Memories Of Grandma
She lived an unselfish life in a harsh place
Grandma was a tough old Swede. She had to be to handle a hardscrabble life on an Upper Midwestern prairie. She was an American citizen, born in 1883 in North Dakota to immigrants from Sweden, but she was intensely proud of her Swedish heritage.
My grandfather was of Norwegian stock and often nettled Grandma. The story goes that he came home from town one day and said, “Ma, I heard the Sons of Norway are going to admit Swedes now.”
Delighted, Grandma perked up. “Really?”
“Yeah, and they’re going to change the name of the lodge to the Sons of Bitches.”
Her response has been lost to antiquity, but it’s quite possible Grandpa spent several nights on the couch. She was scarcely a featherweight.
In 1959, Ingemar Johansson of Sweden defeated Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight boxing championship. Grandma was proud. The next year, in a rematch, Patterson floored Johansson in the sixth round. When Grandma heard about the outcome, she snorted, “Huh, he wasn’t much of a Swede!”
Grandma raised five boys and one girl, my mother. She married my grandfather in 1905, and at some point, they owned two small, underground coal mines, the first in southwestern North Dakota and the second in the central part of the state.
Grandpa was an alcoholic who drank up much of the proceeds from the mines. In addition to raising a family and contending with Grandpa, my grandmother also fed a group of coal miners three times a day. A hired girl had helped her out much of the time, and my mother was pressed into service as soon as she was old enough.
In the early 1950s, underground coal mines became unprofitable because nearby strip mines could produce coal faster and cheaper. So, my grandparents sold their land and moved. They purchased a couple of acres on the edge of town and later sold off some lots.
They also purchased the town telephone exchange. This was in the days before dial phones became common out in the hinterlands.
The system consisted of a few party lines with six to 10 subscribers on each. Subscribers had an old-fashioned crank-type phone on the wall, and when they wanted to talk to someone on a different party line or make a long-distance call, they rang the operator, who made connections using a plugboard.
Grandpa wasn’t much help. He did a little, but as little as possible.
After Grandpa died in 1955, my family bought one of Grandma’s lots, right next door to her home, and moved the old house from the mine into town. That was when I really got to know her. We liked each other. I spent quite a bit of time at her house as the telephone operator. It wasn’t a big system, so I didn’t have a lot to do except read magazines and answer the occasional call to the central office.
Grandma was a hefty woman, about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and about an ax handle across the beam. She much preferred working in her garden to housework, although she got that done, too. She was a good cook, and like most women of that era, pickled cucumbers and preserved fruit and vegetables, which were stored in glass jars in the basement for the winter.
In the fall, she loved going out to the coulees around our town, picking wild berries, which she made into jam. She knew all the good places, and following her was like following a momma bear crashing through the underbrush.
She greeted visitors with a warm hello and always then asked, “Have you et yet?” If they had not, Grandma fed them. I don’t recall being asked if I’d et, but I was a grandkid living right next door and not company.
She died during the winter of 1967 at age 84. I had moved out of state a few hundred miles away and due to cold, snowy weather, I didn’t make it to her funeral.
Writing this, I realized I never really said a proper goodbye to Grandma.
“Goodbye Grandma, this story is for you. I love you, wherever you are. And yes, I’m OK. I’ve et.”