First off, here is the draft I have going about my great grandfather. This can be a bit of a template for what you might do in your portraits:
If the first thing you knew about Carl 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. 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, but the eyes remain the same—austere and stern, but also strong and noble.
Carl was born in Sweden in 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. My family covers the end of the American Civil War up through the present in only three generations—Carl, my grandfather, and my mother. The nation then recovering from the war would, 30 years later, become Carl’s home. He crossed over the Atlantic with his two brothers and new bride in 1895. But while the brothers would go north to Minnesota, Carl and Elise chose to settle in Oakland, NE, working as tenant farmers on a small farm at the edge of town. A year later they would welcome their first son, Carl Joseph. Everyone would know him as Joe, though. After that seven more children would follow—Will, 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. 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.
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, both would ride a horse to school during winter months and rely 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 Carl is mostly absent from their stories.
Even so, this silence is in itself 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 Carl. There’s a silence that exists around him. I imagine this is in many ways a fitting testimony about the man, in fact. Carl 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.
In class we workshopped this piece and then talked about how you might draw out your interviewees as you’re speaking to them.
We then used a story-telling prompt at the end of class and a few of you shared stories based on the prompt.
Next week your papers will be due in-class on Monday unless you’ve made other arrangements with me. I’m going to bring donuts to celebrate getting your first paper done and we’ll talk more about the papers and get ready to transition into the next few weeks of work.