Monday, September 2, 2013

The Holy Baluster




My Norse grandmother grew up in a tiny farm hamlet called Dawson Minnesota, her grandfather, the immigrant who lugged his belongings and family across the prairie for 100 acres of fertile soil. Ole built his sod hut and parleyed his knowledge of crops into enough cash to buy each of his 6 children 100 acres of their own, each farm an attachment to his.
 

Ruth's father Julius and mother Tobia built a fine, standard two story farmhouse in which to raise their own 9 children, and that white house outlived all of them but the two youngest, the last of the Skotteruds of that generation.
 

My great aunt Alma's children stayed in the area surrounding the original homestead, one in the town itself but most, 20 miles away in the much larger Montevideo. All the boys were civic minded and had volunteered themselves to local causes at one time or another, and most had been volunteer firemen as well.
 

As house fires are fairly rare, small departments need practice now and then to hone skills, use new techniques and experience new equipment. Generally that's done when a developer is clearing land and an abandoned building stands in the way; rather than bulldoze it right away, they will allow the firemen to torch it and then put it out first, leaving less material to landfill.
 

One morning my second cousin Bernholt answered the town fire alarm, leaped into his pickup and called on his radio to get the location from the dispatcher. It didn't even occur to him what house it was until he spied it through its northern tree line.
 

It was already in the latter stages of destruction, flames pouring from the window where my grandmother and her sister slept on the second floor, black smoke obliterating the October azure sky.
 

Bernie sat in the truck for a moment, staring at our heritage billow toward nothingness. The extended family had for years talked about buying the old place and keeping it at least a shell of what it was when Ole would loudly sing bible verses and pound his massive fist in time while Tobia would prepare dinner for 9 children, husband and his parents now too old to live on their own.
 

He thought about the 13 of them in that 3 bedroom house, the boys and their endless chores and the two spoiled girls who were doted on by both siblings and adults alike. He pondered how difficult life had been for these children of immigrants, and the children that followed...and how easy life had become since the most of them had perished and left this house to die as well.
 

And then he flung open his truck door and dashed to the burning hulk, past his chief who screamed at him to stop, past his co-firefighters who only stared in wonder at this moron who jumped the four stairs leading to the porch and nearly went through its rickety, rotted floor.
 

It was all he could think of at the moment, the only piece of history yet salvageable from the all consuming hellfire. Bernie ran down the covered porch until he reached a spot where the banister and its supports were still intact, and there he leaned back and kicked out, martial arts style; and with one firm boot he sent flying a chunk of the hand hewn, beaded balusters and top rail of this hundred year old porch, and saved a sliver of our history for at least his own family.
His fire chief was not amused, but these were small town, rural folk; they all appreciated what he'd done in the end. It was honorable to attempt to preserve one's roots in spite of even dangerous conditions, and once the fire was out they'd all had a good laugh and applauded his instinct.

 

I have a two photos of that home, my only piece of Ole's legacy. One is a nice, wide black and white of the homestead itself that I long ago had framed. And the other is of my grandmother Ruth and her new husband, the Swedish émigré' Ernst on their wedding day in 1929; a colorized photo of them standing in the yard of that building surrounded by all of her family.
 

I've never seen the balusters themselves, though I spent considerable time over the years at reunions and other functions, and visiting Dawson's widows because I was passing by and felt the need to honor my heritage; my extended family stopped acknowledging my existence when my father and grandmother died. And that's fine, I understand better than I did that genealogy is not pop culture as it once might have been and most regard relatives as just people like any others.
 

But I have the photos I do have, and I know the stories. For some reason it's a comfort to know these people's lives in some small way. It's only a shame it has to be the dead ones that I know best, but that's not up to me...I just work here.

1 comment:

  1. I can't decide if this is a sad tale or not, but it's a great one.

    ReplyDelete