Here is my final:
If the first thing you knew about C. G. Fredstrom is what you saw when you walked into his room at a mental hospital and saw the burns on his hands, what you knew would be true.
It also would be incomplete.
The burns, you probably knew, were the result of his grabbing a power line at the edge of town during a particularly dark period of depression, something he struggled with throughout his life. The pictures we have of him almost tell the story in themselves. On his wedding day you see both Carl and his bride Elise standing stiffly for the camera, wearing their wedding attire, but Elise’s face has a peaceful quality to it, something that seems to fit the meaning of her new surname in Swedish—quiet stream. Carl’s look is more austere and stern, like an old world patriarch staring down through the ages at his descendants.
Later in life the same qualities announced themselves in other photos of Carl and Elise, though they seem to have become more complicated after his two suicide attempts 20 years earlier. Even after she had become a widow, lost the use of her legs, and was mostly blind, the pictures of Elise Fredstrom in her 90s still show that same calm spirit that was evident seventy years before in her wedding photos. The last photo we have of Carl is from shortly before his death in the mid 1940s. He has a beard now and plenty of wrinkles. The eyes still have the austere, stern quality about them. But there is more to them than just that, in this picture at least. If you look closely, you can just make out a slight twinkle in them as well, a glimmer that suggests deep reservoirs of delight stirring beneath the surface and at war with his darker moods.
Carl was born in Sweden in October 1865. When he was born, a still-new republic on the other side of the world was in the midst of mourning the loss of a president and beginning the hard work of putting itself back together after a devastating Civil War. The nation then recovering from the war would, 30 years later, become Carl’s home. He crossed over the Atlantic with his two brothers in 1882. But while the brothers would go north to Minnesota, Carl went to Nebraska. In 1892 his family would move to North Bend, which is where he met his future wife, Elise. She had come over from Sweden in 1888. They would marry in 1895 and spend the next several decades working as tenant farmers on a small farm at the edge of town in Oakland, NE. In 1896 they would welcome their first son, Carl Joseph. Everyone would know him as Joe, though. After that seven more children would follow—Martin, Ebba, Emma, Arvid, Ray, Rudy, and, finally in 1912, Bert—my grandfather.
Though he was a stern man, you could not have the measure of him if you thought him exclusively morose or gloomy. He had dark times, one of which landed him in that institution with burns on his hands. Prior to that suicide attempt, he had tried to drown himself in a ditch at the edge of town, only to fail when none of the ditches were deep enough.
But Carl’s was a bright, piercing, and fiery mind. He was a deacon in the Lutheran Church and a man deeply convinced not only of the truths of the Gospel, but of the particular theological convictions of the old Swedish Lutheran church he had been born into. He was, according to multiple people, ready and able to argue over finer points of doctrine at a moment’s notice and was, by all accounts, a formidable debater. So this man, given to periods of despair, was also a man devoted to the Scriptures, to the defense of orthodoxy, and ready to give of himself in significant ways because of those loves that he had.
There were other qualities he had as well. He had a hobbit-like delight in simple food that he made or grew himself. Later in his life, Sunday afternoons were taken up with hosting his children and many grandchildren at his and Elise’s home in south Oakland. They would eat vegetables from his much-praised backyard garden and, at 5 o’clock, they would listen to the Lutheran Radio Hour, broadcasted by WOW out of Omaha.
He also loved “properly made” coffee. Nearly 45 years after his death, his son-in-law wrote about C. G.’s love of coffee:
“Were one to find him in serendipitous, carefree moments, it was not unlikely that he would spontaneously fix a real cup of coffee on his own, hot as fire, and darkly rich. It had to be Hill’s Brothers, the red can with the bearded gentleman label on the front, standing nobly there in, of all things, his long nightgown sipping coffee from a saucer. This he would serve with twinkling eyes to his guests. In the privacy of his own S. Thomas house kitchen he would pour a little cream (milk would not do) into the cup, place it on the saucer, pop a sugar cube in his mouth and then pour the hot coffee from the cup into the saucer to cool just a bit, but not too much. He would blow, exhale, and then, schluupp, inhale that coffee into his mouth, inadvertently strained through his ample mustache. If it were just right, that Swedish gasoline would assuage most enduring problems of the world, except twice, poor grandpa. Rarely were there exhibited excesses of the bodily appetites, but C. G. loved good food and adored good coffee.
Carl’s life was a difficult one. He had eight children to provide for, a wife in poor health and who had a life-long limp due to a youth skating accident when she was growing up in Sweden, and a farm to manage—and he didn’t own any of it. He was a tenant farmer, which meant that he was working not only to provide for his family, but to pay a portion of what he made to a landlord who actually owned the farm.
My grandfather and great uncle had vivid memories of growing up on this farm. The boys slept in an attic room that had a pipe running up and through it connected to the wood-burning stove that warmed the house. Carl and Elise would wake up before sunrise and begin their work, with Carl going out to tend to the farm and Elise starting breakfast for the family. After getting breakfast started, she would go over to the stove and rap on the pipe several times with a stick to wake the boys. She then would go sit in a wooden rocker, reading Psalms in her native Swedish as the boys came down for breakfast and to do their own chores before leaving for school.
My great-uncle Rudy was in charge of milking all the cows. I actually don’t know that my grandfather’s job was. But I do know that both Rudy and my grandfather, who were the babies of the family being five and seven years younger than the youngest older sibling, would ride a horse to school during winter months. They relied on the horse’s body to keep them warm as they rode on cold, snow-covered Nebraska country roads.
What is interesting, and a little sad, about Rudy and my grandfather’s memories growing up is how little they mention their father. The older siblings seemed to have talked about him more, but Rudy and grandpa didn’t that much. They spoke a great deal about their mother, but C. G. is mostly absent from their stories. The records we have of C. G. are mostly not from his children, but from his son-in-law Emil and his grandchildren. Perhaps between his suicide attempts of 1926 and his death in 1948 he had a softening that made him accessible to them in ways he was not to his own children when they were growing up.
In any case, the relative silence of his children is interesting. I know a great deal about what life was like in my grandfather’s home growing up. I know that he and his three closest brothers in age played on a baseball team called the Oakland Swedes and that my grandfather played first base—a bit unusual for a left-handed player. I know each of them had their own favorite baseball team. My grandfather was a Cleveland Indians fan.
Yet for all that I know about my grandfather and his siblings and even about my grandmother Elise, I know very little about C. G.. There’s a silence that exists around him. I imagine this is in many ways a fitting testimony about the man, in fact. C. G. was a complicated man, obviously committed to his family and his church, yet unable to shake the depression that seems to have stalked him constantly and which sometimes, as on the night he grabbed the powerline, to overwhelm him entirely. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of this, but I imagine such a person would be difficult to know, that he would likely exist on the periphery of his family’s life in ways that Elise, the serene, Psalm-singing mother the boys saw in her rocking chair every morning, never did.
It would not always be so for C. G., thankfully. But it seems that he needed the quite literal shock of that 1926 suicide attempt to shake loose that laughter inside him which he was able to access more often in those final years than he had in the years of raising his children. There is a tragedy in that, but perhaps also a certain hope that despair and darkness and doubt do not need to have the final word and that fountains of mirth can burst forth from the unlikeliest places.
Regarding next week:
- Read “The First Session” by Robert Farrar Capon.
- Write 500 words responding to one of the following prompts:
- Do Capon’s Onion Exercise and write 500 words about your experience of it.
- Write 500 words explaining how to prepare a very common sort of food in the same sort of style as Capon–if you have ever wanted to write 500 words about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, here is your opportunity.
- Write 500 words about how to do something outdoors on a camping trip: This could be how to find a certain constellation, how to set up a tent, how to hang a hammock to sleep in between two trees, or how to make a fire… or something else entirely.
- The goal of the exercise is to hit that fun halfway point between something that is practically useful and something that helps the reader have new eyes to see this common thing in a new way.
You might watch this book trailer for N. D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl to give you ideas: