When ever I am feeling that life is too hard I think of this story! It was written by my Grandmother about her grandmother. It puts life in perspective for me. I am thankful for those who have come before me.
This is a tribute to my grandmother and to all pioneer women.
They are seldom remembered except by those of us who love them.
Amie Johnson 1975
My Mother’s Mother
They came to Wisconsin in 1877.
My mother’s mother and her strong sailor husband-
Came to find a new home and good new land
From a valley in Norway where their fathers worked land
Poor land that belonged to rich land owners.
So they could be free.
Here in Wisconsin they would be free
To go to sea no more, to wait no more.
How could they know?
She was only eighteen—plucked from her home,
A delicate mountain flower, slim and strong as a willow
Sensitive face and laughing eyes.
“I can see her now,” Grandpa used to say,
“Waiting on the cliff above the sea, watching for my ship to come in;
Prettiest thing you ever saw,
Her long skirt swirling in the sea wind
Silver blonde hair pinned back from the face, hanging long and free.
How quick and sure her feet, as she came running to meet me
Blue eyes laughing.”
“I have tickets to go to America.” Brown eye serious
Watching her. “Good new land in Wisconsin”
“In two months—in July.”
“But our baby! He is only six months old!”
“We can’t wait longer the land may be gone. Friends will meet
Us in Manitowoc. Our baby is strong—it will be his land too.
He will grow up an American!”
The seagulls screamed goodbye.
The weeks on the boat, the memory of it:
Crowded humanity, the sounds of strange languages
And crying children. Stench, sickness, squalor.
But hope was there. Soon, America. Wisconsin.
Blue skies shining!
On the swaying train from New York
In the darkness and quiet the husband asked, “How is Baby?
He is so quiet.” Two heads together looking down at him.
Dark hair next to silver-blonde. So young.
She whispered a sob, “He is dead.”
Blue eyes shimmering through tears!
No sound but the clicked-clack and the steam of the train.
Wrapped in her shawl she held her son
Close to her heart.
The conductor came, “How good your baby is.” A kind voice in English
But the young mother understood.
She tried to smile, rocking her baby gently.
The train clattered on.
She gave him up at last—to friends and a small pine box.
He was buried in Manitowoc on American soil.
With nights of tears and heartache.
What price freedom?
“Oh, she was strong, that girl.” Grandpa said, remembering,
“She worked like a man in the tobacco fields near Stoughton.
They were the ones, you see, who gave the tickets free
If we would work for a year.”
Then the happy day came—a homestead at last!
A stage coach going north, then a trail through the woods,
He carrying the trunk on one shoulder leading the horse
She with her bag of homespun tapestry filled with clothes and linens,
Sometimes riding, sometimes walking
Holding on to her black cast-iron kettle.
Forget the thistles, briars and mosquitoes
The bluebirds were singing!
After days on the trail they reached it at last:
Their own new land! Hands together they stood on the spot
Where their log home would be built.
Laughing aloud she looked at him, and then at her skirt
Muddy, frayed, and wet from crossing the stream.
Laughter ringing through the wilderness!
“Yes, this is the place where she washed the clothes
Right on that flat boulder there.
And bathed the children too—in summer, that is.
She broke the ice in winter
And carried water from this creek
To the house and to the animals in the barn.” Grandpa looked at me.
On that sunny afternoon, so long ago, he was nearing eighty
And I a skinny girl of fourteen years.
(I’m a grandmother, now, myself) He looked at me
Faded brown eyes kind. “Why do you ask?
Why do you want to know all these things about your grandmother?”
It was quiet. A mourning dove cooed softly.
‘I want to know.” I said.
I saw the barn, sagging now, where they lived the first two years.
“We were upstairs and the animals downstairs.”
I climbed the ladder she has climbed. A haymow for a home!
“Anna, your mother, was born up here.
She was our first, you know, after Nels.” The ladder cracked.
I started here, I thought.
“Here, all these fields we cleared—for grain and corn.
I used the axe and your grandmother carried the stones away,
She made that stone fence there beside the woods.
She was a worker, that one.”
I rested my hand on the top stone
And saw her hands, slender, calloused—
She had placed this rock and this, four feet high—
All along the wood’s edge.
Babies waiting to be fed,
Norwegian lullabies to be sung.
“Was there any fun? Grandpa, did she like it here?”
He stroked his beard. It was so long ago.
“Oh, she was lonesome at first you know
For the sea, I think, and her people at home.”
Light footsteps on the cliffs!
“She walked with her children along the creek
And taught them how to fish. She always watched
For the bluebird in the spring, and listened to the bird’s songs.
And, see the apple trees there, and the pear?
She planted then the year we built the cabin.
Planting things was happiness for her.”
I wish I had known her!
Women friends were few—though new settlers came every year
Only a few could understand Norwegian, the language in her home.
The log cabin till stands—I saw it with new eyes:
The biggest room—the kitchen, pine boards worn
As a path was made
To the washstand, to the pantry, to the stove
Around the benches at the table
Serving a family of ten.
Weary footsteps slower now.
There, on the floor along the wall,
Six Indian braves sat one day devouring the evening meal
Emptying the black iron kettle.
She sat there on a stool by the fire—pale and still
Frightened for her children hidden in the cellar,
Praying her husband would soon be home.
The trip to New London was a two-day journey. He came
And all was well, for now.
Is freedom another crisis?
The small bedroom to the right and the big double bed
Where seven babies were born and nursed,
And where grandmother had died.
A window, curtain less, and a wooden table beneath it,
Bare, except for a kerosene lamp and a Bible—frayed and worn
Brought from Norway in the seaman’s chest. Their only book.
Close the door softly.