Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

From the Homestead (7)--Saying what can't be said

Sven Johnson, his wife and two children, left their native Norway and spent the next eight weeks crossing the choleric Atlantic in a sailboat. Almost impossible to imagine.

There was a brother here in this new land, 100 miles from a place called Omaha, where that brother claimed he'd meet Sven and his family, and did, a couple days later than he'd originally said. If the Johnsons worried, Sven doesn't mention it. The Johnsons weren't as dirt poor as some who ventured out west of the Missouri; they left Omaha with that brother, two yoke of oxen, a team of horses, and his brother's load of lumber. 

What they found across the plains was a dugout, a small muddy space they shared with Sven's brother and his family until, Sven could file a claim and dig a hole in the ground he and his family could call home. All of this, Sven tells in monotone. No big deal.

"We had plenty of clothing, a good lot of linens and homespun materials; but these and ten dollars in money were all we possessed," he says in a matter-of-fact Great Plains voice, not as if to beg attention or sympathy, simply to let the people who weren't there know the circumstances, as if once upon a time his mother had told him it was impolite to talk about yourself. 

To file his land, he walked back again to Omaha, a good hundred miles. To make it, he had to work, do whatever he could for homesteaders along the way, here and there a meal, here and there a few cents, enough, he remembers, so he could carry some groceries all the way back to that dugout that was now his.

"There were no bridges across rivers or creeks and we were compelled to swim," he says in that same, flat voice in his memoir of the old days. Oh yes, and there was the time when he and his brother-in-law had to cross a swollen stream. "I told him to be calm," he wrote years later; "we would come to no harm." Sven says he took what they were carrying, along with his clothes, and swam successfully across; but then, he explains, he always was a good swimmer.

He went back for his brother-in-law, "a very large man," he says, and swam once again to the other side that "very large man" on his back. 

Nothing, really, to write home about. Just happened. You know. That's the way it was.

One year later, he hauled logs home from along the river, his own logs, for his own house. "Soon we had a comfortable log house erected." That's roughly the way it went. They worked hard to build a home, he says, a frame house, "not hewn by hand, but made from real lumber." 

And then this. "The old 'homestead' is still our home, but the dear, faithful, loving mother who so bravely bore all the hardships of early days was called to her rich reward January 28, 1912."

For the woman who teamed with him through all those years in a new world, Sven Johnson does something new. He stacks adjectives along with a whole descriptive clause when he comes to talking about his wife.  She gets the extra words because he loved her, his "dear, faithful, loving" wife and mother of his kids. One adjective wasn't sufficient, just didn't do the love of his pioneer life what she deserved.

Nowhere else in his memoir can you find one extra word or commas separating what grammarians call coordinating modifiers. Only for her. Sven didn't want to pile it on, but he neither could he keep a lid on his emotions. Just that once he had to embellish. 

Just once, Sven Johnson he had to lay it on because he had to let people know his good wife, people who, sadly, would never know the great love of his life. 

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