Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dark Secrets, or Just a Simple Question of What Street Did You Live On?

In the past I've revealed my mother's family's dark secret--that her grandfather was a harsh man who never mourned his children he had put into harm's way. He drove his wife to shamefully filing for divorce at the turn of the century by his cruelty to her. That wasn't a common occurrence where the woman left the man and divorced him. One other daughter was committed to one of the first mental institutions after the death of her brother and sister and her father's cruelty. These mental institutions sprang up after Dorothea Dix fought for better care for the mentally ill.
My Pierson family at the turn of the century, my Grandfather Aaron is on the back row
Here (above) is the official family portrait of a hardworking farm family and it is missing a couple people--Oscar, who died in the barn fire, and Esther who died when she was overworked by her father by lifting pails of sand from the well. She died from a ruptured spleen the next day. The one lone son on the back row is my grandfather, Aaron. The daughter who would have a breakdown not long after this, Ellen, is directly behind her father. The portrait even looks as if there are missing people.

I have a similar photo of my grandmother's family. These long ago photographs are posed, and they would have to hold still for a while. They were directed not to smile, but still, there is a stark contrast in the two families. In the Pierson portrait, when I study their faces, knowing what their family was going through, I see pain and sadness. Maybe bitterness. (Above.)

My Thompson family in Minnesota,Grandmother Anna is the tow-headed girl on the front row. Aunt Mina, a storyteller and writer, is the oldest daughter on the back row.
I have been told lots of sad stories from my grandmother's side, too, but they were a happy,faith-filled, giving family with many people bearing witness to their many kindnesses to people--with even many stories of kindness/neighborliness to the Indians on a nearby reservation,(the people who were despised by many at the time, especially local people who remembered the uprisings.) Look at my great-grandfather's face, Bernt Thompson. (He the one with sparkling, friendly eyes on the front row.) I want to know him immediately. I wish I had known him.

The smallest child, and only tow-headed blonde in this family, is my grandmother, Anna Thompson, who was "stolen" for a day by the local Chippewa medicine man, Mickinock, when she was just a few days old. He said wanted to show his friend's blonde-headed baby off to his people. Notice how her mother lovingly cradles her hand and leans in. This was the family who helped young Aaron Pierson (my grandfather) when his first wife died.

These are the people, the Thompsons, who tucked Aaron from the first portrait safely into their family and cared for his five children, as he struggled to hang onto his farm in those mournful days after his first wife's death. And their youngest daughter, Anna, two years later, is whom he fell in love with, married, had five more children with, and cherished, until her dying day. My mother was only five-years-old when Anna died from tuberculosis. But before that happened, Anna allowed Aaron's children from his first marriage to name their youngest daughter, who was my mother. They picked their dead baby sister's name, Lillian Arlene. My mother would say (with a smile) later that it was tough, or maybe just strange, to see her own name on that baby's tombstone.Technically, my grandfather's first wife named my mother! But bonds were made this way.

What stories are being told in your family? In our family we love to tell stories. We laugh about the funny things that have happened, and miss the people who are gone. My kids know about great-grandfather Aaron and the wolf thrown over his shoulder, the time the bull charged him and he flipped him over his head, and a whole bunch of stories displaying his sense of humor.  It is important for us to tell stories. It is the best gift you can give to those around you.

Maybe you are grasping for hope right now. Maybe you are like Aaron, bitter and angry at someone in your family, mourning someone lost. Many of Aaron's sisters died, he blamed himself for his brother Oscar's death because he was gone that day, his first wife died from a tubular pregnancy just a year after they had lost a baby. He was left alone with five small children in harsh Minnesota. 

Just when he was desperate and didn't know what to do with his children, along came the Thompsons to help their brother in Christ and neighbor. Did Aaron pray to God to help him? I think he probably did, as he was known as a man of God in his church and community. I have his English Bible a well-worn book (He was Swedish, but insisted on learning English.) I'm sure things seemed pretty desperate before they got better.

You have to tell your stories. Garrison Keillor says,"We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are." If someone had not written down these stories that passed on to me (Aunt Mina,) and if my mother had not told the stories to me as a small child,maybe I would've never known.

I wouldn't know that I came from people who came through hard times, and could go on. These are more precious to me than anything and it helps me to know that God has a plan if we only open our hearts to Him. If you don't know your ancestors' stories, that is ok. Tell YOUR stories, the things that you have come through, the things that make you smile and cry, the pain mixed with the pleasures and joy.

Most of my own stories are set in rural and small town Indiana. While my mother's people came from Sweden/Norway/Maine/Minnesota, were Lutheran and Seventh Day Adventist, and my dad's people came from England/Ireland/Scotland/Virginia/North Carolina/Tennessee and were Southern Baptist and Cherokee, my parents met in Indiana and that's where I met my husband and we had our four boys.

Your story could've started in one place and ended up in another. It doesn't matter. Write down some of that story today. My mother and dad have been dead for over ten years now and there are still questions hanging that I didn't ask. Make a list of questions you want to ask and then ask--before it's forgotten and hard to track down.

The Millers, (their dad took the photo) a few years back, on their great-grandparents/grandparents porch in Indiana



Don't forget to to stop by The Barn Door, where I am also a contributor.

3 comments:

Sharon A. Lavy said...

This post is so interesting to me.

With your love of history, you need to write historical fiction.

Crystal Laine said...

Sharon, I'm praying and thinking of this very thing. Thanks so much for being my friend and helping me to sort through these things. Thanks for your comment, too. :)

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Crystal -

I love this post.

In addition to the many stories in my family, several cousins have done geneologies. One discovered my father's grandfather came to this country as a stowaway.

I'm sure glad he didn't get sent back. I wouldn't be here today. :)

Blessings,
Susan