On a trip back to North Dakota/Minnesota in the early 1970’s, my Uncle Earl took me up into the attic of my grandparents home in Hickson, N.D. and gave me two things. One was a stuffed deer’s head which had most likely been shot by our grandfather, John Johnson (born Johannes Arent Johannesen) and used in two generations of hi-jinx. It seems that uncles and cousins at various times had traditionally used that very head to sneak around and scare people through windows. Boys stuff, I know, but Johannesen boy stuff is like that. I was honored to take the historical head back to California where it hung proudly on my wall for many years. And I use the past tense because of the tragedy which still plays upon my heart, for when I stored possessions at the time of an Oregon move, the stag was THROWN AWAY by a person in charge of the goods and without my permission or knowledge because the deer was deemed to have “bugs”.
He just threw away my heritage. Our heritage – because it was many years later that I was able to admit to my cousins that I had lost that piece of our past. And that was a humbling and difficult admission.
The other item from the attic was one skate which was carved and used by our great-grandfather Jorgan Jacob Johannesen. I don’t know where or how the other skate was lost to history, but I have clung with reverence and tenacity to the last of my keepsakes.
I have never understood just why my Uncle Earl would have bequeathed those two historical pieces to me. After all, I am the second of fifteen cousins and he had four children of his own. And beyond all that – I was “just a girl” in keeping of a boy’s piece of hi-jinx and women’s lib aside, wouldn’t I have felt slighted if he gave, for instance, Grandma Pauline’s china doll to Chuck?
All these years I have wondered if it had been a momentary whim or if he had known what was deeply in my heart. I can’t ask him that question now, but somehow I suspect that he knew that as the cousin out in California, longing to be with family, and as the little girl who lost her own father far too soon, I was the one who needed them the most, who longed for roots and familial stomping grounds.
It is with some irony, then, that just as we are packing and preparing to return to that place, I hear of a plan to divert the Red River of the North in order to stop the flooding in the northern cities, right across those sacred spots and “re-locate” the Larger Keepsakes – the house and granary, the fields and hi-jinx locales, the neighbors and neighborhood, everything that says roots and familial stomping ground. What would Great Grandpa Jorgan think of that?
We know all he went through to create those memories for the rest of us. We know that he had a fishery in Haukanes, Norway which was destroyed in a huge storm. And that he literally picked up the boards that were strewn and left in the wake and built himself a trunk which he packed with as many personal belongings as possible and left for America. We know that he managed to purchase a pair of Oxen (Spot and Pope- or most likely “Punkt” and whatever Pope is in Norse-speak) and a wagon and a cow and made his way across the new land and all the way to Pleasant Township in 1870.
We know too, that at first he lived in a dugout in the ground next to the Red River of the North and skied all the way to Alexandria, Minnesota for supplies.
And that he married Elin Arent, the neighbor’s daughter, built a house, fathered four children, two of whom died before their time of pneumonia, endured and persevered and endured some more. Just like all the mighty pioneers of that beautiful harsh land.
We’re taking the skate back to its roots and when we get there I’ll undoubtedly join the fight to preserve the stomping grounds – to find another flood solution rather than swamp our heritage. There’s a toughness and a tenacity left in the line of Jorgan Johannesen I suspect, and in the descendents of all the many families who make up the lineage of the town of Hickson, North Dakota. One can be sure, we won’t give this one an easy pass.