Thursday, February 1, 2018

Strong women hold me up

Circa 1912: My maternal grandmother, Lydia Blomgren Smith (front, center) with her sisters Judith, Anna and Amy. The family emigrated from Sweden to Montana in 1906.
Last week I took my young adult daughter to an event called ROAR: Fierce Female Storytelling so that she could hear women tell true stories about overcoming obstacles and hardship. Hearing brave women telling their stories inspired both my daughter and me. And it reminded me to not give up. No matter what.

 Sometimes in life we slam against hard times that threaten to steal our confidence and our joy. We wonder whether we can keep going. Have you been there? I certainly have.

Like many folks, I've endured some hard times. I've lost a job, a house, and even family. Somewhere along the way, I also lost my courage. At age 53 when I was low on money and had to choose between paying rent or getting my car repaired, I lived for three months in an artist's studio/shed without heat, running water or plumbing. It wasn't easy, but I did it because I had to. I didn't have a choice.

In the past seven years since my divorce and job layoff, a shortage of funds caused me to involuntarily downsize to cheaper digs. I moved seven times in five years. My housing footprint dwindled from a 2,400 square feet house in the city to a 323-square-foot camper in the foothills of the Elkhorn Range in Eastern Oregon. Sometimes, that hasn't been easy. In the heat of summer, I found a sleeping snake curled up on my pillow. On a sub-zero winter morning, it was so cold inside our camper-tiny house that my clothes froze to the closet. Yep. Sometimes, life is hard.

Even so, the hard stuff I've pushed through is nothing compared to what my maternal ancestors endured. I am upheld by a long line of strong, gutsy women who inhabit my family tree. When I've doubted whether I could handle another hardship or obstacle, these women stand behind me--reaching across decades and even centuries--offering me strength to continue paddling through turbulent water threatening to capsize my canoe.

Meet my maternal great-grandmother, Edla Christina Rasback Blomgren

My great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, on the family's Montana farm. She raised 10 children plus many grandchildren.
I never met my maternal great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, but the few photographs I’ve seen of her paint a picture of a tough, no-nonsense farm woman unafraid of hard work, and able to handle any hardship life dealt her. Although she was a caregiver surrounded by children throughout her life, those who knew her did not describe her as affectionate. In one black-and-white photo, a white-haired Edla is sitting on the porch of an unpainted farmhouse. She’s holding two babies in her arms, and six other children stand around her. No one is smiling. One little girl is bawling.

Edla didn't have an easy life. She was not Sven Blomgren’s first choice for a wife. He was engaged to her older sister, Charlotta, but she died of tuberculosis in May 1885. Seven months later, he married Edla, who was 19. Over the years, the couple had ten children. Sven scraped together money to buy a small farm, but it was a meager existence for the growing family. Like many who sought to escape widespread unemployment, poverty, and famine, the Blomgrens dreamed of a better life in America.

By the time the family emigrated from Hedemora, Sweden to the Helena, Montana area, in 1906, the children ranged in age from 2 to 20. Sven and the five older children arrived first. The family’s passage was paid by Edla’s sister and brother-in-law who had emigrated earlier and owned a ranch in Montana. Sven and the older boys worked on the ranch to repay their debt. The older girls worked as seamstresses and household maids for large ranches.

A few months later, Edla, 40, crossed the Atlantic on the steamship C.F. Tietgen with their five younger children: Anna, 10; Stoney, 8; Gunnar, 6; Lydia (my grandmother), 3 and Samuel Finn, 2. Was she exhausted from caring for her children in crowded steerage accommodations when their ship reached New York? To my knowledge, neither Edla nor any of the children spoke English. I don't know how they made their way from Ellis Island and boarded a train to Montana without knowing any English.

I’m certain Edla was used to making do with what little they had. Imagine cooking for 12 people on a wood stove, and on that same wood stove heating water for dishes, laundry, and Saturday-night baths. Edla and the children likely hauled water from a well. The bathroom was an outhouse. Were Montana winters harsher than Swedish winters? Did Sven and Edla find happiness in America?

They endured the heartache of burying three children in Montana. David, 21, drowned in the Missouri River while working on the crew building Hauser Dam in 1909. Their youngest child, Samuel, who had a weak constitution, died at age 10 from an unidentified ailment in 1915.

My maternal great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, who raised 10 children and then raised several of her grandchildren on a Montana farm with no electricity or running water--just a wood cookstove and a water pump.
After raising her own children, Edla was called on to raise her grandchildren when her daughter-in-law, Kerstin, died in 1922. Edla was still mothering those grandchildren when her daughter, Judith died, leaving behind a brood of seven children. Judith’s children were divided among relatives, and Edla gathered the two youngest under her wing. Now 59 years old, she was mothering two families of grandchildren. She'd been raising children for 40 years. No wonder she looks tired in that photo! Who wouldn't be? Imagine her fortitude to keep going after so much hardship and heartache.

My maternal grandmother, Lydia Fredricka M. Blomgren Smith
My maternal grandmother, Lydia Blomgren Smith, with her brother, Sam, on the family's Montana ranch, about 1914..
Edla's youngest daughter was my maternal grandmother, Lydia Fredricka Blomgren, born on December 20, 1902 in Hedemora, Vastmanland, Sweden. Lydia was the ninth of ten children.
Grandma's family were farm folk who worked hard for every nickel. I'm certain Grandma spent much of her childhood helping her mother with cooking, cleaning, and farm chores. At age 19, Lydia married my grandpa, Michael Smith.

In stark contrast to Grandma's down-to-earth farmers, Grandpa's family was a well-heeled, educated family from Vermont. His father was a physician, and his grandfather, a diplomat assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine), had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln. I am intrigued and inspired by my grandfather's three aunts who defied convention and society by remaining unmarried and insisting on living life in their own terms. Unfortunately, I cannot find any  photographs of my great-great aunts. Here is the little I know:
  • The middle sister, Helen Louise Willoughby Smith (1862-1932) became a physician in the 1880s, when it would have been very difficult for a woman to do so. I believe she received her medical training in England or possibly Scotland. She is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
  • The youngest sister, Clara Amanda Smith (1874-1907) was an artist who worked in Italy and died in Davos Platz, Davos Graubunden, Switzerland at age 32. 
  •  The oldest sister, Catherine Hermione Smith (1858-1900) was called "Hermy."I know nothing else about her, but knowing that she was among such independent-thinking sisters, she must have been like minded in her pursuits.

Grandpa had turned his back on his family's money, education, and privilege and headed West for adventure. I don't know how or where my grandparents met. Perhaps they met while Grandpa was working on Henry Sieben's vast sheep ranch in Wolf Creek, north of Helena, Montana. Perhaps Grandma was cleaning house or cooking for Sieben's ranch hands. Perhaps they met at a dance in Wolf Creek or Helena. I wish I'd bothered to ask Grandma their story before she died. Is their story lost forever?

My grandma, Lydia Blomgren Smith, a young wife and mother,
with her two oldest children, early 1920s in Montana.

Mike and Lydia built a log cabin along the Little Prickly Pear Creek. They set about raising sheep, a garden, and eventually, their 11 children. By the time my mom was born in 1934, the Depression had settled over the country like a shroud. However, they were self-sufficient people of the land who chose to live without electricity, running water, and central heat. They fed their large family from their garden and with wild game. Perhaps they kept chickens for a Sunday dinner of chicken and dumplings. Even into the 1950s, my grandparents chose to live simply on the land without modern conveniences. I don't think my grandparents considered their lifestyle a hardship, but an adventure. But even so, looking back across the decades, it certainly doesn't look easy. 
My mother, Joyce Adela Smith Parrish Peterson

Mom, Joyce Adela Smith, Grass Valley, Calif., 1941.
My mother vehemently denies being brave or strong, but she is one of the bravest, strongest women I've ever met. She is the eighth of eleven children, and was the first to graduate high school. Mom is resourceful and hard working, but she also loves to have fun. She took my three siblings and me camping, swimming, and ice skating. Mom was unflappable and encouraged my siblings and me in our antics. We often put on plays, backyard carnivals or made big projects and messes. And extra kids--cousins and friends--always were welcome in our home and on our adventures.

Lydia's 41 grandchildren 

About a third of the 41 first cousins at a family reunion at a family reunion at the farm in 1963. I am in the front row, second to the left, wearing the light pink short set. I'm standing next to my cousin, Dave Smith, who is sporting super-cool sunglasses. Notice that many of my female cousins are wearing dresses, but Mom let me wear shorts so I could run and play.

I am one of 41 of Lydia's grandchildren. That's cousins galore for all kinds of adventures we dreamed up. My enormous family sometimes gathered at my grandparents' log cabin. Grandma was not a hugging, affectionate grandmother who called anyone "sweetie." She always spoke frankly, and she didn’t care whether her words left a mark--even on her beloved grandchildren. Her terms of endearment were "I'm going to cut off your arm and beat you with a bloody stump!" or "I'll beat you to death with the stove poker!" We knew she was kidding--but still, she wasn't your typical hugging grandmother who showers grandchildren with praises.

Perhaps Grandma Lydia's demeanor was the result of being raised by the stern Edla, growing up in a family of 10 children and raising 11 children of her own. However, I saw a gentler side of Grandma when I was 16 and our extended family built her a log house across the garden from our farmhouse. I'd visit her after school, and she had buttermilk cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven and a cold glass of milk waiting for me. She taught me to play gin rummy and we talked about the books we were reading. My favorite conversations were when she talked about the old days. I wished I'd recorded her voice telling those stories! I wish I'd written down her stories. Why didn't I pay more attention?

Now as grey hairs are sprouting on my head, I think about these strong women who reach across the decades  in my family tree. If they had an opportunity, I'm certain they would join me on a dragon boat. In low moments when I'm feeling defeated and alone or up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, I imagine these women sitting with me in a dragon boat, paddling together, pulling the heavy water with their strong arms and determined spirits. Even in the rain, we could propel the boat forward because we are strong women who do not give up easily. Or at all. Knowing that they endured hardship encourages me to keep going.

When a particularly aggressive wave threatens our boat, we turn the bow toward the wake, and then we paddle harder. We pull the boat through the water. And we're laughing.

Paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty Women.