Travels with Grandma

by Britta on 6 February 2009

in Travels with Grandma

17 May 1914

Perhaps the entire town showed up for the festivities, a celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day. May 17 also happens to be Grandma’s birthday, though she’s not yet in the photos. She won’t come onto the scene until 1923.

The crowd gathered on the banks of the Clearwater River for the photo, taken from across the water. The women wore white from head to toe: white hats, dresses, maybe even shoes, and the men and boys dressed in dark suits. The school children wore parts of their traditional outfits for their program, led by their schoolteacher, Bjorgulv Bjornaraa, my great-grandfather. The photos are captioned in Norwegian.

The Norwegian flag fluttered alongside the American flag that warm, calm spring day. Though it’s difficult to see faces, the photos leave the viewer with a sense that the day was joyful, peals of children’s laughter mingling with the hum of adult conversation, the air heavy with the smells of traditional foods – lutefisk, maybe? — parents and children both gratified after waiting in anticipation for the celebration to begin. Though these people were living in the U.S. — their children had likely been born American – they still proudly celebrated the holidays of their homeland, the happiness and pleasure edging out the nostalgia.

I had been searching through Grandma’s closet, searching for her down comforter (she’s always cold; I was wearing a tank top that day), when I spied an envelope full of photos peeking out of a half-hidden shoe box. In it were pictures Grandma’s niece had sent of the family pre-Grandma. Eileen, daughter of Grandma’s sister Selma, had apparently found some old photos her mother had kept and sent them to Grandma.

I dug through with relish, realizing that, though I had been lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t be traveling while I stayed to help Grandma, I would still be able to see the world. It would just be travel of a different nature.

One of the photos shows three boys and a girl, Grandma’s oldest siblings, Selma included. The next shows about 20 kids gathered on the steps of a schoolhouse; the index card attached has all their names in order. Bjornaraa siblings Dreng, Thorwald, Olof and Selma are in there, along with their neighbors, who appear to vary in age from about five to 12 or so years old. All have Norwegian names, first and last.

Of course, Grandma has no memories of these events, but they do encourage her to recall vignettes from her childhood, of her parents and siblings, and growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota. She spoke Norwegian at home (and what a small homestead it was, especially for 11 children!) and English at school, presumably like the other children in her community, and her family was busily involved in keeping their Norwegian heritage alive, as the May 17 photo attests.

She remembers how Selma and her mother sent messages to each other by attaching them to the dog’s collar, and she remembers the folk music her brothers used to play at local and regional festivals, on the violin and accordion. A story I remember her telling during my childhood involves cross-country skiing on the way to school. Once she lost a ski but continued to school with only one, apparently the Norwegian-Minnesotan version of the uphill-both-ways stories grandparents always tell.

Another photo shows her parents sitting in a sleigh pulled by a horse (not a reindeer) on their way to church. “I remember a sleigh,” says Grandma, although it seems the sleigh must have been all but out of use once Grandma came along: She also remembers learning to drive at nine years old, and bringing lunch and supplies to her brothers who were out working in the fields.

They are tales of a different time and place,  but they never cease to fascinate me.

When Grandma receives the monthly Sons of Norway magazine, Viking, I devour it with as much gusto as I do my adventure magazines. I’m fascinated by the cooking implements like kransekake irons and lefse paddles, by the stories of successful Norwegian-Americans, by the advice for staying connected with the homeland. Though it’s not specifically about travel, it’s enough to get the juices flowing.

Amazing what one can discover hidden in a shoe box deep in Grandma’s closet.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Bonny (Bergerson) Cote April 2, 2010 at 11:02 am

I was searching the internet for a photo of Bjorgulv Bjornaraa for the history book I am putting together for Oklee when I ran across this website. It is Oklee’s Centennial this summer and I wanted to put his photo in with the Satesdals Laget information since that was a very popular event held in Oklee for many years.
Since I haven’t had much luck so far, I am going to contact my godmother, Eileen Votava, Selma’s daughter to see if she has one, but as I read your blog, it would be fun to include the photo of Bjorgulv’s class by the Clearwater river.
Would you be willing to email that photo to me?
I certainly hope so.
I have many fond memories of Selma (I always called Grandma Selma, event though she wasn’t my grandmother). She was very good friends with my grandmother, Birdie Gunderson. And Eileen and my mother, Audrey, were best friends in high school – that’s why Eileen is my godmother.
I remember spending overnight trips to her home and visiting all her brothers still on the farm, though I don’t remember all there names anymore, but it was a very cool house and had some very neat things about it and in it.
I’m rattling on – but back to my question – please consider submitting the photo of Bjorgulv with his class that you discussed in your blog dated February 6, 2009.


Heather March 18, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I was searching my family tree and found this. My great-grandpa is Thorwald Bjornaraa. My grandpa is Bud Bjornaraa. Could you send me that photo as well?

Thank you,

Steve Hedblum April 5, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I know I’m late to both of these posts, but I was playing around and happened across your blog. Dreng was my great grandfather and my mother has given me his old photo albums, most of the photos seem to be from the 1940’s and earlier. Alot of the people and places in the alblums have been lost to my side of the family, but some photos are labeled and dated. If you ever find your self wanting to see more family pictures feel free to contact me I’m sure I could find a way to get them to you.

thora bjornaraa abarca January 23, 2014 at 12:27 am

This is a great canvas! Do you have the photos of Bjorgulv and students? He is my grandfather also and I have been to Setesdal, but I want to know more of who he is and who we are!

Dianne Wells Finn March 19, 2017 at 6:28 am

Hello. Since i recognized every name responding to your blog i had to chime in. Dreng Bjornaraa was my grandfather and i spent every summer up on the Bjornaraa farm growing up. The early years i stayed with uncle Einer and Aunt Selma when i was 8 years old. I have fond memories of all the Bjornaraa sibs and rememer you Britta as a baby when my family visited your family at Christmas one year. Your grandma was such a special person, the baby of the Bjornaraa clan. Hope this finds you. Dianne

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