In the park where we had breakfast one Sunday morning

It’s dark and rainy here and will be for the foreseeable future.  Jesus and Guillermo are in the basement removing asbestos (our furnace was condemned) and the cost of removing all of those sixty year old ducts and hopefully getting warm again has dulled the excitement of Santa Claus’ arrival. And so instead of filling the airwaves with uplifting stories and holiday cheer I’ve been on a grim mission to track down and label dead ancestors. 


On the back of this picture is written: In the park where we had breakfast one Sunday morning.

I’m guessing the woman wearing a head scarf and the man pouring the coffee are my great aunt Millie and her husband Ben.  I met them at least a couple of times when I was quite young and vividly recall thinking Ben was too handsome to be sentenced to life in a wheelchair. Shallow, I know but I was in the Disney princess stage.  As to how Ben came to be in a wheelchair, time has dulled my mother’s memory.  Was it WWI or polio?  Who knows.

This picture, and several others of a similar ilk, have nothing written on the back.  Nothing.  The bespectacled young woman in the front row, with the “you gotta be kidding me” look on her face, is my grandmother.  She was probably only sixteen but that look never changed.  I believe one of the two elderly women is my great-grandmother but mother can’t tell which one. 

Mother:  “I was dead before my grandmother was born.”

Me: “No mother.  I think you meant to say she was dead before you were born.  You’re still alive.”

“One of them could be Mrs. Pease,” she suggests, a neighbor lady who looked after her grandfather after his wife’s death.

“Which lady is Mrs. Pease? You must remember her.”

“I only remember their cow.  We used to bring it down to the barn so that Mr. Pease could milk him.”

Her, could milk her.”

“I remember the cow.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever played “identify the ancestor” with someone who can’t remember what day it is … but five minutes is my limit.  Of course, to a five year old all old ladies look alike but a cow – who could possibly forget their first crush, even if it was on a cow?

Unlike his daughter, my great grandfather seemed only too happy to have his picture taken.  In this gathering he’s the fella sitting on the right with a little girl on his lap.  The couple behind him are my grandparents and thus the little girl must be my mother. So who is the elderly lady sitting next to great gramps?  She can’t be his wife because we’ve already established that she died before my mother was born.  She must be that friendly neighbor lady, Mrs. Pease.

After comparing the two photographs  I believe Mrs. Pease is the lady on the right (below) which means the lady standing behind my grandmother could be my great grandmother. 

What do you think?

This assumption gained new legs when I compared photos of my great aunt Millie (from the Sunday picnic breakfast scene) through the years.

Here she is with my mother and uncle, aged 2 1/2 and 18 months respectively.


And years later at my mother’s wedding (on the left).  

Yup, I’m reasonably sure I’m right although I’ll never really know.  All I know for sure is that one Sunday morning long ago three people had breakfast in a park somewhere and apparently that’s how they wanted to be remembered.  

The Spoon Apocalypse

My paternal grandmother believed that at some point in the near future the world would be bereft of spoons.  To prepare her grandchildren for the coming apocalypse, we all received spoons for Christmas, that is until Cousin George, then over six foot eight, pooped on her prophesy. I believe his exact words were “Get your head out of the vodka bottle Grandmother.”

“Oh what a wonderful spoon, Grandmother! Now I’m prepared for the Spoon Apocalypse.

Through all my travels and relocations, my spoon collection has not fared well but I still have the first one she ever sent me. It’s a sterling silver teaspoon with an etching of the Moorhead Minnesota Public Library.  I always assumed it was just something she picked up at some antique store, but through the miracle of the internet, I believe it had some other meaning to her besides the spoon prophesy.

Moorhead was my Grandmother’s home until her father died and her mother married The Judge. Probably a wise thing for a young widow with two small children to do but The Judge was a controlling nasty pants who didn’t allow his stepchildren to talk of their father or paternal aunts, uncles and cousins still living in Moorhead. That town always remained a life that could have been if not for the Spanish flu.  As a freshman in college when the library opened, she probably also spent a lot of time there.  At that time, the University of North Dakota at Fargo catered to the study of animal husbandry and improvement of soy bean crops and not to the study of something so useless as English literature.  So the spoon wasn’t just something she wrapped in foil and sent to her granddaughter (or maybe it was and I’m just a fruitcake)

After Grandmother’s death my aunt sent me this odd assortment of her utensils. Note anything odd?


There’s only one fork and who needs that many butter knives? Or pickle forks.

I don’t know what to do with all those spoons. Perhaps play Spoons.  Have you ever heard of that game?  Apparently it’s also known as Pig and Tongue and it is some kind of variation of Musical Chairs.  The winners of Spoons take a spoon from the middle of the table and the winners of Pig, fart.  (Not really they just touch the end of their noses. Don’t ask.) The winners of Tongue stick their tongues out.  I imagine it’s a game old Judge Nasty Pants would have loved.

Maybe I’ll give the spoons to the Spoon Lady!  Any odd things you’ve gotten as Christmas presents that made sense many years later?


Talle Svenska?  Ney…..

bookMany of my blogging buddies have hung up  “Gone Fishing” signs and closed comments until September which means they had the good sense to shut down for the month and either work on a novel that’s been suffering from terminal bloggerhea, or maybe, just maybe, they’re actually on vacation.

I wish I’d done the same but alas my head got stuck on another planet. I decided since I’d spent three whole years studying German, which shares its roots with Swedish, it would be no sweat to translate The Letters from Sweden, sender unknown that I talked about in a post a few weeks back.  All I needed was a Swedish/English dictionary! Easy Peasy, hey? 


Inte satsa på det ! (Don’t bet on it)

At the library I was disappointed to learn there aren’t many people in my small town with the urge to learn Swedish. There was only one Swedish/English dictionary. One! However there were books on Amharic, Gujarati, and Slovene – languages I’ve never heard of, have you?

Undaunted I checked out the one book and hurried home, confident that the secrets of the letters were about to be revealed.   


Lovely lettering but what does it say?

Lovely lettering but what does it say?

The problem, as you can probably tell, is deciphering the handwriting. The letters were probably written by three different people – all of whom undoubtedly received straight A’s in penmanship two hundred years ago – but I couldn’t tell their a’s from their e’s  which meant I had to guess.  And I’m not very good at guessing.

After several word by word attempts I realized you can’t translate word by word because the meaning of so many words changes depending on how they’re being used.  So I decided to attempt an entire passage and see if Google could make any sense out of it.  This method is rather like speaking in tongues but I was getting desperate. 

The letter below had the clearest handwriting and so I selected the second sentence, the one that begins “Du skribner,” for my little experiment.  I chose this one because I knew the word “skrib” meant “write” so at least I had some idea what the sentence was about.  Letter_0003

Here’s the result of my effort:

Du skribner att ni amnar att visa fron den platoon fom vi ar men vi tysken att mikar gerna blifrader mi an ack inte olag ga negra . . . 

Here’s what Google came up with:

You write that you intend to display from 
Pluto we are but we German to pickups 
willingly and not illegally.

“What does it say?”  My mother (who’d been waiting anxiously for proof of her oldest child’s brilliance) asked. 

“Well, I think your grandfather asked his in-laws to do something illegal so that he could display evidence that the family was from Pluto.  Apparently it is illegal in Sweden to reveal that you’re a Plutonian.”  

“Don’t you go writing anything nasty about the family!” 

“Who me?  Nah!”

My next brilliant idea was to “read” through the other letters looking for proper nouns that might reveal at least where they were from. A couple of the letters contained the word “Herran,” so I googled “Herran Sweden.” 

“Do you mean Herrang?” was the response. 

WTF I thought.  Maybe I meant Herrang. 

According to Wikipedia Herrang is a town with a history of industry and mining located on the northern coast of the county of Stockholm. Although the population is only in the 400s, it does have one claim to fame.  It’s the site of the largest Lindy Hop dance camp in the world.  The Herrang Dance Camp.

I must confess I had no idea what Lindy Hop was so I hopped back to Wiki and asked.  Here goes:

Pretty wild, hey?  Apparently this dance is a cousin of the breakaway, the Charleston and the Texas Tommy and got its start in Harlem, New York in the late 1920s or early 1930s. It was apparently named after Lucky Lindy (Charles Lindberg). I must admit it looks like fun.LIndyHop

So what have I learned?  Well, at least my ancestors knew how to read and write although what they had to say, I may never know!


Letters in Swedish . . . author unknown

After taking a break to ponder the delights of gibberish, I’m back to pulling skeletons out of the family dirty laundry hamper.  Perhaps I’ll find an even more illustrious ancestor than Deacon Samuel Chapin!  What do you think?Letter_0004

This is one of fourteen letters which were written in the late 1800s to my great grandmother, Nellie Nelson, from someone in Sweden (supposedly . . . we do not have the envelopes to prove this fact).  Nellie died after many years of ill health when her daughter (my gram) was only fifteen years old. After her mother’s death, Gram’s father, who must have been a dour old poop, refused to translate them for her.  He refused to even tell her who they were from.  His stance was “good riddance to old rubbish” and apparently Sweden and every thing Swedish and every one of their Swedish family and friends were old rubbish. Letter_0011

The only clues I have are the notes in my grandmother’s handwriting on the top of a couple of the letters, conjuring up the heartbreaking image of a young girl kneeling beside her mother’s deathbed hoping to learn something about her heritage. Probably while her father was out of earshot.   Letter_0007

Although she had little idea what was in them, Gram cherished these letters her entire life as my mother does now. Today they are very brittle, falling apart in my fingers as I put them on the scanner.  Paper that old should probably be handled by an expert and not someone as klutzy as me but time is of the essence, at any point they could be lost or turn to dust.  


The one above seems to be in a different hand, meaning that more than one person sent Nellie Nelson a birthday wish or wrote to tell her of family events.  However, the only thing I can glean from these fossils is that Nellie’s real name was Pettrunella Johansson (no wonder she went by “Nellie”). What will happen when I do find someone to translate them?  Do I really want to know the secrets they contain or do I want to assume they were filled with cherished stories from the old country?

Bobbins, Shuttles and Shekels


My only claim to fame! Looks like a jolly fellow, doesn’t he?

My great-granduncle Henry had a wife who spent most of her later life in museums and churches transcribing documents.   Her intent was to prove a link back to Henry’s famous ancestor, Deacon Samuel Chapin, one of the founders of Springfield Mass. However because Chapin arrived in this country in 1635 and fathered seven wildly fertile children, the family tree is split into a thousand tributaries. Still Henry’s wife persisted. It was an endeavor that took her all over New England and even across the pond to St. John Baptist Church in Paignton, England which houses Chapin family records dating back to the 1500s .


Family history written in 1910 by Marie Jameson

Once she completed her investigation she sat down to write an account of the family history. The problem is, she was a genteel lady of her times, devoutly religious and intent on writing a glorious account of the family that would make us all proud.  For this reason certain not so glorious moments were carefully wrapped in delicate lace and sweetened with lavender, such as this account of my great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Jameson.     

Permit me to say one thing: he was a man of strong intellect and reasoning powers: but few men had such a memory: he could repeat any passage of Scripture you might mention.    

Wonderful! Sounds like another jolly fellow to hang out with!  However, reading on we learn that this scripture spouting dude went south “for his health” leaving his wife and four children to fend for themselves:

Note:  Mrs. Samuel Jameson became housekeeper for Dr. Lucius Wright of Westfield, working for her home and from time to time the Dr gave her money for what clothes she needed, in lieu of wages.  The children were placed in homes and had to work for their board and living. Mrs, Jameson died in the Dr. Wright’s home.

Hebrew Skehel courtesy of Bing images

I don’t know why this detail is in a note.  Perhaps so we won’t think unkindly of one of our noble ancestors.  Who knows.  

On the next page she details the fate of the poor children of Mrs. Samuel Jameson:  Philander (what a name, hey?) became a manufacturer of bobbins and shuttles* who married – what else? – a dressmaker!  Samuel Jr went west in search of gold and was never heard from again. Abiezer married Mahala Chapin, evidently in an attempt to improve the gene pool.  Lastly there was poor Calvin.  After being “mustered” and then injured in the Civil War he became a collector of rare coins, including: “a Hebrew shekel of a very high antiquity and 2 cent English pieces of the years 1001 and 1098.”  Who knows what happened to those rare IMG_0677family gems?  At this point she’d reached Abiezer, my great-great grandfather, and thus proven the connection between the Jamesons and Chapins.  Hurrah! My claim to fame has been validated. 

Despite my sarcasm, it is a truly wonderful document, even if the interesting and telling sections are housed in notes.

* bobbins and shuttles = parts of a sewing machine

**muster = to call the troops to action  

Reindeer Herders and Lovesick Photographers

Sorting through old pictures and documents has left me in a funk, primarily because they detail lives I know were hard, where victories were probably few and disappointments many.  However, given the fact that over half my ancestors came to this country in the late 1800s, a time when travel was arduous and a future uncertain, I have to conclude that conditions in the countries they left – Ireland, Norway and Sweden – were much worse. 


Citizenship papers circa 1880

The Irish diaspora has been widely analyzed.  As anyone who’s read Angela’s Ashes knows: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” So no mystery there.  However, over one million people migrated from Norway between 1880 and 1920, which represented almost a ninth of their population. Can you imagine?  One in every nine people suddenly disappearing?  And to where?  Some barely settled land across an endless sea. 

The number of Swedes fleeing the motherland was far higher, however they had more folks to piss off and so Norway wins the distinction for the biggest brain drain of the north. There’s only one explanation officially given as to why Nordics fled the land of cod liver oil in hordes: crop failure.  Really?  In a land of long dark winters and never-ending summer days, what crop could have survived in the 1800s?  Other than cod, that is. 

I suspect there were other reasons such as lack of opportunity,  however you’d think those poor souls who left behind beloved grandmas, mothers and cousins would yearn to return to the warm hearth of youth for at least a visit, wouldn’t you?

Well my ancestors never did.  Once in the US, they turned their backs on the old world including its customs and languages.  As a result I never heard tales of the old country nor did I hear mother tongues being spoken. And so, I did what any ordinary child would:  I made up stories.


Just a couple of wild and crazy reindeer herders from Lapland!

These two love birds supposedly stole away on a merchant ship from Stockholm in the 1880s.  Because they had the same last name my mother theorized they were cousins who fell in love and had to run away in order to get married.  I went a little further and decided they were brother and sister.  (I’d been reading far too many Swedish novels and plays at the time.)


Lars and Helga won’t you please come home? Mother misses you!

Someone who knew the real story wrote a letter to my grandmother in the 1930s.  Sadly the letter is in an obscure Swedish dialect that no one can translate.  This has lead me to conclude my great grandparents were not Swedish at all but incestuous reindeer herders from Lapland.

My great grandfather on the other side was from Vang Norway but the only way I found out anything about him was through a google search.  


Ran off with a Sioux Warrior Princess?

He had the misfortune to die just after my grandmother’s birth and, after his widow married The Judge (by all accounts a man sans any sense of humor or love for children), Gilbert Flaten’s memory was left to wither on the vine.  When I asked my father what happened to his real grandpa I got this answer, “he just died.”  No matter how much I nagged him, I got the same response, “he just died.” When I asked what he did for a living all I got was “he was a photographer.” 

And so naturally I assumed that while photographing prairie life around his home (Fargo North Dakota), young Gil fell madly and passionately in love with a Sioux warrior princess and, unable to resist the temptation to ride the plains on horseback chronicling the lives of the noble Sioux, he soon abandoned the restraints of Victorian life.  

My version of his story seems logical, doesn’t it? 

Well, that’s not exactly what happened. After my father’s sudden death, I sat down at the computer and out of nowhere got the urge to google Gilbert Flaten.  Here’s what I found out. 

saloonThe real reason they  never spoke of him is that he ran a saloon during prohibition.  Horrors!

signageBut he also ran a successful portrait studio and worked for the volunteer fire department before his premature death at 40 from some ungodly flu.

Okay – now that I’ve got ancestors on both sides rolling in their graves, I’ll sign off with a salute to all those wonderful folks who left family and homelands to travel to this crazy country!  Happy Fourth everyone!


HouseThis house in Monson MA is rumored to have been the town’s first elementary school and because the town predates the Revolutionary War nary a floor is level.  The original structure had only two rooms whose blackboard walls are now hidden by layer upon layer of wallpaper.  From this simple dwelling, my ancestors added two bedrooms, an indoor bath, a kitchen, covered patio and small television room.  The room to the left was probably built by my great-grandfather as storage for his three children (two of whom are in the above picture along with a girl identified as only “My cousin Myrtie.”)  Because the toddler in the picture is my grandmother, born 1899, I figure this picture dates from the early 1900s.  The original deed is handwritten.


Receipt for the house on Main Street

Here’s the same house on Main Street in a photo probably taken in 1910 after they added the porch :


This porch (now screened in) overlooks a boulder-filled creek where as children we played for hours, always within shoutin’ distance of Gram.  The last time I visited, the untended blackberry vines choking the creek and newly constructed storage facility on the other side stole all hope of a return to what once was.  Nonetheless, the house’s eventual slip from our fingers still stings.

SignatureI know that, in the end, old houses and photos are just stuff, stuff our children probably won’t give a hoot about, stuff that will end up either in a garbage dump or in some moldy basement, pages stuck together, edges eaten by rats.  I’ve accepted that eventuality however for some insane reason I decided to go through the five million boxes of unorganized STUFF I rescued from my mother’s house.  If you’ve ever had to clean out grandma’s house and go through her stuff then you’re probably thinking what an idiot I am. And I admit, it is exhausting, unrewarding work that has kept me from blogging, writing, exercising and cleaning house.  But every now and then I’ll find something which might be mildly interesting to the kids. Know what it is?