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.
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.
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!”
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”)
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.