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Full Circle

August 29, 2020

Family was important to Eva Carlson, my grandmother, because she was robbed of hers at age seven. In 1922, Grandma, her mother, and five younger siblings were taken from their two-room log cabin home nestled in the woods near Deer River, Minnesota. Her mother had become mentally ill from a high fever, and the children were fending for themselves, eating mayonnaise from the jar and wild berries growing in the woods.

Hearing stories about Grandma’s father makes me wonder if that truly was how her mother became mentally ill. Grandma’s dad, a Swedish immigrant, logged by day and bootlegged by night. Drunk from his own moonshine, he often bit and beat his wife in fits of rage. When Grandma heard her mom’s screams, she would run to their bedside in hopes that his seeing her would cause him to stop. He never did.

Grandma told how one day a nice lady in a black, shiny car took her whole family, except her father, to the depot for a train ride. When the train stopped, the conductor instructed those whose names would be read to get off.

Because Grandma and her two brothers were the only siblings of school age, only their names were called. They obeyed orders and Grandma watched for the rest of her family to depart, but the doors closed and the train took off with them still on board. It wasn’t until fifty-six years later that she learned they had traveled on for nineteen more miles to Faribault,Minnesota and had resided at an institution for the mentally handicapped.Unfortunately, this knowledge came too late for reconciliation.

In the mid-1880s, a social experiment began in America with children, like my grandma, whose home lives were abusive or who were homeless, orphaned, or abandoned. These at-risk children were taken by train to be cared for by state-run government schools until homes with other families could be found for them.It’s estimated that over two-hundred thousand children were relocated by“orphan trains” between 1854 and 1929.

Grandma, Alfred, and Andrew had arrived at The State School, formally known as The State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children, in Owatonna, Minnesota. She only saw her two brothers a few more times standing huddled together on the playground holding hands. In her search for them in later years, she learned they had soon after been transferred to the institute for the mentally handicapped, where her mother and youngest siblings had resided.

When children arrived at the State School they were thoroughly inspected naked, for lice or disease, and then quarantined long enough to ensure the other children’s safety. Grandma was then transferred to Cottage Five—a three-story brick building that housed girls. The main level was a beautiful sitting room for visitors. The children were only allowed in this showroom to polish the glossy hardwood floor.

The second floor held twin-size metal beds arranged so one could barely walk between them. Each girl had her own bed and a chair, which they used to drape their clothing across after undressing for bed.

Misbehavior was not tolerated at the State School,nor was crying. Grandma wrote in her self-published memoir, No Tears Allowed, that after being slapped across the face enough times, she eventually learned to keep her emotions inside.

Other punishments included kneeling on broomsticks, soap in the mouth, or missing meals. Boys were beaten with leather reins or a radiator brush as they got into more serious trouble because of their need to establish a pecking order. Generally, the older girls took care of the younger ones and each other.

All the children were forced to work, and many of Grandma’s chores were in the dining center. Her task during breakfast was to give a teaspoon of sugar to each child on some sort of hot cereal. Afterward she would mop the floors and set the tables for lunch.

The matrons and staff weren’t fed the same mush as the children. In a separate dining room, they enjoyed pancakes and gave their leftovers to Grandma. She took the cold, plain pancakes—yet a feast—back to Cottage Five to share. She learned quickly how to make friends and influence people.

The main meal for the children was usually some type of hotdish, beans or soup, served on plates. As a treat they were served plain Jell-O made in big galvanized wash tubs in the basement. The bathrooms were also in the basement; and occasionally they’d see a mouse had fallen into the Jell-O during the night and drowned, but the staff would just scoop it out and feed it to them anyway.

Grandma never understood why they weren’t fed any better than they were. The State School was self-sufficient with its own butcher shop, orchard, a huge garden, and herd of dairy cows.

After four years at the State School, at age eleven, Grandma and five other girls were brought to the main office. A young married couple—my grandpa’s brother and his wife—were there to choose one of the six girls to take home with them to help where needed.

They had their adorable, one-year-old daughter with them, who had lots of dark curly hair. She couldn’t sit still and was getting into everything. She waddled back and forth in front of the girls with a grin on her face and then climbed up on Grandma’s lap. That was the last day Grandma spent at the State School. She had been indentured to this couple.

The indentured program allowed families to take an older State School child for labor in exchange for room and board. Girls were expected to do farm work as well as take care of the children and do housework.The State School’s only requirement for the family was that they send the children to school and release them at age eighteen with two full sets of clothing and one hundred dollars.

The State School had been negligent, and in many ways abusive, but life didn’t get any easier at my grandpa’s brother’s home.

Grandma woke early each day to start a fire in the cook stove and put the teakettle on before going out to the pasture to bring the cows in for milking. She went barefoot because she didn’t want her only pair of shoes to smell at school, which was okay until it got cold outside. Then she’d warm her feet by standing in a fresh cow pie. By first snowfall she was given a pair of rubber boots to wear.

Grandma worked from sun-up until she plopped into bed every night, except for her break to attend the one-room schoolhouse a half mile away. Four additional children were born to this couple; and when the children were being weaned, had a bad dream, or were sick, it was Grandma’s job to get up with them in the middle of the night. The labor inside and out of the home was physically exhausting.

Grandpa, still single, and fifteen years Grandma’s senior, lived down the hill from his brother at the home place. When Grandma turned fourteen he began to visit his older brother more often, expressing an interest in her with kind smiles. He patiently waited for his bride to turn eighteen and, until then, found opportunities for them to be together.

Grandpa would drive by when school let out and offer Grandma a ride home, occasionally giving her a candy bar or stick of Juicy Fruit gum. He’d also bring the cows in at night when she was in the neighboring field bringing in his brother’s cows. Eventually, they kissed over the barbed-wire fence and were married on November 17, 1934.

Grandma embraced the Norwegian heritage initially to survive but continued to do so out of love for her husband. When I was a child, she taught me how to count to ten in Norwegian and let me make krumkakes and roll lefse, although I’ve yet to acquire a taste—or smell—for lutefisk. She also taught me how to play pinochle and allowed me to take her spot when playing cards with Grandpa’s siblings.

Food always accompanied any gathering, often open-faced meat and cheese sandwiches with store-bought Windmill cookies.

Grandpa and Grandma had been married forty years when they moved from their single-wide trailer back into the old farm house where they had raised their family. They had moved out when my parents had married, allowing my father to raise his family there.

I was eleven years old when we moved from the old farmhouse into a modular home, delivered in two pieces; a stick-built Dynamic Home, placed on a poured foundation a hundred yards in front of the old farmhouse. Grandpa spent the last year of his life in the home where they had raised their three children.

After he died, Grandma began having anxiety attacks and asked me to sleep at her house, since I was the oldest granddaughter and within walking distance. Sleeping at the house I had grown up in shouldn’t have been an unreasonable request, except that I was still a child and the creepy old house had always spooked me. The wind howled through the thin walls. Even on still nights the house moaned, clanked, creaked, and rattled. I was told the house was settling, which I found hard to believe since it was already over a hundred years old.

Besides the incessant noise, I feared the bats,mice, and spiders that at times had cohabitated the old house, and the strange creatures from my imagination. Initially I resisted, fearing Grandpa’s ghost may be hanging around, but reluctantly agreed to stay, thankful that Grandpa had died on the couch and not in the twin bed I was to sleep in.

To encourage my return, Grandma treated me to bedtime feasts. My favorite was a grilled cheese sandwich that dripped with grease from being buttered on both sides—inside and out of each slice of bread—and then piled high with cheese. It was toasted golden brown in an old,black cast-iron frying pan on an equally as old, white gas stove. I washed it down with a bottle of Mountain Dew, a treat saved only for special occasions at my house. And for dessert I had my choice of Little Debbie snacks. I still think of Grandma whenever I eat an Oatmeal Crème Pie. I don’t remember her eating with me, but no one would suspect she had ever missed a meal.

Grandma had a round full face and strong jaw line.When she smiled, her dimples and sparkling blue eyes hinted she was up to something.  She was slightly shorter than average, five feet tall, plus a couple inches, and broad, not dainty. Her robust, full figure was plump around her middle, yet she looked small when compared with Grandpa’s family.

Grandpa was over six feet tall and hefty. His six brothers and three sisters were all large, tall people. They were one hundred percent Norwegian and became Grandma’s family even before she married Grandpa.

Grandma’s search for her childhood family began after Grandpa died. He was the love of her life and the first person she remembers loving her back. She always said, “I was never in motion pictures but I won an Oscar.”  Oscar was my grandpa’s name. And although Grandma wasn’t an actress, she loved performing at family gatherings, dressing up in homemade costumes, and posing for the camera.

After forty-one years of marriage, Grandma found herself alone, and adjusting to life without Grandpa was difficult. Abandonment issues surfaced, triggering spells of anxiety. That’s when I first heard many of the stories about her life at the State School and as an indentured servant.

Seeing a psychologist wasn’t as acceptable as it is now, but telling her story began the healing process for her. One of her daughters thought finding Grandma’s lost family might help ease her loneliness or possibly bring healing, and so the search began.

The court records of the State School children were still sealed in 1976. Grandma had been told previously when inquiring about her family that she’d be better off not knowing where they were. She may find a relative who would then become a burden to her. But with perseverance and through connections with other children from the State School, Grandma located her father, two brothers, and numerous cousins on her mother’s side,all still living in Deer River, Minnesota.

In July 1979, Grandma, my dad, two aunts, two cousins, an uncle, and I drove to Deer River for a family reunion. Over twenty relatives from my great-grandmother’s family attended. The resemblance of many of them to my grandma was undeniable. Her brother Alfred, with his round face, full head of graying hair, and thick mustache, looked like an older version of my dad. Great-grandma was German, and pictures of Grandma in her younger years reminded me of the German women I’d seen from World War II pictures.

Finding part of her lost family was bittersweet.She learned that her mother had died two years prior and that her four youngest siblings had died very young. And her relationship with her two brothers would not be as she imagined. Alfred and Andrew had been beaten in their younger years and were mentally handicapped.

Grandma’s relatives had found them years earlier and made sure they were now well cared for. They lived together in a foster home and in many ways were still like the two little boys Grandma had last seen holding hands on the playground.

Great-grandpa was another story. He lived in a two-room clapboard house on the edge of town with an outhouse in the back. We had barely gotten into the dingy, dimly-lit shack when he told us up front that all of his money and property was willed to his stepdaughter for taking care of him. He then proceeded to bring out from under his bed, several tin coffee cans full of coins along with wads of paper bills bound by rubber bands.

We didn’t stay long, but Grandma visited him once a year for six years until he died at the age of ninety-six. The only thing she was given after his death was the bill for his tombstone from his stepdaughter.Grandma politely told the coffee-can heiress that she wasn’t interested in paying for it.

Grandma may not have received an inheritance, but she saw her life as rich. With a positive outlook, she focused on the possibilities, not the problems. She embraced life as a victor and rose above her circumstances. The love she was denied as a child she freely gave in abundance, not only to her family, but also to others. Modeling the importance of family, she touched all our lives.

She was the last living relative from her generation on both sides of the family when she died at ninety-five. Her once sizeable arms, which lifted hay bales and did men’s work, became weak and unable to lift her out of a chair. Her face was longer, not as full, and her smile not as bright—although the dimples were still there.

Through the many transitions in her life, this last one to the nursing home may have been her hardest.

She always loved to give and do for others. Her world had been narrowed to a shared room with a curtain between two beds and one chair. She had nothing to talk about except the past and nothing tangible of any worth left to give.

She saved her coffee creamers and sugar to have something to give visitors. Her leftovers were stuffed in her milk carton and saved for the dog my parents no longer had. She tucked plastic spoons with lipstick on them in the pocket of her chair to give to the youngest great-grandchildren for their sand box. The tinfoil that once covered her meals was replaced by a plastic cover after she had saved the foil and made figurines.

Her daily activity was to cut out coupons for others’ use. Yet her scissors disappeared, along with her watch, and the few personal belongings she had left. She feared someone was stealing from her, so she hid things and then forgot. Her watch was replaced, and when the lost one was found she wore both on the same wrist.

Her life had come full circle—once again being cared for by the State of Minnesota.

Me and Grandma Eva in 1997
Grandma reunited with her two brothers in 1978