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Family History for my Grandchildren

February 22, 2021

I was going to start with the basics, beginning with the earliest ancestors.  Of course, my mother came from two lines:  Bonde on her father’s side and Wichstrom on her mother’s.  History gets blurry and vague prior to 200 years ago.  There’s a matriarch on the Bonde side, from a farm in Vang, in central Norway.  A patriarch on the Wichstrom side, from Oslo, a coastal port city to the south.

I consider the past 200 years to be “modern.”

First the Bonde matriarch, Berit Bonde.

In the beginning our ancestors had pretty much moved from Africa to the steppes of Eurasia to learn how to herd sheep. Eventually, they got beat up by a variety of Tartars and other savage types, learned to ride horses, and ran west to the hills. They got into the area north of the Danube River and hid in the woods. That’s when they learned how to spin wool and flax and grind grain into flour. They didn’t eat well, unless they killed a deer or a neighbor’s ox. People only lived to be 30, give or take.

Mostly they had to avoid those damn Roman soldiers. The Danube kept the Romans away for a long time.

As far as I know, in the middle ages, Germanic tribes migrated from the mountainous areas of Eastern Europe north to what is now Scandinavia:  Denmark, Sweden, Norway.  I omitted Finland because their language is unrelated to the others.

We have Norse sagas and Beowolf in addition to archaeological evidence of life in the pre-Christian times up north.  

In the early 1800s my great, great, grandmother, Berit Bonde, and her husband, Thorstein, farmed in a little valley in central Norway, at present-day Vang.  A bunch of us went there two years ago.  It has rocky soil and a lake surrounded by nearby mountains.  We were there in March.  We stayed at a bed and breakfast owned by Arne and Berit Nefstad. Bob and Heather and their daughter Olivia, along with Cyrus and Roland (Todd’s boys) and Penny and I went to Vang by rented car from Bergen, a port city on Norway’s west coast. Vang doesn’t even have a gas station. It does have Berit Bonde’s log house, though. It looks like a fixer-upper, with a cat scurrying about.

While in Bergen, Penny and I agreed to meet everyone else at a certain restaurant. For some reason we went by cab, only we got dropped off at the wrong place. For some other reason we didn’t have a phone, nor did we know Bob or Heather’s phone number. For another unknown reason, we didn’t figure out we were at the wrong restaurant until dark. Also, we didn’t know the address or name of the place where we were supposed to spend the night. We decided to order cocktails. Then hamburgers and more cocktails. We knew we were lost, but we were indoors.

We were in a bind because our restaurant would close later. Luckily, Bergen has fewer than 300,000 residents, mostly able to speak English. Finally, we got the restaurant people to order us a cab and, using pigeon English/Norwegian, we had the driver go up one street and down another until we found our rental apartment. Olivia said she was relieved to be reunited with us. The boys hadn’t realized we were missing.

Bob sold an article about our trip to the Washington Post. He omitted certain details, because he is a professional writer.

Our family history has been sugar-coated and vaguely states Berit Bonde’s husband Thorstein had “litigation” trouble such that he couldn’t stay with Berit and the children in Vang.  He was able to provide them a house and modest income, but he had to go to Lillihammer to find work.  He died a few years later in his 20s or early 30s.  

A present-day informant said word back in Vang was Thorstein was alcoholic and drank himself to death.  Alcoholism seems to run in our family, as does mental illness. Just sayin.’ Near Berit Bonde’s decaying log house was a present-day Bonde descendent who was too mentally “special” to visit with us. We love him, and claim him and hold him to our bosoms. He is acting exactly right. I only wish he could visit my psychiatrist, who has helped me through such a pass.

Back to the story of Berit Bonde.

In Vang, after a suitable mourning period of several years, Berit married a neighbor farmhand, Einar Halvorson.  He took Berit’s last name because they lived on the Bonde farm.  Berit bore several more children.  This was the early 1800s. Einar Halvorson, starting as a neighborhood laborer, has become a Bonde family patriarch.

Other families in Vang also had kids.  Many kids.  More people than the meager land could feed, so Berit and Einar walked 237 km (142 miles) to Oslo with a few belongings.  One child died on the road.  From there they eventually got on a ship to Germany, then Canada, to a port of entry that was a better bet than Ellis Island, I was told.

I don’t know how they got to Minnesota, but Einar and Berit’s son Tosten and his wife Ingabor eventually quarried and built a two-story stone house near Nerstrand, Minnesota.  The family built a barn and created and placed a wooden water pipe.  The farm is still in the Bonde family today.

Einar and Berit lived long enough to see lots of grandchildren grow up in the stone house.  They are buried in a cemetery about 10 miles from the house.

Berit and Einar Bonde

One of Berit’s grandchildren, from her first marriage with Thorstein, lived a couple miles away in Nerstrand.  His name was Thorstein Veblen, a rebellious and witty academic who attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.  He wrote several books that earned him a prominent name.  One of those was an economics book, “Theory of the Leisure Class.” I believe it was meant to be satire, but most people couldn’t understand it.

That’s about all I know of Berit.  As I mentioned, we visited the house she left behind in Vang, on Easter Sunday two years ago.  Our son Bob drove us in the rented car past a barn and up a snowy hill where we saw Berit’s house on a gentle snow-covered hillside.  There weren’t any tracks, except those of cats which darted ahead of us.

It was a one-room log cabin with an open, corner fireplace.  It was the same design as we saw at the Oslo historical museum, the same design as the place we were staying.  The construction was tightly fitted logs.

Evidently the corner fireplace was for eating and cooking and sleeping because of its central location.  Cats poured out of windows about the place.  Did I already mention the cats?

Berit’s house had been converted into a woodworking shop, with a band saw and other tools.  Dust was everywhere and the old wooden board door was hard to open.  Everything was natural wood, in this case black and gray, from age and weather.  There were several other log buildings nearby and a post-WWII house down the hill a short space.  Our friends Arne and Berit Nefstad told us the modern house had a man with the Bonde surname, but he was “special,” as I mentioned, and refused to allow us to visit him.  Didn’t I think of my reclusive brother?  He would have acted like that.

I have mental issues too, so I considered our inability to connect with the man to be confirmation we are related.  We studied the house, took some pictures.  I picked up a small stone.  Bob put a piece of iron hardware into his pocket.

Next, Bob drove perhaps a quarter mile where we visited an 820-year-old stave church with pews that were inscribed with the name “Bonde” among many other names.  A couple of men who unlocked it said the rocky land in the Vang area was unsuited to farming these days.  We paid a woman to show us around the inside of the church.  She was young, pretty, and chubby, but athletic.  She led us up several ladders to the upper reaches of the building where we saw carvings of Norse gods in the principal wooden posts.  

Norwegians seem to dislike war.

I am reading Joseph Heller’s book, Catch-22, and I admire the writing, also the format of the book.  I cannot adopt his style.  Not even close.  The format might help me in my own attempt to tell my story, which I hope to tell to my own grandchildren.  Yesterday I thought I’d write for my hippie friends back in Missoula, but now I realize we are all around 70 years old, and past most of our youthful folly, enjoyable as it sometimes was.  When I wasn’t terrified.

I am afraid of war, hate it.  Yet I ran toward the Marines when I was 20, to become a soldier during the Vietnam conflict.  At that time I realized I was healthy and strong enough to join and that often we must go toward and face the terrors of our time.  I still hate war, blustering, bullying, violence.  At the same time I came to love my fellow soldiers, found beauty, friendship, even a Marine who became a father figure to me.  Real brave people find how to help their fellow soldiers do what must be done.  Often they survive.  In my uncle Bud’s case, he did not.

And so Berit and Einar begat Tosten.  Tosten and Ingabor begat Carl T. Bonde.  (T for Tosten).  Carl begat Buddy.  Also Helen.  Helen begat me.  I begat this bunch of writing.  Also three children who begat seven grandchildren.  Who knows what’s next?

The house for Christmas was festooned with little paper stars hanging from strings in the doorway to the kitchen.  Larger stars hung from wooden beads draped from the divider between the living room and dining room.  Same for another double doorway to the front sunroom.  A spindly fir stood in water, decorated with lights and ornaments, some older than I am.  I’m 71.  Penny and I have been married 50 years and almost one month.

Our house is like a museum, with old photographs and paintings, bric-a-brac, occasional musical instruments hardly anyone plays these days.  That’s a pity, especially for the clavichord my brother Tom built in 1981, and the Martin guitar I bought for a thousand bucks in 2005.  I sawed the top off a bongo drum to make the drumhead for an improvised banjo, back when I collected guitars from thrift stores.  

Penny and Todd bought me a Deering banjo.  Now I am learning to pick the banjo strings with thumb and index and middle fingers, helped along with a book on a music stand.

Banjo. Deering.

I still have a lot of darkroom equipment, especially expanded when the Billings Gazette stopped using silver processes to make its offset printing plates.  I have two unused rolls of film, about 15 inches wide and perhaps a 100 feet long, slowly fogging away on a shelf in the darkroom.  For a time when I worked as a pharmacist in Lame Deer, Montana, I had three heated four gallon developing tanks for film.  I even had a vacuum pump from an offset press in an adjacent room so I could move the developer, stop bath and fixer from one place to another by switching a switch and opening a valve.  At that time I bought 5×7 black and white film in 100-sheet boxes.  My favorite was a kind of film that was orthochromatic, that is, insensitive to red light so I could safely work under the light of some red lightbulbs I got from my nephew from the Gazette.  The bulbs came from Larry Mayer, the news photographer.

My darkroom.

My nephew converted the Gazette from optical silver film to computer-generated laser images, direct to light-sensitive aluminum plates.  No matter how much money he saved the Lee Enterprises company, the more Lee squeezed its editorial staff.  Eventually all but a couple of reporters and a publisher remained.  I expect in a few more years the era of paper printing will have ended.

With all that technology, the world goes on.  I’ve heard the great physician, Oliver Sacks, explain that several phenomena we take for granted, i.e., perceived motion and passage of time, are constructs by our brains.  In other words, when we think we see something moving, we are really seeing many discrete still images joined by a specific part of our brains, much like the separate images in a motion picture.  The sensation of time passing is something like that, a construct of our brains.  Dr. Sacks said he cared for patients whose bodies would stay still, as if frozen, for ten years at a time.  Then for no apparent reason, the person would resume normal motion.

Time passage is an odd sensation, but most of us think little about it.  I wonder about my grandmother, Ellen Bonde, whose son mysteriously was “missing in action” about two years after he enlisted in the army and was shipped to fight the Germans during WW II.  

About a month after Ellen learned her son Buddy was missing in action, she received a second notification—a telegram—that his status was changed to “killed in action.”  Her daughters ferreted out the information that Buddy’s ship had sunk in the English Channel and that his body was not recovered.  But that was the extent of her knowledge.  You could write the final chapter of Buddy’s life on a matchbook cover.

The reason for the paucity of information about Buddy’s demise was simple.  The U.S. War Department kept the information secret.  At first the army didn’t want to give the Germans any satisfaction or comfort, knowing they’d sunk a troopship with more than a thousand soldiers aboard.  Another document, finally, after 50 years declassified, stated the large loss of life was a result of long-delayed rescue efforts and so reflected poorly on the United States and Great Britain.  They thought it better to let sleeping dogs lie.  Lie was the right word.  “Cover up” is a better term, the words of an expose published by the History Channel for television.

Here’s what I know about my grandmother, Ellen Margaret (Wichstrom) Bonde.  Or rather the story of her forebears.  We visited a family historian, Bjorn Wichstrom, in Oslo a few years back.  Bjorn was a man in his 80s, small in stature, dressed in dark blue suit and necktie.  We encountered him at the Frogstetergren Restaurant atop a mountain near Oslo, along with several other family members.  A replica of a famous painting loomed on the rustic wooden wall:  The Birkebiener picture of two ancient skiers whisking the infant king of Norway under their animal skin coats.  The ski tips made graceful curves upward ending in what looked to be brown golfballs.

Bjorn had the grace and charm of a scholar in the legal profession.  He gave us candy and books as gifts.  We gave him gifts from Montana, jars of huckleberry jam.  Also some bead work from the Crow and Cheyenne Reservations.  Mostly Bjorn sat quietly while the younger people conversed excitedly.  In the end we agreed to meet several more times before departing Norway.

My grandmother had a photocopy of some letters she received from her Aunt Margaret, written October, 1907.  These letters told about her ancestors from Oslo (formerly Kristiania).

The old man, Peter Wichstrom, moved to Norway from Sweden.  He was a master joiner, a carpenter.  He married a woman from Norway.  Their child, the one who would become my grandmother’s grandfather, became a lawyer who worked for the government.  He and his wife had 13 children.  

One of those children would emigrate to the U.S. and marry.  In LaCrosse, Wisconsin, my grandmother was born in 1887.  She was one of four children.  The family later moved to Valley City, North Dakota, where my mother told me grandma’s mother ruled the family with an ‘iron hand.”

The specter of a woman with a hand made of metal frightened and impressed me.  My mother never met her grandparents, who are buried in an old cemetery in Valley City.  I was with my grandmother when she bought a memorial head stone for her parents there.  More than 50 years later I snapped a photo of the stone.  Last year my wife and I visited the cemetery during the pandemic of Covid-19, but I couldn’t find the stone, although we walked all around and asked a man who was mowing with a tractor.  He said he remembered seeing a headstone labeled “Wichstrom,” but couldn’t recall where.

Ellen’s parents died in Valley City, leaving a boarding house to her and three siblings to care for.  Ellen was good at sewing, so she earned money to raise her brother and two sisters.  Her brother Ralph was drafted into the army.  He and his wife, Gertrude, moved to Billings, Montana, where he painted commercially and painted artistically.  Outdoor scenes.  I have one of his paintings, a woman riding a horse with pistol and lasso.

One of Ellen’s sisters died in the flu epidemic.  His widower sent their child, a boy named Sigurd, to live with her after she married my grandfather, Carl T. Bonde.  My aunt Corinne said “everyone liked Sig.”  Near as I can tell, Sig lived with the Bonde’s only a couple of years.

One of Corinne’s sibs died of “scarlet fever” in 1919.

Carol Caatherine’s grave marker.

I don’t know of any photos of this child, dead at age three from an epidemic.

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