My North Dakota Grandmother Augusta

When my sister visited from Boston last week, we dragged out the family albums and letters. Really, it’s only one side of the family that’s represented, and only one letter writer–our North Dakota grandmother, our mother’s mother Augusta. We knew her not at all. But we knew the town of Hankinson, North Dakota quite well because our mother Maxine took us there, summer after summer, to stay in the big house where she grew up. It’s still there, the house, being renovated by an enterprising family, after being broken into apartments, and generally neglected for years.

But that’s another, more recent story. What my sister and I found, or more truly, read for the first time were a sheaf of letters written in our grandmother Augusta’s fast, open hand during the winter and spring of 1928, the year our mother and her older sister Elinor lived together near the University of Minnesota. Their address was 1312 7th St SE, Minneapolis.

Sometimes Augusta addressed the letters to Elinor Maxine Wipperman, no comma between the first names, certainly no zip code. Each small envelope contained two, maybe three pages written on both sides of somewhat yellowed paper. Each sheet, not even as wide as my stretched out hand. But the pages are still intact. It was 1928: My mother was a junior at the University, her older sister Elinor a senior.

Augusta addresses\d my mother not as Maxine but as Mousie. Despite being shy, our mother would be the in-coming president of her sorority, Phi Omega Pi. She was making very good grades. But she was Mousie, her sister the older, less pampered Elinor.

You would never know from these letters that a handful of disasters had struck the family: Augusta suffered a nervous breakdown, the first or second year my mother went to the University. There’s enough family lore to explain that without her children, she fell into depression and had to be hospitalized. There’s also the whispered implication that her husband, my grandfather, at least 10 years older than she, beat her, probably trying to “beat some sense into her.” Maybe she would not stop weeping.

The sprightly, loving tone of these letters gives a lie to such a tale, but I heard it in whispered conversations from my mother, though she never implicated her father in any way. I heard about that from my cousins who grew up in Hankinson. Their father was my mother’s twin brother, Bud to our Mousie.

My mother idolized her father, a self-made man who’d come from Milwaukee to take a job in a mercantile establishment, married (his first marriage) the owner’s daughter, and in time owned the company. He later acquired a handful of rental properties and quite a bit of farm land outside town, around Lake Elsie.

My mother’s family was well-off by the time she was born. Years later, I experienced “Papa Max’s house” as a mansion, but it wasn’t that. Rather a well-built, spacious two-story prairie home with a full attic. Its shadowed rooms were lined with gleaming walnut woodwork, the upstairs bedrooms papered with cabbage roses or iris, a different design for each daughter’s bedroom.

By 1928, the agricultural depression had preceded the stock market crash of 1932, and eaten into the well-being of local business. In one of her 1928 letters August comments that it was 100 degrees that May afternoon, but she had to bake a turkey because a farmer had come into town wanting to trade for some flour. The turkey had to be cooked or go bad. “I served it cold with potato salad,” wrote Augusta to her daughters the next day. “I plan to make “chicken salad’ tonight.”

It’s clear August was in charge of the household, and her mothering extended to the University and advising her daughters about clothes. Mousie, when you come home to “keep house for Papa,” bring a warm sweater–“it’s sometimes chilly in June.” But buy a nice new voile dress in town, something peachy, and a pair of cotton knickers too.

In another letter she will make Mousie undies from “Papa’s wedding suit…nice fabric and the silk lining is lovely. The suit is too small for him now.” Even in our tight times as the professor’s “girls” in South Carolina, our mother never considered taking apart an outgrown suit to make us undies. This difference hints at Augusta’s need to contribute to her daughter’s wardrobe in the most satisfactory way possible, using fine fabric and her evident skill as a seamstress. She could make what was needed for practically nothing.

Times were tight, but not that tight. Augusta would soon leave on the train for New York, “going east,” as my mother used to say, to visit one of her older sisters, the one she called “Aunt Lena.” What Lena was doing in New York I have no idea. But many of Augusta’s May letters describe intricate plans for her train trip east. Mousie will to get on the Soo Line train in Minneapolis and ride with her mother to Saint Paul, where they’ll “have a lovely dinner in the station.” That would be Union Station which was beautifully renovated recently, perhaps to its original glory as the Twin Cities’ railroad hub, where my sister, mother and I would also change trains, heading to North Dakota after our three days and two nights from South Carolina.

It touches me to hear how precise and insistent Augusta is about seeing her youngest daughter. If Mousie can’t meet her on Monday, then she’ll try and change her departure for Sunday. “You are to slide through the turnstile and some sit with me,” August directs. Or, “I’ll be on the observation platform when the train pulls in, watching for you.”

I assume that this trip of six weeks to see her sister in New York will be therapeutic. She will not be lonesome, but active, involved, going to sit on the beach in her green sweater. Beach? This is not the New York City of skyscrapers and busy traffic I’ve envisioned. Perhaps beach means Long Island or Coney Island. No letters remain from Augusta’s trip to explain.

She died when I was three months old, dying at home from stomach cancer. I know the small narrow room the family created for her illness, downstairs beside the front bedroom where Papa Max slept when we visited years ago.Even as a child, I sensed something closed and secret in her bedroom with its narrow cot and toilet. Standing in front of the dressing table mirror, I brushed my heavy dark hair with the soft bristled brush on the dressing table. The brush did nothing but glide across my heavy dark hair. It was hard to open the warped drawers of the tiny table. But the sense of her gentle, dusty presence remains with me. I wish I had known her alive, though the letters are probably the next best thing.

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