Mailboxes and Old Barns: Letters from our Grandfather

Check here for a complete list of previous MBOBs.

This is a chapter from the book –  so I’m cheating a little today. ;) Previous MBOBs are provided in the list above in case you are familiar with this story and would like to find one you haven’t read.

crocuses droopingPalle Lauring has a two-page discussion in *A History of Denmark, in which he analyzes the historical reluctance of Danes to invest materiel, men, or money in a constant state of military readiness.

Those pages became an “Ah ha!” moment for me because he described the world view of our family with almost eerie accuracy. It had not occurred to me that any such understanding of our perspective existed outside of Montana.

Young people in a stable subculture have many advantages and blessings but the distant view of the microcosm they inhabit must be found elsewhere.  They truly don’t know that their particular family did not spring fully formed at the point of their own birth. Even the date of their parents’ marriage would be a mistaken starting point for something that actually began to take form a long time ago in a country far, far away. When they do discover the distant view documented by an author or an artist they may still marvel as I did, “He doesn’t know us. So how does he know us so well?”

The minimal interest in self-preservation that Lauring describes is significant in the light of an observation made elsewhere in the book:

Even though the central, basic land of Denmark has been obliged to cede various territories, the nation is nevertheless still there….Denmark has maintained her position throughout her 1,000-year old history. Her inhabitants represent one of the few peoples in Europe that have never suffered from large-scale invasions or population transfers and so today can really claim for the most part to be the descendants of the “Danes” of the Stone Age.

Lauring attributes the perpetual lack of military preparedness to a conviction that money thus spent was “spent unwisely.”

One sometimes has the feeling that the Danish outlook has never developed beyond the idea that, in time of war, you take your rusty battle-axe down from the wall – or go and try to find it in the woodshed where it has been serving a useful purpose – and sharpen it on a grind-stone…Preparedness has seldom been a strong point in Danish history. The Danish people are too tied up with everyday life, are blessed with too great a sense of humour to be eternally en garde.  Their mentality dictates their fate.

Mr. Lauring’s observations reflect our family’s unspoken rules:

  1. Mind your own business.
  2. Keep your nose to the grindstone.
  3. Don’t hit back.
  4. Stay inside your own fence line.

His descriptions of the old Danes sent me to my personal notes to scribble these words alongside quotes from his book, “Well.  That explains a lot.”

My maternal grandfather was born in Fyn, (Funen) Denmark in 1864. His future wife was born on the island of Bornholm in 1878. Bornholm is all-by-its-lonesome in the Baltic Sea, located so thoroughly east of Denmark’s mainland that it looks like it could belong to Sweden.

Grandfather immigrated to America in 1892 and lived first in Racine, Wisconsin where he was a house painter and bakery delivery driver. His wife-to-be came to America in 1894 when she was sixteen years old, the only one of her family to emigrate, as was he. They were married in 1897, and neither of them ever saw siblings, parents, or homeland again.

horse and wagon with familyBy 1910, when they homesteaded in northeastern Montana, they had six children and he needed a house. He found a 12′ X 24′ building for sale, purchased it, and dragged it to the homestead with a good team of horses. The family of eight moved in, made it a home, and Grandfather began breaking sod. After twenty years, he was able to purchase his first tractor, an Oil Pull Rumley, and eventually moved up to a Fordson.

By 1924, they had eleven girls and two boys. An early dream for the family was achieved when a small pump organ was shipped by train from Racine to supplement the guitar and harmonica music already being made in their home.

My oldest brother, born in 1927, began receiving letters from Grandfather when he was three years old, the first of them in 1930. In the monograph Calvin prepared about our maternal grandparents he describes the old man’s way of writing to a very young boy, “Every letter opens with compliments and is closed with guidance.”  He was in second grade in 1934 when he received this note:

I was surprised that you could write and spell so well. I am so glad that you like to go to school.  You must have a good teacher since you are learning so fast. It will be nice when your little sister will be going along in another year, and you as a good and big brother can look after her.  You know girls, little girls anyway, sometimes need a brother who is willing to give a hand.

They walked two miles each way to the country school house. And, yes – according to the stories they told, it was uphill both ways so a little girl certainly might “need a brother who is willing to give a hand.”

In an earlier letter after her birth in 1930, Grandpa had written to him, I am longing so much to see your little sister and find out for sure if she is as sweet as she looks…I know you will be a very “good little boy” and that is the reason I like you so much.

It was not considered an unkindness to let a boy know that being liked was connected to being good. Grandfather Frederic thought good little boys were easier to like and, of course, he was right about that.

His gentle humor came out in another letter written in Danish to one of his older daughters on April 13, 1937 just after the marriage of one of her ten sisters. The daughter he wrote to was unable to attend the wedding because she lived seventy miles away and had just delivered her third baby, so he shares a personal anecdote from the celebration.

You would have rejoiced in being at the wedding. It was a beautiful festivity, and I had the honor of giving away the bride. My legs are weak but it all went as it should.

Just before we left, Niels and I were sitting in the living room, and I couldn’t keep from saying to him, “Now, see here Niels, if I now come up to the Altar with Anna, and then you are not there to receive her, then I will be very disappointed.”  Then he answered in a “Dry Humor,” “Yes, but if now I come up to the Altar and am standing and waiting, and then you fail to come with Anna, then it will be me who will be disappointed.”

There were no disappointments. Everything went as planned previously.

Grandfather Hansen died twelve days after writing this letter.

*A History of Denmark, David Hohnen, Host & Son, Copenhagen, 1960

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13 Responses to Mailboxes and Old Barns: Letters from our Grandfather

  1. texan59 says:

    “Every letter opens with compliments and is closed with guidance.” – Those words would bode well for all of us. As always, thanks, Sharon.

  2. Menagerie says:

    When I was a child, I used to receive letters from my grandpa, who was a farmer in Kansas, and my grandma as well. They always offered guidance and pride too. I looked forward to those letters and their very neat but shaky handwriting. It was a rare treat to get one. There were many grandchildren to write to, and their arthritic hands were very painful.

  3. ZurichMike says:

    Not reading this one, but I have a good reason: Sharon’s book is arriving from Amazon this week! :-)

  4. myopiafree says:

    My great grandparents (Sonne) came to this country from Denmark – because of their dislike concerning the “militarism” in Denmark and in Europe. They had some tough times in this country – but they made a good choice.

  5. Cyrano says:

    Bornholm was an interesting google. The peaceful, laid back Danes fought long and hard to keep that island, which is known as “The pearl of the Baltic”. Who knew? It’s quite beautiful, and does a brisk tourist trade. I want to go there. I learn something interesting every Sunday morning. Thanks, as always, for sharing, Sharon.

  6. justfactsplz says:

    This brings back memories of letters from my grandparents when I was a child. I recently discovered one of them in my mothers things. It is precious to me.

    • maryfrommarin says:

      They are to me, too.

      • justfactsplz says:

        I am very sentimental. My home has many treasures that belonged to my parents, grandparents, and even great great grandparents. You can’t put a price on love.

    • michellc says:

      I always wrote letters back and forth to my Granny. I loved writing letters and started doing so as soon as I learned to write. Every so often Granny would slip a dollar in one of the letters, which was a fortune to me. My older siblings would whine and complain and I’d tell them that they didn’t write Granny letters.

      • justfactsplz says:

        That’s cute. We when would go back home my Granpa always bought me a box of chocolates because I wasn’t around all of the time like my cousins.

        • michellc says:

          We were the only grandkids that didn’t live near them, so when we went to visit our cousins always complained about them making a big deal out of spending time with us and having our favorite things to eat.

  7. Spar Harmon says:

    Both of my sets of grandparents played an important role in my developing sense of THE WORLD. My mother’s parents were very poor, grew up in far south Georgia of Scotch-Irish stock. They eloped to central Florida, had 11 children about even, boys and girls, lived right by the RR tracks with 5-10 acres stretched out behind the house, where they grew all their groceries; Granddad was picked up by a slowed train of the Southern Railroad for which he worked ’til retirement. Most of the children, including my mother, were brilliant achievers and none lived less than a middle-class life… Of course, my grandparents never seemed to consider themselves poor either…
    My Dad’s family antecedents, due to the wise preparations of the Laird of the holding, to see to the evacuation of his people before going off to do his duty at the Battle of Culloden, 1732, the last gasp of resistance to the British. The laird escaped after the battle and was there to see to it that the 5 and 7 year bonds of indentured servitude, that secured the survival of nearly all his people, were properly terminated. Having made an agreement with Virginia’s governor, they all migrated over to the immediate west side of the Great Smokies to settle the wilds of East Tennessee. Family records do not include this laird’s name. My grandmother was a silent, regal, 1/4 Cherokee, Chattanooga Patton from a lumber baron’s family. My grandfather said vaguely that there was lots of Cherokee blood in our family. I and my younger brother were the first grandchildren of his oldest child, my father, so he intruded himself ( my mother’s characterization) at every opportunity and would spend hours on the couch, with my brother and me on either side of him, nestled under his arms, telling utterly captivating stories of personal and family history…. It had to be him. My Dad served the next generation in the same way.
    As an adult, I have taken the old eldest son to eldest son name back; Sparling Bowman Harmon died of bloody flux in Andersonville prison just before the end of the Civil War; there was no issue.
    My Dad and I had a deep talk about that and a mutual peace… there was a bone-deep rightness about it, though I am probably the last to bear it with understanding.
    I have been sick and off line for many days. God has preserved me. All thanks to Him, and blessing to all treepers… I loved writing about that picture Sundance; thanks for the opportunity…

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