Mending History 1: Old Photos


Coffee cup from the Gustafson farmstead.

On my dad’s side of the family, both of my grandparents were Swedish-Americans, one born in Sweden, the other born in Wisconsin. They both grew up speaking Swedish, eating pickled fish and boiled potatoes and attending Swedish Lutheran or Mission churches. When I was a child I spent a lot of time with them at their house in south Minneapolis. I would often sit in the kitchen with them, nibbling on a cookie and quietly drawing pictures with a pencil on the tiny pads of paper kept for making grocery lists. My grandparents drank coffee, he sitting with a newspaper, she standing or moving about from stove to sink to table, both of them chatting comfortably in Swedish. The subject of my drawing was usually a girl, an action figure for stories I had going in my head. I often drew my character in profile, working out the eyes, nose, mouth, hairstyle and clothing on page after page. At the same time, I was tuned in to the smells and sounds of the kitchen and happily listened to my grandparents’ familiar but untranslated exchange.

Carl Rudolph and Hulda Gustafson

My grandparents looked like anyone else’s grandparents, with gray hair, soft skin and eyeglasses. But in the kitchen, there it was, that something, the essence of what made them different, this language they revealed in private. It intrigued me, like the coffee that percolated in the glass tip of the pot lid and then filled the air with steam so sharp and fragrant I could taste it. But I was never offered a cup. I never learned to drink kaffe and they never taught me a word of Swedish. When my grandparents spoke in that Old World way, I was a witness but not a participant, a listener never to be a speaker.

It was part of their silence on many things. From my child’s perspective their whole lives were quiet. They didn’t take vacations or travel, in fact, they rarely took the car out of the garage. Grandma never drove at all. The two of them orbited each other in their house and yard like two planets in the silence of outer space. Grandpa was either in the garden or in his chair by the window reading the Swedish-American newspapers. Grandma was forever busy with housework. She had a washing machine for the laundry but used a mangle and a clothesline to dry it. She canned, cooked, baked, did some sewing and knitting and kept the small house in perfect order. They didn’t entertain me when I was over. I was on my own in that house with few books and toys. I spent my time drawing pictures, wandering through Grandpa’s maze of dahlias, staked to stand tall, their dinner plate blossoms over my head, or cutting paper dolls out of the Montgomery Ward catalogue.
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Sometimes I would be permitted to dig through a box of old photos. Of course then I would really be a bother because I wanted to know who was who and what were they doing and where. I was sometimes told that I asked too many questions. There it was, the essence of what made me different. I was curious, restless, searching for stories in every corner. My grandparents didn’t understand that. But they loved me and answered some of my questions. I remember once finding a very old looking photo of a very old looking woman in the box. I remember it took some prodding to get Grandma to talk about it,

–She is just some old relative from Wisconsin.
–Whose relative?
–Well, she was your grandpa’s…great grandma.
–Why does she look so sad?
–Oh, honey, I don’t know…she was very old. And she was blind.
–What was her name?
–Maja Lisa Nelson…

It was a discovery I was excited about. A very old woman with my name. I took my pencil and wrote on the back of the photo, “Maja Lisa Nelson. Lisa’s great, great, great grandmother.” I sensed a story behind her downcast eyes. I liked the piece of silk tied around her neck in a bow. That is all I ever learned about her. I eventually inherited that scrap of a photo and promptly misplaced it. It would take about 40 years for it to resurface.
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My memory of this ancestor was triggered just two years ago when I visited the rural Wisconsin cemetery where my great grandparents are buried. I noticed the gravestone for Maja Lisa Nelson near the Gustafson family plot. At first, I didn’t remember the old photo or my conversation with my grandmother. It was so long forgotten that all I had was a nagging feeling that Maja Lisa was a familiar name. I said to my husband, I think I’m related to this grave too. He took a photo of me as I pondered the connection. On the drive home it started to come back to me–the photo and my discussion with Grandma Hulda so many years ago. I sent my dad a note the next day.

Question for Dad:
Who is Nelson Maja Lisa. She is buried in the Bethel Church cemetery near Ellsworth. Her tombstone dates:
11 Apr 1816-14 Mar 1909
Even though I can’t find it I know I have an old photo from Grandma’s house where I wrote on the back Maja Lisa Nelson (after asking for Grandma and Grandpa to id it). I remember being told she was an old relative and that she was blind. Apparently she lived to be 93!
But was she someone’s hustru?
In the Bethel Cemetery listing she is part of a family plot that includes ” N. Rudolph 31 Mar 1895-3 Jul 1898–a child of three. Born in 1895 when Maja Lisa was in her 80s. Whose child?
How is she related? She is about the oldest person buried in that graveyard. She is old enough to be mother to Brita Kajsa Quist. 

Where did the Quist family come from and when did they come over?
Maja Lisa was reborn in my imagination. I have since started an earnest research into her life and times and with it has come more mystery. With each detail about her that emerges I experience that sense of bringing a character to life, much like when I would draw story characters for myself in Grandma’s kitchen.

One comment

  1. Charles Gustafson · · Reply

    I found your story of Maja Lisa very fascinating! The beginning of curiosity, how to find out more. Searching for facts that influenced the course of events. Then putting those events in an order that leads a reader with you to satisfying finish. Well done!


    Sent on my whatchamacallit.


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