We had two grandmothers, both full Norwegians. My paternal grandmother did not live with us, but on a farm in far northern Minnesota, in the town of Oslo. She was a widow. Our grandfather Elling had died before most of us came along. Grandma Thilda had survived this loss, and the loss of some of her children, which gave her higher status by comparison to my maternal grandmother, Sophie. She was not blamed for her losses, and was surrounded by sons and daughters who made up for them with endless hard work and singing in the darkest, coldest nights.
Sophie lived with us off and on. She was our other grandmother, the one who had also suffered the loss of her husband, but had additionally been forced to endure the shame of abandonment by him, our grandfather, William, just when her house was full of his six children and he simply could no longer abide her company. She had a grown son who stepped into the role of man of the farm. He was my mother’s younger brother, Eber. Grandma Sophie never wavered from her role as loving mother, yet in her grief and anger could never explain to anyone where her husband went or why. For this reason we seldom mentioned it.
Uncle Eber had been tall, good looking, and by all reports, heroic. Athletic and full of fun, Uncle Eber and my mom, Adeline stepped up to fill their father’s position as well as two teenagers could. They did this together for the sake of their mother and their four younger siblings until Uncle Eber was suddenly removed as place holder for his father when he went off to war and was killed in action overseas. Eber resided in the wings off stage in our daily family life, invisible but fully present in his absence.
It is no small thing to live with dead people, especially heroic ones. Grandma Sophie would hold an old snap shot out for us to examine. We would see a slender Norwegian boy in American Uniform, dapper in his cocked hat, beaming proudly at us with his dazzling smile. His mother would tell us what kind of son he had been, how great he was, and how loving and humble and hard working. Her voice would tremble, and she would lift a corner of her apron to dab at her eyes. We would look helplessly from her face to the black and white image, missing the connection entirely. We suffered his loss piteously, wished him back for her, sorrowed as well as we could, but knew we would never measure up. Never. Eber was mythical. Even our own mother said as much when it was her turn to tell us how her brother turned poverty and suffering and loss into golden days of joy and laughter when he partnered with her in raising an abandoned family.
We were made aware our careless joy was unearned and perhaps undeserved. Far be it from Sophie to say what God should have done, but she would have had it another way. The hem of her dress was caught on a rusty nail on a Depression era hen house, and she was incapable of lifting it off by herself. Though we had been sent to help her, our giggles echoed but faintly from a distant future. The poor farm woman could no more explain our existence than where her husband and son had gone, or why.
…to be continued