It’s now up to 36 degrees outside, so soon I can go out and pull off the sheets from the flowers that we covered up last night. It was 31 degrees earlier this morning, so that officially gets named a “frost/freeze” event. No, it wasn’t down into the low 20s, where we get to watch everything start to freeze solid, but the grass was white with the frost, and the windows of cars parked outside – like mine – turned from clear to stained glass. The records show the average first frost is September 27, so we are 18 days ahead, and that means somebody owes us something, for sure. What I hope it doesn’t mean is that this is a harbinger of things to come! In the short run, it is supposed to be 82 degrees next Monday, so I think we will not pull out the heavy coat quite yet.
We visited Cheri’s mom up in Grafton, North Dakota this last Friday, and in the course of the visit, as is becoming more and more frequent, her mom pulled out yet another small box from somewhere, and remarked, like she always does, that she wasn’t sure what she was going to do with all of “this” and said she’d probably just throw it all in the trash. I always love that statement, because it ratchets up anxiety that, without thinking, she might get rid of something valuable, believing that no one in the family would want to at least look at it.
So, I looked at it. The box was full of papers, and letters and photos of another time. It was a mix of family “stuff” from both Cheri’s mom’s and dad’s sides. Some of it, indeed, was not worth saving, since they were photocopies of pictures of distant relatives, taken in the 60s and 70s. There were others, however, that were actual photos, marked on the back by someone who was thinking, identifying Cheri’s great-great grandparents. There were also letters written early in the 1900s that I am sure are fascinating, but are written in Norwegian, which, as I pointed out to Cheri, tells her how she was only born 50 years separated from the old country. On the other hand, my family arrived on shore 400 years ago at a little rock called Plymouth.
So, the next step was to find the way to get the box back to our house and away from the trash can, at least until the chance came to go through it all more carefully. I’ve been a student of family genealogy for more than 30 years, and even spent a great deal of time consolidating Cheri’s mom’s family tree into a readable format, so I fortunately had some respect in that regard. She allowed me to take the box home, and see if there were any items worth keeping. I told her – also – to not throw other things she found or pulled out from somewhere until I had the chance to look at them. I think it will hold for now.
I have to say it’s an interesting and thought-provoking exercise to study someone else’s family. I am well accustomed to looking at the names and bits of history from the Crosses, the Dows, the Servisses, the Pierces, and so many others, seeing the family move from Massachusetts to New Hampshire or New York, then over to Ohio, and then on to Illinois or Missouri, or Wisconsin and then to Iowa and Nebraska. It was the typical westward movement rehearsed by millions of families in the first three centuries of our white European settlement of America.
What was different was to try to decipher a different family, at most 140 years ago, coming from Norway or Sweden by way of New York City, or Nova Scotia, and then traveling rather quickly across Canada, and then dropping down into Dakota Territory about a year before it became North Dakota, and settling about 47 miles south of the border. It was there that they practically homesteaded, finding land that had been set aside by the railroads when they set up the state, and advertised for settlers to come and populate it. The folks who carried Cheri’s eventual genes had different names: Thompson and Larson, Moe, Hultin, Sjuneson, Sjunesdottir, Olson, Anderson, Nilsson and more. Cheri’s relative with perhaps the coolest name was Petronella Sjunesdotter, who was her great-great grandmother, born in 1840 in Sweden, and died 96 years later in Walsh County, North Dakota, a first generation immigrant. Petronella’s father’s name was Sjune Larsson, since last names denoted only the father, and the son received the father’s first name and “son,” while the daughter received the first name and “dotter” as the last name. Sjune Larsson was the son of Lars, and Petronella and the daughter of Sjune. That ended, of course, when they landed in America, and last names were set in stone, besides changing with marriage for the women.
So now Cheri and I have a box of photos of strangers, with letters they wrote that we can’t read. Yet, they are treasures of the past, such a narrow and fragile thread to the history of a family. I have far less raw family material on my side, due in part to the way in which my folks moved around, and there were no third floor farm attics in which to store the past for a few generations. I do have two of the family Bibles, most valuable for the center pages that hold the lineage and the marriages and baptisms of folks four or more generations back. I always marvel, as I look at the names, how one of them was written darker than the others. As you study it, you soon realize it was written with a stick pulled from the fire, so that the name is actually burned into the page! I think about how many moments separated that name being included from the Bible bursting into flames and gone forever…
Still – I find all this stuff fascinating, and it is fun to help grandnieces and nephews with their school family history projects, or to discover a tidbit to share with my own siblings, and now with Cheri’s family. The sense of continuity and consistency – combined with a bit of detective work – feels as though this part of my life is also being lived out intentionally (outside of a burning pencil…).
You see, although we might miss things while we are trying to be intentional, simply because we miss things sometimes, but when we approach even our own history by accident, boxes get thrown away, stories get lost, and paths to a deeper understanding of where we originated, and who we truly are get erased, sometimes for all time. With each generation, especially as we live in a world that is so mobile, and generations move away to find their own lives, fewer and fewer of the family stories are left to be heard, and the thread grows ever thinner.
I would encourage you to find at least one member of the next generation or the one after that in your family who might be interested in knowing the history and share what you know. There are stories I have in my mind that exist only because of the one evening Dad and I stood in the kitchen, and I asked him something about his dad, and he spent the next hour and a half sharing that history. It never happened again. If sharing is not possible, then take some time and remember things about your own childhood – anecdotes, important events, transitions, deaths and births, and who you remember of the farthest back in your own family, and write them down. Someone else can sift through them in later years to determine their value, but at least you have offered them breadcrumbs to follow back home to their own family. Do it today.
Word for the Day: harbinger. Here’s one we have often heard, and sometimes used, but it’s nice to learn its origin. Pronounced HARR-binge-er, it early on was the name of the task of someone sent ahead by the army or some other large caravan as a “herald” to arrange the lodging of the troops. The harbinger was the name of one who asked; the “herbergar” was the one who might offer the lodging, and the “herber” was French for the lodging itself. You may quickly see how that word became changed in English to “harbor,” or the safe place. It also later was reused as the verb, “to harbor” someone, usually keeping safe from harm, like harboring a criminal, or harboring an escaped POW. It was usually a negative term, at least thought of negatively by the ones who were looking for the one being harbored!
Back to harbinger. A harbinger today also “heralds” a change or an impending event. We talk about “harbinger of things to come,” like an omen or a sign. Actually, however, the phrase is redundant. It would be like saying, “someone who tells the future about what the future will be.” Just use the word harbinger. Then be prepared for what is being kept safe until the right moment.
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.