My daughter Lisa sent my daughter Colleen a link last week. A woman named Miriam Matejova is looking for stories of Canadian immigrants for a book she’s compiling and Lisa suggested we submit the story of my grandmother, Anna Stone. Although I’ve told parts of this story before, beginning with The Night Grandmother Died, my first story for The Swedish Pioneers section of my blog, here is the submission — the story in its entirety. Cross your fingers that you, and Miriam, will like it. And, as usual, a big shout out to Colleen for her great editing skills. She moved so much around to turn it into what I think is a great story.
The only memory I have of my grandmother was when she was already dead.
The night before she died, however, Anna Stone made a last request which my uncles, aunts and parents would recount to us, our cousins – and others – for as long as they, themselves, would live. Since there are few of us left now, it’s a story that needs telling before there’s no one left to tell.
Anna asked all of her children living in the vicinity of her homestead in Saskatchewan, at NW 6-27-6 W3, to come to visit her at her bedside so she could bid them a final farewell.
Her children were no longer children, at least compared to the 3-year-old that I was. Anna was 86 the night she made her final request – her youngest child, Charlie, was all of 39. It wasn’t that the old woman’s request was hard to fulfill, it’s that she made it at all. Of the ones who were left, most of her boys and their wives were living on farms near by. Four of the ten sons and the one daughter she’d brought into the world had already died; three were out of reach, having opted to stay in the US when the family immigrated to Canada in 1905. All the others came, including my father’s twin brother, Paul.
As for our family, the “Peter Stone’s”, as we were known, well, we had lived with grandmother always, so going to see her was an everyday event. My mother, Thea, beautiful in a handmade, smoky blue, silk dress, had married my dad in 1916. Right after the ceremony, he brought her home to live with his Mamma and half a dozen of his brothers, all of whom preferred playing baseball than doing any farm work if the truth was told. The old woman put Thea to work right away and despite being a capable cook, gardener, cleaner, quilter and seamstress, my mother was far down in the Stone family’s pecking order. First came Anna, then Peter, then the rest of her boys, and finally Thea.
It’s Time for Me to Go
“It’s time for me to go,” she told them in Swedish. Then she offered her hand for one last firm handshake, then shooed them out of the room, asking them to close the door behind.
She died that night. As was the practice back then, the mortician brought a casket and she was laid-out so family and friends could come and pay their final respects. I remember seeing her there in the coffin: she looked dead and even meaner than she’d been in real life. I was scared to touch her. I guess I had always been scared of her.
My dad always said that grandmother loved him the most and perhaps that’s why he was given the title to the land even though he wasn’t her oldest living son. Riddled with coulees as it was, it was not the best land on the Saskatchewan prairies, but it was a title and in spite of being two and a half years before the dust bowl of the Dirty Thirties ended, it was an inheritance.
It may have been unusual for a woman to hold the title to land back then but Anna had been the title holder since 1911. In fact, she’d made a request for that land four years before, after Per died in the winter of 1907. The land was homestead land, land that came with a fee of $10, hard work and a 3-year timeline needed to “prove up” – all in an effort to populate the Canadian west. To get your name on the title there were rules that needed to be followed to prove that were bona fide settlers, had built a residence, had cultivated the land and were growing grain. My grandfather died four months shy of that 3-year mark, leaving his widow and children with a glimmer of hope that the land could actually be theirs.
Anna took her oldest boy with her to the Land Titles Registry so he could speak on her behalf. Anna’s command of English was limited; I remember one of my oldest sisters was always asked to accompany her whenever there were social gatherings where English would be spoken. Despite years of living outside of Sweden, her tongue and ears never got used to English.
At the Registry, Anna was told she had no right to her husband’s claim. But since her husband would be unable to prove up, since he was dead, she could reapply for the very same land and prove up herself. That meant slapping down another $10 registration fee and waiting another three long years before being eligible for the title.
Like many Swedes, Per and Anna and their nine children left their home in central Sweden in 1892 on a freighter bound for Canada’s Great Lakes, and, afterwards, America! Then they made their way, like many other Swedish and Norwegian families did, to Minnesota, to try their hand at farming. Eventually settling on land outside of the northern town of Roseau, the Stones were able to lay claim to three quarter sections of land. The work was hard: the land was full of ponds that reduced the growing surface available to them, populated with great trees that needed to be felled and cleared.
By 1905, word began to spread of better land and opportunities in Canada, in an area that would eventually become the Province of Saskatchewan. This word was spread in newspaper ads and by displays in exhibitions, and reconnaissance trips were even being arranged by train for prospective immigrants to come and see the land before packing up their possessions to make the move. That spring, Per and Anna’s brother, Andrew Berg, went on one of these train voyages north and found the claims of the promoters to be true. The land was quite flat and mostly treeless, perfect for agriculture. Per filed for the right to homestead on a quarter section of land bordering the South Saskatchewan River and went back to Minnesota with a promise to move his family the following spring.
The Stones made good on that promise. By the following spring, they had sold their farm, loaded all their possessions into a boxcar and began the journey to Canada, for good.
My mother’s family had followed a similar path, immigrating from northern Sweden to Minnesota and eventually to the territory that became Saskatchewan. Once the Holmlunds had settled, my maternal grandmother died, leaving my mother, Thea, with the job of raising her siblings while her father took care of the farm.
When my parents married, Peter moved his bride into his family’s home, a sod house on a tract of land that was known as the home quarter. My mother had many talents, could sing and play the guitar, mandolin and accordion and was often asked to perform at socials put on in the community – something that Anna was not. And Thea spoke English as well as Swedish, but the Swedish my mother spoke was from the north of Sweden, which Anna felt was inferior to the dialect of her Swedish, and that of the Stones’. My mother kept her head down and tried ignoring her mother-in-law’s taunts and corrections, which continued for over two decades.
I was born in 1934 and Anna died in 1937, but even in my memories, she was mean. Perhaps she was jealous of the woman who had married her favourite son. As the story went, when the twins were born, Anna took a look at the two of them and said, “The old man can have Paul. But Peter, he’s all mine.”
Peter loved his bride, but he loved his mother too and her influence was strong. When I was born, the 10th of ten children, my mother was 42, and my birth was difficult. The midwife wrapped me up and brought me out to my older sisters, Georgie and Verna, and told them, “This child needs to be the last one your mother has. She’s tired and needs time to recover. You need to take care of this baby girl.”
And so they did.
Afterwards, Georgie and Verna took my father aside, telling him that it was over: our mother was in no condition to have any more children. They threatened to get a chastity belt for her, if that was what it took, and made a bargain with him that they would take care of me, and, as our mom got her strength back, she’d be able to do the things she loved the most, like gardening and taking care of the chickens. They would take care of me.
When Anna finally died, my mother began to grow into her own skin, skin that had, until then, been overshadowed by the needs of her siblings, then her new husband, his brothers and his mother, and finally, us, her children. After grandmother died, changes began to be made. The sod house was replaced by a wooden house, and our home became a place where sing-alongs, dances and social gatherings were common. My father would sing, my mother would sing, sometimes songs in Swedish but mostly songs they learned – we learned – from listening to the radio.
Our family thrived. My father would sometimes tease my mother — especially about their ages. He was born in 1890 and Thea in 1892, but my dad would say she was the very same age as him, being born in 1890 too!
But my dad never teased her about her northern Swedish accent. That was buried with his mother, the night grandmother died.