Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Singing in Harmony, Stitching in Time 1

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Singing in Harmony, Stitching in Time 1

Article excerpt

Plum Grove Township, Nebraska

Spring 1911. Seated in her parlor on the farm they lease, Bertha Hansen shivers as she slips her needle through beige linen. Heinrich has booked a trip to Germany, a visit home, but as departure draws near, uneasiness envelops her like the white mist of their native marsh. Does danger await them, a great storm perhaps, and is the chill she feels a premonition? Or is it simple bad humor, a wife's irritation with a husband who squanders money on steamship tickets when they're saving to buy a farm?

Bertha stops mid-stitch, looks up from the letters she's embroidering on the new throw pillow. Might Heinrich be lying? Gripped by resolve even greater than when she chose orange wool for thread, she pilots the needle with renewed fervor. Her message to her sister Volina, Forget Me Not, must blaze among the blue forget-me-nots. Suddenly, as nimble stitches close the loop on the second o, they catch the sun. The o takes on the appearance of a small jewel, an amber nugget.

It may as well be crystal. Across a century Bertha sees me, Volina's granddaughter, miles from the prairie in my high desert home, lettering in tandem, interlocking our lives.

Schobuell, North Friesland

Summer 1972. With a distinct thud, I deposit the brown canvas suitcase I had to have, better-suited to a safari than a European tour, on the unpaved drive of the first farm north of Husum, a cozy-seeming harbor town. Like the novice traveler I am, I stuffed the bag so full it's painfully heavy.

The farm is a cluster of farmhouse, outbuildings, and gardens. A thick windbreak-birch and aspen, apple and plum-encircles it before giving way to pastureland in which placid cows loll or help themselves to abundant summer grass. Behind the fields, the farm is protected from the North Sea by something I've never seen before-the massive rampart of a steep-sloped dike, a band of worn green velvet.

Before I can make my way to a set of elaborately carved doors, one opens. Out onto the drive emerge a handsome, blue-eyed couple in their late twenties and two blond, wide-eyed boys. We exchange greetings as two women approach from a side entrance, the taller one reaching us with the no-nonsense stride of a Viking. A slower-moving woman arrives behind her, leaning on a cane. Her black, ankle-length skirt is matched to a long-sleeved blouse, black flecked with white flowers. Her hair, brushed upward and pinned at the crown, is the muted silver of my grandmother's. Wearing light mourning sixteen years after her husband's death, she's the portrait of an elderly German widow. I know in an instant this is the grand-aunt I've come to meet.

I'm a budding genealogist searching for my German roots, and Bertha is the only sibling of my grandmother's to return from America to live in Germany. Her face, lined and crinkled like fallen leaves, has even features. She greets me in English, and I'm relieved to see the grayblue eyes, like a child's let out of school for summer, are lit with glee. Why, if you wave away the gray, the wrinkles, and the widow's weeds, she might be holding her big sister Volina's hand as they splash together in the North Sea.

"Can I stay about a week?" I ask, hoping not to seem presumptuous.

"Du kannst en Johr blieven! You can stay a year!" replies the tall woman-she's Grete, Bertha's daughter-in-law-commandeering my bag like a Grand Tour porter as she whisks me inside. Her German sounds curiously closer to English than any I've heard before; it must be the Low German my mother told me to expect. We climb the stairs to Grete's flat, where I'll share her sunny bedroom with a view to Husum and the dike; Tante will join us from her downstairs flat for noon-day meals.

The parched landscape of Utah, where I'm a college student, is already fading from my mind, its midsummer browns and grays exchanged for a vibrant kaleidoscope: houses with steep roofs flank narrow streets while window boxes overflow with geraniums and petunias, lavender and lobelia. …

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