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Rainy day memories of Sanpete County

 

It's a very stormy day at the cottage, which means no gardening. That means I have time to be inside and sort through old things. For example, I found this piece of writing from about eight years ago.


For about a ten-year period, I spent part of most summers in Sanpete County, Utah, where I interviewed people of ancestral Danish background. The idea was to try to reconstruct the demise of the Danish (and other Scandinavian) languages in Sanpete County, as well as chronicling if anything of those languages was still left. It turns out there was: you can read my academic work on the topic here: https://www.elizabethpeterson.org/research-areas-and-networks. This research process was quite a thrill, and it offered many insights into my own history that I hadn't previously known. Both of my parents grew up in this part of Utah, but I myself grew up in a different place, in a desert town close to the Nevada border. Most of the people I befriended during these summers in Sanpete County are now gone. I feel very fortunate that I was able to meet them and learn from them before they passed away.


At the moment, I am collecting my ideas and notes so that I can write a larger volume of stories based on these interviews, interwoven with some of the more interesting stories from my own family's history. More on that later, I hope. In the meantime, please enjoy this short essay I wrote after meeting with Margaret, during the summer of 2016.



Happy birthday, Margaret


“Wait, I have something for you. Just a second.”


It was my father’s birthday. It was also her birthday: Margaret's. He would have been ninety years old if he were still alive. She was ninety years old and very much alive, still working full-time at the family shop, fielding calls from salespeople, chatting with customers, making photocopies, taking flower orders, running the cash register. Her ability to multi-task would put any twenty year old to shame. That’s how Sanpete County people are, in my experience, especially those from her generation. They know how to get things done.


She came back holding her purse, and she reached into it and pulled out a photograph, one of those small black-and-white snapshot types with a white border around it. “This was taken at one of the high school reunions,” she said. “I don’t know what year it was, but you can probably guess by the clothes we are wearing. Isn’t that your dad and mom right there?”


The picture showed five smiling couples, the women standing in a row in front of the men, wearing dresses that were surely meant to impress each other. The men wore loose fitting suits and short ties. My father was the only man in the picture who had taken off his suit jacket. For as long as I remember, he always had his eyeglasses case poking out of the breast pocket of a button-up shirt, and there it was, true to form. His eyeglasses dangled from his left hand. No doubt he had taken them off so his face would show better in the photograph.


He always enjoyed going to his high school reunions. Even I went with him once, back in the 1990s. If I remember correctly, that would have been his 50th reunion or so.


“Yes, it is them,” I said, with a wistful smile. “Look how beautiful they are. Today would have been his ninetieth birthday.”


“I know,” Margaret said. “It’s mine, too. I remember that we share the same birthday.” She remembers everything. Sharp as a tack.


Margaret's husband had been a school friend with my father. Since the first time I met her, which was about four years ago, she has regaled me with stories that I have heard my whole life, although this time from a different perspective. Some of the details differ, but that’s to be expected. All good stories depend on the teller, not on the truth.


I am incredibly lucky that I have been able to become friends with people like her in Sanpete County. They are treasures, for so many reasons, not least because of the bridge they offer between their world and the old world. This woman’s mother was a Danish immigrant. But that’s another story, and it’s hers to tell.


“You made my day,” I told her, and then I left. You can never stick around too long with Margaret; she’s far too busy.


Before I left, she gave me the photograph. She wanted me to keep it, she said.


Happy birthday, Dad


I went through a series of interviews with local folks that day, trying to ask them questions that might illuminate the language situation in early Sanpete County. I was distracted, though, and kept reaching for the photograph that Margaret had given me. My mother looked so young, trim, and happy, and as though she cared about her appearance. She looked very different from the woman I remember from my childhood. I don't remember that easy smile.


That evening, on the way back to the rental house, I made a detour from the highway between Ephraim and Manti to visit the farm where my father was born and grew up. I hadn’t been there for a few years, and I wanted to see what it looked like now.


Visiting there was just something we had always done, not very often, but every few years, when we happened to be in Sanpete County. I don’t know why we did, it was just one of those things that was unquestioned and accepted as part of our Sanpete County routine. We had done it when my father was still alive, and we continued to go after he died.


The last time I visited Shumway Farm, I was with my mother and my sister.  That day, we took photographs of the pond at the exact moment a flock of hundreds of geese swooped up into the air and wooshed away, creating a burst of air around us. A young farmer hurried over to see what was happening, and my mother started telling him about how her husband grew up at this farm when there was still a farmhouse next to the pond. He did not seem particularly interested, and seemed eager for us to get off his property. I can certainly understand that he didn’t want strangers traipsing about his farm, so I ushered my mother back into our car.


This time when I drove toward the farm, I was not able to get closer than about a quarter of a mile to the pond. An iron gate, the kind used to fence in cattle, spanned the dirt rode, blocking any entry. The name “Nielsen” was announced atop the gate, melded in wrought iron, and there was a stop sign attached to it. I’m not sure if the gate was meant to keep cattle in, or strangers out. Probably both.


I stood at the gate and looked toward the pond where my father played as a child. I snapped a few photographs. I walked along the dirt lane for a while, pondering how he would have ridden along this same road, on horseback, to get to school. I looked off into the foothills, thinking that his view would have been exactly what mine was now.



An old rusted harrow in a yellowing field of grass. Foothills in the distance. A desert landscape.


For a few years after my father died, when I was in graduate school, I would have dreams that I was discussing something with him, and then he would reach over to grasp my hand. For a brief moment, I would feel the familiar rough, work-worn fingers, and then I would wake up crying because he was gone. I wonder if other people have dreams like that about people they love.


Time in a bottle


My mother spent years of her life placing into every shape and sort of glass bottle all the fruits and vegetables she could get her hands on. People like her have a firm belief that they have to be prepared for the worst, and a cellar full of canned goods is part of that plan. The worst never happened, and now the fact is that the cellar of the home where I grew up is filled to rafters with bottles of canned goods that we will never eat. Some of the bottles date back to the 1970s, maybe even earlier.


During the last decade or so that they spent together, my parents had a partnership that revolved largely around wild asparagus. My father would bring it home, collected from the ditch banks of his farm, some three miles out of town, and my mother would dutifully boil it up, make it into asparagus guacamole, or place it into jars. We ate a lot of pickled asparagus during those years. It was quite delicious.


One of my brothers, along with his wife, paid a visit to our childhood home while I was in Utah this summer. I don’t go much to our childhood home anymore; there is not much left I want to see. My brother and his wofe, on the other hand, went on an intrepid adventure: they came back with a mysterious chest that none of us had ever seen before, filled up with all of the things that had been dear to my father’s mother (including several letters from a mysterious female friend during the years after my paternal grandfather died).


They also came back with a bottle of pickled asparagus, the spears standing up in a neat bundle in an old Miracle Whip jar. The date on the bottle was 2000. “We thought you might want to take this back to Finland with you as a souvenir,” my brother joked.


My brothers and the rest of my family had so many stories to share during this visit. That’s what we do: we sit around and talk, and there are so many of us that there is always a lot to talk about. We were sitting around the kitchen table at the rental house in Manti, that bottle of asparagus sitting in the middle of the table like some kind of weird centerpiece. As we talked, a thought struck me, and I suddenly blurted out: “Dad picked this asparagus the summer before he died.”


Everyone went quiet. “Well, that’s creepy,”one of my brothers finally said.


When we packed up the rental house and left, I gave the bottle of asparagus to the least sentimental of my six brothers. I have no idea what he did with it. As for the photograph, it's been hanging on the wall beside my desk ever since I returned to Finland.



A bottle of pickled asparagus, homemade. In front of the jar, there is an old black and white photograph of 5 smiling married couples (men and women).

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