Family History

Boxes in the Attic

Boxes, boxes, so many boxes.

One of the corollaries of being in one’s sixties is a predilection for surveying one’s (often copious) belongings. The inventory of possessions—furniture, clothing, collectibles and antiques, memorabilia, papers, lots of papers, seems massive, daunting.

Our very first antique—the beginning of our material inventory—was purchased in the late 1960’s, before we were even married, from a trailer in Pittsburgh that masqueraded as an antique store, every nook and cranny filled, mostly with junk. There we discovered a 1920’s bridge lamp, with a marble base and a unique leaf-patterned shade for $5. We handed our cash over to the old storekeeper, fiercely guarding his cache of treasures. We still remember the enigmatic smile on his face—he thought he was “pulling one over on us,” getting $5 for a worthless old lamp. But it wasn’t—and isn’t—worthless, not to us.

We can walk through our house and remember, almost item by item, those few artifacts that date to our early years together—when everything we owned could fit into a one-bedroom apartment. That, it suffices to say, is no longer even remotely true.

Where did this looming mass of material possessions come from? Yes, we, Greg and Joan, are inveterate (incurable) collectors—and some of the inventory includes collections of porcelain, pottery, encaustic tiles, glass, and books. These we acquired deliberately, with knowledge of what and why we were collecting. Much of it is (and will be, we hope) documented—maybe for a museum or historical society to receive should our children’s interests diverge from ours.

This accumulation was intentional—but so much of what we have has simply come to us organically, in the inevitable cycle of family life. A grandparent moves; a set of lawyer’s cases, a desk, and a piano are offered—and gratefully accepted. A grandmother dies, and then a month later, a grandfather. Photographs, fishing rods, family bibles, and a myriad of objects imbued with sentiment and fond memory pass from one household to another.

Joan at her grandparents’ piano in 1958. Given to us in 1970. We’ve had it ever since.

As the years raced onward, inexorably, a parent, then two, then three, and unexpectedly a brother, succumb to age and disease. The contents of their lives, too, become our inheritance and responsibility. And we must decide—what to discard, what to keep?

These are hard questions. Especially when they arise at the same time we are faced with the endless details and duties that accompany funeral services and burial arrangements. How should the obituary read? What coffin should be selected? When and where do we hold the calling hours? Who will perform the service? What flower arrangements must be ordered? What stone and design for the memorial? We must phone relatives; choose our loved one’s clothing for burial; write notes thanking those who have sent their condolences. And, always, one must deal with the financial consequences of death. We won’t even begin to tackle that complex subject here.

Everything always seems to happen at once and sometimes on short notice. We need to quickly empty out the contents of our parents’ house and clear out brother Bob’s apartment. And so we furiously triage our loved one’s belongings. Discard the old newspapers and magazines, toss the old worn towels, give away the clothes in the closets and drawers. But so many other belongings are bound up with one’s own childhood and the memory of the home that came before this home, the life that came before this life. So, sometimes in the moment, numb with grief, one just boxes up the remaining contents, Soon there are many more boxes in our attic than there were before, waiting for us to sift through their contents, later, at a time when we are more emotionally ready and able.

Then, of course, if one also has children, they grow up and leave—but they don’t take everything with them when they go. They leave traces of their lives behind, with us. So, there are boxes of children’s drawings, hand-made Mother’s and Father’s Day cards, toys, picture books and school papers. It isn’t that these artifacts of childhood are valuable to the outside world; they are not. It is that they are precious to us, permeated with the emotion and memory of a time now twenty or more years past. These items, too, sit boxed and waiting in the attic for processing; and we ask, again, to keep, to discard?

So, here we are, at age sixty-six, surveying all these boxes, containers, albums, and trunks. We look at one another.

Joan declares adamantly, “I won’t leave all of this for my children to go through!”

So, we begin a determined campaign, an offensive, to move against this well-defended mountain of objects and papers and gain a foothold on its flanks. We will open each box, assess the contents, and begin to move objects out of the house into recycling centers, used bookstores, Goodwill shops and, as little as possible, landfills. (It is surprising how many things one has kept are broken and damaged.) Some we will try to give away to our two daughters and our son and their spouses—a quick picture posted to the intended recipient on Telegram—“you want this?” If the answer is “no,” then the item is banished, never to be seen again.

Going through the boxes and sorting the contents, deciding on their disposition, moving things out of the door—it is painful, but also liberating. There is a feeling of lightness, of a burden lifted. So much of this freight we simply carried around for years—boxes from our first apartments, first and second houses, simply migrated with us, unexamined. We repeatedly moved this weighty inventory around, and it got heavier and heavier with each passing year.

Yet, what we are doing isn’t the haphazard “downsizing” and wholesale tossing of a lifetime’s accumulation of artifacts into the void that you sometimes read about in magazines. “Experts” recommend to those of us in our “golden years” that we let go of these things quickly—they want to make it seem easy. Just last year the AARP compiled “20 Tips To Declutter Your House.” Some of their suggestions we accept—scan your important documents, back them up electronically, store and organize them. Others we reject—burn your parents’ love letters, make pillowcases out of your wedding dress, or sell Grandma’s china on eBay.

Throwing it all out is an abdication of responsibility and, in some cases, has tragic consequences. Many years ago well-meaning relatives cleared out Joan’s grandparents’ apartment and threw away her Grandfather Martin’s detailed diaries—the first diary was written in the late 19th century. Martin was a meticulous and literate observer of his times, and they, were, undoubtedly, true masterpieces of the diarist’s art. Joan has lamented their loss for over forty years.

So, there are real treasures in this trash. Old pictures of relatives, precious as gold to the genealogist in Joan—irreplaceable proof that her marvelous people, sturdy Norwegians and Swedes, lived and thrived. There are also family photograph albums, some very old, the kind where the photographs in black and white and sepia are held on the page by paper corners.

“I’d forgotten we had this!” Joan exclaims—looking through one album of old black and white photos. There she appears as a child, in monochrome, wearing an indisputably 1950’s baby bonnet. She’s in her father’s arms. Her mother stands near her with her siblings. It’s surprising to look at; it’s not so much that she is a child—but that her mother, her father, they look so young. It makes one stop and think, astounded.

The Nelson Family, Ruth, Joan (the baby), Don and brothers Robert and Richard. Summer of 1951.

Digging through the strata of our belongings, other artifacts emerge— a record of a trip Joan’s great grandparents took to Norway in 1932; a bundle of letters written home to his parents by Joan’s dad during the Second World War; letters we wrote during our year “behind the Iron Curtain,” saved for us by friends and relatives as a memoir of our difficult but life-changing months in East Germany between 1985 and 1986. And old love letters!

“God, was anyone ever as smitten as I was?” asks Greg.

There are more treasures to be uncovered. Much to her delight, Joan also discovers her parents’ old love letters, written during World War II after her dad was wounded in Sicily and stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sometimes we get derailed—stopping to read some random letter or shed a tear when we find a child’s drawing with the words “I love my Mommy and Daddy” scribbled on it. But mostly we push on, through these poignant distractions, determined to make headway, no matter how overwhelming it all seems.

There are diplomas, even old school notes—these latter not so interesting in and of themselves but for the doodles—some very elaborate and cryptic—that appear in the margins. Greg used to draw, and write poetry—he doesn’t so much now—but these old artistic attempts surface too, rising up from the layers of paper in a dusty, collapsing box. These youthful gems are separated out with all the other treasures we are rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) among this mass of stacked and scattered boxes.

Doodling during Biology class at Arizona State University, 1969. An artistic (?) treasure discovered in Greg’s old school notes.

But not everything is to be saved for posterity. Both Joan and Greg were professors. Our old student rosters, teaching handouts, tests, grade books—all these must go. We were also students and homeowners, so the old tuition bills, the old bank statements long since replaced by electronic records—so many marked with social security numbers—must be tossed. Our shredder gets the workout of its life.

We are, one could say, examining, assessing—maybe curating is the best word. Organizing, labeling, assessing the value—to the family at least—of items that represent the history of our clan. These items tell stories—revealing a parent’s career, earnest courtships, and countless deaths and births. They tell of tastes, likes and dislikes, of trips taken, of opportunities accepted and refused. When we throw all of these out without some thought we deprive ourselves, and our descendants, of some important part of their heritage. We are fortunate, to be sure, that we, Greg and Joan, have the time, and the room, to curate our lives—and the lives of our ancestors. We don’t have to move into a nursing home next month and sell our house. We are not yet faced with those contingencies that would force us to yield up our unique material history.

Love letters…confidential…open at own risk! Please read!

So, we get new boxes, sturdy and white, from Office Depot. They have room for labels. We assemble file folders, archival sleeves, and Sharpie pens. The sorted material goes into these boxes and descriptions are written on them—“Greg’s Unpublished Papers,” “Memorabilia—East Germany,” “Shreve Genealogy.” We purchase whimsical decorative storage boxes—boxes that resemble old books and boxes covered in maps of the world. Our postcards from East Germany go in one. Postcards sent to Greg’s maternal family in a World War II Austrian refugee camp have their special place in another. We tie old love letters in small bundles with twine and store them in boxes marked “Confidential.” Will this box pique someone’s curiosity when it is discovered after we are gone? Will its contents reveal who we were to that future reader?

Postcard to Mitzi Zerweiss (sister to Greg’s mother). Posted to the Ebelsberg resettlement camp (Hiller-Kaserne) near Linz Austria, 1942.

Now we know what’s in these new boxes; we know what’s important and what’s not. When the fancy strikes us, we can spend an hour or two perusing the treasure box of our choice. And, if we’ve curated well enough, weeded, and disposed well enough, then some family member who comes after us might recognize their value and care for them too. They might recognize our boxes and the artifacts they contain as a legacy. They might, through these items, because of these boxes, come to know us, their parents, their in-laws, maybe their grandparents, more deeply, more completely, than if we had simply made it all disappear into the past without a second thought.

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.

dagskogheim

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.

melstein_hustuft

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.

kart_stort

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.

melstein_kart_sylten

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.

melstein_steingjerde

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.”

melstein_flyfoto

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.

melstein-steile-og-hjul1

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.

rettsbok

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.

 

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!

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.

Empty Nest

The Shreve family as it was, a long time ago.

The Shreve family, as it was about 1991-1992, at Grandpa and Grandma Nelson’s home in Pittsburgh.

Our first daughter, Jessica, had a fierce independent streak (as, in fact, do all of our children). She struck out on her own pretty early, renting her own apartment and working while going to school. Our middle daughter, Kristyn, followed a few years after, also wanting to live in her own apartment. Her younger brother, Justin, went with her. They lived together in their first apartment on the lower floor of an older home on Harris Street in Kent (Justin’s first cat, Harris, commemorates their first stop after leaving home).

After that, there was a succession of Kent and Stow, Ohio apartments for all of our children. They will always remember their first forays into independent living: Lake Street (an attic garret murderously hot in the summer), Park Street (with the odd layout and marauding squirrels in the walls and ceiling), West Main (with the drunken frat boys) and Ravenswood (with Noah’s flood in the parking lot during downpours). During the course of the last decade, they all left home and never returned for more than a few temporary weeks at a time.

Yet they were all nearby, close to home, just a short drive away or a quick walk around the block. They would stop by whenever they wanted to, opening the back door with their keys and shouting “Mom, Dad, where are you?” There were raids on our food pantry, expeditions to borrow this, that, and every other thing one could think of. Sometimes, there were impromptu earnest discussions in our family room about future plans and current problems, romantic, educational, and financial.

They were out of the house, but they were still here. Close by and within reach. They were independent, but still (sometimes) needing our advice, our experience, or, simply, our skills with cooking, plumbing and sundry repairs. And, of course, Mom and Dad, are the most indispensable resource of all when packing up and moving.

Kristyn, the middle child, was the first to move away from Kent, where she had lived since she was two. A couple of years ago she moved to Oxford, Ohio to attend graduate school at Miami University (Miami of Ohio to you Floridians!). We bought a modest A-frame on 3 acres near there as a summer house, and she and long-time partner Anthony lived there in the midst of the trees and leaves for a couple of years. They were four and a half hours away, but still, on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day or on our birthdays she would appear, a welcome smiling surprise, home for the special occasion. The best gift a Mom or Dad could desire. Her siblings were appropriately mum about her visit, which, most likely, they had helped her plan.

Greg understood all along that there would come a day when the family would change again, perhaps dramatically. Greg had left home for college in 1968 (moving to Arizona from Pittsburgh), and after a single summer home in Pittsburgh in 1969, never lived at home again. As an Army brat who lived in 21 places in 18 years, he understood well the impermanence of house and home. Joan, on the other hand, had lived in the same home for 15 years and left it permanently only when we got married. It was her concept of home we built upon and created for our children in our stately Colonial Revival on Prospect Street in Kent. It was her sense of stability and permanence that made that spacious house a home. Our children knew that. They know that.

A few weeks ago, on the 8th of August, we loaded a POD with the accumulated belongings that three twenty-somethings had accumulated during their apartment years (more than they thought, for sure). Then on August 10, Kristyn, Tony and Justin, the New Oregonians, loaded their cars with what remained, and gathered some good friends for a road trip. They drove away across country, taking the Northern route to the West, to their new homes in Oregon. Kristyn was to accept a doctoral fellowship at Oregon State University and Justin, well, as a software engineer who works from home, he went with her because he could. Because he was born with a wanderlust and could now finally indulge it.

When they drove off that Sunday morning, for Albany and Lebanon, we knew that something had changed, irrevocably, finally. The nuclear family, Joan, Greg, Jessica, Kristyn, and Justin, was no more. For a few years we were a wobbly little solar system with its center on Prospect Street. They were satellites, planets revolving around us, first near, then a bit further away. But, now, two of them have escaped the orbit entirely and gone off to (what seems to us) the Uttermost West. Only Jessica, the oldest, now also finally in her own home with her husband Patrick and no longer in apartments, remains nearby. Still, even she has recognized that when her siblings left for the Pacific Northwest something fundamental had shifted.

They, none of them, will ever come home again. Yes, there will still be visits, holidays home. Special occasions spent, all five of us together in a house well-remembered and well-loved. But this is our house now. Not their house. They have their own homes, with lawns to tend, flowers to grow, woodwork to mend, and blank walls to decorate with the trappings and mementos of their own lives. Their future opens up within another set of walls and under other roofs. They’ve left our embrace and flown the nest, up high and away, away, and away.

Grandpa, Baseball, and eBay

 

Ted Nelson, Third Baseman, in Uniform

Ted Nelson, Third Baseman, in Uniform

We found Grandpa on eBay a few years ago. How we found him is a tall tale of serendipity, born out of a fortuitous confluence of our love of personal computing (do we call it that anymore?) and our passion for collecting old treasures, especially ones that relate to our family history.

During our lifetime advances made in personal computing have been, to use the Sixties phrase, “mind-blowing.” We both wrote our first computer programs in COBOL, a hoary old dinosaur of a programming language if there ever was one. We harnessed extinct beasts like DEC KL-10 mainframes, keypunch cards, card readers, and line printers to prepare, compile, and revise them.

Then, in the early 1980s things began to change. We were “early adopters” and purchased our first personal computer in 1983, a NEC (Nippon Electric Company) system running the CPM-86 operating system. We had a COBOL compiler, WordStar word processing, 256K of memory, and an 8” floppy drive. We were in digital heaven. Not soon after we acquired a first-generation IBM-PC with two (count them! two!) floppy drives. We were awash in computing wealth!

Today we pull out our smart phones, IPads, and MacBook Pros to perform the many tasks we know they are capable of, from searching for nearby ethnic restaurants to seeing if it was Gary Cooper who starred with Barbara Stanwyck in the wonderful 1941 classic film, Ball of Fire. Joan and I think, as a couple of a “certain age” with a long history of interaction with computers, that only those of us who’ve lived the personal computer revolution from its inception can appreciate exactly how far we have come. We certainly don’t take our IPhones and IPads for granted.

Before we ever laid hands on a computer, indeed from the time we first started dating, we have been “collectors” of old treasures. Back in the late Sixties we started visiting thrifts, Salvation Army stores, Goodwills, and, of course, antique shops on a regular basis. It was, and remains, a passion of ours.

We pretty much buy only bargains, at first because we didn’t have the money to do anything else, and now because that habit is ingrained. Also, to be honest, we have a bit of the treasure seeker in us, and maybe more than just a little hunger for the hunt. Nothing is quite as satisfying as spotting an unappreciated treasure in the midden heap and plucking it up, researching it, and saving it for posterity. Should you be thinking certain thoughts as you read this…we are not hoarders. We are collectors. Like minds will readily recognize the distinction.

When eBay first debuted in 1995, we found a new way to find hidden treasure at (sometimes) bargain prices. Finally, two of our lifelong passions had intersected. We could use our computers (and the whole massive infrastructure of the internet and the WWW) to help us sniff out our historical, antique, and collectible prey.

One of the greatest treasures we have ever found online, on eBay, was a photo postcard (RPC or “real photo postcard” in eBay parlance) of Joan’s paternal grandfather, Theodore Nelson. EBay lets you set what they call an “email alert” using keywords describing items that you might be interested in purchasing. An email alert set for “Lemont, Illinois” is how we came to discover Grandpa for sale online.

Theodore (“Ted”) Leonard Nelson was born on August 12, 1891 in Lemont, Illinois, the son of Swedish immigrants. Leaving wife and daughter behind in Sweden, Ted’s father first looked for work in Brooklyn, New York and then moved on to Lemont, now a southern suburb of Chicago, where he heard that men were being hired to work in the local limestone quarries. He worked for $30.00 a month, scraping enough money together to pay the passage from Sweden for Ted’s mother and oldest sister. Ted was the sixth of eleven children to be born into this solidly Swedish family.

Ted worked hard at everything he did. He had a long and successful career at US Steel. But both as child and as adult, it was clear Ted loved baseball with a passion and not just as a spectator. He wasn’t just a fan, he was a player.

He played pick-up games with the neighborhood kids as a young boy, developing his skills and taking his game to the next level at every given opportunity. He played as often as he could, including Sundays.

This didn’t sit well with Mom and Dad Nelson, devout Swedish Lutherans. They forbade Ted from playing on Sundays. An old Nelson family story has it that when Ted’s mother found out he was playing baseball on the Sabbath, she buried his uniform in their chicken yard. Undaunted, Ted somehow discovered its underground hiding place, retrieved it, and continued to “play ball” behind her back. He must truly have loved the game to cross Mom Nelson!

Joan inherited from her grandfather Ted a book entitled LEMONT Illinois. Its History In Commemoration Of The Centennial Of Its Incorporation 1873 1973. On page 154 is featured a photo of her grandfather with a neighbor and friend named Alfred Anderson; the photograph was taken in 1911.

GrandpaBaseballInscribed

Baseball player from the “Lemont Blues” with friend, on the “flats.”

On one of our visits to Gary, Indiana where Joan’s grandparents lived, Joan learned from her Grandma Nelson that her grandfather had played third baseman for the team in 1909 and then three years later joined another team in nearby Lockport, Illinois. Then, early in 1916 he took a job with US Steel in Gary, Indiana. He was offered a position in the Time Department, but there is great suspicion that he was hired (and took the job) primarily to play baseball for the US Steel team.

Joan has fond memories, too, of seeing her grandfather sitting in his favorite living room chair, smoking a Dutch Masters cigar, and watching Chicago Cubs games on television.  He loved baseball all his life. Joan didn’t realize as a young girl how involved he had actually been with the game. The sedentary Cubs fan had, in fact, had a serious relationship with baseball.

Sometime in the late 1990’s Greg was sitting at his computer (no laptop yet!) checking email when he noticed that the “Lemont” keyword had generated a message from eBay that something was available for sale.  The item up for auction was a postcard picturing the “Lemont Blues” baseball team as they were in 1909. It had been sent from a Lawrence Sandberg of Lemont to his uncle in Ritzville, Washington, eventually finding its way to eBay.

Joan was busy upstairs when Greg called her to come down to his study where he asked, “Would you recognize your Grandpa Nelson if there was a photo of him as a young man?”

Joan was pretty certain she would recognize her grandfather. Sure enough, it was Joan’s grandpa in the back row of the photo, dressed in a light shirt, dark vest, and hat but not wearing a baseball uniform. He would have been about seventeen years old when the photo was taken. Joan had never seen the photo before, but it was clearly Ted Nelson.

After a successful bid to win the auction, Joan showed the postcard to her father, Don. He said that he remembered seeing this particular shot in a Lemont newspaper article some years before. He said that the picture was taken the first day Joan’s grandfather had joined the Lemont Blues. That’s why Ted is wearing street clothes and not a uniform.

The postcard is stamped “12 M 1909   Lemont ILL” with a one cent stamp attached. The card is addressed to Mr. Wm. Olson Box 85 Ritzville, Wash and reads:

Dear Uncle,

This is the Base Ball team I play with. X is were I stand and the mascot is Brother Emil. All in very good health and hope you are too.

Lawrence Sandberg

What a circuitous path this postcard must have taken. The miles it must have traveled to find its way from Lawrence, Ted’s old teammate and neighbor, back to Joan, Ted’s granddaughter! It is certainly a tall tale of happenstance and circumstance. How many chances there must have been to miss the opportunity to recognize and buy this small but meaningful treasure.

As we digitize our lives, our possessions, and present them for view through Google and maybe for purchase via eBay and Etsy and the like, we increase the chances of moments of such serendipity as “finding Grandpa” represents. But, even so, it is both a minor miracle and a testimony to one of the true advantages of modern life: to be able to discover what was hidden, to see what was previously unseen, to find that which was well and truly lost.

GrandpaBaseballGrandpaBaseballBack

Darling We Miss Thee

John Lester Kelley, Fincham Cemetery, Randolph County, WV

Addie Fincham, Greg’s paternal great aunt, was born at the turn of the 20th century deep in the West Virginia hills, near a sleepy little bend in the road called Adolph in Randolph County.  Her father, John W. Fincham, owned a modest farm in the bottom land along the clear, cold Middle Fork River. On this farm, which Greg knows well from his childhood, Addie lived and played for a short time with her seven brothers and sisters.

Childhood was cut short when Addie lost her mother Lena before she had even turned seven years old. It was a hardscrabble life in this part of Appalachia, and as a very young woman Addie had to work in other people’s homes for room, board, and some meager wages. She would sometimes earn money as a seamstress, making dresses and other items of clothing for the families of the poor farmers, miners, and lumberjacks that lived in the area. Four months after her nineteenth birthday in 1921, she married Adnigh David Kelly from the nearby town of Mabie. Adnigh was a coal miner for A. Spates Brady Mines.

After they were married Addie and her husband moved north from Randolph County to the little town of Century in Barbour County so that Adnigh could begin work for the Century Coal Company. There, on August 1, 1923, Addie’s first child, John Lester, was born. “Lester,” as he was affectionately called by the family, was a treasured addition. Today’s new parents, posting endless photos of their first babies on Facebook, chronicling every cute smile and every new milestone reached, certainly are no more joyous in their firstborns than Addie and Adnigh were.

In a devastating loss six months later, precious Lester died from influenza. His still little body was carried from Century by plodding horse cart to the train station at Ellamore and then put on a lumber train to be delivered to the quiet, pastoral Fincham Chapel Cemetery adjacent to John W.’s farm. An old railroad line, owned by the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company, used to run along the Middle Fork down to near Adolph. The Chapel cemetery, nestled between the wooded hills on a small slope, holds many of Addie’s ancestors and family.

If you visit the cemetery, hidden along the narrow road between Mill Creek and Adolph, you can find Lester’s poignant tombstone: a lamb reposing on a decorative headstone. The time worn inscription reads:

John Lester

Son of A. D. & Addie Kelley

Aug. 1, 1923

Feb. 1, 1924

At the bottom of the tombstone are the heartbreaking last words of Addie and Adnigh to their dead son:

Darling We Miss Thee

Like her mother and her first child, Addie herself died young. She succumbed in her early thirties to stomach cancer while pregnant with her sixth child. She too is buried in Fincham Chapel Cemetery. Greg’s grandparents, Cora (Fincham) and Jesse Shreve, who lived across the creek from John Fincham’s farm, took the surviving Kelley children into their home for a time and cared for them, even though they were raising eight children of their own. Adnigh David later moved into his father-in-law John’s home with his large family. There Addie’s unmarried sister, Lorena (“Aunt Lixie”), helped care for the children.

Some years after Addie’s death, Cora and Jesse Shreve’s children (Greg’s dad and his siblings) were playing one day at their grandfather John Fincham’s house. In the living room of that home was an old chest of drawers near the door to the back porch. The Shreve boys (Dick, Charlie, Paul, Montgomery, and later, Neal) knew that Lucky Strikes “Greens,” a brand of cigarette popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, were kept in that drawer, and they decided to try to pilfer a cigarette. (Their mother Cora frowned on smoking, and her children never, even as adults, smoked in her presence!)

In the drawer next to the cigarettes, the boys found a dried up, shriveled orange.  Their sister Arlene, who had accompanied them on this adolescent foray, picked it up reverently, knowing what it signified. That orange had been their small cousin Lester’s favorite toy. He had played with the orange as any modern infant might play with a small ball or little stuffed animal. When Lester died, his parents couldn’t bear to part with it, and it was kept by the family for years, eventually finding a final resting place in that chest of drawers. The orange, dried and shriveled to half of its former size, remained as a tangible and emotionally charged connection to Addie and Adnigh’s departed son.

As we grow older and begin to lose grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends many of us also accumulate physical reminders of people we have loved but who are no longer with us. Many of us have inherited Grandmother’s dishes, Grandfather’s fishing pole, Mom’s crystal, or Dad’s uniform. We have houses where this piece of furniture has come from Uncle and that knick-knack from Aunt. However, sometimes small, ostensibly insignificant items like Lester’s orange, although outwardly trivial and mundane, are nevertheless especially meaningful. Their value as mementos of our beloved dead derives from something beyond their intrinsic value, great age, or rarity. Their value derives from the emotion we, sometimes inexplicably, invest in them.

For Joan it is a little marble she keeps in her bed stand drawer. She found it among her dad’s things after he died. Looking at it, she remembered how he once told her that he loved playing marbles as a child. Into that small, round object, even smaller than Lester’s orange, she transferred a lifetime’s accumulation of emotion.

We know, of course, these treasured mementos can never replace the person that we love and miss. But when we slide open our drawer and see and touch our own “Lester’s orange,” we smile, perhaps shed a small tear, and then whisper under our breath a tender message to our loved one, “darling we miss thee.”