ancestor in Orheim—or about a murder on a lonely island in which one’s many times great grandfather might have been involved!

While researching her maternal grandfather’s genealogy, Joan and Greg found a reference to this distant grandfather in the first volume of the bygdebok for Bindal in Nordland, Norway. While translating the entry for Torger (or Torber as the bygdebok has it) Jonsen on the farm of Gimsen, Greg encountered this tantalizing tidbit of an entry (Bindal, Gård og slekt, Bind 1. H. Sylten. 1999. p. 178):

“Torber and neighbor Jørgen Sjursen got entangled in a murder in Melstein in 1692. They had been involved in sharing stolen goods that Anne Pedersdtr. and Sjur Paulsen of Melstein had appropriated from the men they murdered. For this they were sentenced to pay a fine of 6 lodd of silver.”

What was this story? Was Joan’s 7th great grandfather really involved in a murder? Had Joan, a descendant of staid Lutherans for centuries, finally discovered a criminal in her past?

Trying to solve this mystery, Greg, quite by happenstance, googled the name Melstein and thereby discovered a 300 year old story of dire deeds by moonlight, of unbridled human greed, and of dark violence.

The story told below is Greg’s translation of a wonderful blog post by Norwegian journalist Torstein Finnbak, detailing these long ago events on Melstein (see https://finnbakk.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/hun-stikker-av-hun-stikker-av/). Many thanks to Torstein for reading over this translation and allowing us to publish it.


She’s running away, she’s running away!

By Torstein Finnbakk

[Translated from the Norwegian by Dr. Gregory M. Shreve]

Melstein 1692: Four men were brutally murdered. The heroine of the drama is a 14-year servant girl who ran away, risking her own life.

A February night in 1692 unfolded into an eerie drama on the small island of Melstein in Helgeland when four men were brutally murdered.

A boat crewed by four men decided to seek shelter at the farm owned by Sjul Paulsen and Anne Pedersdatter on the island of Melstein. It proved to be a fateful decision.

This article is based primarily on interviews recorded in 2013 with writer and folklorist Dag Skogheim (1928-2015). Dag himself was from Southern Kvaløya in Sømna, just a few kilometers from Melstein. He knew very well the story of the murders that transpired there. In the 1970s he collected several variations of the murder legend, including one told by his grandfather. He also wrote also a short story on the subject, which was later dramatized.

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Dag Skogheim tells the story of Anne and Sjul. Photo: Arnt Ragnar Arntsen

Melstein or Steine as it is often called, is just a few kilometers from the western side of South Kvaløya in Bindalsfjorden, roughly midway between Sømna and Leka.

So, this is the history and legend of Anne and Sjul, a couple who robbed and murdered four men on Melstein in 1692.

Destitute

In the book Farm and Family in Bindal, Melstein is referred to as “the most marginal farm in Bindal.” Melstein was a simple cotter’s holding, a husmannsplass. The mountainous island is only a kilometer long, offering the possibility of earning only a very scant livelihood. Those who lived there in the 1600s had very little livestock, outside of a few sheep and maybe a cow. These were truly destitute people, living mostly by fishing.

There are no sources—at least none known—that relate where Anne and Sjul originally came from. Church records indicate that Anne Pedersdatter and Sjul Paulsen were married in Solstad Church in 1682. Sjul was listed as a værmann (fisherman) and bruker (farm holder) in Melstein from 1682 to 1693. At the time of the murders the couple had lived on the island of Melstein for ten years and may have been about 30 to 40 years old. They were childless.

Whether they had previously committed any other murders or crimes has not been discovered; so one can only speculate. Melstein was an isolated place, but lay right along a shipping channel. Boats would sail by just a stone’s throw from the island.

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House foundation on Melstein. Photo: Håvard Sylten, Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1

Anne and Sjul’s house was tucked into a cove at the northern end of Melstein, a location where, in later times, there were also other houses. The later inhabitants of Melstein were not related to Anne and Sjul. The cove had a small earthen bank behind it. Practically speaking, there really was no other place where one could have erected buildings.  The barn on the property must have been close to what was once a marsh. There are, in fact, stone slabs at a place where it was natural to build a barn, about 50-100 meters from the house.

Through documents, articles, and not least, Dag Skogheim’s interviews with people who have related the legend of the killings, the events that transpired on the island are well described.

There came a boat

A ten-oared boat is sailing south. Four men are on board, Karsten Jensen, Lars Størkersen, Størker Olsen and Lars Larsen. All of them are from Grønnøy in Meløy, further north in Helgeland.

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Between Kvaløya and Leka is Melstein. The highest point on the island is 29 meters above sea level.

Presumably these men were on their way to Bergen, but some sources say they did not intend to sail further than Trondelag and the Meløy district to buy and sell goods. There is no place, really, to store great riches in a ten-oared boat, but there may have been, among other things, equipment, money, and some silver.

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A ten-oared boat can be up to 50 feet in length. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

In South Helgeland seafarers can encounter difficulties with the weather. Probably there were winds off the shore as well as easterlies. On the fjord between Vennesund and Holm easterlies can be especially problematic. Landing on Melstein in such weather would have been quite difficult. The four beached the boat on the seaward side, the only place they could land given the east wind that was blowing—and then they came up onto the shore.

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Map of Melstein from Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1. Anne and Sjul’s house was probably in Husvik, in the north of the island.

There they ran into Anne and Sjul along with their maid, or perhaps foster daughter, of 14 years, Anne Jonsdatter. The three inhabitants were greatly astonished by this late evening visit.

Dag: “I can also imagine that these men are a bit ostentatious. The four men came upon these destitute conditions; they see a house nearby, maybe just a hut walled in stones and sealed with peat. Then these four men appear, brusque and domineering, giving the inhabitants an immediate sense of inferiority.”

There is no space inside the hut. Anne and Sjul have no lodging to offer these visitors other than the barn, where there is hay they can lie down on. Without a doubt, they have also taken their pelts from the boat along with them.

There is nothing in court documents that indicate that these men protected themselves or kept watch. They fell asleep. They were tired, having maneuvered the longboat ashore against a hard easterly wind. It was difficult to moor the boat in the wind—they were at risk of life and limb. The four men probably didn’t discuss the landing much—they were tired, and there was still a long way to go to reach Leka. So they simply decided to go ashore on Melstein.

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A stone wall between cropland and pasture on Melstein. Picture Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1. Photo: Håvard Sylten 

Kill them!

Their boorish behavior and belongings soon revealed that the visitors had not come empty-handed to the farm. They have with them many valuable things. Anne and Sjul have probably speculated, imagining what these four possessed. Some of the men have perhaps bragged too much, or foolishly displayed their belongings. Anne and Sjul began, perhaps, to fantasize and become more and more tempted. If they could take what the men had, they figured, maybe it would secure their future. Here, now, it seemed there were riches that they could take and use.

They must have thought, “How can we get these riches? — Yes, we can kill them!”

melstein_aneogsjulisteine_1993_ytringen

A 1993 production of the Nordland Theatre and National Theatre, The Drama of Ane and Sjul in Steine based on the novel by Dag Skogheim Photo: The newspaper Ytringen.

Dag: “I do not think that these two discussed the murders to any great length. I believe that, given their social position, they really didn’t reflect on any culpability, any consequences. They saw only this: riches were here now, here on Melstein.”

“Anne and Sjul each have their own axe with them when they go out of the house on their way to the barn. I think that there were two adults, two strong people. They will attempt to kill four men. You have to be flexible and relaxed—loose-limbed—when you kill someone with an axe. This is true especially when the conditions under which this terrible work had to be done are as complex as they must have been in this small barn. It was bright enough; but there was only moonlight, nothing else.”

“The barn had scarcely a real door, rather just a wooden bar, and when they opened it up, it was certainly bright enough inside.”

“The four victims must have placed themselves in such a way that it was relatively easy to go from one to the other cutting them down in turn. The records of the trial don’t reveal if they used the sharp edge or the blunt poll of the axe. But the four must have slept with sufficient distance between them—so it was possible to take them unawares, man for man. During the trial it emerged that both Anne and Sjul had cut the victims with their axes.”

A scream in the moonlight

In Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1 Havard Sylten says:

“They didn’t really land a good first blow on the last man; he reared up on his elbows and let out a scream before the killing blow landed. Foster daughter Anne Jonsdatter woke up at the screaming. She got up and rushed out. In the moonlight she could see that Anne and Sjul had dragged a man wearing a black shirt out of the barn and on up the mountain. After a while they came back and pulled out another man dressed in black—and did the same thing with him. The remaining two were dragged out over the rocks and thrown into the sea. When Anne and Sjul had finished with them all, they just went in and lay down.”

melstein_leka

Melstein with Leka in the background, taken from Hurtigruta. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

Two men were tossed into the sea. Two men were sunk in a boggy marsh on the island.

The next day Anne and Sjul were breaking open casks they had taken from the boat’s hold when the foster daughter discovered blood on the grass in the field. When she asked the couple about it, they threatened her life.

 Visitors from Gimsen

A few weeks afterwards, neighbors Torger Jonsen and Jørgen Sjursen visited from the island of Gimsen. Sjul told them that he had found a boat and some debris by the seashore. The two men agreed to keep this find hidden from any others and divide up the spoils. They helped Sjul chop the ten-oared longboat into pieces, and then these two neighbors took the ship’s sails home with them to Gimsen.

Dag: “This is how it happened. The conditions were right for the murders. It was light enough, and the men were asleep. Then, when the frenzy of the killing grew, and they were nearly finished: the girl. We know she is 14 years old. We don’t know where she came from. During the trial she stated that she pretended she was asleep. But she had heard Anne and Sjul talking together. Then while the murders were being perpetrated, she heard screaming.”

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Aerial view of Melstein. Source: norgeibilder.no

Legends

Dag Skogheim relates the legend as he heard it from his paternal grandfather:

“Out on Melstein there were once lived three people: Anne and Sjul in Steine, and a servant girl. Strangers came to the island. They brought a lot with them—so Anne and Sjul agreed that they would kill them and hide the bodies. But they didn’t know that the maid had seen and heard them. Eventually they figured out that she knew something she shouldn’t know. So they decided to kill her too. They decided to do this during the grain harvest in September. During this time in autumn you went inland to get what you needed for the winter. This was a good time to take her somewhere while collecting wood and lure her to her death. But when they had arrived at Rangådalen and got ready to return home, the girl said that she forgotten her neckerchief at her mother’s. Sjul had to wait for her while she ran uphill to fetch it. But then she broke into a run, rushing to get away towards Gutvik farm. Sjul grabbed his axe, and ran off after her. She ran until she saw the Gutvik farm, and then she shouted. Those working there stopped to look, and Sjul had almost caught up to her. When she came up to the first farm, he threw his axe at her, but he missed, and it lodged in a wall.”

Skogheim reflects: “I think the girl must have been quite astute. She understood that because of what she heard, her life was in great danger. She successfully pretended she didn’t know anything. She managed constantly to play someone ignorant.”

And, of course, she also had no one to tell this story to. Skogheim believed that no one had any errands requiring them to visit Melstein. The few who could possibly have landed at Melstein during the spring and summer might have been occasional fishermen who went ashore temporarily to eat the food they had brought with them. But, most likely, this was not a place people had any reason to go to.

The tense situation with the girl continued throughout the spring and summer. There must have been things they had stolen that she saw, but she couldn’t talk about them. After the murder there must have been many occasions where she had seen things they had taken from the boat that couldn’t be hidden.

“And the girl couldn’t escape—she simply could not escape. Maybe she considered suicide, jumping into the sea and drowning herself, but she didn’t do it. But I think that they must have become suspicious of her, so much so that they must have talked amongst themselves about it. Maybe there was a slip of the tongue, and she heard them discussing her. They must have known that she was the only one who could betray them.”

Another grandfather tells it…

My maternal grandfather always told it this way:

“It must have been that they had to go inland to fetch wood. They needed other goods too, but had to find someone who had them. If you are on Melstein, where can you find these things? Yes, they had to be found in the Gutvik country where there are krongel pines and birch. It was September, and they were bringing in the corn then. They probably had to force the girl, up to the very end, to join in the work. The boat was to be filled up. The wood had to be harvested and pruned, and the wood cut into lengths and carried down to the boat. Someone had to stand by boat, while the others pulled the wood up into it. It could have happened that Sjul is down by boat when the girl begins to run off south toward Gutvik.”

“So begins this nightmare, which for me is even more intense than the actual murder scene. Sjul must have understood right off that she’s running away. She’s running away! She’s running to Gutvik to tell people what she knows! Now, he doesn’t have any choice, boat or no boat, he has to go after the girl. And he knows he must beat her to death. That’s when Sjul of Steine takes up his axe and starts to run after her. She ran until she could see Gutvik, where people were out harvesting the grain, and she called out.”

“Those people heard someone shout and they stopped working. As the two came up to the first farm, he was so close behind her that he threw his axe, but it missed and stuck into a wall.”

This, I think, is a legend variant where they make it very dramatic. And grandfather always ended it this way:

“Then the lensmann, the sheriff, came to Melstein. He sat down with Sjul at the table—and said to him: you don’t have a human heart at all!”

melstein-i-kveldssol

Dusk over Melstein. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

 The sheriff finds out

It is certain that the sheriff in Leka went out to Melstein to investigate early on, very soon after objects began to appear that had come from the ship’s hold. Anne and Sjul had tried to sell them. The sheriff went there that first time but had to come back empty-handed, without proof. At home in Grønnøy, where the missing men were from, people start getting worried about the boat that had never come home. There was a lot of relatively dense boat traffic along the shipping channel, and rumors started up about the longboat crew that had vanished without a trace. Records mention, particularly, that the father of one of the missing men had initiated an inquiry into the fate of the crew.

Dag: “Then the girl enters into this dramatic story. She talks about what happened out there on the island. Now, as far as the sheriff is concerned, the circumstantial evidence is now so strong that he goes back out to Melstein to bring the couple in for questioning.”

So it’s finished now. In court the foster daughter relates all of the sinister events. Sjul confesses. Anne never does. The two neighbors who shared the plunder, apparently in the belief that it had just washed up on the shore in the boat, are only sentenced to fines.

The breaking wheel

Both Anne and Sjul were sentenced to suffer the ultimate penalty, the breaking wheel. The two of them were to be killed and dismembered in Trondheim.

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Breaking wheels 

But both died in prison before the sentence was ever executed. However, the bodies were still treated according to the final judgment. The Trondheim Assembly Book of Judgments says that they were broken on the wheel and that on the 14th of August 1694 there was a request that the city rakker (night men) remove the bodies and bury them in Galgebierg, since they could not be buried in consecrated ground. Galgebierg was at that time a place in Trondheim lying just outside the city walls, at the foot of the Steinberget Ila.

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Trondheim Assembly Book of Judgments

Whatever happened to the foster daughter, Anne Jonsdatter? It doesn’t say.

A poem about the murders by Sigrid Wågan is on page 59 of the book Hverdadsdikt (not translated).

 Ha du haurt om hain Sjul i Steine
ha du haurt at dæ seies før saint,
at hain drap dæ som kom på lainne,
både storkar og faranes faint.

Hain bod utpå Melstein åelinæ,
bære hain me kjærring å taus,

dem tok imot folk utme leie,
som i skavere plagast å fraus.

 Sigrid Wågan

Sources: Arnt Ragnar Arntsen and Torstein Finnbakk: Interview with Dag Skogheim, Levanger 2013. Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1, page 165. Sømna Bygdebok, Volume 2, page 80. It happened in Melstein 1692, article by Arnt O. Åsvang in Yearbook Helgeland 1973. Gunnar Solum: Adventure Coast: From Å to Træna, page 58.

 

The Inadvertent Symbolism of Aprons

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An apron-wearing Joan, almost 12, learning the domestic ropes!

In our last blog post we talked about the mysterious “holes” problem—you remember, right? We ruminated about those tiny holes that mysteriously appear on the bottom front of blouses and tee shirts. Maybe it is just one hole, or two holes, maybe a mysterious pattern of multiple small holes—like the crop circles of the apparel world. Where do they come from? Who made them? Well, as we decided in our last post, we are the culprits! We make these tiny holes most of the time by trapping the fabric of our clothes between the edges of counters and the buttons of our jeans. So, the pressing question is—how to avoid them?

Searching the internet yielded some solutions, including a few advocated by domestic maven Jessica Hewitt. You can avoid the holes by adopting one or more of the following simple strategies: wear high heels when you work, wear pants with no buttons, tuck your shirt into your jeans, or wear an apron.

Let’s take each of these in turn. High heels? Let’s just say that this is not an option in our household. In a text exchange about the holes with our middle daughter Kristyn (who also suffers from this mysterious malady), Joan explained that wearing high heels was a solution we had discovered during our inquiries into the topic.

Greg, however, interjected, “I can see you and Mom doing housework in heels…not!!!”

“Yeah ain’t going to happen LOL” was our daughter’s reply.

Pants with no buttons? We just don’t see Joan in pants with an elastic waistband if they aren’t pajamas. Also, Joan is passionate about jeans (in the same way Imelda Marcos was passionate about shoes). Hello, my name is Joan, and I have a denim problem. Her collection of jeans is all one specific brand (Levi’s, yeah you guessed it) and only certain numbers—numbers that have some arcane meaning to her. The collection is curated carefully, let’s put it that way, and has mostly been assembled from “Goodwill Hunting.” Joan looks for the correct size and specific Levi Strauss number (505, 512, 515 or 550, the number she claims as her work jeans).

So, if it is a choice between the jeans and the holes in shirts…well shirts are cheaper, especially those purchased through careful coupon use and Goodwill purchasing.

As to tucking a shirt in? Well, possibly, but Joan has yet to do that and frankly, it’s not her style.

So that leaves aprons—a very sensible solution indeed. Those of us who came of age in the sixties remember a time when mothers and grandmothers routinely did their housework in dresses protected by aprons and sometimes in heels as well. (Those holes were certainly going to be held at bay.) As forty some years have since passed, the practice of wearing aprons has declined—but not entirely disappeared—the apron is not extinct and still roams the American cultural landscape. Food service workers have continued to wear them, and aprons are certainly sported by grillers at outdoor barbecues. Aprons even seem to be making a comeback in American homes, as evidenced by the “retro’ and “vintage” aprons popular on Etsy and Ebay. A variety of aprons are even available now at stores like Kohl’s and Walmart.

For we baby boomers, however, aprons evoke a plethora of mixed emotions. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when we think of the dear women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts—in our lives serving up comfort foods like meatloaf, pot roast, or one of Joan’s childhood favorite dishes “tuna spaghetti.” In our mind’s eye they are wearing aprons—bib aprons, pinafore aprons, and, of course, waist aprons. They are plain and frilly, patterned and plain, and almost always a bright, colorful testimony to the palettes of those decades.

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Christmas 1967: Mom Nelson and Aunts Helen and Evy

Television, newspaper, and magazine advertisements featuring women in aprons sold everything from foods, cleaning products, and detergent to kitchen appliances. We remember fondly our most well-known television “Moms”—June Cleaver in “Leave It To Beaver,” Margaret Anderson on “Father Knows Best,” and Donna Stone in the “Donna Reed Show.” They were the cultural exemplars of apron-wearing domesticity from our long-gone childhood, emulated to greater or lesser degrees of success by our own mothers

As a young girl Joan’s first sewing machine project was to make her own apron. It was a waist style made with pretty blue-flowered material. It had a useful pocket (something many dress pants don’t have!) and a fanciful bric-a-brac trim. She had forgotten about this apron for decades, but in 2005 when we had to sell the home her parents had lived in for almost fifty years, she found the apron nestled comfortably in a box along with her mother’s aprons.

For us, and maybe for you too, that apron is a symbol of a domestic world long gone. It harks back to a time when using a sewing machine was a skill taught only to girls in the family, and an apron was the perfect first sewing project. Naturally, a girl would need to wear it in her own kitchen some day.

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Mother serves…and Father knows best.

For those of us who emerged changed from the sixties, altered in mind and attitude in so many ways, a woman in an apron wasn’t just an avatar of our mothers but also a template for what we were expected to become. This once unobjectionable protector of clothing became a symbol of inequality, a marker of diminished choices and the constraints of domestic identity. A woman’s place was not in the workforce or the boardroom, or even, apropos to this year’s election, in the Oval Office. Her place was in the home: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, with a husband as the sole and undisputed breadwinner for the family.

When Joan left home and left the sixties, she firmly put her apron-wearing days behind her—in a box, with her mother’s aprons. While Greg was in graduate school, Joan worked full-time and came home to a dinner prepared by Greg. When one of Greg’s many apron-wearing aunts found out, she chided Joan gently, “You let him do that?” It was almost unthinkable to one of our parents’ generation for a wife to “let” the husband do the cooking.

Even though economic and family circumstances changed later, and Joan took over cooking responsibilities and major household chores after almost two decades in the workforce—the decision to do so was her choice—made in order to stay home with the children and create a home life that she hopes they now fondly remember. It was not a decision made easily and without misgivings, but one she in no way now regrets. We are certainly aware that this choice is not always available to either partner due to economic or other circumstances.

So, let’s go back to the question at hand. Would Joan wear an apron to prevent those holes? No—probably not, for reasons both fashion-related and intimately entangled in the identity crises of many women of our generation.

Joan, ever practical, simply works in shirts that have already sprouted holes. But maybe, just maybe, as an ironic half-wink to who we were and who we are now, if she is ever in the kitchen with good clothes on, she might, just might, pull out that old bric-a-brac apron—the one that doesn’t have holes in it.

What’s up with those holes in my shirt?

Holes in Joan's tee shirt--just above the bottom hem

Holes in Joan’s tee shirt–just above the bottom hem.

You might know immediately what we’re talking about, or might know someone this minor problem has afflicted. Maybe you haven’t a clue what we’re referring to—if you are clueless, or, as the case may be, “without holes” read on to be edified!

For some time now Joan has noticed tiny holes appearing in the bottom front of many of her shirts. She would see one hole, two holes, maybe a pattern of multiple small holes. We have had cats—sometimes multiple feline friends—for almost our entire married life, so Joan never thought the holes were much of a mystery. Cats have claws. Said be-clawed cats pounce on us, knead on us, and snuggle (often with claws unsheathed) in our laps. Occasional holes in one’s clothing are just a part of the deal—an inter-species tradeoff—when cats are members of your household (see our previous post about our cats https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/constant-and-faithful-companion/). Joan never gave the matter much thought or mentioned it as a matter of interest to anyone.

However, two years ago, after we lost our sweet cat Muffin and became a cat-less household, Joan began to notice that her new (post-Muffin) shirts were continuing to manifest the distinctive little holes. They weren’t random and seemed always to appear in the same area of the shirt: just below her bellybutton on her abdomen, close to where the button of her jeans would lie beneath. Cats were apparently not the problem after all!

This sweet little cat was not the culprit

This sweet little cat was not the culprit!

Curious, she asked Greg about it. He claimed not to have ever had the problem at all; he couldn’t remember ever seeing the kind of holes Joan described on his own clothing. This absence seemed quite strange. We both wear tee shirts and jeans most of the time, and the shirts are pretty much made out of the same material, aren’t they? Why would one member of the family be afflicted, and the other escape this couture calamity?

Now we were faced with a minor, but intriguing mystery. What in heaven’s name was creating those pesky little holes? Joan isn’t one to ignore a burning question (even if a relatively minor one) until it is answered. And if Greg is to have any peace during an information quest, he has to assist in finding a logical explanation.

Further, we found it strange that we had never heard of anyone having this problem while we were growing up. If our mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles had this problem, we certainly didn’t hear of it. Was it possible that the “little hole problem” is a modern-day phenomenon? And if so, why? Or did this happen to our elders, but, absent the internet and its blogs and tweets and posts discussing the mundane inanities of life in great, endless, and unimportant detail, we simply had no way to hear about it?

For instance, could it be moths? We ruled that possibility out immediately. Moths would have affected other items of clothing and fabric, certainly. And many of the affected items were not likely to be attractive to moths—made of synthetics. Not all of Joan’s clothes were affected, and Greg’s clothes showed no holes at all. And moths surely wouldn’t choose just the lower front area of a shirt and leave the rest of the material alone. Our “little holes” weren’t at all likely to be the result of hungry little moths. There was a pattern here—but what was it?

This was also not the culprit...at least not of these holes

This was also not the culprit…at least not the perpetrator of these holes!

Joan resolved to pay close attention to the domestic activities she did during the day in hopes of discovering the source of the problem. Does the old rough wooden laundry cart in the basement catch her tee shirt when she leans over it to retrieve clothes? Do the bobby pins or hair clips on her lap poke a hole or two into her tee shirt fabric when she’s pinning up her hair? Speaking of modern causes, what about working on a laptop? Joan often works on her MacBook Air for hours at a time doing genealogy (an activity that surely benefits from her single-minded pursuit of unanswered questions and trivial mysteries). Could the edge of the laptop bottom be thinning the material in her shirts making them more liable to develop holes? Observation seemed to indicate that none of these innocent possibilities appeared to be the likely culprits. But over time, and with more diligent observation, a couple of telling clues began to emerge.

Clue 1: Joan noticed that the phenomenon occurred only in shirts she worked in around the house. None of her fancy tops, blouses, shirts and chemises, worn for “good occasions,” going out to restaurants, for example, seemed to have developed any holes. The cause of the holes, it seemed, was a domestic one.

Clue 2: Joan started asking members of our family about whether they had noticed little holes in their shirts. Our oldest daughter didn’t notice any holes. Our son didn’t have any. Greg, as we’ve already reported, didn’t exhibit any.

She texted our middle daughter one day: “Random question – do u get small holes in ur tshirts near ur waistline?”

Our daughter’s response was rapid and decisive: “Yes I do!! What is up with that? I always get those holes! I always thought it was the kitties who made the holes.” (Note: our middle daughter has two cats and academically researches feline behavior).

Joan felt a little relieved that she wasn’t the only one after all. “So I’m not crazy! This isn’t happening only to me!” As it turns out (from this small and quite unscientific sample), the height of the shirt-wearer seems to be a significant variable. Greg, our son, and our oldest daughter are all at least five inches to ten inches taller than Joan. But our middle daughter is only about an inch taller. Hmmm…were shorter people somehow more likely to accumulate these holes? We were perhaps onto something here.

When no other useful clues emerged after the height discovery, we decided to let the subject rest a while—but still keep out a watchful eye out for new holes and the conditions under which they might develop. While vacationing in the Shenandoah Mountains with two good friends last summer, we happened to broach the subject over dinner (God knows why!). Turns out our friends were also no strangers to the mystery. Although Dave didn’t have a problem with the little holes, Brenda was, like Joan, a victim. This added some credence to the “height-related” hypothesis.

This was a topic our friends had discussed with some of their own circle of friends, and they suggested that if we googled the problem, we’d probably find lots of explanations. They weren’t kidding! What we found were endless speculations and tentative explanations.

Several online sites noted that material sold in today’s world is cheaper, thinner, and poorer in quality, making holes more frequent. This could support a “modern phenomenon hypothesis.” Maybe the clothes from our younger days—we are after all sixty-something—were simply of better quality. Problem is, that explanation doesn’t really account for why most men and taller women today don’t seem to have the holes.

Some claimed the problem stems from wearing belts. Another theory is that it comes from standing at a kitchen or bathroom sink where you come into contact with cleaning solutions that weaken the fabric of your shirt. Someone suggested a correlation between the appearance of holes and the new HE washing machines that don’t have agitators. On another website one woman claimed that holes only started appearing in her clothes, but those of no other family members, when she moved into a new house with a walk-in closet. Some of these explanations seem unlikely to us. After all, for instance, tall men wear belts and don’t complain of the little holes. It isn’t clear why the absence of an agitator would create holes! One might expect, logically, the reverse. In fact, we still own an agitator machine.

Nope, also not the culprit

Nope, also not the culprit.

We decided to settle on the explanation that fit best with the clues we had already unmasked and well, frankly, made the most sense. Here we have to give credit to Jessica Hewitt, author of a parenthood blog called “Five In Six.” In her post, “Those Tiny Holes at the Bottom of Shirts – The Culprit & The Cure,” Jessica concludes, “The small holes at the bottom of shirts are caused by the shirt repeatedly rubbing between a pants’ button and a hard surface…” You can read her blog for yourself here: http://fiveinsix.com/2014/02/tiny-holes-at-the-bottom-of-shirts.html.

Jessica tested her theory by purchasing a new, hole-free shirt (Jessica bravely took “one for the team on this one”). She wore her new shirt with jeans for four days straight but kept the front of her shirt tucked into her jeans the entire time. Outcome? No worn spots at the bottom of her shirt. No holes!

Jessica’s conclusion matches perfectly with the clues we uncovered. Joan only gets holes in the shirts she wears working around the house. Do the holes appear at the spot where her jean’s button presses against the kitchen counter? She stood against our hard granite kitchen counter, and sure enough, found that her tee shirt’s holes and jean’s button hit the granite at precisely the same place. And this was not the case for Greg, who is quite a bit taller. The height of the jeans/shirt wearer—which is positively correlated with gender in most cases—seems to account for the variability in who is afflicted and who is not. Greg’s jeans button, simply stated, is higher than the counter. No “fabric sandwich” ever happens.

When you wear tops with jeans and come into contact with a hard surface like a kitchen countertop, the fabric becomes sandwiched between the jeans and the hard surface. This causes friction, rubbing the fabric of the top repeatedly against the metal button of the jeans—the result, over time, unnoticed and unbeknownst to the wearer, is a pattern of tiny holes! It can likely be any hard surface: a counter, edge of a desk, or maybe even where a seat belt comes into contact with the shirt material over the jeans button.

The culprit!

The culprit!

Mystery (at least to our satisfaction) solved! But the trick, of course, is figuring out how to prevent getting any more of the pesky little holes. In our next post, we look at some of the solutions—with a generational twist and a nod to the domestic apparel of an earlier age—to this pervasive but, admittedly, trivial problem!

 

The Good Doctor

 

Dr, Andrew Novick Photo

Dr. Andrew Novick

On October 10 Greg had a strange and singular experience. All of a sudden, after doing nothing more difficult and remarkable than getting out of the bathtub, Greg began to experience severe double vision—dysplopia for those inclined to medical terminology. He was seeing two perfect images side-by-side, images that would easily resolve into one if he just closed one of his eyes.

Greg had so-called “binocular double vision,” which often appears as a symptom of a number of serious conditions ranging from brain tumors and aneurysms to multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis. This, quite understandably, triggered urgent phone calls, a flurry of medical office visits, and an emergency MRI of the brain and brain stem. It was certainly a series of strange and discomfiting days.

But, it was the MRI that really brought the memories rushing back—dredged up from sixteen years ago—memories of other strange days and other anxious visits to hospitals—and memories of a most extraordinary doctor. This wasn’t the first time that Greg had to lay, still and quiet, mind racing with morbid scenarios, inside a clanking, claustrophobic tube. It wasn’t the first time that Greg (and Joan) would have to wait for results—both trying their best to balance precariously on a knife edge of fear—listening for a single phone call that could bring with it greatest joy (you’re cancer-free!) or deepest sorrow (I’m sorry, we found a shadow, a lump).

Every time Greg has to have a CAT scan or MRI, the experience is tinged with dread. Every whine of the tube, every mechanical clank of the whirling magnets is an awful counterpoint to his racing thoughts. Am I already dying as I lay here, arms flat to my sides, in awful semblance of a corpse? Am I just killing time until I get the bad news? Or will this machine, a marvel of medical science, tell me I have years to go before I must close my eyes for good? Lying supine in these machines brings one’s thoughts very close to the possibility of death, the metal and plastic tube a premonition of a tomb.

As it turns out, Greg would be fine. Death was not imminent. The machine delivered the much desired good news. There was no tumor, no cancer, just a simple “insufficiency” of blood to the sixth cranial nerve. Cause unknown—nothing to see here—move on. In six weeks it will be as if nothing had ever happened. But it did happen; and we were afraid, again, after all these years, of all those bad things that can befall a long-married couple.

This was all dwelling on our minds when, just a few weeks later, on an otherwise routine November morning, while filling out a medical form necessary for seeing a specialist about Greg’s double vision, Joan googled the name of the doctor who had removed Greg’s kidney after a diagnosis of cancer.  Sadly, her innocent search uncovered the dark news that Greg’s surgeon, Dr. Andrew Novick, a world-renowned urologist at the Cleveland Clinic, had, unbeknownst to us, passed away, some eight years previously.

Deeply saddened by the unexpected news, we found our thoughts turning back to one of the darkest times in our life together. Fortunately for us, Greg’s brush with renal carcinoma had a happy ending—and we know all too well this is not the case for everyone. What we knew, for a certainty, was that sixteen years ago this extraordinary man, this most excellent physician, had saved Greg’s life.

In the summer of 1999 after a long and excruciating night in pain, Greg discovered a massive amount of blood in his urine—there is nothing like a toilet bowl full of scarlet to inspire immediate terror. An urgent visit to the doctor resulted in a “probable” kidney stone diagnosis.  Greg was advised to watch for the stone to pass—but when no stone appeared, our then family physician, Dr. James Waugh of Kent, Ohio, following medical protocol, ordered an intravenous pyelogram.  We both remember with utter clarity the call that came from him just the next day. Greg wasn’t home. Joan, unaware of what the test results were to show, gave the doctor’s office Greg’s cell number. Although something, perhaps a faint tremor of emotion in Dr. Waugh’s voice, told her that the news wasn’t good, she had to patiently wait to hear from Greg himself:  “They found a shadow on my kidney.”

Appointments followed. Greg, we need to discuss treatment options. Greg, we need to schedule a CAT scan. Greg, the CAT scan shows a 10cm tumor. Greg—it’s renal carcinoma. Greg, you need surgery. Greg, I think you should go to the Cleveland Clinic. Greg, I think you should meet with Dr. Andrew Novick. Greg, he’s the best there is.

There are many things about that time in our lives to blog about: depression; sleepless nights; regrets. All the deeds left undone and words left unsaid. Above all one could write about how one day life is, well, normal, quite unremarkable. You wake up in the morning, get coffee, send the kids off to school, put in a day’s work. And then suddenly, a two-minute phone call changes your world—irrevocably. In the hours and days that followed, we were both consumed by an almost overwhelming fear of what might lie ahead of us.

But that dark time really isn’t the only subject of today’s blog. It is also about a man named Andrew Novick and our brief but life-affirming connection.  By 1999 Dr. Novick had already been Chairman of the Department of Urology for fourteen years. During his tenure in the Department he led the urology program to the top of the national rankings (according to an annual survey conducted by the U.S. News & World Report). He had authored hundreds of research publications and held visiting professorships at academic centers around the world. Greg’s best chance of survival, we decided, would be to get treatment from the best.

The many trips we made to the Cleveland Clinic for testing that summer of 1999 are now mostly a murky blur to us, but the day we met with Dr. Novick—that day is crystal clear. It could have happened yesterday. His handshake was warm and genuine; his voice was confident and soothing. He explained the entire surgical procedure Greg would endure and what we could expect. Due to the size of the tumor, he said it was possible that the cancer had spread to Greg’s spleen and that the spleen might also have to be removed. As he spoke about the upcoming surgery, tears welled up in Joan’s eyes.  Dr. Novick gently took her hand and reassured her, “Don’t worry; we’ll get him back to health.” That moment and those words were a turning point for Joan.  Dr. Novick was not the kind of man to give false hope. If he felt confident of success, so did she.

When he had finished talking with us in his office, Dr. Novick suggested we go out to the main office and check the surgery schedule. August 9th was the first available date.

“Our first date was on August 9th,” remarked Joan.

“That was the day I met my wife,” Dr. Novick added.

We three decided that this was a good omen.

The day of the surgery, Greg had to be at the Cleveland Clinic at 7 am to be prepped for his radical nephrectomy at 9 am. It wasn’t until after 4:00 pm that Dr. Novick called Joan on the waiting-room phone with the news that the surgery had been successful. He felt confident that all the cancer had been removed. The tumor was self-contained, encapsulated on the kidney; “it was just sitting there,” he said. It hadn’t spread to the spleen. Greg had every hope of living many more years. And here we both still are, sixteen years later. Yet, sadly, Dr. Novick himself is not.

It is no small accomplishment to have the expertise and skill to perform a surgery like the one that saved Greg’s life. It takes years of study, hard work, and dedication. Such uncanny expertise mixed with personal warmth and extreme compassion; only one word comes to mind, extraordinary. What Dr. Novick did for us was no mean thing. It wasn’t just the surgery and the gift of his sure and capable hands; he also gave us a spark of hope, the courage to move forward into the darkness of an uncertain future. As it turns out, we could have many more years together.   Greg would be able to see his children grow and thrive.  For all these things we are deeply grateful.

In the years that followed we saw Dr. Novick just a few more times when Greg needed to go to the Clinic for his six-month check-ups. There were more CAT scans, all clanking and whirling, and more anxious waiting for results. After a while Greg’s cancer checkups and his CAT scans were done less frequently and more locally; we ceased making trips up to the Cleveland Clinic. Then, after a while, no more CAT scans were called for at all. Greg was cancer-free. We never saw Dr. Novick again after that.

During the nine years that followed the surgery, Dr. Novick helped create one of the most prestigious medical facilities in the world, the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. His urology program would continue to be ranked among the top two in the country. He championed the partial nephrectomy, a procedure which removes only diseased tissue and saves as much healthy tissue as possible. Always the innovator, Dr. Novick also pioneered a technique that used ice baths to spare kidney function. In recognition of his many accomplishments, he received the Ramon Guiteras Award, the American Urological Association’s highest honor, in May 2008.

On October 19, 2008, just two weeks before the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute was to open its doors to its first patients, Dr. Andrew Novick passed away from complications of lymphoma. He was only 60 years old. It is impossible to determine how many lives he had already saved, how many more lives he could have saved—would have saved— had he lived. It is all so unspeakably sad and unfair—as life itself often is.

With his strong, capable hands Dr. Novick healed Greg—lifted him up as he lay dying. With his warm, compassionate voice, he gave Joan courage and hope when she needed it most desperately.

But he could not, in the end—all his skill and knowledge not withstanding—heal himself. His own cancer he could not cast out. We survived, and he did not.

Dr. Novick, Andrew, had touched us so closely; a relationship at once both unimaginably intimate and so clinically distant.  Yet, we did not even know that he was gone—had been gone for eight years already. Something seems very wrong about that. There is a debt owed, but it is one that can never be repaid except in remembrance and gratitude. For the man who was there, the man who reached out his hand to help and heal: farewell good doctor, farewell.


Photo courtesy of Cleveland Plain Dealer

http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2008/10/dr_andrew_novick_dies_was_reno.html

A Day in the Life

Almost a decade ago in 2005 Joan’s father, Donald Theodore Nelson, died from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although in the end he wandered lost in a labyrinth of his own evaporating memories, we remember him as he was: intelligent, well-read, curious, incomparably meticulous, and, above all, a man with a deep sense of responsibility— to country, to work, and to family. (See our earlier blog “Donald T. Nelson, Hero https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/donald-t-nelson-hero/)

He was a modest man with a keen awareness of the passage of time, of how the legacies of our past shape the contours of our present. He knew, instinctually, how a well-planned present could bring about a desired future. He had, consequently, an abiding and serious interest in family history and his Swedish ancestry—but also an unswerving commitment to ensuring the well-being of his descendants.

Since his death, the two of us have chosen to honor his memory by making an annual pilgrimage on Memorial Day to a small cemetery in Lemont, Illinois—the Bethany Lutheran Cemetery, known for many years by old-timers in the town as the “Old Swedish Cemetery.”  Donald and his wife Ruth, Joan’s mother, are buried in this peaceful small-town preserve about 27 miles south of Chicago. Indeed, almost the whole of Joan’s Swedish ancestry for several generations is interred here, including paternal grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents—along with a plethora of great aunts, great uncles, and cousins of all sorts. The quiet hilltop is filled with memorials to those 19th century Swedish families who came to Lemont from the old country to build their futures in a promising new land.

On this Memorial Day, May 25, 2015,  the two of us are not alone in the Old Swedish Cemetery. We are joined by a small group of Joan’s extended family—all of us gathered to remember our forebears, as well as departed fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands. We sit on benches and in lawn chairs underneath the trees for a short service; we take a solemn walk to a loved one’s grave; we stop and think about times past but not nearly forgotten. Then, like our Swedish families before us, we gather together for a meal afterwards, where more is served up than food. There is an abundant portion of reminiscence, nostalgia, old stories, and the unspoken but deeply satisfying comfort of shared history and long familiarity.

Axel and Annette Nelson Family Circa 1891

The members of this hardy band meeting once a year under the trees at the cemetery are descendants of two immigrant Swedish-American families formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are descendants of Axel and Annette Nelson (born Axel Nilsson and Annette Andreassdotter), while others are descendants of James Ahlberg (born Johannes Ahlberg) and Christine Sandberg.  A few, like Joan, are descendants of both couples. But this post is about Axel and Annette.

It is quite likely that the Memorial Day tradition at the Old Swedish Cemetery began over a hundred or more years ago. A first cousin of Joan’s father, who was born in 1919, remembers that her parents had brought her to the cemetery on Memorial Day when she was just a small child.

Annette and Axel Nelson had eleven children, seven of whom have living descendants. During the nine years we have been attending the gathering, we have met with descendants of six of those seven Nelson children. But, who, really, was this family? What was it about them and their character that they could give birth to a tradition strong enough to survive year after year after year for over a century? Maybe if we understood a little more about this family, we could fathom the tidal pull, the familial forces that could hold their descendants together in the face of time and the inevitable dissolution of shared memory.

Thus, after returning to our home in Ohio, we pored over the many painstakingly recorded memories of the Nelson family that have been preserved.  We diligently studied Illinois census records from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One census entry, recorded on a single summer day in 1900, was striking in its detail and transported us back in time to Lemont, to the ancestral home of Joan’s great grandparents, Axel and Annette Nelson.

Axel and Annette Nelson Family 1900 Illinois Census

Axel and Annette Nelson Family’s Entry in the 1900 Illinois Census

It is Monday, June 18, 1900. Axel, age forty-three, and Annette, thirty-eight years old, have been married nineteen years, and Annette has already given birth to nine children. Of these, eight are still living.

A baby daughter, Anna Selma, only one month old has not survived. She died tragically in February 1886. Her cradle was near the small stove used to heat the house, mayhap moved there to keep her little body warm on a chilly winter day. Axel’s coat accidentally caught on the handle of a kettle heating on the stovetop, spilling boiling hot water over Anna’s small body. She didn’t survive. Anna would be the first member of the Nelson family to be buried in the Old Swedish Cemetery.

By 1900 the two oldest children, Minnie and Al, have already left home. There are six children now remaining in the too small, two-bedroom home. Anna Selma (named for her deceased sister) is thirteen; Emma is eleven years old; Ted (Joan’s grandfather) is eight; Esther is six; Emil is four; and the youngest, Sigfried, is but two.

It is morning, and Axel has already left for his job as quarryman at the Lemont limestone quarries. The work is dangerous and difficult, paying only about $30 a month, but Axel has managed, somehow, to acquire enough money to buy a small homestead for the family. It is a modest house and a barn located in a Swedish neighborhood about a half-mile from the Lemont city limits—a neighborhood known as Hazel Dell. It was also referred to by the somewhat mysterious name “Stray 80” for many years.

Annette keeps the home clean and tidy.  The Nelson home has only a kitchen, dining room, and two small bedrooms.  Although a bedroom and living room would be added later, the family never will have the luxury of an indoor bathroom.  When Annette first saw the home she and Axel had purchased, she broke out in tears, “because it was so full of bugs!”

Anna Feeding Chickens In Lemont

Anna Feeding Chickens in Hazel Dell

The kids are out of school for the summer. Annette sends Ted out to feed the pigs and milk the cow, affectionately named “Lillaboy” by the family. She tells Anna to tend to the chickens. Emma is taking care of the smaller children, so that Annette can get her work for the day done.

Annette is spending her Monday morning washing clothes by putting them in a boiler on the stove. Her boiler is a large cauldron in which the family clothes and soapy water are heated together. Axel’s extra set of work clothes are particularly soiled, so she removes them from the boiler and hands them to Anna to scrub the stubborn dirt out with a washboard. After washing, rinsing, and wringing the clothes, Annette and Anna hang the clothes outside on the line to dry. Of course, ironing will come later.

Like many other women at the time, Annette follows a strict schedule: washing is done on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, mending on Wednesday. Friday is the children’s favorite day because that would be the day Annette bakes fresh bread.  Yesterday, a Sunday, had been a relative day of rest for Axel and Annette because it was a day strictly set aside for attending services and activities at Swedish Bethany Church. Yesterday Axel had taught Sunday school, and the children who were old enough attended classes. Being short on cash, Axel quietly pilfered a few pennies from Annette’s yeast jar to give as a heartfelt church offering.

Annette speaks only Swedish to her children.  Although Axel learned English through his work, and some of the children English through school, Annette has still has not learned her adopted country’s tongue. She has little incentive to. The Swedish Bethany Church that the family attends holds all of its services in Swedish. She purchases her goods from Swedish-speaking merchants in town.  Her social life revolves around the Swedish prayer meetings that she and her neighbors hold in their homes. But she is nevertheless uncomfortable that she does not understand what her children are saying to one another. She tries to pick up English words and phrases. Sometimes she hears the children laughing while they’re playing outside, their voices, sing-song, imitating Swedish in a made-up language the Nelson kids called “Skonic,” probably so-named because the children had been told that the Nelson family had come from Skäne in southern Sweden.

Afternoon comes quickly this busy Monday in 1900. After a mid-day meal, Annette, Anna, and Ted go out to tend the vegetable garden planted in the family’s front yard. The family grows almost all of its own vegetables. While toiling in the afternoon sun, Annette thinks to herself that she is glad it is summer. The children are home from school and can help out. There is less coal for her to gather, less water to carry, maybe a few chores less in a chore-filled day. And she is glad, above all, that Axel is at home living with the family. During the winter months the quarries don’t operate, and last winter Axel tried to make ends meet by cutting down trees to sell as firewood. When that didn’t bring in enough money to live on, he had to leave Lemont in order to find work in another town.

Today Annette feels a little dizzy working in the afternoon sun; her stomach is a bit queasy. It dawns on her that she might be pregnant again. Except for her oldest daughter Minnie, all of her children have been born in the bedroom of their little home in Hazel Dell. If she is carrying another child, her tenth baby will be arriving early next year in 1901.

A census taker arrives while Annette is still working in the garden with the children. She tells the children that they can stop for a break and play for a while.  Emma has already put Emil and Sigfried down for their naps. Emma and Esther then go outside for some welcome free time with their siblings.

The census taker is Nels Anderson, a man in his late twenties, himself a Swedish immigrant. Annette offers him coffee and cardamom rolls, which he gladly accepts.  As they sit at the table, Annette answers all his questions quietly so as not to wake the younger children napping in the nearby bedroom. It is with pride that she tells him that she and Axel own their home, that it isn’t rented or mortgaged.

Axel had come alone to America in 1881; this is, coincidentally, the same year as Mr. Anderson himself had come over. After Axel managed to scrape together enough money for their tickets, Annette and her oldest daughter Minnie joined him, immigrating in 1883. She tells Mr. Anderson the story of her arduous journey—a story she would come to repeat many times in the years to come. With a little one not yet three years old, Annette endured a miserable voyage across the ocean. She had to furnish her own food and bedding and sleep on the deck with the baby. She vowed, after this experience, to never make the return trip to Sweden. And she kept that vow. Like so many before and after her, she would never again see those left behind—parents, siblings, friends.  While a new family was budding in a new land, an earlier one had to be left behind, abandoned to cherished memories and the fitful exchange of letters.

Nels Anderson thanks Annette for the refreshment and her time and moves on to his next household, coincidentally another Nelson family—but no relation to Annette and Axel, who had no other family in Illinois. Joan’s Great Aunt Ruth had once remarked that the lack of extended family was probably why Axel and Annette’s brood became so close-knit.

By the time Mr. Anderson leaves, Annette realizes she needs to get busy preparing for the evening meal. Anna and Emma will help while Ted is sent outside to do more chores. Esther will try to keep Emil and Sigfried occupied and out of the kitchen.

Axel returns home from a long, sweltering hot day in the quarries. The house he comes home to is filled with the noise of children chattering in both English and Swedish. One of Ted’s friends stops over, and Annette invites him to dinner. Axel and Annette are strict parents. Their children do what they are told. No playing games outside on the Sabbath. (See Ted’s experience in our blog here: https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/grandpa-baseball-and-ebay/). Card playing is never allowed! But Annette and Axel always welcome their children’s friends into their small but comfortable home.

It isn’t dark yet, so there is no need to light the oil lamps. The Nelson household won’t get electricity for another twenty-three years. Dinner is at last on the table, and the children quickly take their places. A hush falls over the family. Bowing their heads, they begin to say grace:

“I Jesu nam till bords vi gå,
välsigna, Gud, den mat vi få”

(Translation: “In Jesus’ name we come to the table
God bless the food we receive”)

Axel and Annette Nelson in Front of their Home Early 1900s

Axel and Annette Nelson in Front of their Home Early 1900s

The day comes to a close, and we fast forward one hundred and fifteen years, to June 2015. In the years that followed that summer day in 1900, change, always inevitable, visited the Nelson family.  Two more children were born, Ruth in 1901 and Lee in 1904. Axel and Annette saw the untimely passing of two more children, Siegfried and Anna. About 1911 when work at the stone quarries slackened off and finally petered out, Axel found new employment with the Corn Products Refining Company at Argo, the company well-known for its Karo syrup, Mazola corn oil, and corn starch products. In 1928 at the age of seventy-two, he finally retired. When Annette died on April 3, 1949 at the age of eighty-seven, the couple had been married for over sixty-eight years.  Axel was ninety-four years old when he passed away on May 29, 1951. The last of their eleven children, Joan’s Great Aunt Ruth, died at the age of ninety-seven in 1999.

Yet, here we are on Memorial Day each year, gathered together in their name and to honor their legacy. What holds a family together when so much time has passed? What brings us second and third and how many times removed cousins together? Those of us who do genealogy trace nuclear families—parents and their children. When we locate a census record or a Swedish Household Examination Record, we pause at a moment in time when that nuclear family existed. We halt at that singular moment when the bonds are real and strong: mothers and fathers are with their children, a child is with his or her brothers and sisters. But we know it doesn’t last. Nuclear families are fleeting, ephemeral, as substantial as gossamer against the relentless sweep of time. Family members pass away, children become adults, move away, marry, start families of their own. New family units are formed in a constant ferment of nucleation and new beginning.

As genealogists and family historians we trace nuclear families down through the generations, watching with great interest as their histories play out in front of us. We watch family ties inevitably loosen, break, and then dissolve.

Yet, here, somehow, gathered in the Old Swedish Cemetery we’ve resisted, fought back against the entropy, tried to preserve something that Axel and Annette built and fought to keep so many years ago. Maybe, like Don Nelson, we understood, we understand that to build a better future we have to embrace our own past, preserving the detail and nuance of our family’s history in a shared chronicle of memory and emotion.

On June 13, 1976 a powerful tornado ripped through Lemont, destroying the beloved Nelson home in Hazel Dell at 211 4th Street on the west side of McCarthy Road. The nuclear family has passed, the home is gone. But the Axel and Annette Nelson legacy of family continues.  Because Donald remembered.  Because Joan remembers. Because we all take care to remember.

Memorial Day 2014

Memorial Day 2014, Bethany Lutheran Cemetery

Talkin’ Bout My Jell-O-ration

Perfection Salad

Perfection Salad

Greg keeps a daily calendar on his nightstand, a paper page-a-day calendar received as a Christmas gift—because otherwise he’s gone all digital with calendars nowadays. The calendar reminded us that February 8 is the first day of National Jell-O Week.

Ok, maybe we weren’t really reminded; in truth, we weren’t even aware that there was a National Jell-O Week. But we weren’t really surprised either. There are, seemingly, an endless number of designated days, weeks, and months to promote causes, raise awareness, honor dead people, and commemorate all kinds of historical events.  These named and designated chunks of the calendar are not holidays, like Christmas, Presidents’ Day or the Fourth of July. Many of these are something less, something more trivial and capricious, the poor relations of holidays, holiday wannabes.

The first Friday in June, for example, is “Hug an Atheist Day” and also “National Doughnut Day.” Some wise folks on Twitter and FaceBook have suggested, waggishly, that we be economical with our time and combine these two into “Give An Atheist A Doughnut Day.” Not a bad idea: a holy pastry for the devoutly unholy.

February alone has “Baked Alaska Day,” “Clean Out Your Computer Day,” “National Day the Music Died Day,” “National Thank A Mailman Day,” and an “International Pancake Day.” For those who need more time than a single day can provide, February also boasts “Solo Diners Out Week,” “Random Acts of Kindness Week,” and “Condom Week.” Guess which venerated romantic holiday falls during Condom Week every year?  February is also the month set aside as the “Bake for Family Fun Month,” “International Boost Your Self Esteem Month,” “Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month” (no problem if, like us, you shop at Aldi’s and want your quarter back), as well as “Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Month.” So why shouldn’t Jell-O, too, have a week set aside to celebrate its distinct and important role in American quasi-cuisine?

National Jell-O Week was a brainchild of the Utah state legislature. It was first declared an official week in 2001 and is now celebrated annually every second week of February. It is unclear whether the Week is for Utah residents only or if any of us can celebrate the venerable but wiggly concoction. Utah claims to have the nation’s highest per-capita consumption of Jell-O, thus, it is no surprise that Jell-O is also Utah’s official state snack. If you doubt the veracity of our gelatinous tale, you can read Utah’s original “Resolution Urging Jell-O Recognition” here: http://www.le.state.ut.us/~2001/bills/sbillenr/SR0005.htm

Although Jell-O was invented long before baby boomers came along, it was really during the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s that Jell-O came into its own, grew into its mold, so to speak. For a certain class of people—you know who you are—Jell-O was served everywhere and at all times. Jell-O was a staple at church pot-lucks (at least at Lutheran ones, Joan can attest), children’s parties, in school cafeterias and in our homes, especially when there were large family gatherings.

Back then Jell-O didn’t come in some of the “unusual” flavors you can buy now, like blueberry (because back then blue Jell-O would have just been “weird”), watermelon, “tropical fusion”, and margarita.  We were served the relatively simple, Jell-O “Classic” flavors: orange, cherry, strawberry, lemon, lime, grape, and the ever-present raspberry (never one of Joan’s favorites!).

During the two decades when we baby-boomers grew up, prepackaged and easy-to -prepare foods also came of age and into vogue. And what could be easier that adding water to a package of Jell-O? It was likely one of the first foods our moms allowed us to make (yes, women pretty much did all the cooking—even Jell-O making—back then). Jell-O was so easy to make, it became the subject of classic “Yo Mama” jokes: Yo mama is so stupid she can’t make Jello; she can’t fit 2 quarts of water in the box!”

That didn’t mean, however, that Jell-O wasn’t used in all kinds of creative or unusual ways. Speaking of unusual, back in October Joan read Scott Berkun’s latest book, The Ghost of My Father (http://scottberkun.com/). In the book he recalls his grandmother offering him hot Jell-O to drink, which he admitted sounds “disgusting now but was sweet and warm then….”

We ourselves never tried hot Jell-O, but looking back, many of the Jell-O dishes we were served back in the day now seem bizarre and disgusting. At one Lutheran church supper Joan remembers having something called “Perfection Salad” that was anything but. It had pieces of celery and (to Joan’s horror) olives in it. During our childhood years there were actually vegetable flavors of Jell-O, including celery and tomato! These are mercifully now extinct.

While hunting through her mother’s old recipe box, Joan discovered a recipe for something called a “Green Gold Salad.” It is similar to a gelatin dish called “Sunshine Salad” that you can find on the web. The recipe called for a box each of lime and lemon Jell-O to which three grated carrots (“salted” no less!) and canned crushed pineapple were added. Fortunately for Joan and her siblings, this recipe never made it to the family table because Joan’s mother hated pineapple in all its forms.

Green Gold Salad, Ruth Cornelius Nelson Recipe circa 1965

Green Gold Salad, Ruth Nelson Recipe circa 1965

This isn’t to say all our Jell-O memories are of unappetizing concoctions. Joan’s mother Ruth made a delicious “Frosty Orange Dessert” recipe using orange Jell-O, orange (or lemon) sherbet, and mandarin oranges. This dish is still served as comfort food on holidays in the Shreve household. For occasions like Christmas Joan’s Grandmother Tilla prepared a so-called “Jell-O salad”, quite simple in its ingredients and presentation. Her grandmother would make lime Jell-O in a rectangular pan and press canned pear halves into the gelatin. Once they were chilled, she would cut the Jell-O into individual rectangles, each rectangle with its own pear half. She would carefully place the rectangles on a bed of iceberg lettuce on individual salad plates. Good, simple comfort food. A classic any good Lutheran girl from the mid-West would recognize!

Christmas 1963

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana with Grandma’s “Jell-O salad”

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana

Christmas 1963 Gary, Indiana with Grandma’s “Jell-O salad”

You can’t think back to the Jell-O of the 1950’s and 1960’s without also thinking about Jell-O molds. Tupperware parties were all the rage, and Jell-O molds were, of course, included in the Tupperware product line. Joan’s mom had a “Jell-N-Serve” mold that had interchangeable lids. You could choose a different design to “top off” your molded gelatin: a star, Christmas tree, tulip, or heart.  Here for your delectation is that sherbet and Jell-O mandarin orange recipe we mentioned earlier as prepared for Thanksgiving many years ago in a “Jell-N-Serve” mold.

JellNServe Mold

Jell-N-Serve Mold Jell-O with Mandarin Oranges

“Frosty Orange Dessert” Prepared in the Jell-N-Serve Mold

In Joan’s childhood (Lutheran) household, cheesecake was an unknown dessert. Her first introduction to cheesecake came via Jell-O pudding, when she heard about the now classic Jell-O No-Bake Cherry Cheesecake recipe and prepared it for her soon-to-be sister-in-law’s bridal shower in 1967. According to Wikipedia the Jell-O pudding “No-Bake” dessert line was launched the previous year, in 1966. The cheesecake Joan made required no baking, and was quick and easy. If you Google it, you’ll see the recipe is still very popular.

In the tumult of the late 1960’s, children of the Jell-O generation began to experiment with change. We changed our hair styles, our dress; we revolutionized our music and our sexual mores. We experimented with spirituality, communes, and obscure and mysterious substances.

But, on a more mundane level, we also expanded our culinary horizons. For Joan the Jell-O cheesecake recipe was a revelation, a seductive gateway to more exotic foods to come. Learning that cheesecake even existed was the beginning of a new gustatory and culinary awareness. It’s difficult to imagine now, but back in the homogeneous culture of the 1950’s and early 1960’s many of our generation had never eaten lasagna, tortellini, sushi, knockwurst, burritos, croissants, Reuben sandwiches, baklava, tacos, or even, yes, cheesecake. Pizza was eaten, yes, but never as a meal, only as a special snack or by teenagers on dates. So many ethnic foods, now normal parts of today’s everyday cuisine, were unknown to us back then.

Jell-O, in its simple, uncomplicated way, and certainly without intending to, was a symbol of our culinary innocence, our white-bread palates, our ignorance of a vast and variegated world waiting to feed us with so many wonderful and delectable foods.  Happy National Jell-O Week!

Lil Bub Goes Postal

Lil Bub in the mail!

Lil Bub going postal!

We have posted about the vagaries of the US Postal Service before (see Theo Theokitos, Valued Feline Postal Service Customer http://wp.me/p4uyM6-I and Mr. Gregory Shreve, Official Starfleet Officer http://wp.me/p4uyM6-F ). In this post we return to the topic of the USPS, an organization that can, apparently, engender a multitude of amazing stories for us to recount. We come to you now with a new fable, an absurd adventure of misdirected packages, wandering mail carriers, disinterested postal supervisors, gracious neighbors, and a vanished internet feline.

The story begins with Joan. As you read in our last post, we are currently without a (real, live) cat. This has led to some adjustment problems on our part (including the disconcerting habit of seeing apparitions of dearly departed felines around the house out of the corners of our eyes). One particularly difficult adjustment for Joan (which we can label “cat on the bed syndrome”) has been going to sleep at night without a cat lying nearby or, preferably, snuggled close.

While it is, of course, obvious that no home should be without a cat or two or more, we have decided, for the time being, that bringing a cat into our household would be difficult. Now that we are both retired, we are traveling frequently. Just in the last four months we have traveled to Eastern Europe, South Carolina, Oregon, and the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. At this point in our lives, we would find ourselves leaving our cats alone for long periods of time.

With no real cat to comfort her at night anymore, Joan began sleeping with a large stuffed tiger by her side who goes by the name of Jade, a gift from our children years ago. However, Jade, a giant among its kind, is at least three feet in length and threatened to dispossess the bed of its other long-time occupant, Greg. When she would awake in the middle of the night, Joan would find, much to her annoyance, that Jade had mysteriously been removed from her side and placed at the bottom of the bed. A smaller bed companion apparently had to be found.

There were requirements for this new companion: portability, suitability for cuddling, softness and general, all-around, cuteness.  These are requirements that Greg, in all honesty, does not fulfill (although he claims other compensating virtues).

While trying to locate a birthday gift for our middle daughter, a felinologist at Oregon State University, we ran across a plush toy imitation of internet sensation “Lil Bub” at http://lilbub.com/ and purchased one from the site’s online store.  After holding our daughter’s plush avatar of Lil Bub, Joan decided that having one was the best possible cure for her syndrome.

We ordered a Lil Bub for her on December 28, 2014. Response to the order from the folks at the Lil Bub website was fast and efficient. Lil Bub shipped on December 30 and was expected to arrive around January 2nd. We should have known, however, that something would go wrong when we read the following message in our Lil Bub shipping confirmation:

Your Lil Bub order has shipped via United States Postal Service!

Track your package!

But, we were confident. The United States Postal Service, respected branch of our federal government, had custody of our little cat. They would take care of her, surely. Our fears were more than allayed when we read from the tracking application that Lil Bub had been delivered securely right to our front door on Friday, January 2nd as promised! Exactly at 2:43 pm! We went outside to gather her in and tuck her into bed with Joan. Except, except—she was nowhere to be found. Not on the front porch, not on the side porch, not laying in the yard, or on the back stoop. She was gone, vanished.

Delivered! (or not?)

Delivered! (Or not?)

Thinking she might appear miraculously over the weekend when our mail carrier discovered her fallen behind a bag in his truck or neighbors discovered her mislaid on their front steps, we waited. And then we waited some more. Finally on Tuesday, January 6th Greg drove hopefully to the Kent, Ohio Post Office to inquire about our wayward feline.   Once there he waited some more.

Here Greg must digress and indulge in a small rant. The Kent Post Office is like the anteroom to Hell. Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. There is almost always a wait to buy stamps, ask a question, or procure meaningful postal service of any kind. The wait is engendered by some sort of local policy that prevents the Postmaster from staffing all three of the postal service counters at the same time. One is always closed, even when the line of customers reaches back to the doors. But, as said, this is a digression. We return to the main narrative.

After an unnecessarily long wait (45 minutes according to the time stamps from text communications between Joan and Greg), a postal clerk shunted Greg to a supervisor with the words “you’ll have to talk to a supervisor about that.” The supervisor (who shall remain nameless, and deservedly so) deigned to appear after another unnecessarily long wait. He took the tracking information, disappeared again for a while and then returned to indicate that “according to scans” (apparently mail carriers have to check in during their rounds and indicate where on their route they are at a particular time) the mail carrier had not been on North Prospect Street where we reside at the time in question, 2:43 pm. He had been on our street some two hours earlier. This begged the important question: where was Lil Bub actually delivered? The supervisor had no answer, offered to quiz the mail carrier as to Bub’s whereabouts, and said that if she didn’t appear in a few days to submit a postal claim. Greg left with little hope of any resolution.  The postal claim might (or might not) produce a refund but would most likely not produce the missing cat!

The next day, while blowing snow off the sidewalk, Greg happened to see the mail carrier and raised the issue of the missing package. The mail carrier claimed no specific knowledge and said that the supervisor had not spoken to him about the misdelivered package—but did say, vaguely, that he “might have seen a note about it.”  The carrier did say that at 2:43 pm he was most likely on Park Avenue, the next street over. Greg asked him to look for the package but noted a distinct lack of commitment for resolving the problem in the carrier’s response.

Then Joan, the one with the memory in our family, brought it to our attention that several times in the past mail had been misdelivered to a house with the same number as ours, but on another street, Chestnut. Maybe the package was there? With hope in our hearts we went to that house and knocked on the door. No packages visible. No answer to our knock.  We were stymied again.

Another several days passed. Finally, about a week after the supposed delivery, we decided that Lil Bub had gone postal and disappeared forever. Greg ordered a replacement Lil Bub, this time from Amazon since The Bub Store online was temporarily closed for revamping. Our plush would appear, as scheduled, two days later on our doorstep (United Parcel Service) with no problem. The saga of Lil Bub was over.

Or so we thought.  On Sunday January 11, about nine days from the botched delivery, we decided to go grocery shopping. We turned out of our driveway and proceeded to the intersection of Prospect and West Main. We turned right. A car following us turned right. We went down to the next street, Chestnut, turned right and decided to take another quick look for our missing package. The car following us turned right with us. We passed the house where we suspected our package might be, slowed down, looked, but saw no one at home. We then proceeded to turn right on Bryce. The car behind us turned right on Bryce. Quick on the uptake, we realized were being tailed! Several worst case scenarios flashed through our minds.

Greg asked, “What is that car doing?”

Joan replied, “He’s pulling alongside, let him pass!”

Greg stopped the car, suspicious and wary. The car behind us pulled alongside and then stopped in the middle of the street. For a brief moment puzzled glances were exchanged with the stranger. The stranger then rolled down his window and asked:

“Do you live at 167 North Prospect?”

Still puzzled, we nodded in the affirmative.

“I think I have something of yours.”

He exited his car and handed a package containing one plush Lil Bub in through the window and into Joan’s waiting arms. She had indeed been delivered to the house that Joan had suspected all along, but to the rear of the house and not the front. We had knocked on the wrong door earlier. Lil Bub’s savior had thought the package was his daughter’s and had put it aside until she came home after the New Year. Mystery solved (although why this never occurred to our mail carrier is beyond us).

Lil Bub came home with Joan. That evening her twin, the replacement Lil Bub, also appeared. We now had a surfeit of Lil Bubs. Interestingly, this overabundance of Bubs seemed not to bother Joan at all. Quite the opposite.

Both now reside in and on our bed and have been renamed Lille (Norwegian for “Little”) and Katt (Norwegian for “Cat” in honor of Holly Golightly’s feline friend). All is right with the world. What was lost is now found, thanks to a gracious neighbor and good fortune. No thanks to the United States Postal Service and our local Post Office who had, quite obviously, been content to let Lil Bub go postal.

We encourage you to visit Lil Bub at http://lilbub.com/ to read about this real-life precious cat. A portion of all purchases at The Bub Store goes to a fund for special needs pets. It is a site worth supporting.

Constant and Faithful Companion

Sasha

Sasha

Twenty-six years ago this month a sixteen-year-old gray tabby cat named Sasha lay down on our bedspread and, content with the companionship of her lifelong friend and confidante Joan, closed her eyes and purred, consented to death, and left us behind.

We’ve owned cats most of our married life. But one cat has to be the first cat. The kitten you have when you are young, live in rented apartments, and are perpetually short of money. One day in 1973, during our second year of marriage, Greg asked Joan out of the blue, “Do you want a kitten?” Prone (sometimes) to quick decisions, Greg had decided the young household of two needed a feline companion. Joan, although with no previous experience of cats, was, as per usual, game to try this idea out. So, off we went, prospective cat-owners, to inspect a litter of rambunctious kittens whose newly-arrived presence in this world had been discovered and announced by a graduate school friend of ours.

The kittens, as all kittens are, were intrinsically adorable. They readily and easily plucked those emotional chords that their domestication of our species has instilled in some of us. One of them, following some ancient feline instinct, recognized her one-and-only, her true and constant companion. She boldly climbed up on Joan’s lap, fell asleep, and the contract was consummated then and there. Joan, always a good judge of character, knew this was the one.

We were told this kitten was a male. Of course, as first-time cat owners, we had no idea how to sex kittens. So Sasha (the diminutive of the Russian boy’s name Alexander) lived as a male for the few days it took us to take her to a vet for her first checkup. By then, of course, we (and she) were used to the name, and it stayed with her for the rest of her life.

Sasha was petite, a diminutive cat just as her name implied. She was mild and loving, with an even personality; neither of us remembers ever being bitten or scratched. She loved to have Joan hold her and talk to her. At night she slept with us in our bed, nestled usually on the pillow by her closest friend, whose long dark hair was a source of constant fascination and comfort.

Of course, she was a predator when the occasion demanded, evolutionary heiress to sabre-tooth tigers and cousin to lions. Joan still remembers the live cockroach (from one of our first university slum apartments) brought to her as a gift and dropped on her leg as she lay in bed half-asleep. And there was, of course, always the odd moth or mouse or dim-witted insect.  We remember a time when Sasha leaped high into the air to catch a housefly. With the fly still buzzing in her mouth, Sasha swallowed her prey with great satisfaction. We were duly impressed.

A few years before she died, Sasha allowed a homeless young orange tabby we were to name Goldberry (yes, Greg is a diehard Lord of the Rings fan) to move into the house. Tiny little Sasha, many years the new cat’s senior, established some house rules quickly.  She took a small chunk out of her housemate’s ear, and allowed the intrusion. Maybe she was anointing a replacement, mindful that her wayward human charges should not be without a cat to keep and protect them.

Sasha lived with us in our first Ohio apartments, in Bexley, Columbus, and East Liverpool. She moved with us into our first real house in Pittsburgh, and then later to our home in Burton, Geauga County, Ohio. Sasha, with her large green eyes, witnessed our first real jobs, our first real tragedy, and the births of our first and second children. She was with us when we were young and just starting out and stayed with us, faithful and fond, until we were homeowners and parents—grown-up people with respectable jobs.

We’ve had cats since then.  Goldberry, the favorite of our middle daughter, stayed with us for sixteen years as well. Ariel, our curmudgeonly caretaker after Goldberry passed, came in 1999, the year Greg had cancer and we feared for his life. A stray already five years old, Ariel was adopted as a token of his recovery and survival. Muffin, a beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat, was adopted and named by our middle daughter Kristyn (now, and maybe not by chance, a felinologist). Muffin ended up staying with us twelve years—until just a year ago last August when she, like Sasha, went away too soon and unexpectedly.

These faithful, constant friends were occupants of our hearts, and our children’s hearts. They provided, without particular condition or complaint, loving companionship and head butts; purring and soft fur; a languid little body in a cold bed in winter; a sleek silhouette in a window; a warm and comforting presence on a lonely lap. Now these things are gone, and we are alone. After almost 43 years of marriage it still seems strange to be without a feline companion or two. Now it hurts almost too much to love them and then let them go. Their lives compared to ours are too short by far. Sometimes in the night we think we can still hear them jump onto the bed and settle in next to us, keeping us company, constant and faithful, still.

Die vergessene Heimat / Forgotten Homeland

Sophia Nijnik (left) and friend wearing Trachten

Sophia Nijnik (left) and friend wearing Trachten

Where are you from? Where’s your home town? These are seemingly straightforward questions, but for some of us the answers can be a bit complex. Complete answers can be short history lessons in and of themselves. For instance, Greg was born in Munich, Germany. But he never really lived in Munich, and he’s not really German. His mother was living in a suburb of Linz, a city in Austria, when she met Greg’s dad, an American soldier stationed in Austria after the war. But Greg isn’t any more Austrian than he is German. Greg’s dad was born in West Virginia, but Greg only lived in West Virginia for part of a school year in 1956 and during some fondly-remembered summers with his grandparents in the 1960’s. For someone like Greg, oldest child of a career military man, quintessential Army brat, the question “where is home?” has no particular answer. We once determined that Greg had lived in 21 different places in the first 18 years of his life. So maybe, really, the question has too many answers or no answer at all.

One thread of Greg’s tangled personal history arises directly from his own mother’s narrative. Part of the answer to who he is and where’s he’s from emerges from her short childhood in Romania and subsequent experience as a refugee during WWII. It is a tale of war, expulsion, displacement, and resettlement— an oft-repeated story with deep roots in the long and convoluted past of Eastern Europe, the Diaspora of German-speaking peoples, and the domains of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Greg’s mother is part of a disparate and little-known group called, collectively, the “Donauschwaben” (in English “Danube Swabians”). They were colonists, pioneers if you will, who left their various homelands in Germany and Austria during the 18th and 19th centuries at the invitation of the Austrian crown to settle along the Danube in areas that today comprise Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and other southeastern European countries.

These lands had been devastated by years of almost incessant warfare and were quite depopulated following the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks in the 18th century. As they floated down the Danube into the Pannonian Basin of the Danube River Valley, the Donauschwaben successfully turned swamps and woods into farmland. They rebuilt the war-ravaged landscape and constructed schools, churches, roads, and canals.  They established new homes, small islands of German-speaking culture in a turbulent sea of Bulgars, Serbs, Romanians, and Hungarians. In this the Donauschwaben were like other German-speaking populations of Eastern Europe such as the Transylvanian Saxons and the Carpathian Germans—although these others had arrived as early as the 12th and 13th centuries. During the ensuing two hundred years these hardy immigrants would hang on to their German language and customs, regardless of the movements of national boundaries and the vagaries of political jurisdiction.

But the lives of the Donauschwaben and other German-speaking groups of Romania and the Balkans were to change dramatically in the 20th century. The events of World War II and the turbulent postwar years, forced many of them to leave their long-time homes in southeastern Europe and scatter to the four corners of the world. They resettled all over, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, as well other areas in South America and South Africa. The story of Greg’s family related below is one small chapter in an epic volume involving millions.

Greg’s mother, although she was born in Giurgiu, Romania, a town situated along the banks of the Danube River, was a descendant of “Banater Schwaben,” a subgroup of the Danube Swabians who settled during the 18th century in Austria’s Banat province, now part of Romania.  Greg’s maternal grandfather, Joseph Paul Zerweiss, was born in 1890 in Nițchidorf, Reșița (in German “Nitzkydorf, Reschitz”). We know little more of his history than that his parents, Paul and Antonia (Weindörfer) Zerweiss were already living in Nițchidorf at the time of his birth and that he had a sister named Maria. Nițchidorf is a small town catapulted involuntarily into fame when Herta Müller, a Banat German born in Nițchidorf, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her depiction of the lives of the German-speaking minorities in Romania.

Greg’s grandfather  (in German “Opa”) Joseph trained as a “Giesser-Meister” (a master metal worker) and moved from Reșița to work at the extensive “Danubiana” sugar factory works in Giurgiu. He was employed to build specialized machinery and craft the sugar molds used at the factory. A few pieces of bronze work that he created remain in the family: a mortar and pestle, a coffee mill, and a marvelous bronze lizard.

Opa settled in Giurgiu with Greg’s grandmother, Sophia Hedwig Nijnik , whom we called “Oma” Zerweiss.  Oma was born in 1894 in Chernivtsi (in German “Czernowitz”), once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Bukovina (Buchenland in German). In 1918 it became part of Romania, but today, as a result of WWII is within the Ukraine. She was a German speaker as well, part of the Carpathian German population of the region of Bukovina. Sophia was the daughter of Sabina Nijnik of whom we sadly know very little. Oma never knew her mother and was raised by a Romanian family. We are unsure how Oma and Opa met, but we know that before she was married, Oma had been employed by an official with the Imperial Ministry of Railroads, Dr. Stefan Bachnicki. Perhaps her work took her to Reșița, a renowned metalworking center associated with the railways and locomotive manufacture, where she then met her future husband. Oma was fluent in several languages including Ukrainian, Romanian, Yiddish, and, of course, German. Family legend had it she traveled on the train with Bachnicki to interpret, but this seems unlikely as Bachnicki was himself multilingual.

While living in Giurgiu, five children were born to Greg’s grandparents: Maria (known to the family as Mitzi), Hedwig, Anna, Roza (Greg’s mother), and Joseph. The Zerweiss family lived near the sugar factory in a nice company home with a large backyard.

Joseph and Sophia Zerweiss with daughters Mitzi and Hedwig ca. 1925

Joseph and Sophia Zerweiss with daughters Mitzi and Hedwig ca. 1925

Greg’s mom has many fond memories of these years.  The family lived next door to the Pontet family, owners of the sugar factory cantina where employees would gather to eat and drink. This family’s house, she remembers, had a long fenced-in backyard, and they owned horses and cows. Greg’s mom once told us that her father, obviously a man of many talents, had built a small Ferris wheel that was used during community celebrations to give rides to local children.

Greg’s mom has prepared for us delicious Romanian dishes recalled from her childhood, dishes like mămăligă (polenta) and salată de vinete (eggplant salad). She has also talked about the Romanian custom of preparing colivă, boiled wheat mixed with honey and walnuts that is used to celebrate the dead at funerals. She remembers the dish decorated with small candy silver pearls and being served on a silver platter. Greg remembers this dish from his childhood as well. She has shared with us charming Romanian customs that she remembers such as the custom of Sorcova. At the New Year children will take sticks or branches decorated with flowers of different colors and use them as a kind of “magic wand” to wave while half-chanting / half-singing  Sorcova verses that wish their parents and friends good luck and a long life.

Cheerful sorcova
May you live, may you get old,
Like an apple tree, like a pear tree,
Like a rose stalk,
Hard as iron, speedy as steel,
Hard as a rock, speedy as an arrow,
See you next year and A Happy New Year!

(Translated by Adina Dosan
@ http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/3521/#b)

Roza (Rosi) Zerweiss (left) and two friends in Giurgiu, Romania.

Roza (Rosi) Zerweiss (left) and two friends in Giurgiu, Romania.

While she was still a young girl in Romania, however, Greg’s mom lost her father. In 1937 Opa Zerweiss contracted blood poisoning as a result of his metal working occupation and passed away. Greg’s mother remembers her father’s body laid out in the front room of the family’s home. He was buried in the Smârda Cemetery not far from the sugar factory and within sight of the family’s company home. After Opa’s death Oma Zerweiss and her five children had to move into another much smaller company residence. Greg’s grandmother and, later, her oldest daughter Mitzi, found employment in the sugar factory offices to help make ends meet.

When World War II arrived, like many other Donauschwaben, the Zerweiss family would be uprooted. The lives of its members would be changed forever. Around the year 1941 Oma and her five children left Giurgiu and were sent to a resettlement camp in Gerlachsheim, Germany. Later that same year they were relocated to Linz, Austria and eventually ended up in a refugee camp located in the Hiller Barracks in Ebelsberg, a suburb of Linz. They were there for the remainder of the war and much of its immediate aftermath, until the early years of the 1950s.

It is likely that the family left as a result of the German foreign policy Heim ins Reich that convinced ethnic Germans to leave their homes in Central and Southern Europe. Under this policy the German government help arrange their transport and relocation. There were many motivations for this policy, including dreams of a “Greater Germany,” but one practical result, at least for Greg’s family, was that they avoided the effects of anti-German sentiment in Romania after the war, including the deportation of Romanian German speakers to Soviet gulags.

Once World War II ended, the operation of the refugee camp that the Zerweiss family lived in was taken over by the United States military. Greg’s dad, “Dick” Shreve, who had served in the US Army in Germany during World War II, was assigned administrative duties in Linz. As Greg’s mom recalls it, they met in the PX (Post Exchange) through a mutual friend. Dick soon befriended the whole family and was to gain three sisters in law, a brother-in-law, and a good friend and fishing buddy, Hedwig’s husband Rudolph (“Rudy”) Domanski, another Bukovina German. Greg’s parents were finally married in Linz in 1948; in 1950 Greg was born. In the years after Greg’s parents were married, all of the Zerweiss family members emigrated to the United States except Mitzi, who had married a German army officer during the war and stayed in Europe, passing away in 1952.

Although they had been relocated to Austria, Austria was not really the Zerweiss home. This quintessential Donauschwaben family and its ancestors had lived in what is today Romania for possibly over two hundred years. They and their ancestors had been born, gone to school, fallen in love, gotten married, become fathers and mothers, and died in a homeland that has now all but vanished. As its inhabitants were resettled or forcibly expelled, a cherished homeland becomes more and more only a place in a shrinking collective memory. As the Donauschwaben and their descendants age and pass away, so, too, will the memory of their forgotten homeland—die vergessene Heimat.

Since 1942 no member of the Zerweiss family, or their descendants, has set foot in Romania: a forgotten homeland indeed. At least that was true until September of 2014, when Joan and Greg finally “went home” to meet with Greg’s past and his mother’s heritage in Giurgiu. But that’s another story. And that’s another answer to the question, “where are you from?” And that’s another blog.