November 17, 2011

I’ve been dealing with a number of health problems, none of them deadly but all of them life-altering, since about 1992. There are times when I indulge in pity parties (although I rarely wear a party hat to them; maybe if I did they’d be shorter!). One of my sisters has asked when I’ll be “fixed.” The short answer is never; I just manage, and sometimes it’s easier than others.

A woman I know through an organization, reading her book, and her blog, and the exchange of a few emails, has been living with her artist husband’s brain cancer for at least a year. Although initially they were very hopeful, his life is nearly at an end. She blogs each week about their journey through life, and she somehow always manages to see the positive in what she’s living. I have a deep respect for her; I don’t know if I’d do so well.

My maternal grandmother was a diabetic. She was an adult diabetic; I believe it started when she was about 40. Through the years I knew her, she managed her dis-ease (think about that word) with the help of my grandfather. He would help her check her bloodsugar (no handy bloodsticks then; it was pee and a paper strip), and give her insulin injections. It took me a few years to understand why she didn’t eat some things, and why she did eat others, and why she always had orange juice in her refrigerator (and we had it in ours when she visited). She never complained, at least not in the presence of her grandchildren, and was a wonderful grandma to us all, the best grandma any child could ask for.

When she was about 82 or 83 (my memory isn’t what it used to be), she had a stroke, related to her diabetes. It completely changed her life. She became immobile (though not paralyzed), and lost most of her memory. Her doctor suggested that my grandfather should place her in a nursing home so that she’d have around-the-clock nursing. He refused. He kept her in her home, in surroundings that were somewhat familiar to her, and not at all threatening to her.

He took care of her much as my friend is caring for her husband. He gave her spongebaths, changed her diapers, fed her, and continued her diabetes management. She couldn’t remember his name; she called him “Mister.” He had some home health care assistance, but he did almost everything for her, and continued to sleep beside her so that he’d wake up if she did, and could calm her when she was confused. He made sure that someone from the “beauty shop” came in every week or so to wash and set her still-dark hair.

Over a year or so she slowly faded away until her physical body was gone. My grandfather had, by then, lost most of his friends, and his home was a lonely place. My mother and her sister convinced him to move to Bismarck, where they both lived. He did, but refused to move in with either of them. Ever independent, he rented a small apartment.

I wasn’t living in Bismarck then. I was off somewhere else, Kansas, I think, going to graduate school and living my own life. When he died in his sleep, it was a long trip home to his funeral.

Neither of them were authors or artists. My grandmother taught before she married, and my grandfather held a variety of jobs, the last as the manager of the clinic in their town; he had that job for as long as I can remember — not bad for a man with an eighth-grade education. There is nothing to memorialize them except their gravestones, and the memories of those who knew them.

In my memory, there are car trips with my grandmother, and sometimes both grandparents, to the lake cabin they built in the 1930s (it’s still in the family, and I try to get there each summer). Grandpa always drove; he’d back (fast!) down the dirt road that led from the highway to the cabin so that he could back into the driveway. He drove backwards better than I have ever driven forward. He would tell us stories and take us fishing, and he loved to recite (from memory) the “story” poems by Robert Service. My grandmother taught us the songs from her childhood, and we’d sing them loudly in the car on the way back to Rugby, their hometown.

We always shared Christmas with them; when my sisters and I were young, our mother would pack the whole family into our car and our father would drive us to Rugby. I can vividly remember the thick pine trees they always chose as Christmas trees, the piney scent filling the house. Their tree was usually decorated by the time we got there, but every ornament had a story behind it, and each of us had an ornament with our very own name on it. Awesome when you’re six. I have some of those ornaments, as do both my sisters. I treasure them, although these days I rarely put up a tree. I tried, when I first moved back to Bismarck, but over the years it’s become too much work, and somehow the memories that are so happy as I write this become sad when I see a Christmas tree.

When we were older, they’d drive to our house, and stay with us for Christmas. My grandfather’s turkey dressing (or stuffing, or both) remains the best I’ve ever eaten. Despite having watched him make it so many times, I can’t even make it taste close to what he accomplished. And Grandma’s cookies and Norwegian Yulekage? Words can’t describe them! We inhaled the cookies, and the Yulekaga (a bread with colored fruit in it) was always the first stage of Christmas morning breakfasat. And we’d all sang Christmas carols around a piano, in Rugby or in Bismarck.

There are so many memories that I couldn’t write them all down if I tried. I will say that it was them who instilled in me a desire to garden, and what plants to put in that garden. My mother added to that desire, and although some years my garden looks more like a weed patch (they grow faster than I can pull them! And they grow faster than anything I plant!), I try to keep it in shape. (The bunnies who eat my hostas aren’t helping, either.)

One thing my grandparents did write: Letters. When they were courting, and were almost always apart as my grandfather traveled for a grocery company and my grandmother was teaching, they wrote almost every day. Some of the letters are, well, mundane. Others are true love letters. And those letters provide me, as an adult long after my grandparents have moved on to some other plane, some insight into how their relationship developed, and why so often they communicated by shouting. That they loved each other couldn’t be doubted by anyone who saw them together, or read their letters. But as a child I didn’t understand why they always yelled at each other. I get it now, and I understand my late mother’s frustration when, rather than argue with her, my father would leave the house (usually to golf or bowl), then return a few hours later and act like nothing had happened. And I laugh at myself when I realize my last husband did the same thing, giving me the same frustration my mother felt.

My grandparents didn’t just express their love of each other, or of us, in words. They were a hugging and kissing family, and my mother carried on that tradition as well. I think my father was a little baffled at first, but he gamely tried through his life to get a little more demonstrative. Some people are shocked to realize that we all always kissed on the lips, but that was our way. Hugs are tight and warm, and as a child, made me feel safe and loved.

But I’m digressing a lot. There are a few threads to this post. One is the comparision of my friend’s life right now to what my grandparents went through, although for them it was later in their life. One is my conviction that even if my grandparents left behind them nothing that can be seen, touched, or read (except those letters… there’s a book in there, if only for my family), they still left something of themselves behind, at least to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Another is that perhaps compared to what both couples endured and endure, my own illnesses, and the way my life is now, are pretty inconsequential, although my doctors tell me never to compare — each human being is unique, and all our dis-ease matters. And eventually, we all move on from this life to whatever the next beginning will be.

I wish my friend’s husband an easy transition to that new beginning, and an amazing trip. I wish my friend the strength and courage to celebrate his life and his accomplishments, and the love they shared. I’m pretty sure she already has them. And I wish myself the courage to begin each day with the love from all these people in my heart and in my mind, and to make each day matter, even if it only matters to me.


L-R, Evelyn Scott, Shari Orser, Marlys Orser, Alma Drake

Since March is Writing Women Back Into History month, I thought I’d tell a little story about searching for the full story of my maternal great-grandmother, who died bearing the name “Alma Drake.” She died when I was about 3, so I don’t remember her. My oldest sister, Shari, has a photo, one that appeared in the Pierce County Tribune, the newspaper in Rugby, home to my maternal grandparents, and the Westhope Standard, the newspaper in Westhope, ND, that was founded by my great-grandfather, A.J. Drake, later continued by my great-uncle, Clifford Drake. The photo shows my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and Shari. Shari was born in 1951 (sorry, honey, but hey, nobody you know will read this!) and my sister Nancy was born in 1953; I’m not sure when this photo was taken, but Shari is sitting up nicely and has long blonde hair in ringlets, my mother’s favorite style for her golden daughter. And judging by early photos of my mother, it was her mother’s favorite style for her, too. Four generations in one photo — either Nancy wasn’t born yet, but it looks like Shari is older than two — or she didn’t want to sit still for a photo. I don’t know. It’s quite the photo, though.

I’ve known for as long as I can remember that Alma Drake came from Norway, and that she homesteaded by herself, and that she kept her homestead for a while after she married A.J. (who was apparently much older than she — I’ll get to that), and that my grandmother Evelyn, her first child, was born in the soddy with only “the Norwegian hired girl” to help with the birth. Both my mother and her only sister, my aunt Pat, told me that Alma wouldn’t speak about her life prior to coming to North Dakota; according to her, that was when her life truly began.

About a year and a half ago my sister Nancy and I started looking into geneaology, trying to follow the female lines back. Nancy brought me Alma’s obituary. It said that Alma Brown Drake was born in “Vickersund” in Norway, in May of 1876; that her mother died when she was a baby and her father remarried. The family came to the US in 1884, and settled in the Superior, WI, area. When Alma was 17 or 18, she and a brother moved to Bottineau, ND, which is in the same county as Westhope. It’s still not clear to me if Alma worked as a waitress in a cafe in Bottineau, or if she and her brother owned a cafe there. I have yet to find a city directory, or anyone who can tell me about Bottineau, ND, in the 1890s. I do have, from my grandmother Evelyn Scott, Alma’s brother’s Psalm book. It’s in Norwegian, and was printed in Norway. In gold on the front of it is printed “E. Brunes.” Inside the front cover, in pencil, is “E. Brown, West Superior, Wisc.” Emil? Elling? We’re not sure. It may be that they homesteaded side by side. Alma became a US citizen in 1901, and in that same record, from Bottineau County, were two other people with the last name “Brown.”

My sister Shari said we’d never be able to trace anything in Norway, because obviously “Brown” was a “made-up” name the family took when they arrived in the US. “Brunes” on the cover of the Psalm book says otherwise. The Norwegian government has a wonderful website. I found Vikersund (famous for some type of extreme skiing, as well as a small train museum) and learned that it is in the parish of Modum. That was a critical discovery because the parish records are available on-line, going back into the 1870s and further back in some places. The on-line baptism records for Modum parish are photocopied from the original book, and the spikey Norwegian letters are very hard to read, but I found that Alma Kristina Ellingsdotter, born in the 1876, and baptized in September of that year. Her parents, Elling Ellingson and his wife Karin are in the record, as are the names of her sponsors. The Ellingson home is listed as Brunes Farm.

It was at about that time that Norwegians began to give up the tradition of using the father’s name as the last name of the children (Ellingson, Ellingsdottir, etc.), and while some chose to keep one family name, like Ellingson (or Anderson, Pederson, Olson, etc. etc. — the ND phone books are full of them!), others chose to use the name of the place they lived, like Brunes Farm.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a death record for Karin, nor a marriage record for Elling and his next wife, or anything about the parents of either of them. We do have a picture of a young Alma and a rather unattractive older woman, and on the back is “Alma and her stepmother.” I don’t know if she was a wicked stepmother or not, but it does seem that Alma was in a hurry to get away from her family and start a life of her own.

She married A.J. Drake around 1898 or 1899, and my grandmother was born in 1900. A.J. had learned the printing trade in Minnesota, where he worked with his father. Either his mother or his grandmother (sorry, can’t find the notes in my heaps of paper…) was named Amy Collins, and some of our Drake cousins have traced her ancestry back to a colonist from England who arrived in North America (Massachusetts, I believe) in the 1600s. A. J. was older than Alma; he died of an apparent heart attack while visiting one of their children in Roundup, MT, in 1932. Alma never remarried. She lived with my grandparents, Evelyn and Bud Scott, for several years, including part of my mother’s childhood, and then moved into a nursing home in Westhope, where she died in her 90s.

So, now I know where she came from, and I would love to visit Vikersund some day and look at their records, see if Brunes Farm still exists, and if I have distant cousins there (I have Orser-side cousins in a different part of Norway, but that’s another story). I want to know more about her mother, and how she died — possibly complications from childbirth? Or was it some other illness? I don’t know. I also want to know about the restaurant in Bottineau, and who Alma’s brother was — did he marry? When did he die? Did my mother know him (she passed away in 1993, so I may never know). I might be able to research some of that after I finish the Spooky South Dakota manuscript.

But at least I know where Alma “Brown” came from, and who her parents were. I’m rewriting the family tree, one leaf at a time. (Giving credit where it’s due, much of this was done by my sister Nancy, although I was the first to find the baptism record!)