Mending the Past 15: A Guide to Mending

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The oldest family Bible

La plaie mal suturée parviendra-t-elle cicatriser avec le temps?

The wound that is badly sutured, will it form a scar over time? Estelle Chrétien

Mending the past is what I decided to call this story at the outset. The lives I am writing about have been flawed, broken, torn in many ways. Maja Lisa was separated from her community by her crimes and she and Nils were eventually lost to each other. Parents, children and grandchildren suffered from the shabbiness and stain of being associated with a hora. Eventually, the entire family left Sweden and struggled to establish themselves in a new place. Bad memories were tucked out of sight, along with the language to even speak of them.

Everyone should carry a mending kit. One way I know my ancestors kept their lives together was through their religion. In Wisconsin, they were members of the Bethel Mission Covenant Church, founded in the 1880’s when they first arrived in Pierce County. The Evangelical Covenant Church was a progressive break-away from the Swedish Lutheran Church. A pious and evangelistic group, to be sure, but also one that was considered kinder and less hierarchical than the state church in Sweden that was so judgmental and ran people’s lives. I am guessing that after Maja Lisa’s experience with kyrkoplikt, church penance, it would not be surprising for the family to be attracted to a less oppressive religious community.

That does not mean my people were less religious than regular Lutherans. The Covenant Church was a pietist movement which means worshippers were just as Bible-centric, prayerful and condemning of sin as ever a Lutheran could be–but without a parish priest to lord things over them. The interest in mission work overseas led to them being called Mission Friends in the early days. I have in my collection a whole series of old Swedish books about the Mission Friends.

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The Bible with the fiercely mended page, its leather cover inscribed with cryptic scratches, is the oldest book I own. It was published in 1834 in Stockholm by Samuel Rumstedt. The dark leather cover has a round stamp impression (much distorted) that I believe says the “British and Foreign Bible Society.” There are few clear inscriptions on endpapers, just fading penciled in names. There are a some pressed flowers inside the pages. Where did they once grow? It is possible that this Bible was Maja Lisa’s. I got it from my grandparents among other old Swedish books, most all of them religious.

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Visible mending, Haider Ackermann

I like the coarse, strong thread and bold mending of the Bible’s title page. It reminds me of contemporary visible mending, the practice of celebrating a repair with artful patching and stitching. Rather than go along with the idea that mending should be invisible and hide the shame of old clothing one is too poor to replace, it conveys a different message. It shows thrift and creativity, tolerance and respect for imperfections. It adds to the history of an item of clothing. In that spirit I am looking to mend a family story with visible stitches. I would rather sew up something torn in a way that says “been there, done that!” than try to present a perfect picture.

These old books that I can hardly read and hardly want to, are my inheritance. I am rooted in the Christian traditions of my Swedish ancestors and I understand the importance to them of their faith. At the same time I have developed a religious sensibility that is more abundant than just what can be found in the Bible. The patriarchy and hierarchy of the Lutheran Church of old as well as the piousness of the immigrant ancestors are just threads, among many spools, in the mending basket.

I liked something I read by Johan Alfred Enander, a Härja Parish-raised Swede born one year after my great great grandmother Brita Kajsa in 1842. (Perhaps they did their confirmation at the same time.) He had opportunities to further his education and eventually emigrated, studied and taught at Augustana College and Theological Seminary in Illinois. Later he became the editor-in-chief of Hemlandet (Homeland), the first Swedish language newspaper in America. His description of the swirling mix of Biblical figures, elves and ancient giants of the old religions brought to life in the fields, forests and waters of his Swedish childhood, all the stories and beauty that drove him to distraction, makes me want to stand up from the pew and shout, “Amen!”

“Each time I accompanied my father to the charcoal burnings or to the clearing of land I walked in ecstasy and wonderment at the lofty and somber nature about me. Before my eyes lay the mirror-like [lake] Vättern, on which now and then a sail was visible and on whose farther shore the ruins of the old Brahe castle were gilded by the rising sun. Around me towered high cliffs, heavily wooded with firs and pines, and far to the south Taberg’s Peak hovered like a blue cloud blending with the sky. I know of no lovelier scene. Nor have I ever heard more beautifully the music of David’s harp in Wallin’s hymns, echoed a thousandfold as the farm laborers sang in the early morning, happily joined by thrush and lark. But this nature could be deceptive. For many times it lured me from my duties, for it was more pleasant to make wreaths of the anemone in the woods and of the forget-me-nots in the meadows, than to wield the ax on century-old trees. Often while watching the cattle I found a place by a pool or on a flower bedecked turf, and dreamed of the biblical narrators I read at home, or of the legendary elf-folk whom I pictured as some sort of protecting angels or tender beings who kept watch over the good. And when at last toward evening a fog arose over heath and swamp, in my fantasy I made out a throng of giant figures from the ancient ice-age, or else one of the Old Testament prophets with noble brow, arising and fading away. The picture changed constantly and completely engaged my attention, to the detriment of my duties.”

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