The first Mildred

After reaching her 100th birthday last month, we wondered how long it would be before my great Aunt Olive found another reason to live.

It took one week. 

"I am the last of the Mohicans," Olive said. "I want to show you where my family lived when I was born or nobody will remember."

The problem? Olive was born near Canby, MN, two hundred miles to the south. She hasn't taken a trip like that in fifteen years. 

No matter. Aunt Olive decided we would go last Saturday. 

With the help of the staff at the Fertile Hilton, Aunt Olive was ready to roll at the crack of dawn. 

We picked up Cousin Monica in Moorhead and headed south on I-29, into the teeth of a big south wind. 

Just south of Watertown, SD, we angled back towards Minnesota. We stopped at the former School for the Blind in Gary, SD, for lunch at the posh new resort housed in the beautiful old buildings.

Aunt Olive's aunt Gunda had worked at the school in 1910. 

We then drove to Canby. I wondered how we would find the farm. 

"Oh, we'll just stop and ask," Olive said. 

Easier said than done. We found a history museum in Canby, but it was closed. Luckily, there were two phone numbers on the door you could call for information. 

A friendly woman named Marcella helped us out. Although she had never heard of any Bergesons (they left ninety-five years ago), she gave us directions to Florida Lutheran Church seven miles north of Canby. Aunt Olive knew she had been baptized there. 

The church was gone. Only the bell remained mounted in the cemetery perched atop a lonely hill in the middle of a corn field in La Qui Parle county.

The wind was fierce, but Aunt Olive waved off the wheelchair and walked a few steps to see the bell. We took pictures. 

Then, Aunt Olive pointed directly to the northeast corner of the cemetery.

"My sister Mildred is buried over there."

Sure enough, faintly inscribed on a lichen-covered white stone was "Mildred Bergeson." 

Aunt Olive told us the story. 

Little Mildred was born in 1904. She was a sweet child. When she was four, she ran out to greet her father who was on his way in from the field on the horse-drawn hay wagon. 

Mildred slipped and fell into its path. Before Papa could stop the wagon, it ran over and killed little Mildred. 

Papa and Mama were heartbroken. They never spoke of the accident. 

As was typical at that time, Mama and Papa named their next female child Mildred. She lived to a ripe old age as our Aunt Millie. 

Few in the family know of "the first Mildred." 

I scrubbed some of the lichens off the epitaph. It was in Norwegian. Translated, it says: "Leave your sorrows on earth, you are in the abode of the happy now."

After the tragic death of the first Mildred, earthly sorrows piled up for the young family. Three crops in a row hailed out. There was no insurance. Papa became chronically ill. 

In a last-ditch attempt to escape crushing debt, Papa sold the farm near Canby and bought a cheaper farm near Twin Valley, MN from some landsharks. 

The train cars with the livestock, implements and family belongings reached Twin Valley late one evening. The family stayed in a hotel before going out to see their new farm the next day. 

Papa died in the hotel that night. He never realized that the farm he bought was on a sand ridge. His young wife was left alone with seven children under the age of 15 on unproductive land.

But Mama was a businesswoman. The oldest of the children, Roy, 15, did the field work with the help of my grandfather Melvin, 12. 

It took them five years to pay off the $85 bill for Papa's funeral. 

Yet, they made it. One year, the family made the land payment by selling strawberries Mama grew door-to-door. Another year, they sold enough turkeys to keep the wolf from the door. 

The stories of hardship came together as we stood on a wind-whipped hill in southern Minnesota by the grave of the first Mildred on a cloudy November Saturday. 

But dwell in the past? Not Aunt Olive. 

The day after we returned from the 13-hour journey to her childhood home, Aunt Olive called. 

"We have got to get to work on my memoirs," she said. 

She already had found her next project.