Friday, March 29, 2013

Lutefisk: Scourge of the Scandinavians

As a person of Scandinavian ancestry, I feel compelled to apologize to the world for a great injustice which my people have inflicted upon it—namely, lutefisk.

For those of you fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with lutefisk, allow me to enlighten you.  Are you strong of stomach and sitting down?  Good...  Lutefisk (a/k/a lutfisk) is dried whitefish (usually cod) that has been soaked in lye (yes, I said lye!) for several days and then boiled.  Wikipedia says, “It is gelatinous in texture, and has an extremely strong, pungent odor.”  Indeed.

Here is my Aunt Helen, dropping lutefisk into a boiling pot in 1972.  Notice how the normally cheery ceramic cookie jar sitting on a ledge above the stove has taken on a disturbing and sinister look, just from the lutefisk fumes wafting past it...

For those of you with some knowledge of both the Bible and lutefisk, you will appreciate that my father (and many others in the know) referred to lutefisk as “The Piece of Cod that passeth all understanding.”  Amen to that.

In my childhood, when we gathered at Grandpa and Grandma Wallin’s house on Christmas Eve, lutefisk was always on the menu—indeed, it was the star of the show.  Even the presence of Swedish meatballs and those delectable little buttery cookies we called “Swedish spritz” couldn’t make up for its presence—or its aroma…  Both my aunts made their kids eat it, but my father had a hard time enforcing that rule with his own brood, since my mother wouldn’t touch the stuff.  So I was spared the tasting, but not the looking or the smelling. 

After supper came the opening of the presents, and there were always plenty of them to go around—but not until the dishes were washed—that tradition was sacred.  I know now that this was more than just a habit, or a way to tease and torment the grandkids.  Wikipedia also says this:  When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and its residue off pans, plates, and utensils immediately.  Lutefisk left overnight becomes nearly impossible to remove.”  Wake up, Scandinavians—what does that tell you about what it is doing to your digestive tract?

I’ve been told that in recent years, lutefisk has become harder and harder to procure…  Perhaps my childhood prayers were answered after all.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Black Sheep Sunday: The Four Sons of Charles Anderson

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to believe.  I love a good skeleton in the closet as much as the next genealogist—a black sheep in the family—but this stretches the bounds of credibility.

My maternal grandmother, Clara Anderson Erickson (1892-1967), had four brothers—George, Charles, Howard, and Lester.  Grandma Erickson was a farmer’s wife—but if you scratched deeper, she was a schoolmarm, and a tough one.  Once you fell from her good graces, there was no going back, and her four brothers had taken that fall.  When Grandma died in 1967, none of her brothers were notified, because she hadn’t seen nor heard from any of them in years.  But—could all four of her brothers have been the bums she said they were?   

Clara’s father was Charles Anderson (1859-1916), whom I’ve written about before, and he was a bona fide Black Sheep.  But what about his boys?  Here is what my mother told me about her four uncles many years ago—probably repeating what her mother Clara had told her—and it is not pretty (nor is it substantiated in any way):

“I have no idea where George is. For some reason, he changed his name from Anderson to Adams—no one knows why...  Charles was married three times. The first time he married really young. After they got a divorce, neither parent wanted the two boys, so they were adopted out…  Howard left his wife and little child and never came back. His wife hid his Mason ring, and he got so mad that he left her…  Lester never married, and never worked. He lived at a shelter or mission in Joliet. He seemed to be kind of odd. Once in a while, as I was growing up, he’d walk out to see us.”

Whoa, there!  Mom didn’t paint a very flattering picture of the Anderson boys.  Could all of this possibly be true?  I’d really like to know!  If anyone out there knows anything about the four sons of Charles Anderson and Emma Hanson Anderson—good or bad—I’d love to hear about it.  Here is what I do know about them, from my own research (census records and WWI draft cards, mainly):
·       George Francis Anderson (1889-??).  Born in Lemont, Illinois, as were his brothers.  House cleaning contractor (self-employed) in 1917. 
·       Charles Grover Anderson (1893-1972).  Spouse Ruby Roberta Parker.  Chauffeur in 1917 and 1920.
·       Howard Louis Anderson (1897-??).  Stoneworker in 1917 and metal polisher in 1920.
·       Lester Michael Anderson (1900-??).  Laundry worker in 1917.

Can anyone out there set the record straight and save the reputation of this family? 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Four Reasons NOT to Write Down Your Life Story

Most of my father’s life story is lost forever.  I always meant to write it down, and he always said he would do it—but when we finally made time to do it together, he died not long after we started.  I would give a king’s ransom to know more details about his life before we kids came along.

I’ve heard lots of reasons for not writing down your life story…

1.     “I don’t know what to write about.”

A good list of questions solves that problem.  Those kind of lists are all over the internet and in books at the bookstore.  I have one which I give to clients and family members.  If a person starts with a good list, then it’s as simple as this:  (a) write down your thoughts about each question that interests you; (b) skip the ones that don’t; (c) throw in anything else that you think of along the way; and (d) the job is done!

2.     “I’m not a very good writer/speller.”

That’s like saying, “I’m not a very good mechanic, so I’m not going to drive a car.”  The fact is, we get help with the things we’re not good at.  One of my favorite things is editing.  That means taking someone else’s rough thoughts and “cleaning them up” and “making them pretty.”  Everyone knows someone (or can hire someone) who is good at that.   But if you don’t, write down your story anyway!  A rough diamond is much better than no diamond.

3.     “I never did anything interesting, so it would be boring.”

 My mother’s life consisted of growing up on a farm, getting married, and being a housewife for the rest of her life.  My husband’s mother’s life was the same.  But when people who love them read the life stories that I helped them write, those stories are more precious than gold.  Details that may seem boring to the writer, are fascinating to us who didn’t live in those times.  And so often, the better we understand our parents and grandparents, the more we love them.  

4.     “I'm not a very good typist.”

In the computer era, good typists are a dime a dozen.  Every child can type these days.  If you can write, someone else can type!  So write down your story, or dictate it to someone, or type it if you can—but don’t let it be forever lost.

So please, grandmas and grandpas, mothers and fathers, write out your memories for us!  It doesn’t have to be perfect or professional—just do the best you can.  We want to know what has made you the person you are.  We want to see the world as you saw it, before we were born.  We want to walk a mile in your shoes.  We don’t want these stories to die with you.  Share your lives with us!  We want you to.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Black Sheep Sunday: Charles Anderson, Boatman

"The grandson wants to remember what the father wished to forget." –anonymous

One of my great-grandfathers was a Swede named Charles Anderson (1859-1916), a boatman on the canals of northern Illinois—and he was quite a character.  Grandma never talked about him, but being a big fan of black sheep stories, especially within my own family, I think I shall.

Charles came from Sweden to Lemont, Illinois with his parents when he was nine.  In 1888 he married Emma Hanson, the daughter of the local hotelkeeper, and they had four sons and a daughter—the daughter being my grandmother, Clara.  In the 1900 census, Charles and Emma live with their four children (with another one on the way) in Lemont, next door to Charles’ parents.  Charles is a canal boat captain and they own their home. 

But all was not well… At some point Emma decided she’d had enough of Charles’ drinking (and who knows what else).  She left their daughter Clara with her parents, separated herself from Charles, took the four boys with her, and moved to Joliet. 

What a difference ten years makes!  By the 1910 census, Emma is living in Joliet and is listed as a ‘widow’ with no occupation.  Her two teenaged boys work to support the family.  Charles apparently remained in Lemont.

Lemont was a wild town then.  The city of Lemont website says this about the canal area: 

“In the 1890s, construction began on the Sanitary & Ship Canal.  The downtown area known as ‘Smokey Row’ with its bars and brothels gained notoriety as the wildest, most sinful street in the country.”

Perhaps that particular neighborhood was Charles’ favorite haunt in Lemont—because the next we hear of him is this article in the local newspaper, dated 1916:


Lockport, June 7 – The body found in the Sanitary District canal at the Power House yesterday morning was identified last evening as that of Charles Anderson of Lemont.  Mr. Anderson disappeared from his home Tuesday evening, May 30.  Anderson leaves a wife who is said to reside in Joliet besides two sons.  He was a former boatman employed on the Illinois and Michigan Canal for several years.  The body was removed to Lemont and the funeral will be held tomorrow afternoon.

A second article says that he left for work one evening and it was thought that he missed his footing and fell in.  According to my mother, family tradition says that he was drunk at the time.

Charles and Emma’s daughter Clara became a schoolteacher and later, a farmer’s wife and my grandmother.  Charles and Emma’s four sons, it is said, did not turn out so well.  But that’s a story for another day.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mystery Monday: Anna Grimm Wyatt Nelson

Okay, February is over.  Enough with the sentimental love stories!  Now for some tales of love gone very, very wrong!

When researching the ancestry of my sister-in-law Susie, I came across the stories of two sisters—Anna and Eva Grimm.  Anna was Susie’s great-grandmother (at least on paper!) and Eva was her infamous sister—and both of their stories fascinate me.  I’ll start with Anna.

Anna was married young.  Just how young is part of the mystery.  Her birthdate/age seem to “drift” over time...  In 1905, she claimed to be born in 1883.  In 1910, she moved it forward to 1885.  By 1920, it was 1886, and from 1930 until her death, the records show 1889.  So she either lied about her age early in life to appear older—or she lied about her age later in life to appear younger.  With the 1890 census having been destroyed in a fire, and her 1900 census record nowhere to be found, I got no help there.  And there were no statewide birth certificates in Illinois until 1916, nor could one be located in the county where she claimed to be born.

If the age and birthdate she gave later in life is to be believed, that would have made her just thirteen when she had a baby boy, Arthur, in 1903.  Is that even possible?  At any rate, two years later, in 1905, she and the father of the child were married.  On her marriage certificate, she gives her age as 22 and says it is her second marriage.  Lots of things don’t add up here.

Her new husband Adolph (A.E.) Wyatt, a local restaurateur, was much older—he was 47 when they married.  What drew them together will probably never be known, as anyone involved is long dead, and no family papers have been found which could shed any light.

The marriage didn’t last.  By 1915 they were divorced, when Adolph died at age 57 from bleeding ulcers.  Anna was remarried in July 1916, to a man named Charles Nelson.  In October 1916 a son named Karl comes into the picture—but I’m not sure if he was his, hers, or theirs.  In the 1920 census Karl is listed as Charles’ son, but in 1930 he is listed as Charles’ adopted son.

Anna’s marriage to Charles may not have been a bed of roses; the 1940 census shows him as a prisoner at the Kane County Jail.  In 1942 Charles was a free man—but on his WWII draft card, he was quite vague about his employment status, and he lists his son Karl as his next of kin, not his wife.  Anna died in 1946 and Charles in 1948, and they are buried together at a local cemetery.  I wish I knew more about her life. 

I also wish I knew more about her son Arthur (if indeed he is her son).  The unfortunate boy was left without parents at thirteen, after his mother left and his father died.  Incredibly, no one seems to know who raised him after that; in his later life, my sister-in-law says, he refused to talk about it.  Our best guess is that an older nephew of his father took him in, a young man who lived with the family for a time and later lived in a local boarding house. 

Fortunately, the boy’s adult life turned out much better than his youth, and my sister-in-law has fond memories of her beloved grandfather, who died many years ago.  I hope someday to have more answers for her about her grandfather’s early life and his mysterious mother—but for now, this will have to do.