AW Day of Listening, December 14, 2008

(I went about it a little differently... I mixed the original purpose of the Day of Listening with AW's version, and stirred in a bit of research from my current WIP. And if you listen closely - you'll learn a lot about America's history and a little about me.)

Life has never been easy, and for the women of the mid- to late 1800s, the argument could be made for their lot being one of the worst of all. It was a time of Westward Expansion in the United States, and more often than not, the women found themselves uprooted with little warning and sent from a place that was at least familiar into the complete unknown. Forced to abandon homes they knew and people they loved, they endured loneliness, depravation, fear, uncertainty, sickness, death and the birth of the generations to come.

Two of those women were integral to my family. They were two of the grandmothers responsible for the existence of this Ol’ Fashioned Girl and her Ol’ Fashioned Boy. And these are the interviews they might have given, if I’d ever had the honor and the joy of sitting down with them for a chat.

Interview with Clara Dahl


Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very pleased to introduce my grandmother-in-law, Clara Maria Swanson Dahl, who joins us today from another time in another place, with a life story few of us can imagine.

Clara… thank you so much for agreeing to come today. I’m going to try to keep my awe in check and just ask the questions. Please feel free to tell us as much – or as little – as you wish.

OFG: When and where were you born?

Clara: I was born in Fiskebäckskil, Sweden, September 22, 1875. I have brought some pictures… this is the view from dockside. It’s a little fishing village, hasn’t changed much from when we lived there… my brother used to fish in this little cove.

OFG: Who were your parents? What did they do?

Clara: My papa was Johannes Swanson and my mama was Christina Maria Pettersdotter. The Swedes, they do the naming different. My name is really Clara Maria Johannesdotter, but your way… it is easier. Papa was a cobbler, and the rich people came from far away to buy his shoes. There was no time for him to make the shoes for the poor people of the village. Mama did the sewing. She made the fancy shirts, with rows and rows of little tucks in them, for the same rich people who bought papa’s shoes.

OFG: Were there a lot of rich people in Sweden?

Clara: Not enough. Though some people liked to act like the rich people, it brought them nothing but sorrow. It is better to be what you are.

OFG: I can’t argue that. Tell me more about life in Fiskebäckskil. Why did your family leave?

Clara: I was the oldest of four. I had two brothers, Sven Joel, and Karl, the youngest, and a sister, Jenney… Jenney died in childbirth, took the babe with her. But Karl and Joel grew up in America and married good Swedish girls from the community and had big families.

We went to school and studied our lessons and, when we weren’t needed in our garden patch or to help with the meals and the house, we got to roam the shores and go into town to buy fish when Brother couldn’t catch any and what we couldn’t make for ourselves from the other villagers. When I was about twelve or so, Papa’s brother wrote again from America – he was writing all the time – trying to convince Papa to come, move from our village and come to someplace called‘Nebraska’. Nebraska Territory. He said there were many opportunities there and life was easy, easier than in Sweden. And there was much in Europe happening that worried Papa. Great unrest. The Communists. The famines in Ireland and China. He was finally convinced it was time to leave his homeland and join his brother in America. So many were going to America! I wondered many times if there were any left in the world when we all got to America.

OFG: Why Nebraska? Why did Uncle John choose Nebraska?

Clara: Land. Almost for nothing. And many Swedes had gone there to settle. Papa was going to be a farmer.

OFG: How did that work out? For a cobbler to become a farmer?

(Note: Clara laughed at the question, and I must record that her laugh was deep, full-bodied, and infectious.)

Clara: Not well. When we first come to America, we must live with Uncle John, Papa’s brother, and his wife and family. My aunt… she was not so happy to have the six of us move in with them. She made Papa and Mama send me and Joel out to work.

OFG: ‘Out to work’?

Clara: Ya. Joel went to live with a family who had no sons to help with the farming. And I went to a family who had no daughters. All our wages went to Uncle John’s wife to help with the support of my family.

OFG: How did you feel about that? Didn’t you miss your family?

Clara: Oh, yes! I was very young… I wanted Mama and my sister and even though I was promised trips home to visit every Christmas, I never got to go. I never got to go to the school, either, like I was promised – only two and a half months of school in all the years I was gone. Something was always about to happen to keep me there with the people who’d taken me in. Babies, mostly… that woman was always having the babies! One time, twins. The next time… oh, it was bad. The baby comes out backwards… Missus didn’t have any after that, but still it was five or six years ‘til Papa had land of his own and Brother and I were brought home for good to help build the sod house we would live in until we could afford a proper wood house.

OFG: What do you remember most about your first years in America?

Clara: The flies! I hate the flies! We did not have the big flies in Sweden like we had in Nebraska. And the language. As long as we stayed in the Swedish community, there was no problem. But if we went outside, the language was hard. And there are so many American words for things! And missing Mama and Papa and my brothers and sister… and being run over by the wagon.

OFG: Run over by a wagon!?

Clara: On the way to church. Something frightened the horses and I was thrown out. The wheel rolled over my back. They got me back in the wagon and we went on to church, but when we came home, I went right to bed and stayed for many days.

OFG: What did the doctor say?

Clara: Doctor? There was no doctor… Here’s a picture of the Swedish sod church and most of the Swedish community.

I suppose I should have died… but we were so ignorant. It is terrible to be ignorant. It is so very terrible to be ignorant… we did not know to go for a doctor, and he might not have come if we had. Ignorant… I taught myself to read. And I made sure all my sons, all four of them, had good educations so they would not be ignorant.

OFG: So… when did you meet Rudolf? When did you marry?

Clara: He was a bachelor farmer. He was from Sweden, too, and part of the Swedish community. I was twenty-six when we married in 1901.

We moved into a sod house he had built to prove up his own homestead. Here’s a picture of us and the four boys – Carl Waldemar, our first born; Lawrence Walfrid; Einar Segfried, the baby; and Clarence Rudolf.

Me and my boys…

Later, much later, we had a proper house… but all my boys were born here.

OFG: So you lived in a soddy all those years? ‘Til you got your farmhouse in the ‘20s?

Clara: Oh, no. Rudolf got homesick for Sweden and sold everything! I did not want to go, no matter how hard it was in Nebraska… but Rudolf was like that. What he would say, would be the law. So we moved back to Sweden in 1912, into a tenement house in Vanersborg, the town where he was born.

I only thought I had missed my family when I was away working for the other Swedish families in America. Now there was an ocean and a sea between us… and everywhere the talk of war. We moved out to the country, to a twenty-acre farm, but poor Rudolf! He was no better at farming in his homeland than he was in America… he was such a city boy!

Things were very hard… and the war talk went on and on. Whenever Rudolf would go into town for supplies, it was all he talked of for hours when he came home. So… once again… he sells everything and we bring our boys back home to America. That was in May… no, April, 1915. We come home on the Lusitania.

OFG: The… Lusitania? The Lusitania that was sunk by the Germans? (You can see a picture of the dress Clara wore on her voyage at the end of the interview.)

Clara: On the way back to England. Ya. Such a terrible thing. So many people killed. I think often of those poor people. Their children. We were so lucky.

OFG: So it was back to Nebraska then?

Clara: So it was back to Nebraska, ya. But it was not the same for me there. My sister was dead… Papa was dead and Mama was living with my brother, Joel. We stayed with them, too, all six of us, until we could find eighty acres to buy in Dry Valley. We worked very hard and raised our boys there, added acres a few at a time until we had 240. We had a very good farm… mostly because of the boys. They all went to school, to college, and they were good farmers. I would not let my boys be ignorant.

But they could not stay with us forever… and then it was 1929 and everything was very bad everywhere in America. We tried to hold on, but we had to sell the farm in 1932. They came and auctioned everything we owned… my house. My chickens. My furniture. Everything. Monday, December 12, 1932.

OFG: Where did you go then?

Clara: We moved to a little house in Loomis, Nebraska, with the help of the boys. It was the best house I ever had… I didn’t let anyone change a thing. I wouldn’t even have any of that indoor plumbing. We stayed there until I couldn’t take care of Rudolf any longer, then we moved into the Christian Home in Holdrege. I didn’t much like it there, but what to do?

Rudolf died in 1956… and I followed him six years later. It was a hard life, but it was a good life. I believe I did well.

OFG: What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?

Clara: After raising my boys and making sure they got an education… why, child, it’s got to be coming back here… to talk to you.