Osteogenesis Imperfecta - LIVING WITH BRITTLE BONES - Audrey Ekdahl Davidson


Chapter 2

My Family

The Ekdahls always felt close to their immigrant roots. My paternal grandfather, Ole H. Ekdahl, who was born in1840, came from Kiaby in Skåne, not far from the Baltic coast in one of the provinces taken by Sweden from Denmark in the Skåne War (1658). It was indeed in this very region that for more than fifty years a guerilla action against the Swedes was mounted in the brutal aftermath of this war. The modern idea of Swedes as particularly pacific people does not apply to this period when Sweden was engaged in imperial expansion, which eventually came to an end when its resources were overtaxed and its national energy expended. In Kiaby, the old homestead is no longer remembered, but the town itself is typical for the region and is situated around the parish church, a building dating from perhaps the twelfth century. My great grandparents, Ole and Marna, are buried somewhere in the churchyard. The church itself is not large, with a low roof and small chancel, the latter decorated with remarkable wall paintings showing scenes such as the Ascension of Christ into heaven accompanied by angel musicians and a repository for use in Good Friday and Easter ceremonies that mimicked the Entombment and Resurrection. The wall paintings, however, had been covered with whitewash throughout the nineteenth century and were revealed to sight only in 1937. Neither my grandfather nor my great grandparents would have seen them. Its fine little pipe organ seems to be modern and an example of the high level of the craft of organ building in Scandinavia. But the font, dating from the Middle Ages, where my grandfather was baptized remained in place through the change in religion in the sixteenth century and the more pietistic climate which eventually followed in the Swedish church.

The name “Ekdahl” was actually a made-up surname that was taken upon arrival in the United States. Ole’s father’s name was also Ole, and so according to the use of patronymics at that time he by rights should have been named Ole Olson. It has been speculated, without proof, that my grandfather’s principal reason for coming to the United States in 1864 was to avoid service in the Swedish army, though oddly this was during the Civil War and his arrival coincided with General Sherman’s march through Georgia. But the latter half of the nineteenth century was a time of severe poverty and even famine in Scandinavia. Something like fifteen percent of the population of Sweden emigrated with many coming to Minnesota. My grandfather first settled in Red Wing, and then moved to the Willmar area three years later and became a successful farmer. Typically among Scandinavian immigrants who lived on the prairie, he planted an orchard and raised grain. His industry and eccentricity were legendary in the family. I remember hearing it told and retold how he hitched up his horses and, with light from kerosene lanterns, worked through the night in the fields. Those were not easy times in spite of the technological advances in farm machinery - for example, grain binders that tied up bundles of wheat or barley with twine and left them in piles for the hired men to collect and stand up in “shocks” to finish drying - that came by the end of the century. The advances did not of course include pesticides, so at times grasshoppers devastated the farmers’ crops. The weather on the prairie also was unpredictable, and one year a tornado destroyed my grandparents’ house. The house I remember and that so far as I know still stands is the replacement, a large brick house, square and representing what may be described as a Swedish Renaissance style.

My grandfather married Anna Stephens, who had come to Minnesota at age six from Svenstorp in Skåne with her mother in 1862, when the family was reunited, since Anna’s father had preceded them two years before. Svenstorp is located northeast of the university town of Lund, the site of the great romanesque cathedral with its two massive nineteenth-century towers where the hero of Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, Professor Isak Borg, concluded his journey and received his honorary title. Near Svenstorp is one of the most famous castles in Skåne, a massive structure that had been built in the time of Christian IV of Denmark at the end of the sixteenth century before the absorption of the province into Sweden. Anna came from a Baptist family that had converted from Lutheranism in Sweden, and her influence seems to have been crucial in her husband’s role as one of the founders of the Swedish Baptist church in Willmar. Her family had been motivated to leave the Old Country in order to find religious freedom apparently rather than for any other reason. This was a factor that now is recognized to have been far more important for emigration than previously recognized. America was presented as a Land of Canaan where none of the restrictions on worship or church attendance applied. As letters to the folks back home exclaimed, this was a place where there was no prescribed orthodoxy and where no laws existed that would bar persons from their own religious practices or even from being purely secular. Anna’s parents, Lewis and Hannah Person Stephens (originally Stephenson), had found themselves under severe pressure in Sweden from the church authorities, who severely repressed those who participated in free church services and, especially, those who refused to have their children baptized in their parish churches. Baptist services differed from the formality of the Lutheran ritual of the state church and, as frequently remarked, especially appealed on account of the new style of singing and the new hymns that seemed to appeal directly to their perception of spiritual emptiness. While much of the larger structure of the traditional services was retained, the prayers in particular were extempore and the sermons often directed to reinforce the participants’ conversion to a new life apart from the religion of the larger community. In Sweden these folk were not allowed to build meeting houses, and inevitably their religious practices raised the ire of the neighbors. One of my distant relatives tells of an incident in which a Baptist service was being conducted by a lay preacher one evening in a house of an ancestor. The service had only begun when they heard stones being thrown at the house by a hostile mob, and then the police arrived. Candles were extinguished. A quick-witted woman threw a shawl over the head of the lay pastor and led him to the door, whereupon she said something like “Grandmother, it is time to go home,” and they walked in the darkness through the hostile crowd safely. Obviously Anna’s family was much better appreciated than this in America, since after their move to the Willmar area her brother George would serve as a school-district clerk and later, after he gave up farming, as the city of Willmar’s night marshal, a position for which he was honored in a public meeting. It was then that George was given a gold-headed cane “for efficient and faithful service.”

Anna, who died before I was born, appears very stern in the photograph that I have of my grandparents and their children, of whom my father Harry was the youngest. But my sisters, who were much older than I, always exclaimed about her kindness to them. I think about the hard life that she would have had on the farm even with household help, for she lived in a house without plumbing or electricity, which would not be available until the rural electrifica- tion program was instituted in the 1930s. Water was pumped by hand from a well, and was heated in a reservoir attached to the kitchen wood stove. Clothes washing was done by boiling the heavily soiled items in a copper boiler, and then by scrubbing both these and less soiled pieces on a washboard by hand. Bathing was infrequent of necessity, especially in the cold Minnesota winters that could drop temperatures to below -30 F. Yet the family retained a respectability that would put many modern people to shame. For attendance at church, the chores would need to be completed first, then everyone had to be spiffed up neatly before the trek to town by a horse-drawn buggy. The household included not only four children, two of whom were already seen to be seriously afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta - my uncle Lewis and aunt Annie - but also Anna’s disabled sister Paula. My father Harry was less severely afflicted, and most likely it was not known at this stage that he had the disease as well. All were well cared for. Not all Scandinavian families valued education or high culture at that time, but Anna had been able herself to attend Gustavus Adolphus College. In contrast to the many children of Scandinavian descent in Minnesota who were made to go to work at age twelve, sometimes after only three or four years of English school, the Ekdahl children were very fortunate. In Anna’s house a piano was present and music encouraged, and my father was given the opportunity of attending the Willmar Seminary, which offered a two-year program equivalent to the course of study today in a business or community college. Ultimately my grandfather owned seven hundred acres of which more than four hundred were under cultivation, and at threshing time the task of feeding the entire threshing crew, as was expected, was the responsibility of my grandmother.

By the time that my grandparents retired and moved to a house on Second Street in Willmar, the region was as settled as the Sweden they had left behind. The Indian wars of the nineteenth century had long ago resulted in the removal of the Sioux to reservations in South Dakota following the hanging of the leaders at Mankato on 26 December 1862. There were only memories of scalpings and atrocities on both sides. An early sign that a war was immanent had been the killing of thirteen Swedish settlers west of Willmar. Legendary in my family was Guri Endreson, who endured a brutal attack on her homestead, saw her husband and two of her sons killed as well as two daughters taken into captivity, was reputedly scalped, and lived to return to her farm near Willmar when hostilities were over. The rectifying of the incredibly shoddy treatment of Native Americans had been championed by Bishop Whipple of the Episcopal Church who had even traveled to Washington to talk to President Lincoln, but the panic among folk who lived in the Willmar region was to produce long-lasting hostility. I remember only two Native American girls in my class in high school, and, even if individuals were accepted, there was widespread prejudice. This went hand-in-hand with prejudice against other persons of color as well as the feeling that people of Scandinavian descent were superior - a feeling that, of course, favored the group to which one belonged, whether Norwegian or Swedish. Ethnic jokes were most commonly turned against the other group, as in the example of the joke in which a Swede (or Norwegian) was cited as shooting an arrow into the air - and he missed. There was also tension between the religious denomina-tions, with the Lutherans looking down on the Baptists and the Baptists scorning as “holy rollers” the new sect of Pentecostals, drawn from the less affluent members of the community. Catholics, many of them workers on James J. Hill’s Great Northern railroad, were mainly Irish and hence at the bottom of the social ladder; many believed them to be subversive, storing guns in the basements of their churches. Following the Prohibition period, the county of Kandiyohi remained dry. The only wine available to the public was at communion in Lutheran and Episcopal churches, though low-alcoholic-content beer was allowed. Baptists, of course, did not approve at all of alcohol, smoking, or movies, which were absolute- ly forbidden by my parents. Crime was practically non-existent. Many, both in the city and on the nearby farms, did not lock their doors even at night. I am trying to remember if we even had a key to our house in those days, though I suppose we must have.

The O. H. Ekdahl family: (left to right) Mr. Ole Ekdahl, Annie, Harry, Mrs. Anna Stephens Ekdahl, Lewis, and Mathilda. Undated photo.

I know far less about my mother’s family. Her early childhood was spent in Dassel, a village roughly halfway between Willmar and Minneapolis, where her father, Christian Brenne Nelson, practiced his craft as a shoemaker. Later he moved west to Litchfield, located pretty much where the prairie begins. He had been born in Bergen, the great seaport and Hanseatic trading center on the west coast of Norway, a country then still under the sway of Sweden after a previous centuries-long domination by Denmark. The sign of foreign occupation remains to this day in the Rosenkrantz Castle, the seat of the Danish governors of Norway that receives its name from the same family that, along with the Guildensterns, was named in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The city is situated on the harbor from which my grandfather set out for the New World, perhaps, as in the case of my paternal grandparents who came over on a ship named the Baltimore, by way of England and probably the port of Liverpool. He was an alcoholic who reformed after a fire, apparently accidentally set by his alcoholic brother Dave, burned down his shoemaker’s shop. This traumatic event seems to have been what precipitated a change in his life, for he put aside the bottle and substituted pietistic religion, probably of the Baptist variety. When his first wife, who had been born in the Swedish province of Värmland, died, his daughter Lydia - my mother - was then in the seventh grade. In order to care for the two other younger children, Mamie and Lil, she dropped out of school to care for them. By now her father had become rather fierce in his insistence on religiously correct behavior, and the younger girls found him very difficult - or, to put it the other way around, he found them very difficult. In later life I could hardly believe that these two sisters, who as older married women would live above and below in a duplex in south Minneapolis, could ever have been considered “wild.” It is less hard to understand why they would have rebelled against their father, who had all the zeal of a convert and did his best to convert everyone with whom he came in contact, including his customers, to his radical religious beliefs.

When my mother left home, she went to Minneapolis where she was given a job working for a Mr. Greenberg as a clerk in a dry goods store. With visions of becoming a missionary she also immersed herself in volunteer work at the First Baptist Church, where she assisted young women of lesser means, including many from the extensive Swedish community. She taught them how to do household tasks and to perform other skills needed by women of the day, and she also worked with their English skills, which often were deplorably inadequate for life in the city. The church was not Swedish but rather was affiliated with the Northern Baptist Convention. It was led by a fiery preacher named W. B. Riley, who in later life was regarded as “the grand old man of fundamentalism in Minnesota” and who eventually broke with the liberal wing of the denomination, of which my relative Edwin Dahlberg would be one of the leaders.

Minneapolis then had much to offer persons with Scandinavian roots. Singing in the mother tongue and dancing were available on “Snoose Boulevard,” so called on account of the widespread use of snuff, a form of tobacco that came in small round containers - the most popular brand was Copenhagen - and most often was placed under men’s lower lips rather than actually chewed. This entertainment district was located on Cedar Street, across the Mississippi River from the main campus of the University of Minnesota. But of course my mother would have had absolutely nothing to do with the worldly pursuits of Snoose Boulevard during the years that she spent in Minneapolis, which otherwise was in any case a very livable city with a good public transportation system and attractive public spaces that included Loring Park, where Nor- wegian Independence Day was celebrated every seventeenth of May - Syttende Mai - a date made all the more meaningful since full independence from Sweden was achieved in 1905. My mother, after all, was as much of Norwegian descent as she was Swedish.

My maternal grandfather eventually remarried to a Mrs. Olson of Willmar and moved there. It was while visiting them that my mother met my father, who was singing in the choir at the First Baptist Church, of which his father had been a founding member. The language of the church was still Swedish, of course, and would remain so until around 1930. Some Swedish was in fact used until 1951. The threat of the change to English is said to have caused an older lady in the congregation to say, “If the Swedish language was good enough for the apostle Paul, it is good enough for me.” The repertoire of the choir included music from Sweden and already songs and anthems adapted from the American evangelical movement. My uncle Lew had a fine tenor voice, and the others also had good pitch and an accurate sense of rhythm. The new hymnal, Nya Psalmisten, published in 1910 (I still have my father’s well-used copy), was a continuation of earlier American Swedish hymnals.

My father was a bookkeeper and was considered very eligible by the young ladies of the church. He fell in love with the beautifully dressed young lady from Minneapolis who made her own clothes and was determined to marry her. There is an amusing family story of rivalry involving one young local lady who felt that she should possess him and of the necessity of telling her bluntly that his heart was elsewhere. So my parents did marry, on 16 October 1912, at the First Baptist Church, at Third Street and Trott Avenue, in Willmar. The church, built only three years previously, was in most ways deliberately a challenge to the usual style of the local Lutheran churches. Nevertheless the windows were adorned with stained glass, including one window with the image of the Good Shepherd. It was essentially a meeting house, square with an entrance in one corner and a raked floor leading down to a platform with, in center position, a lectern for preaching and praying. The choir shared the platform, and behind it was the baptistry, which was closed off except when needed for baptisms.

My parents would live at a house only a few blocks away, at 723 West Third Street, that had been built for them by my paternal grandfather. It was a Queen Anne style structure, with a marvelous almost-medieval tower. This house would be my parents’ home for the rest of their lives. My sister Lorraine would be born the next year, and my sisters Ione and Lucile thereafter at eighteen-month intervals. My own birth came after a longer interval of fourteen years.

Next Chapter

See Table of Contents