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A World War II Hero’s Grieving Mother

January 28, 2015

PFC Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr.’s mother,  Ellen Bonde, was about 62 years old when I was born in 1949.  That would have made her about 57 when her son died aboard the SS Leopoldville in the English Channel Christmas Eve.  The US Army officially listed the day he died as December 25, 1944, but the overwhelming evidence is for Christmas Eve.  (I spoke to 6 WWII veterans who were there.)  Ellen Bonde was 36 years old when she gave birth to her last child, a son, Sept. 15, 1923.  My mother said she hadn’t even known that her mother was pregnant.

I stayed with my grandparents for several months in 1953.  Ellen had silver curly hair and wore a dress every day in the 1950s when the agricultural economy she grew up with was all but changed into one of money.  She and grandpa lived in Kalispell, Montana, on a hill on the edge of town.  In the winter the house always smelled of pine wood smoke. Ashley Creek ran through part of their land.  They had 5 acres with many apple trees that grandpa painted the trunks white with whitewash to protect them from bugs.  I was always confused about the lime he used.  Grandpa said lime was used to make cement, so I begged him for lime so that I could make some.  We’d just talking like that when grandma would call out “Yoo hoo.  Lunch.”

Ellen could bake pies, cook venison, make cinnamon rolls and even creme puffs in her voluminous blue kitchen that was a huge, high-ceilinged rectangular box with a few windows on the west side.  Ellen was the boss of the kitchen and the rest of the house too.  I had to be careful around her.

Grandpa was a smoker, a drinker when he went down to the barn to get away from grandma, and he had long since conceded all domestic power to grandma.  “She’s the boss,” he repeated as he puffed through pursed lips.  He had emphysema and his realm was the barn.

Back at the house on top of the hill grandma used a wicked looking hunting knife to dig around in her rock gardens.  Big rock gardens out around the house on the other side of the gravel driveway.  My cousins and I could go out and find cool fossils and petrified wood in the rock garden.  Grandma also used power tools and a hammer.  She was tough and she meant business.  I saw her push my mother’s light green Oldsmobile uphill out of a diagonal parking space in the winter when the wheels just spun and mother couldn’t get it out.  Grandma didn’t talk a lot, but I knew she hated Franklin D. Roosevelt.  She didn’t say why, but I think everyone knew that she blamed him for the death of her son in WWII.

Grandma treasured a book published by the US War Department titled “Tactics and Techniques of Infantry” that had belonged to Bud.  I know she treasured it because I left it outdoors in one of my childhood forts and it got wet and mildewed.  She didn’t talk about her soldier son to me as much as my mother and her sisters did.  I know grandma loved Buddy dearly because I found a letter she wrote to him in mid-December 1944 that had been returned to her because it couldn’t be delivered.  He never received it.  I still have a copy of it, and it is copied verbatim elsewhere on this blog.

The letter was poignant because Ellen told Bud how she had been scrambling to put together a Christmas package for him with gifts from his parents and siblings.  She told news about his dad and his sisters and she closed by asking him to be extra kind to his army friends who were no doubt homesick and lonesome for their families.

Anyhow, Ellen was a tough, strong-willed person from North Dakota who lost her parents before she was out of high school.  Even though she helped raise her brother Ralph and several sisters by sewing and mending clothes, she still managed to graduate from normal school in Valley City, North Dakota, the same institution my mother graduated from in the early 1930s.  teacher’s colleges used to be called “normal schools” because grade schools in those days were supposed to normalize the students, often immigrants, who attended.  Not only did Ellen help raise her siblings and graduate, she later took in one of her nephews, Sig Christianson, when Ellen’s sister died of influenza in 1918.

Ellen married my grandpa Carl Bonde in Valley City and they moved to Sheyenne, North Dakota, where he worked in a grocery.  That was his life’s work.  He ended up as a wholesale grocer in Kalispell, Montana.  On the hill, as I said.  Anyhow, early on, they lived in several small towns in North Dakota and Minnesota and Ellen had 4 daughters, one of whom died in her arms of scarlet fever the same year as Ellen’s sister died.  Of course the other girls were my aunts and my mother.

Ellen certainly bore her share of sorrow and loss.  Stoically, too.  Although she did socialize with a number of women — Mamie Paulson and Mrs. Jordet come to mind — at Ladies Aid and “circle,” she eventually grew isolated and silent by the time her husband died and she moved in with my mother and me in Missoula.  My mother had to keep the peace because Ellen and I bickered often.  Well, I was cheeky and insolent towards her.  During my adolescence my interests often required me to borrow grandma’s things:  oh, pots and pans when I did magic tricks.  Or cake pans when I developed pictures.  I needed those things and I considered my grandma and all of her possessions to be mine to enjoy as I saw fit.  Grandma did not agree with me at all.  She had a 20-gallon lard tin filled with sheep’s wool that she intended to one day spin on her spinning wheel.   She never did that and my sister has the spinning wheel in Nebraska.  Grandma had a big stack of wooden serving trays that she intended to paint gaily with flowers, Norwegian toll style.  Paints too.  When I was crawling around under the bathroom in our house in Missoula the sewer gas was stinky, so I squirted the oil paints out onto the dirt floor to mask the stench from the sewer pipe.  I don’t know if grandma ever figured that out, but she did notice that her steel bucket that had many tubes of oil paint was about empty.  She blamed me and I admitted it.  She accused me of other crimes that I hadn’t committed, so I denied doing them.  She said I was a liar and rotten to the core.

I wasn’t rotten to the core, she said on her death bed in 1967 when I was 18 and visiting her in the hospital.  She told me that I was good, certifiably so, by my grandmother.

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One Comment
  1. Carol permalink

    Dan, this is the kind of family history I love to read.

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