Friday, March 14, 2008

Brave Heart Yields a Gentle Touch

A Tribute to Esther Agnes (Berge) Johnson

Written for the Carnival of Genealogy

. . . In keeping with the month of March being National Women's History Month, and March 8th being International Women's Day, the topic for the next edition of the Carnival of Genealogy will once again be: A Tribute to Women. Write a tribute to a woman on your family tree, a friend, a neighbor, or a historical female figure who has done something to impact your life. Or instead of writing, consider sharing a photo biography of one woman's life. Or create a scrapbook page dedicated to a woman you'd like to honor. For extra credit, sum up her life in a six-word biography.

Esther Berge Johnson, burping her youngest daughter, Doris.
Leonard, Minnesota, 1920.
 I've discussed many grandmothers in this blog, but today I'd like to honor a very special one: my maternal grandmother, Esther Agnes (Berge) Johnson. She died young--just over 86 years ago--and was never a part of my life, but I miss her every day. Her presence is found in the few treasured items my mother was given to remember her by, and in the photographs I am sharing. I have no personal experience of her touch, her smile, her voice, but my mother holds on to what foggy memories she has from when she was a baby.
Esther was a quiet, kind, dutiful woman with dark hair and spectacles. Her father, Ole Benhardt Berge, immigrated from Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, when he was a small child. Her mother, Anna Marie (Mary) Slaan (or Slaaen), was born in a covered wagon as her family migrated from Coon Valley, Wisconsin to Chippewa County, Minnesota.

When my mother, Doris, was a girl, she attended community dances in rural Leonard, where it was always common for young women to dance with each other. Once when my mother danced with a paternal aunt, Cora Johnson, Cora happened to mention that my mother held herself stiffly just like Esther (my grandmother) had always done.

My aunt Phyllis recalled that after my mother was born, Esther would sit in a big rocker and nurse the baby, while Phyllis sat alongside in her own little rocker and attempted to nurse her doll. There were no memories of any talking... just peaceful togetherness in the silence of the two room farmhouse.

In another memory, Esther was standing in the pasture next to the family's farmhouse, holding little Doris in her arms. They watched as some of the neighbor's cows came sauntering over the rise toward her garden. My mother was only about a year old at the time, but she heard her mother say to someone: "Here, take her," as Esther handed her over to a visiting neighbor lady and began to shoo the cows away. Doris then watched with startled interest as her father, Ernest, came stomping over the rise and proceeded to scold his wife vividly: "Don't you ever do that again!" It was her father's uncharacteristic shouting that cemented the memory for little Doris. Ernest had been afraid that by shooing the cows, his wife would draw the attention of the bull that was nearby.

My mother was less than two years of age when Esther lost her battle with tuberculosis. When close to death, all of her sisters and brothers except Bennie Berge, who lived too far away, were summoned to attend her. Her parents owned an organ, which Esther had always been fond of playing. Her last request was that someone should play the organ so they could all sing hymns together.

On January 2, 1922, Esther died, leaving Ernest a young widower. The previous spring, Esther had planted a flowerbed inside a wagon wheel laid on its side by the house. The flowers continued to grow and bloom for some time after her death, reminding them all of the hundreds of things she used to do from day to day.

My grandmother's obituary was published in a Chippewa County, Minnesota newspaper [1]

Mrs. Esther Johnson died Monday, Jan. 2nd of an illness of long duration. She is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. O. B. Berge of Maynard and has been home for the past several months when it was found that there was no hope for her recovery. The last days of her illness has [sic] been a trial both to the patient and to her loved ones and death came as a happy release from her suffering. She was ready for the summon, meeting it as bravely as she has endured her long months of sufferings. A brief obituary follows.

Mrs. Esther Johnson was born in the township of Leenthrop, on March 31, 1889, where she resided until at the age of two years, when her parents moved to the village of Maynard where they and children resided until in the spring of 1910. They then moved on to a farm in Clearwater County. On March 22, 1917 [she] was united in marriage to Mr. Ernest Johnson, to union of which two children were born, Phyllis, age four and Doris, age two. Deceased died at the home of her parents in Maynard Monday the 2nd at 12:45 p.m. at the age of 27 years, 9 months and 4 days. Besides parents of disceased [sic] four brothers amd five sisters live to mourn the loss of a dear sister; namely, George, Mabel, Cora, Mildred, Clarice and Stella of this village. Harry of Taylors Falls, Chester and Bennie of Ihlen.

The funeral was held Wednesday from the residence at one p.m. and at the Lutheran church at 2 o'clock. Rev. M. B. Erickson officiating. The News join[s] the friends of the Berge family in messages of condolences.


We wish to extend our sincere thanks to those who so kindly offered us their consolation in our late bereavement, especially Rev. Erickson and the Lutheran Ladies Aid Society for the beautiful floral emblems.

Mr. and Mrs. O. B. Berge and family
O. M. Johnson and wife
Ernest Johnson

Thank you, Grandma, for caring for my mother, and for everything you did to start her and my aunt on the right path.

Esther Agnes (Berge) Johnson: Brave heart yields a gentle touch

[1] The copy of Esther Johnson's obituary in the author's possession has no publisher's info, however, it most likely came from the Chippewa County News.


  1. What a lovely tribute to your grandmother. I loved the slide show.

  2. What a beautiful and moving tribute to your grandmother, thank you for sharing it.

  3. Chery:

    Another example of your beautiful writing and a wonderful tribute.

    I loved your slide show presentation. Every thing you do shows the care you take and the love you feel for a project.

    Great job - Mountain Girl, Writer-Friend.


  4. Janet, Laura, and Maven -

    Thank you for your lovely comments.


  5. A very warm and loving tribute to your grandmother. How sad that your mother didn't have the chance to grow up with her love and support.