1. Tillie TILLIE
My paternal grandmother was ornery, fat, and formidable. She cackled when she laughed, brooded for reasons known only to her, barked out her sometimes alarming opinions, and spoke a Norwegian dialect impenetrable to me. Although she was born in the United States, she never mastered the “th” sound in English and opted for a straight “t” instead, referring to “tings” and “tunderstorms” and “Tanksgiving.” When I was a child her hair was thick and white, and when loose, it fell almost to her waist. Before I knew her, it had been auburn. It thinned over the years, but I remember my awe when I saw it down. That happened only at night after she had unpinned her bun in front of the hazy mirror in the tiny, musty, mildewed bedroom of the farmhouse where she lived with my grandfather, who had his own even smaller room under the eaves just up the narrow wooden steps on a floor we were rarely allowed to visit. Once her hair had fallen and her nightgown was on, my grandmother took out her teeth and put them in a glass by the bed, an act that fascinated me and my sister Liv because we had no body parts that could be removed at night and replaced in the morning.
The extractable teeth, however, were only one piece of an altogether marvelous, if sometimes intimidating, being. Our grandmother peeled potatoes with a paring knife at what seemed to me the speed of light, hauled logs from the woodpile near the house, and yanked open the heavy door to the root cellar with a single gesture as strong as any man’s before she led us down to the cold, dank domain where canned goods stood in their glass jars on shelves lined up against earthen walls. It was a place that smelled of the grave, a thought that may or may not have occurred to me then, but the excursion was always accompanied by a whiff of threat—by the fantasy that I would be left below with the jars and the snakes and the ghosts in blackness.
She was the only grown-up we knew who enjoyed telling poop jokes. She rocked with laughter over our plop-plop funnies as if she were a child herself, and when she was in a good mood, she told us stories from the long lost days of her own childhood, how she had learned to turn handsprings and cartwheels and walk on a wire and how she and her brothers hoisted sails on their sleds and were blown hard and fast across the frozen lake near the farm where she grew up. Before we went “visiting”—a word that signaled we were about to hop in the old Ford and “call” on various neighbors—Grandma put on her straw hat with the flowers on it that hung on a hook inside the front door and grabbed her black handbag with the gold clasp that had her little coin purse inside it, and we were off.
My grandmother died when she was ninety-eight. She has been a ghost in my life for some time, but she has been returning lately in a mental image. I see Matilda Underdahl Hustvedt coming toward me carrying two heavy pails of water. Behind her is the rusted hand pump that still stands on the property and behind the pump are the stones, which were once the foundation of the old barn that had been torn down long before I was born. It is summer. I see my grandmother’s cotton housedress buttoned up the front. I see her low breasts, wide body, and thick legs. I see the loose flesh under her arms jiggle as she walks straight-armed with the enameled metal buckets, and I see her fierce red-rimmed sunken eyes behind her glasses. I feel the heat of the sun and the hot wind that blows across the undulating flats of rural Minnesota. I see an immense sky and the broad blank horizon interrupted by copses of trees. The memory image is accompanied by a mixture of satisfaction and pain.
Tillie, her friends called her Tillie, was born in 1887, the daughter of an immigrant father, Søren Hansen Underdahl, and Søren’s second wife, Øystina Monsdattar Stondal, who was probably an immigrant herself, but my father doesn’t mention this in the family history he wrote for us, so I cannot report on it. In all events, Øystina’s father was wealthy, and he left each of his three daughters a farm. Tillie grew up on her mother’s property in Ottertail County, Minnesota, near the town of Dalton. When Tillie was eight, her mother died. A story my grandmother told us, and my father’s sister, tante (Aunt) Erna, told us, and my mother told us, too, about the eight-year-old Tillie gained the status of a family legend. After Øystina’s death, the local minister came to visit the family and do whatever Lutheran ministers did over the bodies of the departed. Sometime before the man left the premises, he piously intoned to all present that the woman’s untimely death had been “God’s will.” And then my grandmother, long before she was my grandmother, stamped her foot in a rage and shouted, “It is not! It is not!” And she was glad she had done it, and we were glad, too.
Tillie never visited “the old country.” She never saw her father’s first home, Undredal in Sogn, with its tiny church fitted close to the steep cliff of the mountain that rises straight up from the fjord. She never indicated any desire to see it that I overheard. She was rarely sentimental. Her husband, my grandfather Lars Hustvedt, traveled to Norway for the first time when he was seventy. He inherited some money from a relative and used it for a plane ticket. He went to Voss, where his father had been born, and was embraced warmly by relatives he had never met. Family lore has it that he knew “every stone” on the family farm, Hustveit, by heart. My grandfather’s father must have been homesick, and that homesickness and the stories that accompanied the feeling must have made his son homesick for a home that wasn’t home but rather an idea of home. We acquire the feelings of others, especially beloved others, and imagine that what we have never seen or touched belongs to us, too, by imaginative connection.
My father made a life of that imaginative connection. After fighting in New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II and a stint in the occupation army in Japan, he returned home and went to college on the G.I. Bill and eventually earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in Scandinavian studies. He taught Norwegian language and literature at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and served as secretary of the Norwegian American Historical Association, organizing and annotating a vast archive of immigrant papers, a post for which he was never paid.
In the text he left for us called The Hustvedt Family, there is scant information about his mother’s family, except what I have related about Øystina’s inheritance. My father’s conscious identity was formed by the paternal line, and he uncovered as much as he could about the men from Voss who came before him, his grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. I do not think it occurred to my father to look deeply into his maternal lineage. Tillie may not have saved any documents or letters from her parents. She was literate but did not attend school after the second grade. Her letters to her soldier son are fluent but sometimes ungrammatical.
It is only as an adult that I have been able to meditate on the problem of omission, on what is missing rather than what is there, and to begin to understand that the unsaid may speak as loudly as the said.
At the very least, my grandmother irritated my father. I recall him bristling when she made ignorant pronouncements about the state of the world or scowled in silence at the table. He rarely scolded, but his face was a map of unhappiness, and I felt the conflicts between mother and son as deep scrapes cut into the general vicinity of my chest, which sometimes became unbearable, and I would ask to be excused and flee the mostly unarticulated family turmoil for the garden, where I could study the still green Concord grapes slowly turning blue on the arbor or fling myself onto the lawn and concentrate on biting into the sweet white ends of blades of grass. Even then, I knew that behind my father’s irritation were stories I could feel but would never hear.
Grandpa was a gentler soul than Grandma. Forty of the sixty acres of farmland were lost to the bank during the Depression, and this narrative explained their penury. They must have subsisted on social security. I don’t really know. My father’s salary was meager, and we lived from month to month for years, so whatever help he may have given them couldn’t have been considerable. My grandfather’s livelihood as a farmer ended long before I knew him.
I have no memory of my grandparents in conversation or of them touching each other. We have photographs of them, however, sitting side by side.
Grandpa was an inward, taciturn man who read the newspaper thoroughly, followed politics closely, sat for long stretches in a chair in the cramped living room, chewed tobacco and spat into a Folgers coffee can at his feet. He smiled benevolently at our drawings and gave us striped candy from a jar he kept in the kitchen. After Lars died, my father told me “more than half” of his love for “the place”—by which he meant the farm—had disappeared. I was eighteen, and I pondered over this cryptic pronouncement, which I took to mean that he had loved his father more than he loved his mother.
When Tillie was dying, my mother spent some time with her alone. She grabbed my mother’s hand and moaned, “I should have been nicer to Lars. I should have been nicer to Lars.”
After his mother died, my father made a speech at the funeral, during which he called her “the last pioneer.” My father made excellent speeches. He wrote well and with wit. But there is a detached quality to the eulogy, as if he is surveying his childhood from a great distance, and his link to the woman who bore and suckled and cared for him is missing. Where did it go? Did it vanish into the bitterness of his parents’ marriage? Is there another element, too, one far more obscure and hard to define? Did the debt to her disappear into the forgotten land of the mother and mothers, the speechless realm of the womb where every human being begins and from which every human being is born, a territory Western culture has studiously repressed, suppressed, or avoided to a degree I have come to regard as spectacular? The omission of Tillie’s side of the family came “naturally” to my father because in the world of my childhood, we did not tell time by mothers, only by fathers. It is the father’s name that marks one generation and then the next. I suspect now that The Hustvedt Family served in part to rehabilitate the patriarchs that had been squashed by history, a history that included what my father witnessed as a boy—his own father’s humiliating losses, which the son through intense identification internalized as his own.
My grandmother suffered losses too. She inherited money from her father, put it in the bank, and saved it. I do not know how much it was, but it was her money. Years later, after my grandfather’s brother, David, lost both his legs in a work accident on the West Coast, she gave up the money to pay for his prosthetic legs. The money was sent, but the brother disappeared. Many years later, David Hustvedt died in Minneapolis, where he had been selling pencils on the street. He managed to get around by inserting his knees into a pair of shoes. On the street he had been known as “Dave the Pencil Man.” I used the story in a novel, The Sorrows of an American.
My parents are dead. As I write this, my mother has been dead for only three months. She died on October 12, 2019, at the age of ninety-six. My father died on February 2, 2004. I will be sixty-five on February 19, 2020, the same day my mother would have turned ninety-seven if she had lived. Neither of them died young, and even if I die soon, today or tomorrow, I will not die young either.
My parents met at the University of Oslo in 1950 or 1951. My mother was a student there, and my father had a Fulbright Fellowship. Born in Mandal, my mother moved to Askim, a town just outside Oslo, when she was ten years old. Rather stupidly, it took me a while to realize that both my parents spent the high bloom of their youth at war or under occupation. My father was nineteen when he received notice for duty. My mother was seventeen when the Nazis invaded Norway on April 9, 1940.
Within a few years of meeting the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, my mother became a Norwegian immigrant herself and found herself married and living in Minnesota.
My mother didn’t know that the parents of the handsome American she had met at the American Club in Oslo lived on a farm without running water, that they had no electricity until my father put it in after the war, and that neither of them had finished grade school, much less high school. She didn’t know that two woodstoves were all they had for heating during the frozen Minnesota winters. My father withheld all this from my mother. He let her discover it for herself. The reasons for his secrecy are buried with him.
As children, my sisters and I did not think of our grandparents as poor. It wasn’t that we didn’t know what the word meant, but rather that we didn’t believe it was a word that applied to members of our own family. Poor summoned fairy tales, the man and woman with three daughters or three sons who lived in a cottage in the woods or distant urban “slums,” visible to us only in sweeping gray tones on TV. It seems that my grandparents had managed reasonably well when my father, the oldest of four, and his sister, Erna, the second child, were still small, but when the Depression hit, the delicate equilibrium of the household was rocked and then it collapsed. The people lived on, but the farm I remember seemed to have been stopped in time, circa 1937. Paralysis defined the place.
We four sisters and our cousins had the run of that place when we visited in summer. It was our Wonderland. We climbed onto the seat of the tractor that sat in the high grass near the orchard of apple and pear trees. We perched happily on the carcass of an old car abandoned on the property. We loved the rain barrels lined up beside the house and the mysterious mounds of junk stored in the little white garage, including a discarded refrigerator, the sight of which terrified me because I had heard a story about a boy who closed himself inside of one and died. I loved the basin that served as a sink and the bar of gray Lava soap with grit in it made especially for farmers and mechanics. I loved the bowl and the long-handled dipper we used to drink water. I remember running with a side ache, grass stains on my knees and palms, cuts and bug bites, going inside for Band-Aids and drinks of lemonade and wild games of cops and robbers, shipwreck, tornado, kidnapping, and pirate.
When my mother confessed to Tillie that she was pregnant with me in July before my parents’ wedding day in August, my grandmother blew air from between her lips, made a “puh” sound, and waved her hand to dismiss the subject. It was of no account. “Grandma didn’t care at all,” my mother said to me many years later as we sat up talking late one night.
There is a story my father could not bring himself to write, one he did not include in the family history or in the memoir he wrote about his life, but which at some point I heard, not from him but from his sister or one of his brothers, a story that was subsequently confirmed by my mother. At the height of the Depression, a government inspector visited the farm, declared that the dairy cows were infected with hoof-and-mouth disease, and ordered them killed. After the terrible thing had been done, it came out—I do not know how—that the cows had not been sick. The inspector had been wrong. There was no recompense.
I have carried the image of that carnage in my head for years, carnage I never saw.
I think my father hated the place as much as he loved it.
The landscape is unchanged. The farmland still rolls on for miles and miles, now under the auspices of vast farms or “agribusiness.” The farmhouse on its remaining twenty acres stands as an empty monument to family memory, not far from Urland Church, where my father’s ashes are buried in a box in a grave close to the wood that butts up against the cemetery. Beside him in another box are half of my mother’s ashes. The four daughters will take the other half of what was once my mother to Norway this summer, to Mandal where she was born. Close to them lie my grandparents Lars and Matilda, my uncle Morris, my uncle Mac McGuire, an Irish policeman who married tante Erna, died when he was only fifty-two, and ended up among the Norwegians after death. The land looks the same, but the immigrants and their Norwegian-speaking children are dead. My father’s generation, the third, the last one to still speak the language, are almost all dead now, too. The children of my generation who came after them disappeared into white America. For many, their connection to their immigrant past is tenuous at best, reduced to a couple of talismans—a tightly knit Norwegian sweater or a plate of lefse—the soft unleavened potato bread, my grandmother’s specialty. It is best spread with butter, sprinkled with sugar, then rolled up, and eaten quickly or slowly, depending on one’s inclination.
Brutally hot in summer and beset by blizzards and temperatures far below zero in winter, Minnesota’s climate is extreme. Life on the prairie was a periodic struggle to survive weather. My father recalled drought, locusts, and roads closed for long periods by “the snows.” When the roads were impassable by car, they traveled by sled with the horses, a memory that brought a smile of pleasure to my father’s face. Tillie was terrified of icy roads and preferred to stay put when the ugly sleet fell and warnings arrived on the radio or television. I remember her cracking anxious voice coming from the telephone as she spoke to my father. She would not take the half-hour drive to Northfield under those conditions. Tillie must have remembered some frightening experience with slippery roads, but I do not know what it was.
We are all, to one degree or another, made of what we call “memory,” not only the bits and pieces of time visible to us in pictures that have hardened with our repeated stories, but also the memories we embody and don’t understand—the smell that carries with it something lost or the gesture or touch of a person who reminds us of another person, or a sound, distant or close, that brings with it unknown dread. And then there are the memories of others that we adopt and catalogue with our own, sometimes confusing theirs with ours. And again, there are memories that change because the perspective has been wrenched into another position—my grandmother has returned to me in a different guise. She has been reremembered and reconfigured.
By the time my great-grandfather Ivar Hustvedt arrived in Minnesota in 1868, the Dakota tribe had ceded 24 million acres of land to the U.S. government in the 1851 treaty of Traverse des Sioux, which pushed the Dakota, a nomadic people, onto a narrow reservation along the Minnesota River. In 1853, the land was opened to settlement, and the Norwegians began to arrive. In 1862, during the Civil War, betrayed by broken treaties and facing starvation, a small number of Dakota retaliated against a family of settlers and, after that, battles raged across Minnesota. Dakota, immigrants, and U.S. soldiers died. My grandparents must have heard stories, stories about what had come before their parents arrived, stories about the Indian Wars and the Civil War, in which a regiment of Norwegians, led by the staunch abolitionist Colonel Hans Christian Heg, fought for the Union. They were drafted the moment they set foot on the Minnesota territory. The men spoke no English. They conducted the business of war in Norwegian.
In answer to a letter from his brother Torkel, who had written to him of his plans to emigrate, Ivar told his brother not to come.
Those who emigrated from Norway, a quarter of the country’s total population when all was said and done, those who came in great waves during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, were not people of means. Many were farmers without a farm—the second and third and fourth sons who were not destined to inherit anything. They moved to the cities for work, but work was not always forthcoming, and there was land in Amerika. The men came alone or they brought their women with them. Some of these people managed life on the plains, the immigrant type gobbled up into the American myth of stout pioneers who “tamed” the “virgin” territory. But many others returned home. Some went mad. In 1932, Ørnulf Ødegård conducted a large psychiatric study that found that the number of Norwegian immigrants treated for psychotic disorders in Minnesota was significantly higher than those of both Norwegians who had stayed put and native-born Americans of Norwegian descent. Ødegård speculated that the difference was due to the arduous realities of being a stranger in a strange land.
Of course, this is the wide, long view of things, a view my grandmother never took, I’m sure, as she fought to keep her children fed and clothed after her husband had gone to work as a hired hand on neighboring farms and later crossed the country to work in a defense plant in Washington State during the war. Father and son met out there. My father had been assigned to an intelligence unit, training in Oregon as part of a provisional plan by the allies to invade Norway. His qualifications: He had tested high on an IQ test and spoke Norwegian. In his memoir, my father remembers that when he met his father, the man was wearing his wedding ring and that it made him happy. Nowhere else in the memoir is there any description of bitterness and alienation between his parents. There is no other mention of wedding rings on or off, or the pain of a naked finger as opposed to one wearing the sign of the marital pact.
My grandmother used to say she shouldn’t have married Lars. We all heard her. We all thought it was a terrible thing to say.
I don’t know when my grandfather lost heart and disappeared into himself. I know he had nightmares and would wake up yelling and that he once punched the ceiling of the little bedroom where he slept. How I know this I don’t remember, but secrets traveled in the family, secrets heavy with emotion. I felt they were like stones stored in hidden pockets in a big man’s overcoat, and wearing that coat meant being weighed down by shame. Did the grown-ups imagine we children didn’t feel it? Is it possible that I felt it more than my sisters and cousins? I have used the image of a tuning fork before, but that is how I recall my child self, as a reverberating instrument, not of sounds, but of feelings in the various rooms where I found myself with the grown-ups and their tangled emotions of love and hate that must have mingled with my own and a fervent wish to be free of the oppressive lot of them. But that wish was as unspeakable for me as it was for my father. My great luck is that I can write it now.
Scandinavians in general and Norwegians in particular are often cast as stoic and repressed people who live their torments offstage rather than on it. Henrik Ibsen paraded secrets and ghosts and the anguish and guilt they created in the people possessed by them in full view of the theatergoing public. My father taught Ibsen’s plays. It was his favorite course. When he was dying, he asked me what I thought of Romersholm, and I wished I remembered the play better. I reread it after he died. It is dense and deep and clotted with sexual-political fears and hopes, spoken and unspoken. At the center of the play is Rebecca West, a figure of striving ambition, immense psychological complexity, and moral ambiguity. She is guilty of driving Beata, the wife of Romers, the man she loves, to suicide. She is also a creature of soaring idealism, quiet rage, and strategic intelligence. Ibsen penetrated the impossible position of women in the world of the fathers with a ferocious clarity. “Assuredly, you were the strongest at Romersholm,” Romers says to Rebecca. “Stronger than Beata and I together.”
My grandfather didn’t have my grandmother’s strength. He didn’t have her chutzpah—to steal a word from another immigrant culture I married into, the culture of Eastern European Jews who also arrived in large numbers in the nineteenth century. Tillie made and sold lefse to stave off desperation. There was another rumor that she had taken something from a store once—that she had stolen. My mother told me this in a low voice. The details are missing. Maybe Tillie stole. She didn’t go to jail. I am not scandalized.
The story I want to tell now came to me from my mother, but it belonged to Grandma. One summer, my cousins who lived in Seattle came to visit their family in the Midwest. Uncle Stanley was the only Hustvedt offspring who had moved far away. He and his wife, Pat, were strict parents. Their many sanctions and threats of punishment were directed only at their own four children, but when I was in earshot of the authoritarian directives, I would feel my limbs turn rigid and my heart speed up in vicarious alarm. They lived in one world, and we in another, and it was strange when the worlds collided at the farm. I knew my laissez-faire parents disliked the foreign regime, but they tolerated the alien doings in silence. Of the grown-ups, only Grandma made her disapproval known. She winced, muttered, shook her head, and clucked when her son and daughter-in-law issued their commands. This I remember.
What I can’t remember because I wasn’t there is that Stanley and Pat left their children with Grandma and Grandpa for a couple of days to go off on a trip alone. Grandpa isn’t part of the story, but wherever he was, it’s hard to imagine that he was possessed by any desire to interfere with his wife’s plans. Grandma told my mother that she and the children watched the car with the parents in it drive off, pass Urland Church, and disappear over the shallow hill. Then she turned to her temporary wards, nodded at them, and said, “Okay, now, go wild.” They took the cue. They howled, hooted, rolled in the driveway dirt, threw whatever was handy, ran in and out of the house, slammed doors, kicked trees and fences, and spat at each other in an orgy of freedom as my grandmother watched them, seated calmly on the lawn, smiling with conspiratorial pleasure.
How weary I am of the well-worn narratives about grandmothers, the objects of so much cultural gibberish, and not only of the pink greeting card variety, although there is much of that. “A grandma is warm hugs and sweet memories,” the inspirational writer Barbara Cage informs us. How convenient the platitudes and stories of Grandma’s warmth, goodness, sacrifice, and poignant suffering have been, told and retold to comfort later generations and defuse all threat of their opposites.
Tillie was a difficult woman. She did not choke back her rebellion or thwart her caustic laughter or her open mirth. And she did not disguise her fury when it arrived.
In her book Emotions in History—Lost and Found (2011), Ute Frevert writes, “Since antiquity, rage has been seen as a feature of the powerful.” I watched Brett Kavanaugh on television, now a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, as he raged with tears in his eyes at the indignity of it all. How could he, he, the anointed boy of the law, be accused by that woman professor, Christine Blasey Ford, of sexual assault? Rage is a privilege of the powerful, of white men in America. It is not for the rest of us, who must guard it or eat it whole. The woman must sit humbly as she testifies in a soft, calm, ladylike voice, eager to “help” her interrogators.
“My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival and before I give it up I am going to make sure there is something at least as powerful on the road to clarity,” Audre Lorde said in her speech “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Lorde’s anger charged her brilliance and electrified the prose of her essays. She knew onto whom it was directed and why, including white feminists who had closed their eyes to uncomfortable and ugly truths. My grandmother had no such exquisite clarity, no such intellectual acumen, no such philosophical penetration into her lot. She was a white woman subject to the bewildering realities of marriage and subsequent poverty and the shame that came with it. She had the anger. It helped her survive.
Her ghost has come back to me hauling buckets of water, a woman who delighted and frightened me at once, whose image had been, at least in part, filtered through my father’s ambivalence, the mingled love and hate he could never really speak about. There is nothing simple, heroic, or pure about this ghost. I am well aware that there is much about her that remains hidden to me, much that I will never know. Time has altered Matilda Underdahl Hustvedt in her granddaughter’s mind. I remember how she broke the silences over and over again.