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Veeder: Imagining life through great-grandmother’s eyes

My Great-Grandmother Gudrun was Strong Man Johnson. At least that's what she'd tell her grandkids when she was outside the window of the house, declaring to lift it off its foundation, sending my dad and his brother and sister screaming inside as...

My Great-Grandmother Gudrun was Strong Man Johnson. At least that’s what she’d tell her grandkids when she was outside the window of the house, declaring to lift it off its foundation, sending my dad and his brother and sister screaming inside as they swore they felt the living room floor sway and tilt underneath them. Great-Gramma Gudrun, as I remember her, was tall and thin, with lightning-white hair, a sharp nose and an even sharper wit.
While my dad was young enough to remember the salty smell of a roast in the oven in her house down the road, I only knew her between the sterile pink walls of her room in the nursing home in town, a box of chocolates in the top drawer of her small dresser and a black-and-white photograph of her sitting stoically next to her husband, surrounded by her 12 children, some grown tall and strong, some in ribbons, and some just boys and girls. It’s the only photo I’ve seen of the entire family born of a woman sent away from her own family as a child in Norway after her father died, only to board a ship at 17 that would take her from Norway to Ellis Island and then on a train to Minnesota, where she would meet her groom and they would make their way to his claim just a couple miles down the road from my own house. In 1914. One-hundred years ago. I’m thinking of her now because we’re coming slowly to the end of another winter here on the North Dakota plains and the wind is swirling white flakes outside my window, landing softly on fence posts and oak trees and ground covered in ice. If the wind picks up like it does around here, we would have a regular blizzard, and the snow would whip off those oak branches and slam into the windows of this house and we would hunker down with a pantry full of boxed-up cereal, a freezer full of meat and frozen vegetables and hot water waiting on demand in the tank in the basement. The only mouths to feed are our own. Town is a half-hour trip in a car with four-wheel drive, a radio and a thermostat that reaches 90 degrees. Twenty below zero to me, living on these very same winter plains, is an inconvenience. What did 20 below zero feel like to a young Gudrun? What did a 30-mile trip to town mean to her family? I’m thinking about this today as my fingers push the keys of this computer in an age where handwritten letters have gone extinct and it seems we work to create new ways to make ourselves comfortable. While I didn’t know my Great-Gramma Gudrun, not in the way a grown woman knows another grown woman anyway, I expect in her nearly 100 years of living no one appreciated the advancement in technology like a pioneer woman raising 12 children on a farm in western North Dakota. I mean, if I think DirecTV is a blessing out here, can you imagine what the invention of the deep freezer meant to her? No. I can call myself a ranch woman, an old soul, tough and capable, but I won’t dare say I could imagine what it was like out here for her, an 18-year-old girl who spoke a language from a land 4,000 miles away and was charged with making a life and a family and a hot supper every night. I wouldn’t dare say I could understand her kind of bravery, her kind of lonesome, her kind of strength or the muscles it took to lift houses off of foundations just for the delight of her grandchildren, to be my Great-Grandmother, Strong Man Johnson. Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.My Great-Grandmother Gudrun was Strong Man Johnson.At least that’s what she’d tell her grandkids when she was outside the window of the house, declaring to lift it off its foundation, sending my dad and his brother and sister screaming inside as they swore they felt the living room floor sway and tilt underneath them.Great-Gramma Gudrun, as I remember her, was tall and thin, with lightning-white hair, a sharp nose and an even sharper wit.
While my dad was young enough to remember the salty smell of a roast in the oven in her house down the road, I only knew her between the sterile pink walls of her room in the nursing home in town, a box of chocolates in the top drawer of her small dresser and a black-and-white photograph of her sitting stoically next to her husband, surrounded by her 12 children, some grown tall and strong, some in ribbons, and some just boys and girls.It’s the only photo I’ve seen of the entire family born of a woman sent away from her own family as a child in Norway after her father died, only to board a ship at 17 that would take her from Norway to Ellis Island and then on a train to Minnesota, where she would meet her groom and they would make their way to his claim just a couple miles down the road from my own house. In 1914. One-hundred years ago.I’m thinking of her now because we’re coming slowly to the end of another winter here on the North Dakota plains and the wind is swirling white flakes outside my window, landing softly on fence posts and oak trees and ground covered in ice.If the wind picks up like it does around here, we would have a regular blizzard, and the snow would whip off those oak branches and slam into the windows of this house and we would hunker down with a pantry full of boxed-up cereal, a freezer full of meat and frozen vegetables and hot water waiting on demand in the tank in the basement.The only mouths to feed are our own.Town is a half-hour trip in a car with four-wheel drive, a radio and a thermostat that reaches 90 degrees.Twenty below zero to me, living on these very same winter plains, is an inconvenience.What did 20 below zero feel like to a young Gudrun?What did a 30-mile trip to town mean to her family?I’m thinking about this today as my fingers push the keys of this computer in an age where handwritten letters have gone extinct and it seems we work to create new ways to make ourselves comfortable.While I didn’t know my Great-Gramma Gudrun, not in the way a grown woman knows another grown woman anyway, I expect in her nearly 100 years of living no one appreciated the advancement in technology like a pioneer woman raising 12 children on a farm in western North Dakota.I mean, if I think DirecTV is a blessing out here, can you imagine what the invention of the deep freezer meant to her?No. I can call myself a ranch woman, an old soul, tough and capable, but I won’t dare say I could imagine what it was like out here for her, an 18-year-old girl who spoke a language from a land 4,000 miles away and was charged with making a life and a family and a hot supper every night.I wouldn’t dare say I could understand her kind of bravery, her kind of lonesome, her kind of strength or the muscles it took to lift houses off of foundations just for the delight of her grandchildren, to be my Great-Grandmother, Strong Man Johnson.Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.

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