After 10 days spent traveling 1,750 miles along highway 90, through the plains of South Dakota and Montana, over the Rockies, through the flat lands of eastern Washington, and over the Cascades, they were finally here. The only problem was the Cecil didn’t know exactly where HERE was.
They stopped in Seattle first. The air was cool and smelled of fish, salt, and seaweed. Cecil gasped. She had never seen the ocean before. She tried to imagine her parents crossing an ocean with 8 children, all of them cooped up in a small space in a ship. She couldn’t picture it in her head. She was exhausted after 10 days with two boys in their Model A truck.
Merle and Bobby were antsy, pointing and yelling. They wanted to get out of the car and run along the walkway. But, Clarence wanted to get to Burlington before nightfall. He had cousins there who had written to him about good farmland available for homesteading. And, there was a large Norwegian community up there. He turned the truck north along highway 99. It was a new road, built just 7 years ago, and much smoother than highway 90 had been, especially over the mountain passes.
“EEWW, what’s that smell?” Bobby asked as they drove past Everett. There were huge logs floating in the water. They smelled of stagnant water and wet wood.
“Those logs are floating to the lumber mill,” Clarence explained. “You’ll see them in the river. Don’t you boys ever climb on those logs. People are killed, slipping on the logs and going under. The logs roll over and there’s no way to come up for air.”
“Really?” asked Merle? “It doesn’t look that hard to me.”
“Don’t defy me, Merle,” Clarence said sternly. “I was born south of here, in Tacoma. I grew up around these mills. I know what I’m talking about.”
Merle wisely kept quiet after that.
It was just dusk when the dusty Model A carrying the travel weary Swenson family drove into Burlington. Clarence was pleased at the verdant farmland he had seen from the road. “We can make a good living here,” he told Cecil and the boys.
Cecil couldn’t stop staring at the tall peaks of the snow-covered mountains. They were in a valley surrounded by the Cascades to the east and Olympics to the west. To her dying day, Cecil would love those mountains. They spoke to her.
Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, Spring 1932
The acrid smell of burning oil and exhaust is what he remembered the most. It left a bitter taste in the back of his mouth and made him cough.
“Stop acting out, Bobby,” his older brother Merle warned. “Or else…”
He never finished his threat because by then their mother had turned around in her seat and was giving them THE LOOK.
When his parents told him that they were loading up the Model A and heading west to Washington State, Bobby was excited. At 5, he was always ready for an adventure.
But now, he was bored. And hot. And hungry.
Everything that hadn’t been sold or given away was packed into the Model A. Or tied to the top, covered with a tarp. Bobby and Merle were jammed in among the boxes and pots and pans. There was no room to move or stretch or swing their arms. No room for small boys to be boys.
“Are we there yet?” Bobby asked for the thousandth time.
“No,” his father replied. Clarence wasn’t one for talking, or for the incessant questions of bored boys with no patience.
The Model A huffed and puffed and struggled over the mountain passes. The Rockies were huge and majestic, but their power was lost on the Swensons. They were just another obstacle to overcome.
With a pop and a bang, the truck swerved sharply and lurched to the left. Sighing, Clarence braked, turned off the engine, and climbed slowly down to the road. Another flat tire. They were averaging two a day. Clarence wasn’t sure he had enough rubber scraps and tar for patches to make it all the way to the west coast. They had no money for new tires.
Bobby and Merle clambered out of the truck to play with sticks and rocks on the side of the road while Clarence patched the tire. They’d have to wait for the tar to dry before setting out again. He looked at the sky.
“At least is isn’t raining,” he said. “Cecil, set out some food. We’ll take our lunch while we wait.”
Emmetsburg, Iowa, May 1928
Cecil groaned and straightened, her hand on her back where she ached the most. This pregnancy was hard on her, but her time was growing near. She and Clarence had been homesteading for 6 years. It was backbreaking work to grow crops in the hard, rocky soil. Building a house. Although, for Clarence, the building came easy. Their white clapboard house was solid and well-built.
Farming was harder. They grew corn and wheat for hay to feed the animals and trade with neighbors. Cecil had a vegetable garden Where she grew string beans, cucumbers, potatoes, and flowers. Cecil couldn’t resist her flowers.
Merle was nearly 5. He wasn’t sure he wanted a baby brother. He liked running and wrestling with his dog Sam and helping his mother with the planting and harvesting. Merle was fascinated with growing things. He loved to watch the tender green leaves sprout on the beans and the wheat waving in the breeze. Watching corn stalks grow taller than he was fascinating. He checked the growing ears daily.
Cecil looked at the sky. Nearly time to make supper, she thought. Best finish up with the weeding and corral the old hen who wasn’t laying anymore. It was her time in the stew pot. Cecil didn’t like to kill her hens, but she was pragmatic about it. Burning and pulling the pin feathers was a chore. But Clarence liked chicken. She’d serve mashed potatoes and some of the green beans Merle had just picked. Maybe a chocolate cake for dessert, if she had enough milk and butter.
Where is the Cecil who put on a bathing suit and frolicked in the lake with Christine? Where was the Cecil who hung from the trellis with a smile wearing her wedding dress and black boots? Gone in the face of necessity. But still in her imagination.
“Mama, mama look,” called Merle, showing off his pail full of freshly pick green beans.
“Nice” Cecil told him, breaking from her reverie of fond remembrances.
With a sigh, Cecil caught the biddy hen and with a snap, broke her neck. She looked up and saw Clarence walking from the barn with a pail of milk. I’ll have to separate the cream and churn the butter she thought. But they would have cake that evening.
It has been awhile since Sessel has made an appearance. If you want to catch up, here's when the first five chapters were posted:
Chapter 1 November 2, 2018
Chapter 2 November 12, 2018
Chapter 3 December 3, 2018
Chapter 4 December 5, 2018
Chapter 5 December 12, 2019
Minneapolis, June 1922
“Can you believe it? I’m getting married in a week!” Cecil fidgeted in her dress while Christine, her mouth full of pins, was trying to mark the hem just above the ankles, in the latest, daring fashion.
“Will you be still, Cecil? Your dress will have the most uneven hem ever.” Christine was exasperated, but also excited for her best friend. She hoped that Cecil’s engagement would inspire Henry to propose to her.
Cecil didn’t want a fancy dress. Ever practical, she told Christine, “no one will notice or care what I am wearing. This is a serious ceremony. Clarence and I will be wed. That’s what’s important.”
“Do you think Clarence is nervous?”
“I am sure he is. Henry said he was pacing and puffing on his pipe like a steam engine.” Henry and Christine were standing up for the young couple.
“My sisters Serena, Bertha, and Anna are coming tomorrow. And my brother Osmund, too. Oh, how I wish Ina could be here. And Nils. But he’s in California. Can you imagine?”
The morning of June 24, 1922 was bright and clear; a rare day of low humidity in the summer. The Hennepin United Methodist Church was filling with friends and family. Decorations were simple. Clarence smiled when he was Cecil down the aisle.
“All these people are here for us? I don’t want any fuss.” Cecil looked at her family and worried.
“Hush Cecil. You should be happy. This is a joyous occasion,” Serena scolded her sister. “It’s nearly time. I’ll go find my seat.”
After the ceremony, Cecil, Clarence, and their friends and family gathered for a celebratory lunch. Cecil and Clarence strolled the garden, talking and laughing.
“Where should we live?” asked Cecil. “Do you want to stay in Minneapolis?”
“There’s land available for homesteading in Iowa.” Clarence explained in his slow, steady way. “I’ve a mind to move there. I can find work as a carpenter and we can have a small farm.”
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, early 1919
With his gut churning, Clarence Samuel Swenson tensed against the wave of dizziness, a holdover from his head injury. “I will not pass out, I will not pass out,” he chanted to himself. He hated this weakness. He had been injured while in army training and never even left the country. He spent most of his time in the army in New York, first in a hospital, then in a rehabilitation center.
He had taken the train to Minneapolis to give his regards to Cecil. He and Jens, her fiancé, had become good friends in boot camp. Clarence closed his eyes and sent a quick prayer to Jens. He hoped he hadn’t suffered too much when he was killed in battle so far from home.
Clarence meant to send a letter introducing himself, but he wasn’t good with letters. He hoped Cecil would see him, talk with him without a proper introduction.
“Excuse me, Miss Hauge?” Clarence asked, “may I introduce myself? My name is Clarence Swenson. I was a friend of Jens’.” Clarence removed his hat and bowed.
Cecil froze at the mention of Jens’ name. Her pain was still sharp. But curiosity got the better of her. “Yes, I am Cecil Hauge. How did you know Jens?”
“We were in boot camp together and became good friends. He talked about you. He couldn’t wait to get home to marry you. His family told me where to find you. I don’t mean any harm or disrespect. I just want to pay my respects. Jens was a good man.”
“Yes, he was,” Cecil whispered, “a very good man.”
“Will you let me buy you coffee and we can talk more about him?” asked Clarence.
“I know I am being forward, but it would feel good to talk about Jens. Your friend is welcome to come along.”
Cecil wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about Jens but felt that Clarence needed to. And, she wasn’t going to step out with a man just after meeting him without her best friend Christine by her side.
“I was born in Tacoma, Washington,” Clarence told the girls over coffee and cake.“We moved a lot, my parents and sister and I. My father was always chasing his dreams. I was called up to join the army. Jens and I met on the first day at camp. We had so much in common, both of us first generation Americans with Norwegian parents.”
Cecil liked Clarence’s quiet demeanor, his serious eyes. He looked kind. “I think I want to see him again”, she told Christine as they walked home to the boarding house where they had lodgings.
Clarence was lost in his own thoughts. Why did he just notice how blue here eyes were? How they sparkled when she laughed. “I think I want to see her again,” he said to himself as he walked to the hotel where he had a room.
South Dakota, Winter 1888
Elias shivered against the icy wind and pulled his overcoat closer. He rewound his muffler tighter around his neck and pushed at the fingers of his fur lined gloves. He thought, for the thousandth time, “it is colder here than in Norway.”
After landing in New York four years ago, Elias had made his way slowly west, always searching for his golden ring. It remained frustratingly out of reach. He worked as a stevedore in Chicago for a while, then got bored, or dissatisfied, he didn’t know which. He had itchy feet. He kept heading west. He landed and lost numerous jobs. His current job as a ranch hand paid good money and he was on his way to meet his fiancée. Sarah was a pretty young woman, a Norwegian immigrant like himself. Unlike him, Sarah was strong, humble, and hard working. Elias was a dreamer, always in search of the next adventure, sure that riches were right around the corner. His handsome face and easy smile made him friends, got him jobs, and, way too often, got him in trouble. They were married on December 4, 1888, a cold, white, wintry day on the high plains of South Dakota.
Elias’ feet were itchy again. He was tired of the cold winds off the plains and the endless fields of wheat. He was tired of ranching. “Sarah” he called, “pack up the baby. It’s time to move on. Westward Ho.”
When we last saw Sessel (now Cecil), she had moved to Minnesota, changed her name, found a job, and met a new friend. I tried to write more of her story, especially about the young man she was trying so hard to ignore. But, her future father in law kept barging in. So, here's some of his story.
Stavanger Norway, February 1884
Elias Swenson was excited and afraid at the same time. He was 16 and his father had finally consented to allow Elias to join his crew as a cabin boy. They were sailing for New York at first light, a voyage that would take them a month or more depending on weather and the winds.
An hour after they set sail on that clear February morning, Elias took a few minutes to hang over the rail on deck and look around. He saw whales blowing, a sure sign of schools of herring below. His stomach rumbled at the thought of herring for dinner. Then he realized that he might have to help cook. His enthusiasm waned. He thought cooking was women’s work. Beneath him.
After a month at sea and bone grindingly hard work, Elias’ hands were calloused and his skin tanned. He was also sick and tired of ships and the sea. His father put down his brass and wooden spyglass and smiled widely. He offered the spyglass to Elias. “Look son, there’s New York. We’ll dock at the outer harbor quarantine station first, then go through Ellis Island. Elias smiled as well, but his smile was wily and sly. He planned to jump ship in New York. He had no plans to go back to Norway.
Stumbling through back alleys near the docks in New York, Elias ducked into a doorway and hid. He was shivering and his stomach growling, but he didn’t mind the discomfort. It wouldn’t last. He planned to make his fortune here. Waiting until he was sure his father’s ship had sailed, he stood up, groaning, and left his hiding place in search of food and passage to Chicago. He had heard there were jobs for young men in Chicago.
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, Spring 1918
The train took 8 hours to travel the 300 miles to Minneapolis. At the station, Sessel gathered her satchel and reticule, and stepped off the train. So many people! So much noise! Sessel had never seen so much activity. She was as excited as she was overwhelmed. With a sparkle in her eyes, she marched through the station, a tall, dark haired young woman of 18, wearing a serviceable black skirt, white blouse, button shoes, and a cloak. At the curb, she hailed a coach to take her to the boarding house for young, unmarried Christian women that the doctor had referenced in his letter.
In her room, she unfolded the letter and read it again. An offer of a job in the city! Freedom from farm chores and from sitting on a hard bench all day on Sunday listening to Father read the Bible. Freedom to listen to music, and maybe even dance, Sessel smiled to herself.
Maybe she should change her name before she went to apply for the job. An Americanized name for a modern American working girl. Sessel became Cecile that very day.
The next morning, bright and early, Cecile presented herself at the servant’s door to the house. “A mansion,” thought Cecile, “3 stories. I wonder how many people work here.” She stood a little straighter and took a deep breath before ringing the bell. A woman wearing a black serge dress and white apron, her hair pinned under a lace cap, answered the bell. “Yes?” she asked.
“I’m here for the position”, Cecile said, handing over the letter from the owner of the house.
“This way. I am Mrs. Nelsen, the head housekeeper”, the woman said as she ushered Cecile into a beautifully decorated parlor. William Morris wallpaper graced the walls along with paintings hung from picture rales. Kazakh style rugs were placed carefully over the dark stained floors. Doorways were framed in dark mahogany. Velvet upholstered furniture lined the walls. A wide, gracious stairway led the way to the second floor.
Mrs. Nelson read over the letter Cecile handed her and motioned Cecile to a chair. “Your duties will be to keep the second floor as a maid. You will be given a uniform. The cost will be deducted from your pay. You may take your meals in the kitchen with the rest of the staff. You will have Sundays off. You will be expected at all times to comport yourself as a proper Christian young woman. Do you have a place to stay or will you be boarding in?”
Head spinning, Cecile could only nod at what she was hearing. “I have a place to stay”, she heard herself say.
“I am responsible for hiring staff, but you will meet with the owner, Mr. Acton before you begin your duties. You may start tomorrow at 7:00 am sharp. Punctuality is required. Good Day.” Mrs. Nelsen dismissed Cecile with a nod.
It was her first full day in Minneapolis and she had a new name and work as a maid. In a mansion of all things.
Cecile hurried back to the boarding house and found she had a new roommate. Christine had just arrived and was going to work at a paper factory in St. Paul. The two young women hit it off immediately and become inseparable. Their friendship lasted their entire lives.
Cecile and Christine spent nearly every minute they weren’t working with each other. They walked down the sidewalks of Minneapolis, window shopping and giggling over displays in shop windows. One winter, they joined a group of other young people for sleigh rides in the snow, wrapped in warm blankets, and pulled by 2 strong horses, their hooves spraying clouds of snow with each step. At Christmas time, they sang carols. “Silent Night” drifted into the night air, sung in German, Norwegian, Danish, and English. A young man named Clarence Swenson joined the singing. Cecile pretended to ignore him.