The Bergman Odyssey

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Dedicated to my mother, Gloria Ellen Bergman  

I am from corn-on-the-cob, homemade blackberry jam, Folgers coffee, and buttered coffeecake from the Jewel Tea man.  I am from my grandma’s small white farm house on the American prairie, coal country.  Since then they built a nuclear plant to power Chicago suburbs; it is practically in grandma’s back yard.

I am from red ripe home-grown tomatoes, cucumber salad, mashed potatoes and good brown gravy.  I am from family picnics were they had soda pop for the kids and Old Style beer for the adults.  Uncle Sonny played polkas on his accordion and my aunts schottisched around the kitchen when they were cleaning up the dishes.

I am from Axel, Martha, Lars, Vendla Valentina, Hulda, Gunilla, and Gloria.

I am from smart, hard-working, artistic peasant stock, farmers, housewives, blacksmiths, bridge builders, fishermen, waitresses, water-colorists, concert pianists, from families who always just scraped by but were too proud to accept charity.  During the Great Depression, my mom’s family ate fish from the Illinois River, berries from the woods, and lard smeared on homemade bread.  Grandma would can plain blackberries and tell the children, “Maybe when we open the jars we’ll have money for sugar.”  Remembering, Mom would smile a little and say, ”We were poor, but we were happy…”

I am from strong women who had many babies and planted vegetable gardens and volunteered at the church and made their own soap and brought the men home from the tavern before their whole paycheck was gone.  They learned to suffer in silence and not complain aloud.  I remember listening to the grown-ups talk around Grandma’s kitchen table, over many cups of strong coffee, proudly telling stories of how they survived hard times and lived to tell the tales later…

My mother’s people are from Smaland and Halsingland, Sweden, near the Orefors glassmaking factories.  They immigrated to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, seeking to make a better life for the children.  The families settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Two little girls were left behind and went sent for later, coming across the Atlantic Ocean by themselves.

My grandpa was 14 years old when his family arrived in Little Falls, Minnesota.  The first day in America he went out to explore his new country, and got lost in the woods for 3 days and 3 nights.  He was hungry, alone, frightened by animal sounds and pestered by mosquitoes.  On the 4th day he found a dirt road.  A man coming along in a horse and buggy picked him up.  Grandpa did not know English and the man did not know Swedish, but they went into town and asked if anyone had lost a boy.  Grandpa was happily reunited with his family, but for the rest of his life, when he’d had a few drinks, he would tell the traumatic story over and over again.  My mother wishes she could hear him tell it once more, but he died in 1964.

My ancestors ate pickled herring and hardtack.  I like Swedish gingersnaps, blackberry cobbler, and strong coffee.  I automatically say “Ja, ja” when I am visiting my relatives; but I don’t drink beer at all.  Some customs I adopted, some I didn’t. 

Today I am a cube farmer, working in an office; I have no skills in the garden; I’d be useless on a farm.  But I am still proud to have descended from Vikings, from good solid peasant stock.  I helped my mom put together her family genealogy, typing, writing, scanning photos, making copies, collating, designing a cover page, binding, mailing the packages.  We each have different skills, and use them as best we can, to help each other, to help the family. 

It is our way.

***************

Preparedness by Edwin Markham

For all your years prepare

and meet them ever alike:

When you are the anvil bear –

when you are the hammer, strike.

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