I’ve been chasing after my past for as long as I can remember, hurtling ethereally backwards to catch a fleeting glimpse of what it meant to be me. All those ghosts I never knew, and a few I did, who lent their DNA and the traits of their gene pool, just so I would be here now. I long to know them.
Since moving back to ancestral territory this past year, the yearning has intensified. Most everyone in California exists in a multi-cultural stew, a mish mash of past history that blurs the lines and dims significance. But here in Minnesota there are serious roots all about and it’s expected that your “greats” and even your grandparents came, most likely from Norway, and settled in and you, now, have inherited whatever they wrought – be it land, looks or personality.
Oh yes. Now I get it as I look in the mirror. They talk fast and laugh a lot and buzz with some inner intensity. My North Dakota cousins. They are precise, good hearted, somewhat worrisome and want to nail perfection. Those three Minnesota girls. And so much more.
Of the elders, there was Grandma Marie who basically raised me. The others remain a mystery. A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to unearth the past when I encountered an elderly woman at a social event and realized that our grandmothers were sisters. “Tell me,” I excitedly implored, “was your grandma as sweet as mine was?” Long silence. And then she said, “Well, that’s another story.” Oops. “Well,” I nervously persisted, “I know her real name was Kerstin like our great-grandma, their mother, but did you call her Kjestie like my grandma did?” Silence. Then – “I called her Grandma.” End of story.
Now my interest is piqued more than ever. What was that about? What family dark and murky inter-weavings prompted such an unusual, terse, response to what might have been reminiscence, tales of the past and familial connection? We could have giggled and swapped tales. We could have hugged with mutual empathy. We could have parted with a renewed and happy appreciation for our entwined past. This story of our grandmothers is now a mystery I want to crack.
In the meantime, I literally took pieces of my roots and planted them on Mt. Faith, hoping that Marie and Pauline and Elen will somehow understand that I want to know them better, that I long to have them know me, that I hold their memory dear and I wish for their sweet spirits to inhabit my garden.
It was not an easy task to dig up planting holes for their peonies. The top eight inches of soil at Mt. Faith was pitifully bereft of nutrients and the next six inches was pure yellow clay. It took some major huffing and hefting and amending to provide a new home for pieces of my past. But I/we did it last week.
First we went to Hickson, North Dakota to the home of my grandparents Johnson, John and Pauline. Aunt Lil lives there now. By the side of the old two story house, I dug up pieces of three peonies planted by Grandma Pauline – red, pink and white. I was nervous and edgy about the task. Anxious not to make a mess or harm the mother plants. And cautious of shoveling just the right amount of root with three, preferably five eyes attached.
From there we went to the old Hemnes Cemetary where John’s father and mother are buried to dig up a piece of the peony planted by Great Grandma Elen. I don’t know the color.
And then to Clara Cemetary in Comstock, Minnesota where my darling Grammy Marie planted two peonies – red and pink – on the grave of her husband Kristofers Johan, who died of tuberculosis in 1914, leaving her a widow with four children, my mother only 18 months. “What a good man he was,” she always told me. “Everyone in town said he was the kindest man they had ever known.”
We took our tagged plastic bags back to Mt. Faith where I planted them in my new peony beds on either side of T.M.’s arbor and just across the path. I washed them off and counted the eyes, added a huge dollop of peat moss and buried them carefully, making sure that the nodules were not more than two inches beneath the new amended soil. I talked to the ladies as I worked, Marie and Pauline and Elen. I told them I loved them and wanted to carry a piece of them forward and I thanked them for my heritage.
JOHN ARENT AND PAULINE PAULSETH JOHNSON
AUNT LIL’S HICKSON HOME – Pauline’s peonies at right.
Jorgen Jacob and Elen Arent Johannesen with their children Randine, Johanna, John, and Jorginse
Gravestone of Jorgen and Elen – Hemnes Cemetary
Digging up a piece of the peony –
KRISTOFFER JOHAN AND MARIE JONSON PEDERSON
PEONIES IN BLOOM – CLARA CEMETARY
First plantings in the new garden on Mt. Faith amid T.M.’s new arbor, Grandma Pauline on the right, Grandma Marie on the left, Great Grandma Elen across the path.
May the heritage be continued . . .
That is going to be so beautiful when it is done. Wished I had someone to dig around with me like you do! And persist in those questions. It’s important you know.