Friday, March 22, 2013

A Tribute to Great Aunties: The Johnson Sisters

Mabel Johnson, Thea (Johnson) Humberstad, and Cora (Johnson) Moen.  Richmond, California, November 6, 1946.

At times, I have a longing to hear the Norwegian-American brogues of my great aunties again. These women, who have been gone for many years now, were especially important to me as a child, since I did not experience the love and indulgences of a grandmother while growing up.  My maternal grandmother died of tuberculosis when Mom was not yet two years of age, and my adoptive father was orphaned while still young.

My great aunts were among ten children born to Ole and Malla Johnson, who were both of Norwegian-American immigrant families.  The Johnsons began their married life in Chippewa County, Minnesota, and then moved to in Fosston in Polk County, and spent the last decades of their lives farming near Leonard in Clearwater County, where my mother was raised.  The ten children were:  Bennett, Ernest (my grandfather), Cora, Thea, Odin, Mabel, Oral, Ruben, Carl, and Frank.  All lived to a ripe old age;  I'd say that was quite an accomplishment for young parents starting a family in the late 19th century.

One of my cousins jokingly refers to the photograph of the middle-aged Johnson sisters in their winter coats as "The Three Stooges."  I had to laugh the first time I heard that, because there does seem to be something reminiscent of the mock severity of a Moe, Larry, and Curly portrait in their demeanor.  But, perhaps the joke is on us, because both my cousin and I are now older than our great aunts at the time their photograph was taken. How time changes one's perspective!  But, no one can deny that they were once the sweetest little babies, as cute as a mother could ever hope for...

Cora and Thea Johnson, ca. 1893.

Cropped image of Mabel Johnson, ca. 1899.  Granite Falls, MN.

Thea was the first to leave her home state of Minnesota for Oregon, where her husband, Carl Humberstad, a lumberjack, saw job prospects with the prolific west coast lumber business. Cora and her husband, Emil Moen, followed to Oregon soon after. Mabel, who never married, left her job at a hotel laundry in St. Paul, Minnesota, to ride west on the train with my mother, Doris Johnson, in 1945. The pair were following my grandfather, Ernest Johnson, and my aunt, Phyllis Johnson, to Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Mabel rented an apartment in a Richmond four-plex until she retired in the early 1960s and then moved to Salem, Oregon, to be near her sisters again. After that, it was necessary for my family to go on vacation in order to see nearly everyone in my mother's family, especially after Grampa Ernest moved to Salem, as well.

Cora Johnson Moen:  born July 15, 1891 in Montevideo, Minnesota; died May 28, 1975 in Salem, Oregon.

Cora, the eldest Johnson sister, lived with her son and daughter-in-law in a house that backed up to my Aunt Phyllis's house in Salem.  Cora was my mother's favorite aunt, because she was the most maternal to my mother when she was a girl.  To some, Cora seemed a little too serious, and too much of a disciplinarian.  But, her "no-nonsense" attitude was formed by necessity as the eldest daughter on her parents' farm.  Expectations on her were high, and she was required to take on a heady round of day-to-day responsibilities up until the time she left home as a married woman.  Cora and her husband, Emil, had only one child, Harvey, and she was devoted to both of the men in her life.  Cora had the great misfortune of suffering the loss of both her parents and her husband in the same year, 1948.  In about 1960, she bought a new ranch-style house in Salem, and apparently gave her previous home to her sister, Mabel.  The new home had a large brick fireplace with built-in shelves on either side, all filled with good-sized animal ceramics that she collected.

Cora with her husband, Emil Moen, and their son, Harvey.  Clearwater County, Minnesota, ca. 1930.

Thea Johnson Humberstad; born April 28, 1893 in Montevideo, Minnesota; died February 6, 1967 in Salem, Oregon.

Thea, the next eldest sister, caught people's attention not only because of her short, round stature, but also because of her jolly nature and light-hearted, tittering laugh.  Thea possessed plenty of farm girl sensibility, but it was coated by an overall good sense of humor.  She and her husband, Carl Humberstad, were well-loved by many.  Thea gave birth to two sons:  Curtis, born in 1925, who died four days after birth, and Wesley, born in 1927.  The Humberstads owned a small white house with pink trim in West Salem, and they filled the yard with flowers and whimsical wooden yard ornaments made by Carl--everything from sunbonnet girls and painted tulips, to bird and duck whirly-gigs, and a windmill, of course.  Inside the house, nearly one wall of their tiny living room was filled with a salt and pepper shaker collection that would have been the envy of any antique dealer.  An old spinning wheel, brought from Norway by Carl's mother, took up another prominent corner of the room.  Not one to enjoy anything without a bit of whimsy added for spice, Carl painted his mother's old constant friend a bright shade of peppermint pink.  Thea was the first of her siblings to pass away, in 1967.

Thea (Johnson) Humberstad standing on the porch of her
 West Salem house, early 1960s.

Mabel Johnson:  born February 10. 1898 in Montevideo, Minnesota; died July 23, 1983 in Salem, Oregon.

Mabel, the youngest sister, was never married.  My grandfather thought this sister of his was a little too silly at times, even though she did work hard as a youngster in addition to seeking out friends and fun.  Mabel had to do all of the baking on the farm after her older sisters married, and became responsible for sewing all the clothes needed for her young nieces, Phyllis and Doris.  In late summers, she often traveled to South Dakota to serve as cook for threshing crews.  I felt particularly close to Mabel, because we lived with her when I was a baby, and she occasionally babysat for me in the years to follow.  I liked nothing better than to revisit her old apartment overlooking the railroad tracks in Richmond, and then later, her little bungalow in Salem, which had probably been given to her by her sister, Cora.  She was the only adult I knew who would play endless rounds of "Go Fish" or "Old Maid," and she preferred to distract kids from arguing by using a metal clicker, like in dog training.  After Mable moved to Salem, her only income was Social Security and a little babysitting money.  She was very frugal--buying only at second-hand stores, going without a telephone or garbage service (her brothers carted it away), and retiring for the evening whenever it got dark, in order to avoid using electricity as much as possible.  At her house in Salem, she usually had a dog to keep her company.

Mabel Johnson out riding.  Fosston, Minnesota, ca. 1912.
The long drive from the Bay Area to Salem, Oregon only made our visits with the relatives even more special for me.  We made sure to stop and see each relative from the home base of my aunt Phyllis's house.  This included my grandfather and all of his Oregon-residing siblings, plus some cousins.  My parents, sister and I were so stuffed from doughnuts, cookies, sandwiches, pasta or jello salads (and endless cups of coffee for the elders), we thought we'd never make through the day.  From those summer vacations of decades ago, I have lasting memories of my great aunts and the way they lived, laughed, and coped.  They turned the other cheek at any sign of trouble, and never let on if they felt nervous or afraid.  As capable as their pioneering parents and the Norwegian farmers before them, my great aunts lived each day as if tomorrow could not phase them... whatever the weather. 

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