Thursday, April 05, 2007

Why Did She Do It?

Time for an exercise in genealogy and social history detective work. Are you ready?


You are a Norwegian immigrant woman of good health living on the Chippewa prairie in southwestern Minnesota. You and your first husband came from Norway with two young children in 1866, and set up a homestead near the Minnesota River in 1868--one of the first pioneer families to settle in the area. In 1873, your husband dies from typhoid fever during the height of summer, leaving you alone with a 12 year old son, a 10 year old daughter, livestock to tend, crops to bring in, and bills to pay.

Along comes an upstanding local young man to the rescue, also a Norwegian immigrant. He quickly proposes, even though he is nearly ten years your junior. You decide you will marry him, but become pregnant before the homestead in your first husband's name can be finalized. The homestead is your son's rightful inheritance from his father, and you do not wish to start over again under your second husband's name. So, you decide to live together until the marriage can take place. The child, a daughter, is born about eight months before you marry her father. You are 32 years old at the time. After the homestead claim is finalized and your son by your first marriage is secure in his inheritance, you marry your second husband in March 1874.

With me so far?

During the mid-1870s, southwestern Minnesota suffered from repeated locust infestations, which severely depleted resources and plunged many families into heavy debt. You and your new husband, your baby, and your two children from your first marriage find it hard to make ends meet. Your husband tries farming, but he eventually makes plans to read for the law and become an attorney, and slowly relegates the farm responsibilities to your son, who is now becoming a young man. Circumstances will improve in the future, but for now, times are hard.

While waiting to be legally married, you become pregnant yet again. A few months later, during the summer of 1874, you and your husband give your healthy and beautiful one-year old daughter to her paternal grandparents, who live on a homestead nearby. You give birth to a new baby boy in September 1874. In future years, you will have six more children with your second husband, and the only one "given away" was the first-born daughter.


Since you are a kind, thoughtful woman of traditional Norwegian upbringing, raised as a practicing Lutheran, you would not indulge in considering your own needs first. If you struggled to put food on the table and manage a homestead, you would still carry on, stoically working for the good of your family. If you were tired or had postpartum depression, you would most likely just deal with it. You may not have really wanted to come to America in the first place, but were obligated to follow your husband's dream.

Secondly, your new in laws (your second husband's parents), only had one other son living with them, but he was old enough to help with farming. They had no daughters, however. What would the grandparents gain by bringing a one year old girl into their household? Perhaps they would gain household help in future, but for the time being, the toddler would provide only company and extra work.

In spite of giving your daughter to your in-laws to raise, she is still listed as a member of your immediate family in church congregation records. She lives only a few miles distant; you attend the same church, and you are fortunate enough to see her often.

When your "donated" daughter is 16, she writes a letter to family friends saying that she is indeed your husband's daughter, but that she has lived with her grandparents since the age of one. There is no question, therefore, that your daughter continued to live with her grandparents.


Why did you allow your daughter to go live with her grandparents? Was it illness during pregnancy or postpartum depression? If so, why did the grandparents not give your daughter back when you were well again? Was it poverty during those early years of homesteading? Once again, things eventually got better, and your daughter could have been returned to you... so, why not? Was filial duty the reason? Perhaps your mother-in-law anxious for a daughter of her own to raise, and you bended to her wishes under pressure? Was it your cultural obligation to provide comfort to your in-laws in the form of a dependent child?

I encourage you to think about the questions presented here and come up with possible explanations, taking into consideration, of course, Norwegian culture and tradition, the pioneer way of life, and potentially unknown factors.

Let me know what you think.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Balance - Never Static (or: Balance, What Balance?)

I have been tagged for a Meme by a friend and fellow blogger, FootnoteMaven, to answer some questions regarding balance in life. This Meme (unit of cultural information) was begun by Lillie Ammann, A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye. Genealogy is all about sharing and discovering, so why not discuss cultural practices of the present, as well as of the past?

The assignment is to write about balance in life, and address any or all of the following questions:

How do you achieve balance in your life?
What is your biggest challenge in balancing your life?
What are your priorities?
How have your priorities changed over time and why?
What advice can you share to help all of us balance our own lives?

My first comment is that balance (as in "balancing act"), is never static. I believe no one ever achieves ultimate balance, but rather, is continually in the process of trying to establish it. That said, I can only address what I am doing at present to seek a mid-point where I am neither listing to the left, nor to the right.

One of my biggest challenges is making the time to be creative. If I am to be happy, I must be creative, but exactly what I create has changed over time. For the past few years, I have been tending my dream of writing. As with many people, I have priorities of family and employment. Continuing education has definitely been a priority; I finished a degree in history, one course at a time, while working full time. More recently, I completed a year-long certificate program in Genealogy and Family History, participated in a writing seminar, and became a member of a small Norwegian-American writers support group, all while working full time. Connecting with people is important, and so is exploring every facet of nature's beauty. Astronomer Carl Sagan, someone I admire, said: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." There is a universe of beauty to behold and ponder during our limited time on earth. 'Nuff said.

What gets in the way of sopping up all that beauty and creating my own little tributes? Fatigue and long commutes, for the most part. To have time for research and writing, I have to make choices. Being an introvert and a sensitive one at that, I quickly become depleted if I do not have time to myself. So, I dedicate certain evenings or hours to doing what I love. Having projects with deadlines helps tremendously. Having a supportive husband helps even more. I don't cut myself short on the important things, but there is very little TV viewing, and often, only crisis intervention in relation to housework.

I want to speak to the ladies for a moment. We women know that it is all too easy to get caught up in meeting the needs of other people. This is fine and well (relationships are our specialty, after all), but remember to give yourself at least as much time and attention as you would anyone else. Financial guru Suze Orman warns women that they should never put themselves "on sale." For me, that means I can no longer postpone my creative urges while life happens around me; it must be a part of my life. If we truly want to accomplish something, we will find a way: step by step, and "bird by bird." [1]

My ultimate life-in-balance would include having a time machine to conduct research firsthand, living where there are no freeways, watching trees grow by day and stars glimmer by night, and looking up from my writing to watch ducks cavorting on a green, sunlit pond. I cannot have all of that (especially the time machine), but I can come closer to achieving balance by realizing that dreams are every bit as precious as reality, and they deserve my attention. I wish you success in realizing and tending your dreams and your balance.
I extend a open invitation to all genealogy bloggers to answer this Meme.

[1] Anne Lamott. "Bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life." New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. (The phrase "bird by bird" essentially refers to accomplishing overwhelming tasks by focusing on one step at a time.)