Monday, February 21, 2011

A story of hardiness

Our neighbor, Merlene Christensen Collard, who is 95-years old, was supposed to speak in Sacrament meeting today but she did not feel well so our former Relief Society President, Stacy Nielsen, now her visiting teacher, read the talk. At any rate, Sister Collard's talk told a bit of her history.

There is a close connection with those who lived in the same era in Utah. Those hardy stock shared many of the same experiences. The first generation pioneers, so to speak, from any country had many similar circumstances when they arrived. This was especially true of the Danish folk. They came to Utah to live their religion and were, basically a devout people. They learned English because they wanted to. But many of their customs remained intact. My great-grandmother was superstitious to a fault. For example, one did not open an umbrella in the house, for it would bring bad luck. Many of the Danish pioneers were also superstitious.

Sister Collard's parents, like my great-great grandparents, were also first generation Danes who joined the church and came to Utah. She said she always loved it when her mother would pray in the evening for family prayer because she prayed in Danish. The children did not know that language well, but they liked the sound of it when she prayed. Her father was a shoemaker. She was the last of 14 children born to the family and her mother died when she was 57 (Sister Collard was 15). Therefore, Sister Collard cared for her father, and a few of her older siblings, for several years by doing the cooking, cleaning and washing. When she married, she moved to Mills (south of Levan) where her husband was a rancher. They did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. They did not have water. They did have a cistern where they stored water which she had to haul from the railroad tank a few miles away (steam engines used water and so needed a source to refill from). She then would syphon the water into the tank. One time, she sucked on the hose to start the water flowing and a mouse came out. She was certain she was going to get some awful disease but she didn't. However, she did have to empty the cistern and wash the tank and the barrel out with clorox and then start over. She said she knew Heavenly Father loved her or she would never have survived the mice, rats, snakes and spiders that made her home their home, even though she fought them off.

Her story reminded me of my great-grandmother, Mina Ericksen Pritchett, who was also the daughter of immigrant Danes. Both said that their parents wanted their children to be Americans and speak English so they discouraged the use of their native language. The only time the parents spoke Danish was when they did not want the children in the family to know what was being said. That could be convenient. I would have liked to have had another language to use when I discussed something I didn't want my children to know. When I was a child, my grandmother and aunt spelled when they did not want me to know what was being said. That did not work with my children since they were much better spellers than I and at a much earlier age. It also did not work for my cousins who were also good spellers.

Sister Collard said that her father was a strict parent. I don't know if he could have been more strict than my Great-Grandmother Mina's father. When the girls in the home washed and combed their long hair, he had them do so on a piece of paper so that hair would not get all over the floor. When they were done, he would have them roll the paper up and dispose of it. The result was a floor much cleaner than it would have been otherwise. He was a farmer and also believed that things should be tidy about the farm. He would sweep the barnyard and the floor of the barn so that they were clean. Of course, over time, the earth around the barn packed down and it was easy enough to maintain. However, with each winter, I can only imagine that the earth would soften up from the layers of snow which would melt away and the project would begin again.

Of course, being strict was not his only personality trait. He also had a good sense of humor. There were a lot of family jokes that were retold to new gales of laughter. There were new ones added as they happened. The family also delighted in the company of one another. It was a polygamist family. Lars, the father, had two wives which the children called Mommy and Momma. The wives were good friends who had proposed the idea of living in polygamy to Lars when another man wanted Stina or Momma, Mina's mother, to become his wife in a polygamist relationship. She did not want to comply. So the two women persuaded Lars to take Stina as his second wife and the two women were as close, according to my great-grandmother, as any two loving sisters could have been. The children all knew that they were loved by both women and there was no jealousy. In that, I suppose, you could say that the family all learned how to compromise which is, perhaps, what made Mina's brother, Ferdinand Ericksen, such a successful judge when he was an adult.

Great-Grandmother Mina spoke, with great distaste, of two women who lived near them who were always quarreling and contentious. She had a way of twitching her nose slightly from side to side which she did when she did not like something. Her nose twitched when she spoke of those two women. Sometimes, her nose twitched when she was displeased with something I had done. That happened, especially, when I managed to get mud from one end of me to the other without really trying. Honestly, even today, I am surprised that I attract dirt the way I do. But that is another story for another day.