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My pioneer mother was wild for education. She fervently believed that young people given enough schooling and using the brains they were born with could rise above themselves as far as they wanted to go, the sky the limit. She herself, with no formal education of any kind, had managed to lead a remarkable life characterized from end to end with vision and courage. The daughter of Norwegian immigrants, she had supported herself from the time she was a very young girl and in her middle twenties had struck out alone to homestead on the North Dakota prairies. Almost a decade later, after she had become a secure woman of property and at an age when most women of her time had been declared spinsters, she married and raised six children.
Born in Norway's Hallingdal valley, my mother, Carrine Gafkjen, was three when she came with her parents in the early 1880s to a southern Minnesota farm. She attended, on and off, a one-room country school, but after several years her parents withdrew her permanently to help on the farm. They were, on the other hand, strict Lutherans; they taught her to read Norwegian so that she could study her catechism and be confirmed in the Norwegian Lutheran Church. My mother memorized every word in the one-hundred-page catechism. Fifty years later she could recite it by rote.
Sent at fifteen to "work out" in the home of a Sauk Centre family, she lived on the same street as Sinclair Lewis. Then a boy of nine or ten, Harry, as she called him, one day came to her back door and pressed a handsome piece of watermelon on her. She wanted to eat it but she didn't dare; she thought Harry was, as usual, up to something. After he left she threw it away. (When thirty-five years later she learned that Sinclair Lewis had received the Nobel Prize, she regretted not having eaten that watermelon. "I suppose it would have been all right," she said.)
My mother soon moved to Minneapolis where she worked as a cook and housekeeper for the next ten years, saving almost everything she earned, always with the single-minded intention of homesteading. In the spring of 1904, when she was twenty-five—a handsome dark-eyed woman wearing a great billowing hat, her slender figure hidden under a long black coat with leg-o'-mutton sleeves—she boarded a train for northwestern North Dakota. In the frontier town of Williston, she rented a horse and buckboard and drove thirty miles north where the prairies lay 2,130 feet above sea level and thousands of acres, most of them still unclaimed, rolled from horizon to horizon. Here she staked out her 160-acre homestead. She had a tiny one-room cabin erected and lived there alone for the required six months, every night barring her door against the coyotes. Her only furniture was a potbellied stove (with a surface large enough to boil a pan of water), a shakedown bed, a table, and a chair. Once a week she walked five miles to the Little Muddy Creek to wash her clothes and to bring back enough water to boil for drinking. She lived on potatoes and salt. She hired a man with a breaking plow and four oxen to turn over the required number of acres of virgin soil. When autumn came, she went to the federal land office in Williston and "proved up," the term the homesteaders used for submitting proof that they had fulfilled all of the conditions of the Homestead Act. She exercised the option of paying $1.25 in cash per acre for her land. One year later, she received the patent from Washington, D.C., dated September 26, 1905. Still in my family, it is a magnificent piece of parchment, on which my mother's name and the description of her land are executed in large round calligraphy. The document is signed in a small nondescript scrawl, T. Roosevelt.
During the winter for the next eight years, my mother worked as a housekeeper for a well-to-do farm family in the eastern part of the state, and in the summer she returned to her homestead to cook for one of the large threshing crews operating in the territory. She had the remainder of her land plowed and rented it out on crop shares. With the income from her crops, along with her wages, she was able after a few years to buy another quarter section of land near her homestead. At thirty, she had become a woman of means, the owner of 320 acres of rich North Dakota farmland, free and clear with no mortgages or other encumbrances.
My father, Sever Berg, had homesteaded, too, in another township. My mother met him one summer when he was firing the steam engine on the threshing rig for which she cooked. When she heard the familiar Hailing accent and learned that his parents had grown up in the same county in Norway as her own, she knew that my father and she had been destined to find each other halfway across the world, and she hesitated no longer; she married him before the year was out in 1912. They decided to sell my father's homestead and build up their farm on my mother's land, which lay pleasingly higher in the sun and had richer, more productive soil.
At thirty-four, my mother was afraid that her childbearing years had passed. Not to worry. She bore six children in nine years. First my sisters Bernice and Florence, then my brother Norman, then in rapid succession Gladys and Frances and me. All six of us completed elementary school in a one-room country schoolhouse down the road from our farm.
Because I was the youngest of the six, I recall our process of education as a sort of stepping-stone marathon. It begins with my first memory at the age of four saying good-bye to my two oldest sisters as they left home to go to high school and ends with my own graduation from college seventeen years later in 1944. During all of these years I followed in the footsteps of my sisters and brother, hopping from stone to stone as, urged on by my mother, we tried to complete our education in the years before, during, and after the Dust Bowl.
My oldest sisters, Barney and Florence, went in tandem through grade school because Barney was late in starting. During a raging North Dakota blizzard when she was five, she had suffered an attack of appendicitis, and before my parents could get her on a train to the nearest surgeon, who was three hundred miles across the state in Grand Forks, peritonitis had set in. It took Barney a year to recover from her illness, and by then Florence was old enough to start school, too.
They both finished off their grammar school in a fast six years, however, because our country schoolteachers had a habit of arbitrarily letting pupils they considered smarter than others skip entire grades. One reason for this practice might have been self-serving; if the teacher saw an opportunity to make her days less harried by combining several students into the same grade, she took it. Whatever the reason, perhaps because Barney was older and Florence was the quintessential quick-witted child prodigy, when they were thirteen and eleven they had been promoted out of the eighth grade and were ready for high school.
There was no question in my mother's mind that they would go to high school, even though the closest accredited four-year high school was thirty miles away at Williston and despite the fact that higher education was frowned upon in our farm community. Most of the parents took the position that it served only to spoil young people and, even more dangerous, it lured them away from farm life.
My father could have gone along with this theory easily enough if it hadn't been for my mother, who convinced him that it was old-fashioned thinking. This was the right approach to take with my father because he loved "progress," and once he had been persuaded that educating his children was progress, he was all for it. My parents went to Williston the week before school started in the fall of 1927 and rented a sleeping room with cooking privileges in a private residence for Barney and Florence, at the same time enrolling them in Williston High School.
During the early autumn months my father drove to Williston every Friday evening to bring my sisters home for the weekend; but by the middle of November they had to stay in town week after week because the snow-covered country roads were frequently impassable. There was still only a dirt road to Williston; U.S. Highway 85, which in a few years would bisect the Midwest from Mexico to Canada and come within two miles of our farm, had not yet reached northwestern North Dakota. When the Christmas holidays came, my father shoveled his way out of dozens of snowdrifts to get the girls home. He started out in his 1927 Ford sedan early on a Saturday morning, and the three of them didn't get home until midnight. My mother stood for hours in an upstairs window that night, looking for lights across the prairies. When she sighted the automobile lights five miles away, she tracked them from snowdrift to snowdrift, hour after hour, until they made the turn on the last mile toward home. Then she went down to the kitchen and put the potatoes on to boil.
My parents decided they would try to rent a house in town for the remainder of the school year; my mother would live in town with us five girls, and my father would stay out on the farm with my brother Norman and look after the livestock. They counted themselves lucky to find a small two-story house and, one cold bright day when the roads were clear, my father loaded into his truck much of the furniture from our farmhouse, including the Clarendon upright piano, and moved us in to Williston. The first Monday after New Year's my mother took my sisters Fran and Gladys to the city elementary school and enrolled them in the first and third grades. When noon came, Barney and Florence came running home and found a hot lunch waiting for them. Florence sang out, "Now all our troubles are over!"
Not quite. My father came in from the country the following Friday evening and found two men from the Williston school board waiting in the living room for him. The men informed him that the board had met in special session the previous evening and had concluded that since our farm was located in another township my father must pay tuition, amounting to hundreds of dollars, if Gladys and Fran were to continue to attend elementary school in the city. My father turned white and showed them to the door. He was already paying tuition for the older girls to attend high school; the additional fee would be prohibitive. The next morning he took Barney and Florence back to their rented sleeping room, and then he piled all of our furniture into the truck and moved us back to the farm. That night, with packing boxes sitting all over the kitchen, my mother made us pancakes on the coal range for supper. She said that it was good to be home.
My father never again mentioned this incident. He always believed that in no-win situations what is done is done and the faster one forgets about it the better.
My parents would have done well if they could have blotted out the winter of 1928 entirely. My mother had no more than emptied the packing boxes before my father came down with rheumatic fever, probably brought on by the strain of many hours of heavy lifting in subzero temperatures. The only doctor in the territory who would make house calls was an old man named Dr. Wicklund who lived in the small hamlet of Wildrose, twenty-five miles to the north of us. My mother waylaid the mailman and had him send a telegram to Dr. Wicklund, and a day or two later he came out in his one-horse buggy on sled runners. Dr. Wicklund was all one color: charcoal. His horse and buggy were charcoal, as were his suit of clothes and his hair and mustache. He pulled up a kitchen chair to the side of the bed and took my father's pulse with one hand while holding a heavy gold watch in the other. My mother loved Dr. Wicklund. In the winter of 1921 he had driven from Wildrose in a blinding snowstorm to deliver my sister Fran, no worse for the wear, who weighed twelve pounds and who was, according to my mother's distraught calculations, a month overdue. Fran was the only one of us not delivered by a midwife. Dr. Wicklund had brought both Fran and me, in our early years, through pneumonia. Sitting now at my father's bedside, he shook his head as he examined my father's tender swollen joints. Then he went into the kitchen and told my mother, who was making him beefsteak and eggs against the long trip home, that the only cure for my father was prolonged bed rest until the fever had ridden itself out. He gave my mother a large bottle of wintergreen oil with which to massage my father's joints.
My father stayed in bed the remainder of the winter. My mother spent many hours a day out at the barn, milking the cows and feeding and watering the other livestock and poultry. When she came in with the pails of milk, she would turn the DeLaval cream separator, then take it apart and wash it along with the breakfast dishes. Then she would rub my father's joints with the wintergreen oil. I was the only child not in school, and I would sit on the foot of the bed watching my mother. I knew that after a certain length of time the smell of wintergreen would make her nauseated and she would find an excuse to hurry into the kitchen, but she never let on to my father that it made her ill. Even today, if I catch the faint scent of wintergreen, I instantly see my father in his bed in the winter of 1928.
My mother said, many years afterward, that this was the only time in all of their married life that she saw any visible sign that my father was worried about anything—and this included all of the Dust Bowl years. She said this was the only time in his life he couldn't get up out of bed and put on his pants—which for him was the criterion for being able to handle anything that came along. He lay in bed and fidgeted, worrying that if something happened to Barney and Florence in Williston he couldn't get there, and then he would make my mother mail them another twenty-dollar bill. After a few weeks my sisters wrote, "Stop sending money. We don't know what to do with it."
When spring break-up came the last week in March and the snowdrifts began to diminish, my father's fever started to subside, too, and by the middle of April he was well enough to harness up his draft horses and plow his fields and seed his crops. Contrary to the dire predictions of a few community soothsayers that he would never be strong again, my father had no lasting aftereffects of his illness, nor did he ever have rheumatic fever again.
In 1928—with the Dust Bowl still in the future—my parents were what was commonly termed as "well fixed." Their wheat crops in the fifteen years they had been married had given them the means to buy another half section of land, giving them 640 acres in all, debt free. Safely stowed away in the State Bank at Appam, the small town five miles to the north of us, were substantial cash savings—more than enough to send my two older sisters through a state teachers college in a few years.
* * *
When I was three months past five years old, in the autumn of 1928,1 started first grade. I was so tiny I looked more like three than five, but it had been so lonesome at home the previous winter I could scarcely stand it; I whined and nagged until my mother consented to let me go. In hindsight, she acknowledged that it was a mistake. After my first month in school, the teacher—a motherly soul I adored—became ill and had to leave. The second teacher after a few weeks began showing pregnant and had to get married. The third teacher was a six-foot giantess who instantly resented me because she didn't think she should be required to play nursemaid to a five-year-old when she already had ten legitimate pupils in all eight grades.
To make matters worse, as winter came on I caught a terrible cold, but instead of keeping me at home my mother let me go to school, with instructions that I was not to go out to play during the lunch hour and that Gladys must stay in to keep me company. The giantess didn't care for this arrangement at all; she wanted her privacy during the lunch hour. She told Gladys to go on out to play and she'd take care of me. Not a middle child for nothing, Gladys stood her ground like a trooper, but she was no match for the Amazon and she had her walking papers in a hurry. Alone with the teacher, I wailed in terror, whereupon she took me by the wrist and hurled me across the room. A wrenching pain went through my wrist as I flew across the floor, which was always slippery with the red cleaning compound used to soak up the dirt. The teacher told me to sit at my desk and she didn't want to hear another peep out of me. I knew she meant business. I sat frozen at my desk until my father came to take us home from school. By then my wrist was swollen to twice its size. My mother bandaged it, and I stayed home for a month. Every night I cried myself to sleep at the thought of going back to school.
My mother took the position that I was the one who had nagged her to go in the first place and this is what had happened and now it was up to me. She tossed her head (my mother was the most convincing head tosser I have ever known) and declared that she didn't care one way or another whether I went back to school. Five years old and I had a horrendous "free choice" hanging over me. I thought that if only she would say I must go back I could throw a tantrum and cry that no one could ever make me; or if she would just say that I couldn't go back, I could protest mildly but not enough to change her mind. As it turned out, the teacher herself made the decision for me. One day Norman, Gladys, and Fran came home from school and reported that the giantess had remarked with a satisfied smile, in front of the entire school, that she was certain she'd "never see baby sister again."
That did it. The next day I went back. When the Amazon saw me walk in, she shrugged and lifted her eyebrows. She set me on my desk and pulled off my overshoes.
Excerpted from Nothing to Do but Stay by CARRIE YOUNG Copyright © 1991 by Andele Carrine Young. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 5, 2011
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