Memoir in Progress

“Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”

Ortega y Gasset

On January 12, 1888, the perfect storm slammed into the frontier town of Andover, Dakota Territory. On a prairie where blizzards were a fact of life, this one was beyond the pale. It was like being hit by one of the new steam trains roaring past, the light from their glittering parlor cars shining, at night, on the newly broken sod.

“There was no atmospheric herald,” writes David Laskin in the Children’s Blizzard, “No eerie green tinge to the sky or fleecy cirrus forerunner.” Actually, the politics of weather forecasters on that day precluded them issuing the direst warning, not that it would have helped most homesteaders anyway. One of them was my grandmother, Daisy. The storm hit Andover close to noon. Kids were back at school at last, coatless in the suddenly balmy weather. In three minutes, the temperature plummeted 18 degrees, and overnight, almost a hundred. The number of children who were about to die was greater still. Anyone caught out was not only blindsided but literally blinded, as ice needles froze eyes shut and lungs froze, too, should you care to inhale. Visibility? Nil.

Blame it on Krakatoa, the volcanic eruption of 1883, which altered the weather for five years. This blizzard was its dying gasp. Or perhaps the sins of the fathers were being visited upon the children. The migratory history of Lakota people had just ended, as they were forced into stillness on reservations. White people, coming from the East and the great world beyond, kept picking up stakes and migrating further west each time more “free” land became available. It was the greatest human migration on earth.

I can pinpoint my grandmother Daisy’s location on that January 12 day because of what she left behind, which was several cosmic accidents. Her memories are contained in the largest pioneer women’s oral history collection ever collected. And one day, as I was whining about Native people having stories and white people having none, I reached the top shelf of a Sioux Falls bookstore. Books containing my grandmother’s narratives basically fell into my lap, proving, perhaps, that in white culture, books are our elders.

Too young for school but old enough to remember, Daisy was a survivor of that epic event. That makes me one, too. She said:

The first blizzard I remember was the famous one of ’88. We were still living in the sod, and I distinctly recall that a friend who batched it on a claim many miles to the south stopped with us when the storm came on. He and father took down the clothesline and tied it about the waist of one of them while they held the end of it at the back door. Thus they brought in coal and water making things snug…. I even remember them pouring many pails of water over the shanty roof, where it froze in an icy sheet ….We could scarcely tell when the storm was over as the snow was packed completely over the sod shanty…. When the wind finally went down, the next day, I suppose, they opened up the back door, which luckily opened in, and there was the pattern of the door in the snow clear to the top, a neat white wall. After filling the wash boiler and tubs with snow, the men cut steps up and out, for the snow was so hard it would hold up the weight of a man.

Mostly we get through life by putting one foot in front of the other until something extreme stops us in our tracks. My father, for example, wrote a blow-by-blow account of Iwo Jima from his minesweeper (along with 900 love-soaked letters to my mother). And don’t all of us remember exquisitely where we were on 9/11—our lives starkly embedded in the context of what we call history?

Between my two grandmothers’ towns–the American homesteader Daisy and the Norwegian immigrant Dagny lay Groton school, where on January 12, eight-year-old Walter Allen is about to be rescued by a dray, pulled by horses. A young teacher rushes the kids outside. They hop on. Then Walter runs back in to get his fancy ink bottle, which would have burst in the cold. Why can’t they see he’s missing?

There are explanations around people dying from cold. “People freezing to death sometimes find they are unaccountably happy and relaxed,” writes Laskin. “They feel flushed with a sudden glow of well-being. The love the world and everything in it.”

Do they love the world and everything in it? Oh! I think. My grandmother seemed to find that in everyday life. By nature, I am one of those people who think that if the glass is half full, it is probably poison. Still, there are crazy miracles, and I look for that slant of light. I believe that any story without beauty or meaning is not, by definition, a story.

How do we find that light, I wonder, in the lives of our ancestors and in our own? We analyze tragedies till the cows come home. We blame politics, geography, and character flaws, even the weather. Most people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nowadays, few formal markers remain of that storm, though I have braked for some, driving across South Dakota for a wedding or maybe a funeral.

*****

After my mother died recently, I began to consider the collected weight of generations—to see where my own story fit in. How do the welter of letters, photographs, and detritus of lifetimes shift when pressed under the actual weight of generations? And what of that trickster, memory? Certainly our attachment to place, in my case South Dakota, is a crucible, molding me into who I am. These women pioneers bore the seeds of both our generation’s entrapment and also liberation.

Maybe we are all pioneers. And maybe we are all ancestors. My granddaughter (not yet arrived) will have her own challenges. I hear that we, as elders, must do three things: One, offer moral authority; two, bestow blessings, and one more thing. We must pass on the stories. I guess I’ll start there.

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