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White Cloud Lake, MN
July 6th, 1877
Dear Bestefar, Grandpa,
Mama says to tell you that we are well—Daddy, Aslaug, Greer, Helgita, Grudolph, and Baby Georg. Greetings from your very own Eydis Bergen! I turned ten years old today, so I am practically all grown up. Oh Grandpa, if only you could leave Chicago and JOIN US…
…Well, I know…you can’t leave your job killing cattle in the stockyards to visit us. I’ll just have to tell you EVERYTHING about our First Year in Minnesota. I LOVE to tell stories!!! Mama says I talk too much, but I don’t, right, Grandpa? A person can never talk too much!
Daddy carved us a dugout just before the blizzards came. When the blizzards hit…oh, Grandpa, you don’t KNOW snow until you live in Minnesota…we were snug as toast down in our hole-in-the-ground. Badgers are wise to make thick-walled homes before a long winter. We had good times, as Daddy played his fiddle and we feasted on Mama’s fruit soup. I learned to mind the house and cook, but I spilled and ruined everything. I made lutefisk for the first time on Christmas Eve, and everyone tried to be polite about it. YOU KNOW, Grandpa, it’s so hard to stay indoors and be a young lady!
Daddy said he’s going to build us a real house. Glass windows, curtains, and one of those newfangled coal-heaters. Daddy says we’ll be rich farmers and we will have everything we want. Mama says that will never happen. Because…
The RED CLOUD came suddenly and destroyed everything. It was a boiling day, not a reed moving beside White Cloud Lake. Suddenly all the neighbors were out, asking, “What’s that red cloud in the west?” Oh Grandpa, we were terrified! Greer said it was a sign from God, signaling the end of the world. Greer saw terrible things like that, back in the old country. We hid in the dugout, waiting for the world to end.
The Red Cloud landed. It was fierce little beetles with yellow eyes, black legs, and red wings. They made a dull droning noise like a million whirling propellers. They landed in a terrific hailstorm. Daddy dashed out to the wheat fields and started fires. Soon the smoke and the beetles drifted indoors, choking the air. Daddy burned up his entire wheat crop—he destroyed it before the Red Cloud could. Everyone was hysterical, and Mama was nearly as upset as the babies—I couldn’t quiet those howling babies for anything. “We will never survive in this country!” Mama said.
The Red Cloud stayed all week. Beetles drowned in White Cloud Lake. You could walk across the lake on dead beetles! Oh, Grandpa, what a terrible smell of rotting, dead beetles. Beetles in our hair, beetles in our clothes, beetles in our beds and cooking-pots, beetles in the water-bucket! It was like when God sent locusts in Egypt to punish Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go.” No one in White Cloud Lake went anywhere. We were trapped in the Red Cloud.
And one morning, the Red Cloud left, flying to the east. And all the prairie was plucked lifeless, dust-devils whirling and spinning. No more bird’s-foot violets, goldenrod, and phlox in the green, green grass. Gone were the wild blueberry bushes. Not even Mama’s sugar-peas and tomatoes survived. Papa killed all the chickens and pigs, but they’d eaten so many beetles that the meat was terrible. Even the dogs wouldn’t eat it.
Life was very miserable here for several weeks. Daddy didn’t know what he would do. Then Aslaug and Greer got the brilliant idea to raise honeybees. Daddy immediately went to town and went into debt buying beehives.
“When it’s late summer,” said Daddy, “bees will start collecting pollen from purple violets. Purple honey will win us a fortune!”
Except…all the flowers were gone. The bees had nothing to pollinate. And Daddy didn’t know a thing about beekeeping. Whenever Aslaug and Greer tried to give him advice, he called them idiots. One morning as he tended the hives, we heard a bloodcurdling shriek—I ran outside and saw Daddy, fleeing from a large escaped swarm of bees, his face all swollen and red with stings. I laughed and laughed, but Mama cried and cried.
Aslaug said we might as well return to Norway. This country is ornery as the devil, he said. The government will always favor the rich while the poor farmers suffer. The farmers of America should rise and have a revolution, he said. Daddy told him to stop, that everything will turn out fine. Daddy is still a fiery Republican.
And so winter came, and we all huddled in that one dugout, trying to keep from starving to death. We got into terrible fights. We lived on watery rabbit stew, and Mama mixed all kinds of nasty things to fill it out. Oh, Grandpa, you couldn’t IMAGINE. We hardly budged from under our quilts all winter, except Daddy and Aslaug, who had to do the chores in blinding blizzards. Once Daddy and Aslaug didn’t come back for three days—they got caught under a snowdrift.
Then came SPRING—spring on the prairie—and the air was sweet with rain and violets. Everything sang for joy, and green things were growing, and the freight trains came back to White Cloud Lake. And I went skipping like a colt, my sunbonnet flying in the wind. Daddy said, “You see now, everything will be all right. Wait until the first honey crop comes in.”
Except for one thing—BEETLE EGGS. The Red Cloud had left, but they’d left eggs buried everywhere. YOU KNOW what happened next, Grandpa. It was HOT, so hot that everyone’s crops withered and wilted. And then the dreadfulest, awfulest, thing happened—Daddy’s honeybees couldn’t find flowers to pollinate, so they stung each other to death. And there went Daddy’s bees, and he was DEEP, DEEP, DEEP in trouble…
Daddy has left for the East. He swung his fiddle over his shoulder and stuffed his worn boots with newspaper. He left on foot, leaving Aslaug the wagon and team. I stood and watched him till he disappeared, a tiny speck in the Minnesota sky.
“DADDY!” I screamed after him. “Come back soon! Please find a job and come back soon! DADDY! I love you!”
I hope Daddy heard. Daddy said, “Eydis, you must be strong for your mother and look after the house. I am counting on you.” I don’t want to stay cooped up, but I promised Daddy. This is a new land, America, and everyone must do his or her share.
When Daddy comes back, Baby Georg will be walking and talking. Daddy will say, “Eydis, how tall you’ve grown!”
I hope Daddy writes soon. I must write him a long, LONG letter and tell him everything…how the baby calf is sucking, how I spun a little dress for Baby, how I churned the butter and didn’t spill cream everywhere.
I MISS DADDY.
Grandpa, if you can, PLEASE come and visit us!!! I wish you God’s ears. God’s ears means good luck and double happiness.
ALWAYS your Little Chickabidee,