Thursday, February 14, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 7): Love

Old-Fashioned Love and Apple Pie

Ole Johnson weds Malla Larson, Feb. 28, 1886.

When I realized I would be writing about love for "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks," the first thing that entered my mind was the type of relationship experienced by more than one long-married couple in my mother's immigrant farming family.  We're talking about love that runs like an invisible thread connecting everything and every moment together.  According to the stories told me by my relatives, my great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, had more than just a marriage.  They had a foundation of bedrock... of trust and understanding.

I recently had the good (and timely) fortune to hear a sermon on the subject of real love:  In "Love Like This," our pastor asked his congregation to consider what real love looks like.  What are some of the characteristics of real love?  Spoiler Alert:  it is not candy, hearts, or turtle-doves... and it is certainly not lust.  Any type of real love, romantic or otherwise, is messy, irregular, and requires determined commitment to keep it running like clockwork.  Here are six qualities of real love as they were experienced by my maternal great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson.

"Real love is hard work"


Malla Larson was 19 years old when she married Ole Johnson, a young and capable Norwegian immigrant farmer who had inherited his father's homestead near Granite Falls, Minnesota.  Aside from the continual physical labor she engaged in to keep her household running, Malla also acquired the work of learning about her new husband.  Raised on a farm herself, she understood most of what was expected of her in the sense of putting food on the table, tending to chores, and being a helpmate.  But, she also knew that learning to love involves anticipating someone's elses unspoken needs and accommodating them without always being asked or thanked.

Ole, too, had to learn to understand the particular challenges faced by his new wife.  An amusing example concerns apple pie.  Ole particularly loved warm apple pie.  Apples were a rarity on the Johnson farm.  The fruit could not be grown properly in northern Minnesota due to extreme temperature changes.  Over the winter holidays, Ole would buy a few of boxes of apples, and Malla or one of their girls willingly made pies from them.  They were not able to keep the pies warm until Ole came in from the fields for dinner, however, because the big cast iron cookstove was needed for a host of other things.  Ole never complained about the pies being cold.  He knew that Malla could only do what she could do.  Instead, he put warm apple pie at the top of his agenda whenever he had the opportunity to eat at a hotel restaurant in a neighboring town.  Part of the real work of building a loving relationship means exercising patience and understanding, in spite of one's own wants... even when it comes to pie.

"Real love will sometimes make you unhappy"


When the actions of someone you love do not live up to your expectations, then it is up to you to change your expectations for the sake of your commitment.  There were probably times when Malla privately questioned actions Ole took to increase the famly's prospects.  She may have been taken aback when he wanted to move away from a community she had grown comfortable with... not once, but twice.  The first time was when Ole sold his father's homestead property and moved the family to Fosston in Polk County so that he could have a chance at dairy farming.  The second time was when he chose to leave Fosston for a different farm near Leonard in Clearwater County.  It is not known if Malla was fully on board with these decisions.  In the end, she was supportive of Ole's dream.  In return, he provided for her specific needs to the best of his ability.

"Real love will cost you"


Love also involves fear, anger, and even pain and loss.  Loving someone is risky; it will cost you time, energy, and worry.  It will claim pieces of yourself as you learn to share openly and be responsible for another person's well being.  Love will cost you effort, and above all, patience.  Ole and Malla Johnson were a team.  The actions of one affected the other, and vice versa.  If one celebrated, so did the other.  If one suffered, the other could certainly not go on unaffected.  Real love tucks coins into the bank on sunny days in anticipation of stormy days that will surely come.  For Ole and Malla, the satisfaction they felt after a day's honest work was often reward enough for their journey together, with Ole reading his paper in front of the fire, Malla knitting a new pair of socks, and both surrounded by their children making popcorn for an after-dinner treat.

"Real love is tough, rugged and strong"


Ole and Malla's relationship flourished only because both cared enough to make it a priority.  For early farming folk, it was exactly this type of teamwork that could determine a family's success or failure in the world.  They were both physically strong indiviuals, also emotionally mature and capable of putting the needs of others before any thoughts for themselves as individuals.  Their love was made stronger by the daily demands of providing for the needs of their children.

"Real love is courageous"


Whatever was to come, Ole and Malla were in it together.  They were fortunate in that they did not lose a single child to disease or accident.  The reality was that most families before the modern era did suffer irretrievable loss.  It was not uncommon for an epidemic to claim several members of the same family.  Ole and Malla continously faced this possibility while raising their ten children to adulthood.

"Real love means dying to self"


There were seemingly insignificant but poignant ways the bond between Ole and Malla was observed by family members.  For example, Ole never referred to his wife by name.  Malla was always "she" or "her," but never "Malla."  This may seem odd, but think of how odd it would have been for Ole to continually refer to himself as "Ole" to others.  He felt it unnecessary to call Malla by her name, since he knew exactly who she was.  She was an intrinsic a part of him, just as if God had come along and removed one of his ribs in order to create her.  Their real love meant that they were an inseparable part of each other's heart, mind, and soul.

A final proof of the strong connection between Ole and Malla Johnson is the unexpected manner in which both of their lives came to an end.  At age 87, Ole took ill while he was out chopping wood--a chore he actually enjoyed.  He was hospitalized and diagnosed with advanced stage prostate cancer and heart disease.  He was not expected to live long, and over the next few weeks, relatives came from near and far to pay their respects.  Malla welcomed all visitors into her home, and while working extra hard to ensure their comfort during the cold spring weather, she contracted pneumonia.  She may have also suffered a stroke.  Malla was taken to the same hospital where her husband had lain ill for an extended period, but she passed away within a few hours of being admitted.  One of their daughters, Thea, had the task of telling her father the sad news.  Ole was hard of hearing, so Thea got close to her father's ear and said, very simply:  "Ma died today."  Within sixteen hours, Ole also succumbed.  Years later, one of their grandsons shared that it was as if Ole had been waiting for Malla to come along.

Ole and Malla Johnson were buried together in a joint service in East Zion Cemetery, a small community Lutheran cemetery in Dudley Township, Clearwater County, just across the road from the farm they spent years building up.  Together in life, they experienced real love in all of its varied and challenging forms.  Together in death, they serve as a reminder of love's continuing possibilities, and above all, its enduring commitment.


Craig Laughlin, Pastor.  "Love Like This," Sermon, Generations Community Church, Marysville, Washington, January 29, 2019.

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