by Marva Lee Weigelt
In loving memory of Pauline Emma Sprenger Weigelt
September 30, 1905 – October 12, 1971
Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide, and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neuroscience, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.
–Mark Wolynn | It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle (2016, Penguin Books)
REFLECTIONS ON A MYSTERY
This seems a poignant starting point—a juxtaposition of black-and-white photographs of two important women in my life. In these images they are about the same age, nearing 28. The first is my father’s mother Pauline with her husband Henry on their wedding day in 1933—one of the earliest photos I’ve seen of her—a new beginning that is simultaneously a late blooming. The second is of my mother Pat and me in 1961—one of the last photos I have of her, and of us together—and her life is nearing an end, although she doesn’t know it yet.
These are my kinswomen. Putting the three of us back in proximity is a strange comfort to me because I can’t actually remember us all together. I think we visited the farm as a family in 1959 and 1961, but those memories are locked in unlabeled boxes in the part of my attic to which I have not found a key.
After my mom died when I was three, my grandma was a significant part of my bedrock of belonging. Then, after Pauline died when I was twelve, I felt further uprooted and ungrounded in ways I could not express or explain.
Both these beloved women have grandchildren they never lived to meet. Each of them represent for me an air of mystery, hints of untold stories and unfinished business, and a legacy of loss. And these two influential, pivotal women in my motherline—unrelated to one another by blood—are also my most symbolic icons of nurturing and connection, even though they have been gone for much more of my life than they were here. Still, they live in and through me.
To Pat and Pauline I like to imagine I was something like kismet, their special portion, their awaited and anticipated fate and providence embodied. Both had been surrounded by brothers and short on sisters—my mom was the only girl; my grandma lost two of her three sisters by 18, one before she was born. Grandma had three living older brothers, three younger brothers she helped to raise, and then three sons. If nothing else, I am aware of being a fulfillment of her longing for a kinswoman to love and protect. She used to drive me crazy the way she bundled me up to go outside on the farm—handmade mittens on a long string that snaked through the sleeves of my jacket, my hood tied so tightly it pinched my chin, and for good measure, one of her own liniment-scented scarves swathing my head and neck—as if layers and layers could keep me safe from some unspoken danger. I felt more annoyed and hindered than precious, but looking back now, I understand more of what motivated her to swaddle me so securely, and I feel how dearly she loved me, without words.
I am well aware what I write here about Grandma must be classified as creative non-fiction. I take what facts I have, correlate them to memories and family stories, and then add my intuition and speculation. What I notice is as much a function of my own perspective as it is of her characteristics and qualities. The primary focal lens is my own bias, so I acknowledge there’s a possibility I’m projecting my own loneliness and search for belonging onto her story. There’s at least also a chance I’m tapping into a legitimate dimension of her experience, telling some of the story for which she did not have words. At the very least, I am shining a light into the family Rumpelkammer—German for junk closet—the mysterious place at Grandma’s house where you could find everything from toys to Christmas gifts to the carpet sweeper to the rollaway bed upon which I slept as a small child.
There is no better mode for telling these stories than in patchwork fashion—like one of Pauline’s quilts—with the patches arranged more by fit, feel and intuition than by any linear or logical scheme. I sit surrounded by figurative scraps of fabrics from my ancestors’ lives and my own, searching for significance and patterns. This is soul-level memory-quilting. I sort the pieces by heart.
Pauline was 53 when I was born in that advantageous position of first grandchild. And it’s a girl! You can see how she feels about this by the way she’s squeezing the living daylights out of me as an infant in one of our first photographs together. A new creation. Flesh of her flesh. A granddaughter. We would be lively and magnetic compass points for each other for only a dozen years, yet she has remained a powerful lodestone for me lifelong. We didn’t know it in the beginning, of course, but I would also be in a unique position to understand and carry forward the stories. And the sorrow.
After my mom died, Grandma’s potent but silent empathy was like a flash flood warning. I sensed this. We were in a club of two. She would look at me and cry briefly with a confusing grimace of helpless tenderness. Other times she’d be as hard, flat and no-nonsense as a cast iron skillet. I sensed a tension of overwhelming feelings mixed with uptightness and inhibition—Grandma seemed sometimes too emotional to speak. Verklemmt. Too locked up to open. I’d sit next to her in church and become aware of some barely perceptible shift in her inner weather. Looking over and up to that beloved round face, I’d see tears streaming down her cheeks and she’d take back the cloth hankie she’d cleverly made into a little, imaginary swaddled baby for me to play with, unfurling it to wipe her tears.
A few times I asked what made her cry, but I eventually learned not to inquire. Feelings, I am guessing, were not something she had the luxury of admitting or the freedom or finesse to express directly. The most I ever got out of her was that she was feeling a little “tough,” which, for a native German speaker may have translated across to schwer—difficult, heavy, hard—or schwierig—challenging, trying, vexed. So, perhaps, as she had seen modeled by her stoic parents, she turned her emotions inward, eventually converting them into aches and pains and other wordless cries for help.
Grandma, I am listening now.
SOW WITH TEARS
I had no idea until recently just how much wordless sorrow must have been held behind my grandmother’s emotional dam. “She never talked about that,” my dad said repeatedly as I asked about details of the six family deaths she experienced by young adulthood. Some significant life events I mentioned even seemed a surprise to him, for example, that she had an older sister named Maria who died at 22 just two months after their mother died at 55. What a crappy year 1924 turned out to be for Pauline, as 1962 would be for me, the years of losing moms and sisters.
The same German inscription is on both her mother Justina’s grave (who died in late March of 1924), and her sister Maria’s (who died in the last week of May, 1924), both in the Ebenezer Cemetery near New Leipzig, North Dakota, Psalm 126:5—Die mit tränen säen werden mit freuden ernten—Those who sow with tears will reap with joy. Werden is a powerful verb expressing future tense in German. It means not only will, but carries a dynamic nuance of becoming, turning into, going to be—a suggestion of metamorphosis—which fits with this gardening or farming metaphor which must have seemed particularly apt for these two uprooted women born on the hilly plains of the northern Black Sea region of Eastern Europe and buried on the rolling plains of North Dakota. You may be planting tears, promised their German Bible, but someday you will harvest joy. Someday. Or so they must have hoped.
Looking back twenty-two years before her untimely death to discover the beginnings of the American story, I find my great grandmother Justina accompanying her husband Daniel, his parents and extended family, 5,000 or more miles by land and ocean, and reluctantly leaving her own family behind, as well as the graves of two babies, Adolph, who lived not quite a year (but whose name was recycled for the next male baby, who happened to be born on exactly the same day, January 23) and Heinrich, who didn’t live even a month.
Change was in the air in 1902 and the Sprengers and others in their party were among a wave of thousands of ethnic Germans exiting Russian-held Bessarabia in 1902, their timing both prudent and fortuitous. When earlier generations of the family moved from Germany to South Russia in the early 1800s, they had been enticed and welcomed, promised they could speak their own language, practice their religion and be exempt from taxes and military service. Gradually these promises were broken, and especially after the military service exemption was revoked and a series of famines led to increasing hardship, the families began to migrate to North America. No matter what challenges they ended up facing in America, their choice to leave prior to the first World War turns out to have been almost certainly a mercy for the Sprengers and their extended family and friends, as Germans who remained in Russia lost their land and were threatened with mass evacuation to Siberia.
In 1902 the Sprenger family sold everything (except for “four big wool sacks per family, which included bedding…feather quilts, four blankets and pillows”) to afford a trip that began on May 2 and took forty-four days, including multiple wagon rides, two ships, and five trains—from Bessarabia (now Moldova) and across what is now the Ukraine, through Poland to the north coast and across the Baltic Sea, through the Kiel Canal and across the North Sea to Hull, England to Liverpool, from there across the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec, and then to Winnipeg. There were over ninety in the traveling party and not a soul spoke English. At Winnipeg the travelers parted ways, with some electing to stay in Canada while the Sprengers headed toward a German settlement in southwest North Dakota, which had only been a state for just over a dozen years.
At 33, Justina had five children to care for on this tumultuous journey—Christian (12), Mathilda (7), Adolph (5), Bertha (2), and Maria (8 months). She wasn’t keen on immigrating, as Mathilda recalled later, and she was quite lonesome and unhappy on the unfamiliar new continent so far from her roots and family. The first few years on Antelope Creek near Leipzig, North Dakota seemed to have been quite dismal, harsh and fraught with difficulty. It can get up into the triple digit temperatures in summer and down to -50°F in winter in a part of the country known for extremes, a sharp contrast to the considerably milder climate with which they were familiar in South Russia. On the northern Great Plains there were few trees for shade, shelter or fuel. They lived in a 16-foot X 28-foot house—a family of seven in space barely bigger than my two-room efficiency apartment—purchased from some folks wanting to head westward to more temperate climes and prospects for prosperity in Washington State. Daniel bought the place lock, stock and barrel—80 fenced acres with a house, granary and barn built out of rocks with mud and sod roofs, three cows, one old wagon, two beds, a table, an old stove and a cook stove. After buying a horse elsewhere, the Sprengers were out of money. Aunt Mathilda mentions an interesting housekeeping detail: “We used to have to sprinkle water on the dirt floors to make it nice, especially for Sundays.”
DER HERR HAT’S GEGEBEN
Here seems a potent portal through which to enter into Justina’s world. In January of 1903 she became pregnant with the first Sprenger to be born in America. They’d arrived the previous June, too late to put in any crops. Still, she was with child and trying to feed her other five offspring on milk, eggs, bread, jelly and jackrabbit, as the story goes. What happened next must have seemed like a cruel and unbearable trade-off. During their first full calendar year in a new country, Justina and Daniel’s son August was born in mid-September, and just before Christmas 3-year-old Bertha died from pneumonia.
Perhaps as these two events were noted in the family records Daniel might also have turned to Job 1:21 for ballast, a verse familiar to me from my father’s stories of how his family responded to tribulation—Der HERR hat’s gegeben, der HERR hat’s genommen; der Name des HERRN sei gelobt—The LORD hath given it, the LORD hath taken it; the name of the LORD be praised.
I cannot begin to adequately imagine the upheaval, deprivation and uncertainty of these early years. It takes time to set down roots and learn the ways of a new land and climate. Daniel would have been scrabbling to beat the odds as a farmer in an area less fertile than the one where he’d learned farming. Justina would perhaps have questioned the decision again and again as she struggled with homesickness and grief.
And then in the autumn of 1905, into this determined, hardworking and perhaps understandably dour and occasionally disappointed family of German-speaking immigrants, a little girl named Emma Pauline was born, a child who would end up having a mischievous eye-twinkle, remarkable persistence, a big heart, and a wonderful sense of humor. As Grandma used to tell it, there were already too many Emmas in the extended family, so she chose to go by Pauline. She told this in such a way I have always wondered if the choice stood out as something of a pinnacle of personal power in a life that otherwise looked to be sheerly at the mercy of happenstance and the inscrutable wills of her earthly and heavenly fathers.
Family records indicate that between 1890 and 1911 Justina gave birth to twelve children in stairstep fashion: 1890, 1893, 1895, 1897, 1898, 1900, 1903, 1905, 1907, 1909, and 1911. Pauline was on the ninth stair down, and like the others, she would not have been the baby of the family for very long, as Daniel was born a couple weeks after her second birthday, then John, and finally Arthur, when Justina was 42. How in the world, I wonder, could you ever feel particularly special or even closely noticed in the midst of so many siblings? Would you have a voice? Would you know you mattered? Would you have what you needed to flourish?
When I say my grandma’s name, Pauline, I wonder if her mother was giving a little nod to her maiden name, Pahl. What, I found myself wondering, became of Justina’s parents and extended family left behind in Bessarabia? The only mention I can find is in a 1943 letter from Pauline’s oldest brother Christian to his son Ernest, mentioning his grandfather Johann “Hans” Pahl as having been born in 1833 and dying in South Russia in 1917, and of his grandmother, also named Justina like her daughter, having died in 1911, as far as he can recall. I try to imagine Justina Sprenger, having recently given birth to her twelfth and final child, hearing that her mother had died thousands of miles away. They had not seen each other for almost a decade by then. Sow with tears.
“In the beginning there were only a very few ranchers along the rivers and a lonely homesteader once in a while and a sod shack near some creek—and the only panorama a homesteader could see those days was the rolling prairies, a few herds of cattle and bunches of antelope roaming about—and old Mr. Coyote would furnish the evening’s entertainment,” recalled one writer looking back at the early days in the vicinity of where the Sprengers moved in 1902.
The Sprenger homestead was initially quite near the town of Leipzig (founded in 1895), a growing nucleus of German-speaking immigrants with a population of close to a hundred by 1910, at which time two major railroad lines extended westward across the state and missed the town by eleven miles. In response to opportunity, the town and its businesses—buildings and all, including a flour mill—packed up and moved southwest to a new townsite, New Leipzig, leaving the Sprengers and their neighbors behind. Another town sprang up on the railroad line about six miles straight south of the Sprengers around the same time, Elgin, and this would be the nearest source of supplies. In those early horse-powered days, the difference between one mile to town and six would have been quite significant,
Sometime in 1922, when my grandmother Pauline was 16, her mother became ill and never recovered. With her two older sisters already married, Pauline would have been the only logical person left at home to provide care for her ailing mother and three younger brothers. As Justina’s illness and debility progressed—and almost certainly deepened her homesickness, sadness and regret at leaving her own family behind in Bessarabia—her husband Daniel, concerned about Justina’s swollen, infected breast, drove his wife 80 miles to the hospital in Bismarck in his first automobile, a 1914 REO Touring Car. The doctor said there was nothing to be done, and Daniel brought Justina back home to the farm on Antelope Creek to die.
Her five children still at home to witness her decline close at hand were 21, 18, 14, 13 and 11. I find it challenging to accurately imagine the toll Justina’s extended illness of two years would take on the family, especially on Pauline as a caregiver for her mother and younger brothers, as well as for the household in general. Her death would perhaps have brought a confusing mix of relief and grief, the dark pall of her disappointment and suffering finally lifted, replaced by the irrevocable finality of her absence. At 18 my grandmother was motherless.
Just two months after Justina died on March 27, 1924 at age 55, there would be another family funeral. The sister closest to Pauline in age, Maria, whose first child had been born the previous September, died on May 23 at age 22. I have a photocopy of an image from Maria’s funeral in the yard of her childhood home, the casket on a bier near the house, perhaps on the leeward side, everyone still in overcoats and hats on a chilly North Dakota spring day, no leaves yet on the trees. There is about this image for me an extraordinary poignance and pathos, a sense of stunned solemnity and disbelief, an air of resignation. Maria’s obituary, which a friend helped me translate from German, alludes to her suffering for about a year (from what is not specified), that she sought the help of the best doctors in the state, but “since her dear mother died in March, it seemed that to her, through this loss, all ties to life dissolved.”
Maria was the baby of the family when the Sprengers immigrated, not quite nine months old on the stressful journey in 1902. She would perhaps have been most attuned to her mother’s distress at having to bid a painful farewell to her family in Bessarabia. When Maria was two, her brother August was born and the sister the next step up from her, three-year-old Bertha, died. Although Maria would not have comprehended all the traumas of her early life, including having a mother who was sad and homesick, Maria was almost certainly deeply affected. Many years later, sometime about midway through her first pregnancy in 1923, she began feeling unwell. Her own mother was sick at the same time, so perhaps there was increased distress at not having Justina in good health and available to help her through this major life transition and its apparent complications. Although her son Raymond was born healthy in September, Maria did not rebound. Her son was about 8 months old when she died. Two years later his father Robert died also, leaving Raymond an orphan who was raised by his paternal grandparents.
I think of my grandma as I walk myself through this tragic timeline. Did Pauline at 18 perhaps hold her infant nephew in her arms at the funeral of his mama, the sister closest to her in age? Did she wonder what would become of the poor babe? Did this moment echo in the secret halls of grief nearly forty years later when a very similar story played out with her daughter-in-law, my mom? In a letter to family in 1963, Pauline used a phrase that seems to me to echo back to this sad juncture in her life with a sense of resignation: “I am sure you will miss her a lot, but that’s the way of life.” Sow with tears.
By the time Pauline’s mother and sister died, Leipzig would already have been something of a ghost town—except for a school, church and perhaps a small general store—so other supplies would have had to come from Elgin or New Leipzig, which probably meant they did not get to town very often. By then Pauline was the only female left in the household, the nearest neighbor nearly a mile away, and the lack of womanly companionship a theme that would repeat throughout her life like a sad refrain.
Yes, there were undoubtedly extended family gatherings and a sister and sisters-in-law not too far away. Likely they saw each other at church on Sundays. There was a growing passel of nephews and nieces in her older siblings’ families, and she is remember fondly as Aunt Pauline or Aunt Pauli, but still, as the years went by after her mother’s death and Pauline was still at home keeping house for her father and brothers and helping out with farm work as needed, she must at times have felt as if her own future and fulfillment had been indefinitely deferred.
AFTER THE WORLD CHANGED
For a window into Pauline’s circumstances as a young adult, imagine the household six years down the road at the time of the 1930 U.S. Census: her father Daniel (59), listed as a widower, living with his American-born adult children August (26), Pauline (24), John (21) and Arthur (18). Her next younger brother, Daniel, Jr.—whom she had helped raise after her mother got sick—had died of tuberculosis in 1928, a footnote about which I can find very little, although it would surely have been devastating to lose yet another close family member, especially one who had been entrusted to her care. By this point, five of the twelve Sprenger children had died, three as infants and toddlers, two as adults.
Although Daniel, Sr. seems to have continued acquiring land in this hilly, semi-arid part of North Dakota, the prospects from a social point of view must have at times seemed dim for the remnants of this family still trying to make a good-enough life in America nearly thirty years after immigrating. I wonder if perhaps the accumulated stress of the family after uprooting and resettling—perhaps especially the apparent disappointment and depression of Justina, followed by her early death—made a lasting impact on these children born in North Dakota, leaving them more in survival mode than with adequate psychosocial resources to go forth and thrive. Although I am focusing on my foremothers here, it’s worth noting that my great grandfather Daniel’s history of emotional loss also plays into the pattern of unspoken grief. Of his parent’s twelve children, only half lived to adulthood. In fact, he was born surrounded by death—the sister born just before him, Julie, lived only a week, and the brother born after him, Jacob, lived less than a year, dying when Daniel was three.
In the 1930 census, Daniel and his three sons are listed as “farmer” and “farm laborers.” My 24-year-old grandma’s occupation is listed as “none,” although there is a “yes” by employment. She would almost certainly have played a vital role as “woman of the house” and been expected to stand in for her dead mother in many household functions, having responsibilities without much authority, as she had since 16.
Hidden in the folds of this narrative is a wrinkle, an historically minor, yet poignant footnote that alters the story I’ve had in my head over the years. Let’s rewind to the summer of 1925, just over a year after his wife Justina died, when Daniel remarried to a 50-year-old woman named Margaret Penkendorf, who would presumably have taken the household reins from Pauline after she’d held them for nigh on three years, starting during her mother’s illness. Whether this was at first a relief or a threat is hard to say. I cannot even begin to imagine the possible tensions, power struggles, and conflicted feelings among the new “stepmother” and her husband’s “children”—ages 21 to 13—and she had at least seven living children of her own at the time, some of whom would presumably have joined the expanded family. Were it not for this intriguing notation, I would have little to go on: “It is said that Groszvater Daniel‘s children were unhappy with their stepmother…[and] the marriage was soon dissolved. She died February 26, 1927.” Whatever “dissolved” means—whether an actual divorce or a separation of households—and whatever “soon” may indicate, certainly Daniel’s choice added to the ongoing upheaval of his family. Contemplating this shortest of stories, I get a mental picture of a rollercoaster ratcheting noisily up a steep incline and then plummeting, swerving, and coming to a stop, with the riders disembarking in a discombobulated daze. I see Pauline in particular, perhaps staggering a bit, and then heading back to the kitchen, as I so often watched her do, to set the world right with the yeast of labor that enabled her to rise again and again.
As my dad says, she didn’t talk much about her early losses and difficulties. But there is one story that stands out still in his memory. Years after it happened she spoke to her sons of helping with the farm work during harvest in the days before tractors, perhaps to impress on them how easy they had it by comparison. Her job was to run the grain header, which was pushed from the rear by four to six horses, with the operator on a platform above the steering wheel behind the horses. The “steering wheel” was a lever grasped and maneuvered between the thighs of the operator—in this case my sturdy but not-very-long-of-leg grandmother—who told of the painful bruises and raw chafing on her inner thighs. Steering was done with the legs to keep the hands free for managing the reins, and the job required attention to multiple tasks at once so as not to miss any of the precious grain. Here is a graphically contradictory echo of the Psalm 126 promise—she harvested, not in joy, but in pain. For some reason she was comfortable sharing this surprisingly intimate story of a physical hurt with her young sons, but avoided speaking of emotional pain, a pattern of emotional repression and somatic expression that repeated for the rest of her life.
Five years after the ill-conceived union with Margaret, my great grandfather Daniel found another marriage prospect, and by all accounts a better one, so on Valentine’s Day in 1930, Pauline, still living at home, got another stepmother, 62-year-old Gertrude Reich. They would have shared a home for over three years, and it seems this alliance was more amicable. Grandsons who later came to stay with Groszvater Daniel and Groszmutter Gertrude describe her as “a grand and good lady” and “a wonderful cook.” Perhaps she was a welcome counterbalance to her new husband. My dad characterizes Daniel as “an austere soul,” recalling that “no one was allowed to talk or laugh at the table.” He remembers that as the explanation for why his Uncle Art, the youngest of the Sprenger kids, always ate wordlessly, hunched over his plate.
Still, for Pauline, accommodating her father’s new wife, sharing living spaces and negotiating routines and responsibilities would almost certainly have been an adjustment—and by then she was likely too old to relate to Gertrude as a stepmother—although I imagine perhaps some kindly nurturing and sharing of the household burdens may have been welcome. At almost 25, I suspect Pauline was also aware of dancing near the imaginary line between being a marriageable young woman and eine alte Jungfer, an “old maid” or “spinster.”
As I mentioned at the beginning, one of the earliest photographs I’ve seen of my Grandma is on her wedding day on September 23, 1933, a week before her 28th birthday, standing outside on a breezy day in a plain-as-salt white dress and black shoes that look a little tight. In my imagination this is the juncture at which she was conjured up out of thin air in her rightful place next to my Grandpa Henry, but excavating deeply enough to uncover the back story has added much more emotional texture and spiritual dimension to my conscious awareness of Pauline than I could have imagined possible. She has been my grandma since 1959, but I was not ready until now to reckon with the half-century of living that happened before she entered my universe, nor to grapple with how her death increased my own wordless sorrow.
How in the 70,000+ square miles of great rolling plains and glacial potholes of the North Dakota prairie, I marvel, could two persons so pivotal to my own story cross paths, especially given their lack of proximity? Henry and Pauline grew up nearly 200 miles apart—more than half the length of the state—which in those days was quite a distance. Truly their meeting seems improbable.
The sow with tears theme fits here too, because it was pain and illness that dug the furrows and planted the first seeds. In the early 1930s, Henry Weigelt was in the hospital in Fargo—about 200 miles from home—with crippling rheumatoid arthritis at age 27 or so. In a bed near him was a young fellow about his age named August Sprenger, who was closer to 300 miles from home. I don’t know why Grandma Pauline’s next older brother was in the hospital, but I am grateful that after they’d gotten to know each other a bit, August said to Henry Weigelt, “Say! I have a sister back home you need to meet.”
I am always compelled by these sacred pinpoints upon which pivot the chancy likelihood of one’s own existence. And upon such pinheads I suspect angels dance and maybe even hoot and giggle. I don’t know any details of my grandparents’ courtship. I only know they found each other, and I have every reason to believe they were both deeply, if quietly, grateful for Divine Providence. I know I am.
HENRY, HENRY, HENRY
I love that my grandparents found each other against the odds. Decades after their marriage during the Great Depression, on September 23, 1933, and years after raising three sons of her own, Pauline still doodled her husband’s name on scratch paper and in cookbooks. Henry. Henry Weigelt. Henry F. Weigelt. And Mrs. Henry Weigelt. This is to me the dearest little clue to how glad and grateful she felt to have finally found someone with whom to make her own family. That, and my iconic memory of them taking a nap side by side on a double bed in their tiny farmhouse bedroom under a patchwork quilt made from heavy, dark fabrics like Grandpa’s old suits—more practical than beautiful—still holding hands, at least in private, after more than three decades of marriage. Peeking in at them surreptitiously, I felt as safe and rooted as I can ever recall feeling, knowing this simple, sturdy, quiet, earthy love was part of their legacy to me.
My grandparents started late and set a different pace than their own parents, which must have been a relief, especially to Grandma. She had three sons in seven years—four years between Morris and Allen, and three between Allen and Lewis. I’ve heard she was disappointed not to have had at least one daughter for company and help in the house, but thank goodness Uncle Lewis was willing to be her sidekick in the kitchen, and thanks to that, I still get Pfeffernüsse cookies from her recipe every Christmas.
Still, there were hardships, as is inescapable in farm life. They picked a challenging time economically to be getting started, and they lived a couple of different places, working for others, before they moved in late 1938 to the farm I remember and love, where Lewis and his wife Judy still live. The land had been homesteaded by Henry’s parents, Ludwig and Annie Weigelt, but, as was common during the Depression, the Federal Land Bank foreclosed on the loan. Henry found a way to rent the farm with an option to buy, and through hard work and astute management, he was able to purchase the land back from the Federal Land Bank for $2,500.
As Henry and Pauline were starting to get settled on the farm—between the births of their second and third sons—Grandma’s father Daniel died in August of 1940 at age 69. By then he had 40 grandchildren, of whom my father was one. Dad was a few months shy of turning six and recalls feeling overwhelmed and scared at the large gathering. And no wonder! Daniel’s obituary says, “The church building was unable to hold the large number of friends who gathered that day to attend the funeral.” Grandma would have been about to turn 35 at this major life transition point. In a family photo taken at the time, the siblings are conveniently posed with the three oldest—born in Bessarabia—in the front row in birth order, and the four American-born siblings also in birth order in the back. Because of this research, I am more keenly aware of the names of the five who are missing. Pauline is the only one with a slight suggestion of a smile.
Farming is a gamble requiring optimism, realism, faith and obstinance. Drought, heatwaves, hail, frigid winters when you have to dig a tunnel to the barn to milk the cows, the vagaries of crop and milk prices, all of these were, to my grandparents, familiar but persistent stressors. All chores had to get done, all hands were needed, and a smaller family meant fewer hands. I grew up watching Grandma circle here and there as necessary between kitchen, garden, milk barn, hog barn, chicken coops, granary and fields. I saw her in dresses in the house and overalls in the barn.
I imagine I have Pauline in part to thank that my father in turn raised me without prescribed gender roles or limitations. And there are some tender spots to be found in the story here, too, as it was passed down to me. Her sons, I think, were a bit embarrassed by their mother. They did not perceive her as pretty or feminine. There are jokes about her size and her sturdy footwear. My dad told me when I was a young girl, in an almost apologetic way, that I would “never be pretty, because you are a Weigelt.” But, he assured me, I could hope to be a beautiful person. Nowhere in Pauline’s history do I see a space in which she might have had the luxury or even a model for cultivating feminine charms and aspirations toward beauty. From nearly the very beginning of her life, practicality, functionality and necessity would have been valued more highly than beauty.
As a child I did not measure my Grandma against any external standards. As far as I knew, she was the epitome of what a grandmother should be. She loved me in a way no one else seemed to or could after my mother died in 1962. And I did not know at the time it was because she understood my sorrow better than anyone else in my life.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DECISION
I perfected the art of the sideways gaze in part because my Grandma Pauline did not prefer to be directly regarded with the intensity of my childish curiosity—it made her nervous, she said. I learned a lot about her by watching out of the corner of my eye. It occurs to me now I have learned to take a similarly oblique approach to looking at my own history, especially the most painful parts. That is clearly part of this family legacy, passed down to me through multiple generations, including my father. Only recently did he reveal his only frame of reference for how to handle grief when his wife died at 28 was gleaned from his experiences on the farm with livestock. You cut your losses and moved on. No sense dwelling on what can’t be changed. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
Metabolizing undigested grief has been a significant focus of my inner work over the last twenty years, although I did not have the words for it until recently. The more grief I consciously digest, the less my body needs to speak the language of my ancestors—telling the saddest stories in backaches, stomachaches, compromised immunity, canker sores, constipation, anxiety, fatigue, obesity, insomnia, depression, addiction.
I composed nearly this entire narrative—including the ending—before circling back to enter the most potent portal where Grandma’s sorrows and mine commingle so dangerously. I wrote the redemptive portions first, as is my way.
When my mom Pat became ill in early 1962 while pregnant with my sister Faye Anne, we lived in Connecticut nearly 1,400 miles from my mom’s parents in Minnesota and 1,700 miles from my dad’s in North Dakota. After the baby was born in mid-April, when it quickly became clear my mom had an inoperable and fatal tumor, major decisions had to be confronted.
My Somerville grandparents had the means to travel and be part of the final discussions. The Weigelts were not so fortunate. From a distance Pauline and Henry made the same selfless offer the Somervilles did: rather than split up the little girls, what if they came to live with one or the other set of grandparents? I don’t envy anyone this wrenching decision and I refuse to second-guess it. Our parents saw drawbacks, limitations and hazards to having either set of parents—who were all in their mid- to late 50s—take over our long-term rearing. In the end, Dad did not see how he could possibly handle losing all of us at once, so my parents decided I would stay with him and they accepted my Uncle Ken and Aunt Masue’s offer to adopt newborn Faye Anne. Both sets of grandparents, I believe, struggled with understanding and accepting the final decision.
No one could have anticipated that Masue would be afraid to let any of us see Faye Anne in the years to come, so Pauline never got to meet her second granddaughter, who was nine when Grandma died in 1971. Only now, as I gather the threads of Pauline’s history of loss and grief, can I properly understand just how grievous this must have been for her. Only recently did I learn that Pauline never forgave my Dad for splitting us up. And when I asked my sister if she’d ever heard this, she shared that many years later, on her own deathbed, her adoptive mother Masue asked Faye Anne’s forgiveness for never letting her meet her grandmother Pauline. This unspoken sorrow and misunderstanding still lives in our bellies and bones, the women who were once little girls whose futures hung on a decision made in a time of unbearable anguish.
There must have been so many emotional echos caroming around in Grandma’s heart in 1962. My mother’s exploratory surgery that revealed no reason for hope, as Pauline’s own mother’s trip to Bismarck had some 40 years earlier. The death of a young mother leaving small children behind, as her sister Maria’s had in 1924. The loss of her own siblings. These factors would have influenced her dismay at the decision. How, she must have wondered, could you choose to split up the two little girls when she would have been so glad to take them both?
LIGHTNING AS A TALISMAN
This is the complex emotional atmosphere in which I landed in June of 1962 after my mother’s death. My infant sister had already been whisked away to her new home in Oregon in May. My own emotions must have been wildly confused, my insecurities rampant. Everything had changed suddenly. I traveled with my Dad to Minnesota for my mom’s memorial service in her home church in Brainerd. No one remembers whether I actually attended the service. I recall orange sherbet ice cream, the Mississippi River home where my Somerville grandparents lived, and scattershot impressions of the bewildering emotions of my caregivers. Then I was taken to the farm in North Dakota to stay while my dad left on a multi-week “grief tour” by bus to visit college and seminary friends who might help him process his loss and prepare to move on.
It would be many years before I understood just how devastating and heartbreaking the spring of 1962 must have been in our family. Grandma’s brother John died at 53 on May 3. Then, on May 31, my grandpa’s brother Bill died of heart failure at 57. Next, on June 4, my 28-year-old mother died. In barely a month, three close family members died “before their time,” leaving a haphazardly plowed field of grief. Sow with tears.
Staying with Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Lewis for over a month after my mom died—undoubtedly mystified and stricken by the sudden disappearance of my mom, dad and new sister—I must have leaned heavily on Grandma Pauline’s presence for solace and orientation. I imagine this is when she became embedded in my heart as a lodestone, that compass magnet to guide mariners, literally a way-stone. Not all iron oxide is magnetized like this; it’s speculated that a cataclysmic event such as a lightning strike is what causes the magnetism. As a metaphor, it’s close to perfect. For years lightning has been one of my symbolic amulets. I have lived virtually my entire life knowing lightning can strike at any moment. I also know you can live through a strike, and it can make a compass of what’s left.
Uncle Lewis, who was 20 at the time of my mom’s death, saved a story for me from my stay on the farm in June of 1962. One day I had crawled up on the chair by the telephone, the one Grandma leaned her foot upon while eavesdropping on party-line phone calls. He found me there and asked what I was doing. “I don’t feel good and I need to call my daddy,” I told him. Trying to jolly me up and calm me down, he assured me being sick was nothing to worry about. I’d feel better in no time. “Well,” I told him poignantly, “My mommy got sick and she didn’t get better.” I am grateful for this window into my own distress during that tumultuous time.
I would be back on the farm again at Christmas that year as my Dad and I made strategic visits to first the Somervilles and then the Weigelts. I could not have understood what was happening. At a week or two away from turning four, I would have sensed but not known what to make of the strange, prickly tensions and still-raw sorrows ricocheting around the rooms as he came seeking a blessing. He’d met someone—a woman from New Jersey named Eula-Adine Winget—and hoped to remarry. What did they think? Grandma’s mind might have wildly teeter-tottered between memories of the dreaded Margaret Penkendorf and the beloved Gertrude Reich.
The Weigelts would not get to meet their new daughter-in-law Eula-Adine until after the wedding, the logistics and economics of the farming life again preventing them from being present at major turning points in Morris’s life.
Although I didn’t put the pieces together until just a few years back, I was on the farm again for an extended stay when they married the following June, in 1963. I was puzzled by why I couldn’t remember anything about the wedding, wondering if I had blocked the memories. When I asked, I learned there were a variety of reasons it was more convenient for me to stay for a bit with each set of grandparents. My dad’s middle brother, Uncle Allen, was able to get a pass from the military and fly with me to Minnesota to visit the Somervilles, who in turn drove me 320 miles to the farm in North Dakota. As far as I know, this may have been the last time these two couples saw each other, the end of an era of being related by marriage a scant seven years.
A letter preserved from that time offers a little hint as to how Pauline felt about having me around in the summer of 1963: “Sure is quiet around here now with Marva Lee gone.” I cry as I type this. After my mom died, my grandma offered something I had a hard time accessing elsewhere—a dependable sense of being treasured, of legitimacy and guaranteed belonging. I knew in my very cells how she felt about me. It was as sure as her daily bread rising under embroidered tea towels in the warmth of her kitchen. Little else in my life felt as certain as that after 1962.
As I parallel my narrative with Grandma’s all these many years after the fact, with the benefit of deeper wisdom and maturity, and as I am but six years short of being the same age as Pauline was when she died, I am in a pivotal position to relate to both of us as little girls, young women, maturing memory-keepers, and more deeply than ever, as kinswomen. While working on this project, I’ve had to pause often, and in those pauses I peeled potatoes, cooked, washed dishes, did laundry, sang hymns she loved, spoke the names of her loved ones, conjured up the ghosts of our dead. The sorrow is no less potent for the passage of time. In fact, some of it I am encountering more directly and rawly than ever before. I do this for both of us.
Her losses and mine converge much as the Heart River in North Dakota near where she was born pours into the Missouri River near which I was born. It all gathers in my emotional sea and I realize it’s possible I am feeling for both of us, metabolizing the sorrow she had no permissible way to express. I could not possibly have understood how much we had in common. But my heart knew. And now I know why.
SOMETHING I THREW TOGETHER
So, I think, little wonder the grandma I recall was at times a woman of sorrow and few words—a tear-sower. But she was also a woman of practical jokes and barely-repressed, snorting mirth, not to mention probably millions of cookies and thousands of loaves of bread, caramel rolls and küchen, and let’s just say, roughly—with a minimum of three meals a day (and not counting field lunches) from about 16 when Pauline’s mother Justina fell ill until close to her own death fifty years later at 66—she must have cooked something like at least 54,000 meals.
Pauline is remembered for her industry, her hospitality, her humor, and her pain. Depending on whom you ask, you’ll hear she could work circles around “any man” or “ten men.” She was famous for her cooking and baking, often cramming the table with platters and bowls brimming with meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables from her own garden, gutschmecksel (German slang for a “good tasting” salad with fruit, whipped cream, mini-marshmallows and such), three kinds of pickles, freshly-baked bread with just-churned butter and homemade jam, and of course, dessert, and then describing the feast with a twinkle in her squinty blue-gray eyes, as “just something I threw together.” When the meal was ready, she’d yell out the same phrase bellowed in the barn twice a day before milking—“Get in your stalls!” At the end my Grandpa Henry would lean back and say, with a twinkle in his own eyes, “Why, I filled up on those few bites just like I’d had a big meal!”
As a child I got confused a little by the humor as well as by how many meals there were a day—coffee and a bite of something before morning milking; a full breakfast after; the main dinner at noon; often a “lunch” in mid-afternoon, especially during harvest time; an evening supper; and later, after all the dishes were done, Grandma would get out pails of ice cream and an assortment of cookies. She even put plates of chocolate chip cookies on the breakfast table. I often ate far too much and regretted it, especially in the early years right after my mom died, when I was using food perhaps the same way Grandma did, as a love substitute, distress-damper and feeling-muffler, which invariably backfired on me.
Pauline, as many people remember and remark, knew how to get silly and loved humorous stories and jokes, pranks and puns. She showed up at the new pastor’s house with freshly-butchered poultry, declaring she had “some chickens who want to enter the ministry.” She put on a cancan slip over her dress and posed in the yard for a photo. She mimicked and poked fun, tricked and snickered, her whole body convulsing with what looked like mirth. And yet, as a little girl I could still sense behind the comedy the flickering, ghostly shadows of unspoken grief and unnamed pain, both emotional and physical. Sitting near her and feeling the telltale shaking, I learned to check her face, because she was as apt to be crying as laughing. Her emotions were often mixed and even contradictory.
I remember standing on a chair next to the counter drying dishes while she washed frenetically, probably exhausted and ready to get as fast as possible to the brief rest period that everyone took after dinner. I tried to hand back a plate, pointing out she’d missed a spot. As a sensitive child, I was thoroughly flummoxed by her response, which I now understand was probably an incongruent mix of anger and shame with a thin veneer of humor. In a tone midway between joke and jibe, she roughly pushed my hand and the proffered plate back to me with this memorable retort: “The wiper is supposed to get off what the washer missed.” And that, as best I can tell, is what I’m still trying to do at a psychospiritual level half a century later.
THE NAMELESS WEIGHT
To me my grandma was spectacularly singular and special, but I don’t think she ever felt that way, and understandably so. As the ninth of twelve children and the one woman left to tend first her father and brothers and then her husband and sons, it is little wonder she was humble and self-effacing, needy, strong, hungry, busy, funny, sad, stubborn, and mostly silent about her losses and disappointments. The thing I knew as a little girl, and even more so now as a woman nearing the age at which my beloved grandmother died, is that her hidden hurts were nonetheless quite palpable to me. Her silence did not spare her descendants. It simply gave us a load to carry that had no name.
I pause to observe here that most of my memories of Grandma—except for when I visited in June of 1962 and 1963 by myself at ages 3 and 4—were when she was hustling and bustling to accommodate and entertain a houseful of company. I wonder about Pauline in between. Did we mostly see her “company” face? I gather from stories and comments she was probably quite lonely on the farm, especially as the men spent so much time out doing the heavy farm labor while she did the cooking, cleaning, gardening, laundry, and chicken chores by herself. I know the sight of the dust cloud from the mail person’s vehicle stopping by the mailbox an eighth of a mile away was a major social highlight of the day, kindling a little flame of anticipation that someone may have written with news. I also know going to the Church of the Nazarene six miles southeast in Fessenden on Sundays and Wednesdays was a priority and a primary source of community.
In the meantime, her best bet for day to day connectivity was the dial telephone on an eight-party line that replaced the old “crank and holler” phone by the mid-1950s. Back then I think it was more or less assumed that any conversation might be eavesdropped upon by anyone on the line. A subsidiary listener might even suddenly interject an opinion or exclamation. It was in some regards the social media platform of the day, the freshest source of news both bad and good, a way to know—across the distances between rural neighbors—who might need help and support.
Here’s my favorite example. The day my dad called home to tell his mom his young wife had died, Grandma was home alone. Grandpa Henry was out of state at his brother Bill‘s funeral. Her youngest son Lewis was in town. When the call came in, Inez Wiese was listening in. As soon as Pauline hung up, Inez called another neighbor, Elvina, and they agreed Pauline should not be alone. Since Inez’s husband had gone to town with their car, she fired up the old truck used to haul water and roared over to pick up Elvina. Lewis remembers arriving home at noon to find the water truck outside the house and the three women inside grieving the death of my 28-year-old mom. In times of tragedy, the women gathered.
Still, I imagine Pauline was often lonely, maybe not lonely for company, but a longing for likeminded companionship and tender solicitude and nurturing, as she had been since age 11 when her oldest sister Mathilda left home to marry in 1916…and again when her grandmother Sprenger died the next year…and then, when her only other sister Maria left home to get married in 1922, just as their mother became bedridden, leaving Pauline as primary caregiver for Justina and three younger brothers…and after both Justina and Maria died within two months of one another in 1924, Pauline was increasingly alone, lonely, and without a confidante. Marrying Henry and having her own family would have been a blessing and a solace, but her isolation was still quite profound, at least emotionally.
This is what I as a little girl sensed in her, an unspoken hunger that her tableful of delicious food could never fill. I’m not sure how she would feel about me finding words for the weight and the hunger all these years later. Shy, embarrassed, reluctant, self-conscious. Conflicted. Secretly relieved?
Perhaps, I find myself speculating, Pauline and I are more alike than different, and no one in the family knew quite what to do with either of us.
STIRRING THE MEMORY POT
Sifting and sorting through old sense memories as if shuffling a stack of mental photos, I encounter evidence in Pauline of a certain tension, almost an armoring. She was stout, fleshy and rounded, yet not soft, relaxed or yielding. There was almost a rigidity, as if she were locked in an invisible suit of armor. You could see it in the way she sat on the couch, how she held her purse, the way she carried the scrap bucket to the chickens, her gait as she walked or climbed stairs, and her stiff posture even when stretched out on the bed to rest. She couldn’t touch her toes from a standing position. She couldn’t jump and get both feet off the ground at the same time. Try as I might to snuggle up to her, she was not particularly cozy or nurturing. There was a sense of remoteness and protection, perhaps even a self-conscious awkwardness.
It’s harder for me to access clear memories of her voice, but what I seem to recall is a sense of strain, hoarseness, or rustiness, a lack of range in pitch and tone, and a minimum of subtlety and shading in inflection. Thinking of her calling me in from across the farmyard—Mar-va Lee!—there was perhaps also a challenge with sustaining volume and projection; her voice would almost seem to break at times. And, all told, it was far closer to harsh than to soothing. I don’t remember her being a good singer. All this adds up to what I now reinterpret as a lack of prosody—that pleasant variability in vocal rhythm and intonation that the ear and nervous system perceive similarly to someone reading a poem, those gently variable vocal patterns that let children (and adults) know the person speaking is well-regulated and safe.
And then there was her face. I found her at times quite hard to read, like she was wearing a mask. There could be a noticeable flatness and lack of expression. She had a wonderful grin and a twinkle in her eyes when she was in a playful mood, but her day-to-day smile played at the corners of her mouth rather than taking over her face. I also remember something on the order of involuntary grimaces and other expressions that may well have signaled pain, but whether that was emotional or physical in origin—or perhaps both at once—is impossible to say.
I awakened from a deep sleep very early in the morning to write this—at what on the farm was close to time for morning milking. I am surprised by the richness of detail I find when I employ the long-handled spoon of recall to reach to the bottom of my stockpot of memories. I obviously paid quite close attention to her. She has been gone since 1971, but not at all forgotten. After my mom died, Pauline was the kinswoman I knew the best and saw the most, although that was usually only once a year. I hope she had some sense of how much I needed her and watched her with eyes of love.
As best I can tell, with the benefit of historical hindsight, my great grandmother, Justina Pahl Sprenger, sowed a fair amount of sadness in her abbreviated life and some of her children inevitably harvested the crop and sowed their own. My great grandfather, Daniel Sprenger, although well respected, seems to have had an iron hand without the grace of a velvet glove. The habit and enforcement of repression, of discouraging laughter and talking at the table, of using hard work as the antidote to emotional pain, of weathering adversity without words, would eventually yield a joyless harvest.
With the exception of Maria, who was less than a year old when they immigrated and who died at 22, there is a marked difference in the pattern of the Sprenger kids born in Bessarabia who made it to adulthood and were gone from home by the time their mother died. Christ, Mathilda and Adolph all married in their early to mid-twenties, had large families of 11-14 children, and lived to 76, 90 and 85.
The outcomes for the five American-born Sprengers still living at home when their mother became ill tell a different story. Generally speaking, these offspring were slow to leave the nest, late to marry, and had significantly smaller families than the one into which they were born. Three died relatively young: Daniel at 22, John at 53, Pauline at 66. John, who was 13 when his mom got sick and 15 when she died, is remembered as struggling with depression and having difficulty coping with the demands of adult life. John did not marry until he was 37, then quickly started a family, as if making up for lost time. He died just shy of 16 years of marriage after a brief illness signaled by severe headaches, leaving behind a wife and five children ages 1 to 12.
Of that generation of Sprengers, only August left North Dakota. His biography shows a pattern of moving fairly often, trying different jobs and enterprises, and struggling to find his niche. I am fascinated that the first child born in the new country turned out to be a wanderer. Of these post-immigration children, Arthur, the youngest, who stayed on the home place for most of his life and perhaps in some respects had the least upheaval and the greatest support, lived the longest of the five, to the relatively ripe age of 87.
I suspect, as I learn more about intergenerational trauma and epigenetic legacy, that I too—along with other descendants—still reap those old seeds of disappointment, unexpressed distress, and uncomposted sorrows. Prolonged exposure to adversity is now increasingly well understood as having a causal relationship to chronic illness of the sorts that Grandma experienced, as well as to mental health challenges like depression and addiction.
I remember Grandma regularly using stomach remedies—some kind of wintergreen digestive syrup taken with a spoonful of sugar, and rolls and rolls of Tums and Rolaids—as well as daily application of liniments and rubs like Mentholatum. She braided her hair and wrapped it tightly around her head, bound herself up in layers of clothes, stout hose and sturdy shoes. She tried every whichaway to hold herself in and soothe her discomfort. Modern trauma theory helps me add a dimension to my understanding. The titles and subtitles of books recently added to my library tell an interesting tale: The body keeps the score (van der Kolk); how your biography becomes your biology (Nakazawa); when the body says no: the hidden cost of stress (Maté).
“Certain traits—otherwise known as coping styles—magnify the risk for illness by increasing the likelihood of chronic stress,” writes Gabor Maté. “Common to them all is a diminished capacity for emotional communication. Emotional experiences are translated into potentially damaging biological events when human beings are prevented from learning how to express their feelings effectively. That learning occurs—or fails to occur—during childhood. The way people grow up shapes their relationship with their own bodies and psyches.”
As best I can tell, Pauline’s body started saying no in the 1940s. She and Grandpa both regularly sought help from the local Hexenschüss, a literal German word for witch and the family’s colloquial term for chiropractor. She also traveled 80 miles round trip to consult occasionally with an alternative healthcare person—perhaps an iridologist—who would look into her eyes and make recommendations for treatment. Lewis recalls she had a hysterectomy in the 1940s. My dad remembers her having a couple more surgeries in the 1950s when he was in college, one for gall bladder.
Her letters leave little clues: “I am not much good for traveling…I always get sick to travel…I haven’t been go anywheres because I still have a bad cold and awful cough and my chest is sore to wish you was here to wash the dishes for me.” Feeling sick, feeling “tough,” suffering aches and pains, having a bellyache, all of these seemed to me to be part of who my grandma was, part of the natural landscape of her life. Something in her was broken and in pain. My dad has spoken of this over the years as seeming to him and others like some form of hypochondria. According to him she could summon up chest pains on demand when thwarted, up to and including a trip to the hospital. While I can certainly understand why it looked like that to him and to others, and while she may indeed have utilized symptoms to manipulate others, I think it highly likely she also suffered some form of stress-triggered autoimmune disorder such as fibromyalgia, something understood much better now, but which back then might have looked like someone crying wolf again and again.
After a while, I imagine some of those close to her probably tuned out and minimized her physical complaints, right up until the point she was diagnosed with a rapidly-metastasizing cancer that infiltrated the very marrow of her bones in 1971. The daughter of one of Grandma’s local friends recalls: “About your grandma being hypochondriac, I remember my Mom telling me some didn’t quite believe she was having so much pain. Mom said, ‘I don’t have pain and I believe Pauline really is having bad pain.’ My folks took your grandmother to Minneapolis shortly after that to find out she had bone cancer. Ask anyone with bone cancer, her pain was real.” Like her mother before her, and mine, Pauline was told there was nothing to be done to prolong her life, and she went home to wait for death.
I LOVE ALL THE TIME
Pauline was 66 when she died. In a little notebook I carried around in 6th and 7th grade in case inspiration for a poem needed to be written down, Grandma scribbled a note not long before she died. At the time I don’t think I could bear to take in the implications, but now I’m so glad I have it: “Goodbye till we meet again but who knows when that will be we never know what’s ahead of us. We love you all. I love little I love big I love all the time no matter how big you are.” I clearly remember standing beside her that day as she thought and wrote.
Grandma and Grandpa moved off the farm and into town in 1969, to a little house by the railroad tracks. It discombobulated me to see her in the new context, inexplicably reduced and diminished. I remember doing the classic penny-on-the-railroad-track trick and waiting for the train to pass so I could go looking for the penny. I’m pretty sure I still have that flattened and distorted penny somewhere among my treasures. Now it seems like a symbol of how I secretly felt as my kinswoman lay dying. The last time I saw her was in the summer of 1971. She was confined to bed at home by then, and it seemed odd, upside-down, and profoundly distressing to witness my grandma so weak and still. In the past, even when she felt poorly, she kept moving. If nothing else, she’d sew aprons or do some mending while resting. Her energy had always been palpable, restless, almost frenetic. This time it was clear she hadn’t the strength or will to sustain her coping props of keeping busy, providing nourishment, helping, and joking.
My last remembered conversation with her was, in my recollection after the fact, a private rite of passage. We were alone in her bedroom and I was next to the bed, the afternoon sunlight muted by one of those yellowing roller shades on a spring-loaded wooden rod, so startling when tugged on by a curious child, so that ever after the rapid recoil of the shade feels inherent in the window dressing itself. I had just gotten my first bra earlier that summer, and Pauline noticed. I can’t remember at all what we were talking about, but she suddenly reached up and put her whole hand on one of my nascent and tender breast-buds through shirt and padded training bra. “What do you want to wear one of them things for?” she demanded in her gruff voice.
That’s all I remember. My grandma’s earthy, intimate gesture. The last recollected words, common as Dakota dirt. A backhanded acknowledgment of my impending womanhood. Perhaps a caution not to get too caught in the trap of female restraint, as she herself often wore a man’s ribbed, sleeveless undershirt instead of a bra in the years I knew her. I was thoroughly embarrassed, of course, and self-conscious, but there was something else—a bittersweet wash of unspoken emotion—the whole-body sense of familiarity—knowing and being known by someone who felt free to touch me in that way. As a mother might.
I’ve belatedly discovered some puzzle pieces lying around for almost 50 years waiting for me to put them together. After visiting my Grandma Pauline for the last time in the summer of 1971, I got to go for a fairly rare visit with my Somerville grandparents in Minnesota. I presume they had been briefed by my dad that Grandma Weigelt did not have long to live. In the almost ten years since our mother’s death, I had never seen my sister Faye Anne again. That summer, thanks to some subterfuge and collusion between my Uncle Ken and Grandma Somerville, and obviously against her adoptive mother’s preferences, Faye Anne and I got to meet. As best I can understand, Masue feared that if we ever saw Faye Anne again, we would try to take her back.
It’s hard to know what all went on behind the scenes to make this possible, but once Grandma Norva got the two sisters back together again, she spiffed us up and headed off with us to a professional portrait photographer. With the benefit of hindsight, I strongly suspect part of her agenda was to make sure that Grandma Weigelt got to see the picture of her granddaughters together before she died. I later remember seeing this photograph at my Weigelt grandparents’ home—perhaps even when we went back for Grandma’s funeral—but never knew how it got there, and didn’t ask, because by then I had been conditioned to keep silence on the topic of the earlier part of my life.
What a year 1971 must have been for me—my little brother was born, my grandma was dying, and I finally got to see my little sister again—the year I was 12 and biologically became a young woman, the year an invisible torch passed from my grandmother’s hand to mine.
In recent years I’ve noticed a recurring pattern. Sometime in the fall, often in October, I’ve had catastrophic back problems, usually my lower back. My spine has been known to go out of alignment so severely I cannot get comfortable in any position. I can’t stand up straight or sit without pain or even find ease in a reclining position. In wondering if there is a historical origin for this sudden loss of support in pelvis and hips, I’ve speculated it might date to 1965 when we moved several times and I went to multiple schools in the fall of the year. I never thought until just now that October of 1971 is just as likely a culprit for this seasonal somatic expression of distress and an acting out of the loss of fundamental support.
I remember we were already on our way to North Dakota by car in early October, having heard that Grandma was nearing the end of her life. I recall the booth at the 4B’s restaurant in Miles City, Montana where we’d stopped for breakfast—the garishly decorated interior, the cheeriness of the waitresses, the unnatural glare of the overhead lights as I watched my father walk back from the phone booth. I could tell by his face and his posture before he even said the words. “She’s gone.”
Recounting this narrative at 60, I cry more now than I may ever have felt free to before, acknowledging a loss so fundamental as to kick out a cornerstone of my already-tilted foundation. The person most likely to have understood how that felt for me is the person who died when I was 12, and whose own grandmother also died when she was a 12-year-old girl like me. My grandma would have understood, but she was gone.
ECHOES OF DISTRESS
Perhaps it is from around this time in our lives, in the aftermath of Grandma’s death, that I can fit a memory of feeling frustrated with my dad, Pauline’s oldest son. I knew he was sad, and with good reason, but he also seemed locked up in logic and a steel restraint as tight as any bank vault. “It’s okay to cry,” I remember telling him earnestly, hoping to find the combination to the lock that would let us grieve together.
Our temperaments have long been markedly divergent, my dad’s and mine, and I’ve wondered sometimes if I may symbolize to him something like a ticking emotional time-bomb—my sensitivity, empathy, and emotional expressiveness a potential danger to his preferred coping style. In marching on stoically after his wife’s death, letting go reluctantly of an infant daughter, boxing up the life we knew and moving on—no longer mentioning the names of the missing—Morris was following in his mother’s footsteps. Being left with a tender-hearted three-year-old in his care might have been a comfort, but I am aware I was also perhaps a potent reminder and a possible risk to his survival strategy.
Years later we compared our Myers-Briggs types and both said aha for our own unique reasons. The only trait we share is our introversion. Every other aspect of how we prefer to gather information, how we perceive and process, and how we organize our lives, are opposite. “You people drive me crazy,” I remember him saying at the time in a playful manner, and while I took that in the spirit I believe it was meant, I also walked away having sympathy for both of us and a new understanding of why we were so functionally mismatched for grieving our shared losses together. For the sake of survival and connection, I tried very hard to accommodate myself to his preferences, but that only ended up deepening my confused sense of lost identity. I lost my mother, my sister, the family I had known, and then, in trying to meet expectations in my new family, I lost myself.
As I’ve walked compassionately through Pauline’s history, I’ve heard numerous parallel reverberations and echoes of distress across the generations: migrations, families separated by great distances, homesickness, early deaths, mothers who became ill and did not recover, young children left motherless, work as the antidote to sadness, silence as the response to loss, and a functional difficulty with digesting sorrow.
As I study more and more about how trauma is passed along, I understand that revisiting and exploring more deeply in each of my grandparents’ and parents’ stories as I have done here with Pauline will help me understand my own challenging trajectory. “Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution,” writes Mark Wolynn in It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. “That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain.”
As I speculated earlier, perhaps my kinswoman and I had more in common than we would ever get the opportunity to discover in person. Still, I feel her with me in a great many ways: not being able to cook small quantities of anything, showing people you care by tending the kitchen as a center of the universe, being tenderhearted, and looking quite a bit like her as I age.
Not altogether surprisingly, I started feeling a little “tough” while working on this project. My old back and neck problems flared up and I had several different permutations of digestive discomfort. Then I manifested symptoms of a virus that affected my throat, which suddenly reminded me of getting laryngitis from time to time as a child and young adult—literally losing my ability to speak.
Slathering Vick’s VapoRub on my neck and chest, I had a sudden series of teary flashbacks from across more than half a century—sights, scents, touch, sense memories—of Grandma Pauline and my dad. I realize I have never been without a jar of mentholated ointment in my medicine chest in my entire life. In my mind’s eye I can see the familiar blue Vick’s jar on my dad’s nightstand or the green Mentholatum tub on my grandma’s dresser. After my mom died, I think menthol became the signature scent of love.
As I dug up these historical details, I felt mental, physical and emotional distress. In the past this would have sent me running for distraction, but this time I encouraged myself to face the facts and feelings together—not just my own, but those of previous generations. As I held presence for my own distress—and for our family’s collective grief—I also felt deepening understanding, compassion and resolution.
I relate a great deal to something else Mark Wolynn says in the book: “In many ways, healing from trauma is akin to creating a poem. Both require the right timing, the right words, and the right image. When these elements align, something meaningful is set into motion that can be felt in the body.”
Remember the little poem notebook I mentioned carrying around in the early 1970s? That would be one of my saving graces, the irresistible impulse to understand myself and find words to creatively capture and convey my feelings and experiences, even when it did not feel welcome or safe to speak or feel out loud.
For whatever combination of mysterious factors come into play here, I feel a purposefulness in who I am and how I navigate the task of recovery. I am the daughter of these silent and sometime sorrowful souls, and I am compelled to speak so we all may heal.
What I couldn’t have understood while I was growing up—nor would I be capable of fathoming for many decades—was that my grandmother’s and father’s unspoken passing on of the code of silence around loss and grief would have a profound effect on the weight of the wordless load I bore. Only now do I begin to grasp that I carried not only my own pain, but a portion of theirs, and not just in my own psyche, but deep in my biology.
I always knew my mom had died and I’d had a sister who’d been given away, but I interpreted all the silence on these topics to mean they must be of little actual consequence and I had obviously overinflated their significance in the privacy of my heart. I eventually convinced myself it must be no big deal and shouldn’t even matter.
By the time I figured out otherwise at 36, I was deep in the throes of destructive addictions which began at a very young age as a way to self-medicate what I now know were post-traumatic stress symptoms and complicated grief. On my first visit to my therapist in 1995, I mentioned these losses in a casually off-handed manner. “I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything,” I remember saying self-consciously and a bit warily, “but my mom died when I was three-and-a-half.”
Saying those words aloud 33 years after the fact would be the beginning of a bumpy healing journey to recover from an enormous, but mostly invisible emotional disability. When my therapist later said, with tears in her eyes, “What happened to you was a tragedy,” I sat in mute skepticism. Surely she was exaggerating or overreacting. It was so long ago, I thought, and of little significance. This is what I had interpreted the silence to mean. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. As I gradually thawed my frozen feelings and reclaimed my lost grief, I began to come back to life.
A decade and a half earlier, in his late 40s, my dad had his own day of reckoning with the long-term impact of the family pattern of suppressing grief with stoicism and hard work. He has been quite open about his coping strategies breaking down rather dramatically as he approached the 20-year anniversary of his wife’s death. This is his story to tell, not mine, but I want to express my profound appreciation that when I needed his assistance to break the silence and reconnect me to my lost beginnings, Dad was willing.
I can’t help but wonder what Pauline would make of the fact I earn a modest living now by listening to people talk about the kinds of hurts, losses, griefs and confusion she seemingly felt constrained from discussing. I am aware as I listen compassionately—with no sadness off-limits and no burden too great to unload with love—that I am offering others the opportunity to break the generational chain of silent suffering, and as we do this together, I continue to feel increasingly free.
One of my greatest privileges is to finally have ready access to my emotions, so that now, as I listen to other frozen humans unemotionally reciting the details of their tragic narratives, I can sit and weep with compassion as my therapist once did for me. Sometimes they look at me in disconcerted wonder and say, “Wow. No one ever cried about that before.” And I know that in my tears is a gentle solvent that has the potential to begin dissolving the bars on an invisible prison cell or the links in the chain of pain.
BRINGING IN THE SHEAVES
I grew up singing a song that harkens to the Bible verse on my Great Grandmother Justina’s grave. My grandmother sang it too. Perhaps we even sang it sitting side by side on one of the pews towards the front of the Fessenden Church of the Nazarene. It’s a lilting and uplifting song that emphasizes the far side of “sow with tears, reap with joy.”
I can well imagine my foremothers assuming that “reap with joy” must be a promise and hope deferred until after life was over, when earthly labor was ended and the heavenly reward was finally achieved—by dying. I presume that’s why the verse was an epitaph.
I grew up singing many songs that emphasized the same message: this world is not my home, I’m only passing through…I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop, in that bright land where we’ll never grow old…we’ll understand it better by and by…in the sweet by and by.
This song which comes to mind now as a way of characterizing my place in a multigenerational narrative promises that “we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.” There are layers of significance for me in these lyrics. For one, these women and their stories are my sheaves—like the bundles of wheat gathered as my grandma drove the reaper in the late 1920s—a harvest for me of both pain and joy, a harvest of heritage—my legacy.
For another, I have the resources to accomplish what Justina and Pauline did not have the leisure or capacity to do. In more than one sense I can say I was born to do this work, not only because the legacy of trauma was passed down to me, but also because, from what I’ve read about how epigenetic inheritance works, I have traits like resilience that developed as a direct result of multigenerational adversity.
Many factors came into play to bring me to this harvest. Because my father left the farm and went to college… because of modern technology… because humans and cultures keep evolving… because my accumulated sorrow was too much to carry… because I am who I am and feel the call to consciousness and healing… for all of these reasons, I am in a unique position to bring in the ancient family sheaves and process the harvest consciously—sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, rising, proofing, baking, eating and digesting the grief on behalf of past and future generations. And, lo and behold, what I find is that my capacity to do all this brings me both nourishment and joy.
The message of hope I seek to embody is that it is possible to recover from trauma, to make conscious the unspoken family burdens, to bring compassion and healing to multigenerational patterns, to honor the hardships and grief, and to feel and sustain joy now—in daily life—precisely because I am willing to confront the sorrows.
In my very being—as I weep and laugh, leaven and rise—I am the promised harvest of the grandmothers.
As I sought to find words for this family harvest, I was also keenly aware of present and future generations. Counting the three granddaughters who arrived after her death, Pauline had six granddaughters and three grandsons. She always wished for a girl, and there’s a mystical sense in which her sowing this seed of longing continues to bear fruit. She now has eleven great granddaughters and three great grandsons. This story is also for them, and for all of us who are still reaping what was sown in the generations before us.
Special thanks to Morris Weigelt, LaDeana Hillier, Lewis and Judy Weigelt, Ashley Weigelt, Maridel Hoover Sprenger, Ernest Sprenger, Elizabeth Wilson Winterbone, Melanie Krehbiel and Gertrud Mueller Nelson for stories, photos, translation and genealogical resources.