August 22nd. Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Cousin Vivian’s guest bedroom which I share with an overabundance of Elvis memorabilia. It’s so sticky stifling hot in Sioux Falls…not the cool rainy weather for which I am always and forever longing. The fan runs, it is four am, have slept myself out in the 30 hours since I arrived.
This is a Family trip. Family is Family and blood is probably thicker than water. I’m proud of us. Solid working class immigrant stock. No one ever became rich or famous—not that that would be a bad thing. But what a lively collection of bakers and bus drivers, gold miners and lumberjacks, cooks and farmers, highwaymen (the kind driving snowplows and MNDOT vehicles) and enlisted men and policemen, ranchers and roustabouts. I have friends with amazingly intricate and even illustrious family backgrounds and histories. Their stories are fascinating, like visiting a foreign country. In comparison my family is so straight forward, so uncomplicated. Working class Americans and okay with that. They did what immigrants were supposed to do—and are still doing, working hard for little money. The old American Dream was alive and well with them but apparently there was no gene pool of great ambition, no longing for mansions or lavish lifestyles. The kids went a little further in school with each generation…and the Nesets and Florens and Tacks and Wolfes and Hahns and Lowreys and Gingeriches (no relation to Newt) moved ever so slowly into the lower middle class of teachers and nurses and managers, white collars overtaking blue, and there was migration from the Minnesota, Dakota and Montana bases. Now there are new ethnicities and races and languages in the family, another result of the American dream. College degrees are proliferating and the new and next generations already or soon will include engineers, social workers and entrepreneurs. Even now there may be a grandchild or great-grandchild among us with dreams of corporate takeovers or huge political victories but she hasn’t been identified yet.
The two cousins I will visit, one from my mom’s side of the family, one from my dad’s, nicely represent the first-born American generation. One worked at a bakery for more than 30 years; one cooked and baked in Yukon restaurants and Alaska gold mines and then worked as a caregiver for mentally disabled adults. One had two unsatisfactory husbands; one just one, mostly satisfactory. Each had two girl and two boy children who mostly do well or very well, except for one death. Most of the kids from that generation went to high school—only a few all the way to college.
So—in a neighborhood just hanging on to respectability in Sioux Falls SD and a retirement apartment on the almost-prairies of Roseau MN—they live their lives. Day to day it is all about family, friends, the weather, doctors, grocery and discount stores. From time to time it’s about war or politics or crime or natural disasters like tornados and floods. In other words they’re pretty much like everybody else. One sincerely believes all politicians are corrupt and barely tolerates my need to check in with CNN occasionally. She is a Democrat, or at least this is what I choose to believe, because she does not actually say anything good about either party. Like most working class older Americans she leads a modestly comfortable retirement thanks to the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Johnson! The other cousin, an outspoken Democrat, does pay attention to the political news and is more than a little disappointed with Obama, figuring that some of his pronouncements or lack thereof are handing the next election to the evil ones. She is also quite angry about the mosque being located near the world trade center site, first because she thinks it is just the wrong place at the wrong time, and also because she thinks it is yet another thing the Republicans can use against Obama. Whatever their misgivings about the political world, both cousins (and my whole family) appear to be generally free of the racism, nativism and general meanness that fuels the Republican Tea Party. People of the far northern plains and forests are a slightly different breed than the mid-Midwesterners—more of a frontier mindset. They have less of a quarrel with those who are ‘different.’ Maybe because the lumber camps and northern wheat fields were largely settled and worked by misplaced and misfits, wanderers and outlaws of every color and belief, from every part of the world.
I will have lunches and dinners with some of the children and grandchildren. Jobs, babies, colleges, horses, walleye, mashed potatoes, Grain belt beer, pie and coffee and coffee and coffee, old photographs. Family. So grounding, humbling, reassuring. I take great pride and pleasure in it all.
AUGUST 22 – 24. MOM’S SIDE/SOUTH DAKOTA
Vivi and I visit the Floren and Wolfe family graves at the Pioneer Cemetery, just outside of Baltic, my mom’s hometown. This cemetery walk, paying tribute to our elders, is a biannual tradition. Grandma Magnhild Strom was born in Sweden on October 18, 1873. The family came to America, to Madison and then Baltic, South Dakota when she eight years old. She eventually married Ole Floren who came from Norway. (Dad always claimed Mom’s stubbornness came from the quarter-Swede blood.) Grandpa Ole Floren built their farm in the rich bottomland of the Sioux River Valley and then dropped dead of a heart attack when his baby, my mother, was two. Everyone said he killed himself working morning, noon and night. They are both buried here. My cousin Richard is here too. He is the cousin with whom I fought and argued from the time we met until the last time I saw him before he was killed when a prairie tornado upended his truck on a highway just outside of Sioux Falls. It’s not that we didn’t like each, those battles were just so much fun and the competition to win was fierce although I don’t remember either of us ever admitting defeat. Cousin Vivian’s daughter, Linda, is buried here—dead from devil cancer. We pull a weed here and there and amble about the top of this windy hill, visiting the neighbors including Berthine B. Fersdahl, the daughter of John and Kirsti Thompson, according to her gravestone “The first white child born in Minnehaha County.” Whether that was a good thing is probably still debatable among the Lakota, Dakota and Sioux who were already being born here.
Sometimes we also go by the farm Ole Floren built—which my mother probably loved better than any place on earth. Her idea of how people should live was formed here. Work hard, worship god, take care of the land and the animals, and ‘do onto others as you would have them do onto you.’ The sturdy white house and big barn, sheltered by a healthy grove of cottonwoods, nestled among the corn fields, near the green-moist banks of the Sioux river. How could it not breed and sustain all of those good Midwestern, immigrant, and farm family values? Nothing is ever as it seems or should be though, is it? Ole died young, Magnhild kept the farm as long as she could but mom’s siblings Olaf and Mabel did not take to farming, the hired men drank, and eventually the farm was lost to the bank. Family farm good. Bank bad. Unfortunately most people who knew that truth deep in their bones and could vote accordingly are old or dead.
My route on the way home to Minnesota was carefully selected to avoid the land of commercial/corporate farming as much as possible so all through Nebraska, South Dakota and eastern Minnesota I traversed ranches and farms that at least give the appearance of not having fallen under the total control of Wall Street/Bank Street/Realtor Street. Although apparently all of the crops are planted with seeds genetically created, altered, controlled by the big guys like Cargill. Should I make a disclaimer here? My first job after high school was at Cargill’s Wayzata headquarter as a board marker—I was one of the girls, fresh into the big city, who wrote the grain quotes coming off the ticker tape machines onto the big blackboard for Oscar the grain buyer. Has the same ring as being a Rosie the Riveter doesn’t it? Out of a history book. I suppose I am old.
It is so comfortable here with Vivi. She is doing well, fairly happy and fairly healthy. Goes to her weight watchers weigh-in weekly and has largely banned Hershey bars from the house. She cares for her blind dog and glossy black cat. Bookkeeps for one son, worries about the other and talks daily to her daughter, a long-time employee of Caterpillar, who is truly the family financial success story—making serious money by any standard and roving about the world for the company. Vivi may be the kindest person I know. She is also the first person I ever heard say the word ‘fuck’—undoubtedly referring to one of her no-good husbands. And the only person in the family who can still make mom’s special brand of chicken and dumplings.
Ovidia’s Chicken and Dumplings:
Cook the chicken in boiling water in a pot filled with carrots and celery. When chicken is fairly tender, put it in a frying pan with BUTTER and brown. Then cover it with CREAM flavored with allspice and simmer until it is fall-off-the-bone tender. Meanwhile make dumpling dough and drop into the pot of chicken broth and veggies. Dumplings should be chewy NOT all light and fluffy.
“EAT.” “The dumplings are too heavy aren’t they?” “I’m glad you like them, eat more.” “No, you have to eat more than that.” “Don’t you like them…you only had one helping?” “Eat more, we don’t want any leftovers.” “EAT.”