My grandmother liked to tell us stories of children raised by animals. She collected them, I think. She knew all the stories about Mowgli, which she had somehow transported to the Minnesota northwoods. There was one from the Pacific Northwest, it was a book I read, about a boy whose uncle kills his father, the head of the tribe, abandons him in the woods, and then defects to a rival tribe. I can never remember the name of the tribes because I can’t say them right, but they were real. He is raised by wolves and later he and his animal friends get some revenge on the rival tribe. She was a good story teller on an afternoon when we were tired of playing outside and she would sit in an old rocking chair, knitting scarves, and telling the story to her needles as they worked. She was always making scarves. The yarn was always the same dull gray, too. She didn’t believe in color. I don’t know if she didn’t know how to make anything else but a scarf. I’d say, “Farmor, can you make us a sweater?” But no, always a new scarf. She’d say, “Here, your old one is getting a little raggedy,” even though the new one she gave you looked just like the old one. So she’d sit there in her chair, which made a thumping sound each time it rocked forward, a kind of a drumbeat for whatever story she was telling. Staring down at her needles, talking in this offhanded way as if we weren’t there. It was like that until she got to the end of any story. She’d start to look up at us, little by little, and her eyes would get wider and more fierce as she went. As she got to the end, she’d be staring and glaring at us and we would be slowly sliding back on the floor, away from her, toward the couch or the doorway out. You felt like she might hit you, although I never saw her hit anyone. She had a big wooden spoon in her kitchen and she sometimes threatened to hit my father or his brothers with it, but she never did.
She was one of those people who knew how to tell stories, from those days before people had televisions to fill up the night with drama, and on a dark winter evening you were either going to have some good talk, or maybe somebody had a fiddle or a piano in their house and you might be lucky and get some music, or you were going to be listening to the wind. If my grandmother hadn’t thought televisions were ungodly things she probably would have been one of those people who had a TV on all the time in every room. She hated the sound of the wind. So she talked over it. Constantly. She talked through what she was cooking in the kitchen. Through the steps of all the chores she was doing. In the morning when she came downstairs and got the water boiling on the stove she’d recite her list of to-dos for the day. And since that didn’t always take that long, she’d run through it again. As if she had to memorize it or it wouldn’t work.
I think the reason she liked those stories about children growing up among animals was this sense she had of being surrounded. By people you weren’t sure you should trust. Her grandparents had traveled out from Minnesota with a group of other Swedes. They all settled here for awhile, but the wind and the winters drove them out after awhile, I guess. My grandmother used to say, “And if they’d been half as smart as we all like to think, I think they should have moved on, too.” They had built a house on the quarter section I have now. That was the original homestead. I lived in that house for a while when I was young. It was on a little rise, with a few ash and cottonwood trees around it. The ash trees have all been killed off by the emerald ash borer, but the cottonwoods are still there. You can see for miles from there. It was a good place. If I had built that house, hauled all that lumber out there, I would have stayed, too.
Norwegians were mostly settling around there, of course, so they ended up surrounded by Norwegians. Still Scandinavian, still Lutheran. I mean, if you came from somewhere else, you wouldn’t know the difference. Both languages have that same funny bounce to them. The culture seems pretty similar, especially compared to the German families. But she probably had the most Swedish household outside of Sweden. My dad grew up with that. If the neighbors were making lefse at Christmas, she was making pancakes. She made meatballs a lot. My dad hated meatballs when I was growing up.
She never said it exactly, but I always understood those stories of the children to remind us that we weren’t really among our own kind. We might not be safe. These people weren’t quite civilized.
It was foolish, of course. We all went to church together on Sunday. It was the Germans and the Catholics who were really different. We went to school together. When there was time to play with other children, that’s who we played with.
And the farm, the farmhouse where Jodi and Josh still live. It was a Norwegian farmer who built that farm. Who borrowed money from my grandfather during the drought years, during the Depression, and then ended up drifting away. And then they moved into it, because it was really a better house. Not exactly a wild animal’s den. But she’d go on telling that story anyway.