I’m home this weekend from work on the Big Sur coast because the south end of the highway, now, is covered with rocks and boulders and mud. And it all happened at just about the spot I was picking up and hefting rocks just last Sunday. Uff Da!
And if I am chastened by the sight and memory of that scary journey home last week, and given to fret a bit too much over the proposed move and journey to Minnesota for a new life, I have to remember or try to imagine the immensity of the trip taken by my grandfather, Kristoffer Johan Pedersen, who also came to a new life in Minnesota, but a long time ago. I didn’t have the connection to him that I did with my other three grandparents and consequently, even the “idea” of him seems faraway and sad and a little romantic.
I grew up on the tales of how he was sent as a young boy of perhaps 8 years old along with his brother whose age I do not know, on a ship to America. My mother would always say – “Can you imagine those two little boys coming all alone on the ship by themselves.” Certainly there must have been an adult overseeing them, an uncle or family friend. But that was the way it was done in those days. Money was saved and a few were sent at a time, until all the family could be re-united in the new land. The same was true for my Grandma Marie, who he eventually married. She came in the second wave from Norra Finnskoga, Varmland, Sweden with her father and Uncle Jens. Her mother and the other children had gone before.
Johan came from the far north of Norway near Tromso – on an island called Skarvik. It is offshore from a village at the end of the Salangen fjord called Sjovegan which means “the way down to the sea” and that seems like an apt foretelling of his future for he, of course, went down to sea and kept going. If you have ever seen the Swedish movie “The Emigrants” with Liv Ulman as the mom and Max von Sydow as the father, you get a chilling sense of the chaos and abysmal conditions that they endured on those voyages. Crowded in with little privacy and fresh food and water, many of them succumbed to disease. They must have all existed in a constant state of terror what with the roiling sea, as if they were in a perpetual “E’ Ride at Disneyland, but for real. And the fear of the unknown. They must have asked themselves repeatedly if it was really worth it, could possibly be better “over there” than back at the comfort of the village, the familiar security of home.
My grandfather as a little boy must certainly have experienced the fear, but what I do know for certain is that he, like so many other immigrants, contracted tuberculosis in the close and unhealthy hold of the ship. And he would fight it for the rest of his life which was to end prematurally at the age of 32. He left my Grandma Marie as a young widow with four children from the ages of 9 to 18 months, the youngest being my mother. And, so they were to grow up with various relatives, who fortunately had practically adjoining farms along that stretch of the Red River Valley – the Nelsons (of the precious recipes),the Bernhardsons, and primarily Aunt Ida and Uncle Joel Anderson, which became my mother’s primary home for her growing-up years.
In arriving at the gates of this new country, the immigration people must have looked at his name and reassigned a new one more in keeping with their Anglican sensibility. So Kristoffer Johan Pedersen became John Christopher Pederson. Just like that. In the same way, my father’s grandfather went from Jorgen Jacob Johannesen to a Johnson, and Grandma Marie’s father became Jens Johnson, from Jonsson. (Have you noticed the connection in the versions of “Johnson” on both sides of my family which seems especially spooky if you know that my maiden name was Johnson and I married a Robert Johnson, although I guess it’s not so different than the odds with Smith and Jones.) But my main point is that the re-naming of immigrants, which includes the slaves who were assigned their master’s last name, seems so out of touch with what we would like to hold dear and true with our heritage. Granted, they took it. (Maybe not the slaves.) They accepted the new moniker and went for the New World and all it might promise and entail. So Johannesen and Jonsson became Johnson and probably hoped it would help them assimilate and grab for the gold ring and be rewarded with the new American dream. And for the most part they caught it. After great hardships, my relatives did quite well for themselves along the lovely alluvium plain that was the Agassiz glacial valley. They knew where to settle.
I have letters from my grandfather which he wrote to Grandma Marie from a clinic in Wisconsin over the Christmas of 1909. I have pored over them trying to make out some of the words, but they are in Norwegian with the exception of the postscripts which read “Dears Myrtle, Be all ways goods to mama and Arnold, From your Dear Papa” and “Dear Arnold, Papa love boy. Be good. From dear Papa.” It’s enough to break one’s heart, wondering if he thought he would never return with his health intact. And finally the year before his death, there is noted three hospital visits, all lasting more than a month, and finally his death in November.
Because he has been such a remote and distant Grandpa, shrouded in long ago past tragedy, and because I felt the ache of losing my own father at a young age, I have wanted to know him especially, rediscover who he might have been beyond Grandma Marie telling me that he was such a “good man, someone every one loved and respected.”
Last year when we were in Minnesota, I purposely looked for his final resting place. I had often been to some of the small country graveyards where my dad and his parents and many aunts, uncles and cousins already rested. For some reason, and probably because he had died so long ago and that particular Pedersen line had moved on to other places, it was unknown. So we poked around the Swedish and the Norwegian plots on both sides of the Red River, both North Dakota and Minnesota side. I walked the line up and down, peering over gravestones, reading names, recognizing Aunt Kerstin Bernhardson and oh here’s Great Grandma and Grandpa Jens and Kerstin (again), and Ingeborg and Ole Nelson and so forth.
And then suddenly – there it was! Back in the far corner – JOHN C. PEDERSON. And the entire grave was covered with peonies. Peonies. Who planted the peonies after all these years still hale and hearty? Certainly it must have been the young grieving widow, Marie. My darling Grandma Marie.
I was hoping to go this year and see them in bloom. If not this year,then next. And I want to weed and feed them and thank my Grandpa Kristoffer Johan Pedersen and tell him what a lovely wife he had and what beautiful children he created.