In my seventeenth year, 1879, I fell in love with Anders Ostergren. He was a son of the land.
In Wisconsin, I often spent Sunday afternoons with my best friend Helga. We sang children’s songs, walking home from early worship together. After helping Mama with dinner, we washed the dishes together. It took us over an hour as we played more than we worked and ended up with wet aprons. We hung the aprons on the clothesline to dry. We lifted an old quilt one, two, three times to create a cool breeze, then smoothed it over a thick bed of grass. In the shade of fragrant linden trees, we planned our lives as wives and mothers.
“If you marry first, you must tell me about what happens in the dark,” Helga whispered.
I promised to reveal all on a Sunday afternoon on that very quilt under a tree beside my new home. I asked for her promise, too. “If you have the first baby, you will spare no detail about the ‘agony followed by joy.’ That is all Mama will tell me on the subject.”
Helga promised. We guessed and speculated and dreamed about our future lives. The one certainty was our vow to drink the cup of life together. Always together.
I sat with Anders on my father's porch one evening before our wedding. I wrapped a thick shawl around my shoulders where the early spring air tried to chill me. The sky was starless. Clouds from the late spring rains would not allow any light to peek through the night lace. Now and then, a drop from a light rain fell from the leaves and landed with a quiet plop on the porch railing.
Anders sat beside me, under a lantern hanging over the front door. He was reading a little book as if preparing to take an examination over its contents. I felt ignored, so I broke the silence. “Are you finding what you are looking for in those pages?” I asked.
“I’m looking for where we shall live after our wedding,” he said.
“We shall build a little house on my parents’ property, or yours,” I declared.
“We are going to homestead. The government is giving free land to those strong enough to build a home and a farm.”
“Where do you expect to find your free land?” I asked.
“I want to be close to Sioux Falls, but not too close,” he said.
“Where is that?” I asked.
“The Dakota Territory.”
“The land is good there say relatives who write from there,” he said.
“What do you know about Dakota?" I asked. "What is the land like? What do they grow there? What about the Indians? At the limestone quarry, they pay you ten dollars every week. That is plenty of money for starting a family right here in Waukesha County.”
Anders rose from his chair. He folded the Emigrant Guide in half and stuffed it in his breast pocket. "Everything we need to know is in the Guide."
He crossed the porch and sat on the railing across from my chair. “You’ll get wet sitting here,” I fussed.
“Listen to me,” Anders said. “Every morning I climb down, down into the quarry. All day, I work inside high walls of white limestone. The sun burns the top of my head and my back. Light reflects off the stone walls into my eyes until I think I am in a snowstorm at sea. It is a tomb I work in, but even the dead in their graves are not scorched.”
I reached out my hands to Anders. He sounded miserable, like a boy who hates to go to school where he is bullied and disciplined harshly. “You need a hat,” I said, “With a wide brim to protect you from the sun. Like farmers wear.”
Anders shook my hands and laughed. “So, you agree it is better to be a farmer than a stonecutter?”
“I agree. It is better to wear a hat in the sun.” I laughed back at Anders. He withdrew his hands and straightened his back. I counted the raindrops falling on the rail beside him. Ten fell before he spoke.
“Smell the earth, Marta. The rain releases its fragrance. From that earth comes corn and sweet alfalfa grass. Imagine fall corn around our little house. Can you not sell the sweet cut grass? I want to climb out of the stone pit. I want to set my own pace with the seasons, not the watch in a foreman's hand. I want to make such a happy life for you and for our children."
I looked down at my hands clasped together in my lap. Anders leaned close to me and covered my hands with his own. "These rough hands will work hard for your. Your warm, gentle hands will give order, kindness and love to the wild country."
"I will go with you," I said. In an instant, he lifted me out of my chair. Anders held me in his strong arms while my feet fluttered in the air.
Anders traveled alone in early to the Dakota territory to search for our home. I stayed behind sewing aprons and bonnets, towels and a wedding quilt. Anders planned his trip carefully, using the geographical notes in the Emigrants Guide. “All the landmarks are clearly described,” he assured me. “The rivers and streams, valleys and outcroppings. I will find a high, level place near a quick flowing stream, in sight of a good stand of trees,” he said.
“Near a lake, please,” I said.
“So you can stare at it? Oh no, you’ll be too busy for water-watching,” Anders teased.
Anders wrote me beautiful letters all along his trip to the Dakota Territory. He wrote something every day and posted the long letters whenever he came to a town. I shared the letters with Helga on Sunday afternoons.
Arrived by train in Chicago. Streets are a muddy soup. Hired livery and rode west, always west. In Iowa, the land is good, and farmers boast of big harvests of corn. I will plant a small orchard for us. Apples and pears. I discovered a new fruit here. They call them paw-paws. Sweet yellow pulp.
Not as sweet as you, my dear. You are my joy.
Your most devoted, Anders
When I finished reading, Helga caressed my blushing cheek and then pinched it hard. We laughed and read letter after letter full of words of discovery, hope, and love. “A man expresses only half of his heart,” Helga said with a certainty she had no right to yet. Anders was not a poet, but his words poured over me like sunshine or a gentle rain.
We arrived in Dakota Territory in early May. Fields of wild grass still wore a light frost early in the morning. The fields surrounded our wagon like a ship becalmed. An ox pulled us through the grass as it bowed and rose around us like lapping waves. Walking through the grass, I was no longer the young girl sailing under her father's or uncle's strong hands. I was alone, lost, without sail or rudder with no horizon in sight.
We stayed close to the Missouri river as it was our map. The river took its time, in no hurry. The warm weather coming soon woke it with the sound of bumping ice islets. As I sat beside Anders on the high wagon seat, I thought about our wedding. So many guests. Good food and drink. Dancing under the moon. Sitting high above the endless prairie, I struggled to deny my fear. I held so tightly to my husband that he had to shake his arms to free them so he could dismount and prepare our evening camp.
I boiled our coffee and boiled our dinner. I baked biscuits on a tin plate on top of our boiling rabbit or quail with wild onions. In the morning, I boiled porridge in the same pot, and scrubbed it clean with a cup of water from our barrel or from a stream, or with sand from a nearby dry creek bed.
Anders was a master traveler. He named the plants and landmarks for me. He made the oxen pull the wagon up a hill far off the trail to show me a herd of buffalo. When they ran, the ground shook. Anders said they were only a small number of what remained of once great herds. “What a racket they must have made,” I said.
When the summer storms came, Anders and I sat in the wagon, huddled together among the crates and boxes that made up our home. I had sewn pockets on the inside of the canvas covering our wagon. In them, I kept things we needed along the way: spoons, needle and thread, paper packets of herbs for stomach and head, my mirror and hairbrush. As the wind raged around our wagon or rain blew in sheets, Anders brushed my hair by the light of a flickering lantern. I sang Norwegian songs my grandmother taught me. The songs I would sing to my own children one day.
The river led us to Sioux Falls. When the buildings came into sight, Anders pulled our wagon to a stop. He stood and lifted me onto the wagon seat for a better view.
"Our new home," I whispered.
Anders pinched my waist and turned me around with a laugh. "Yonder is your home," he said, pointing west. "There is the richest land on Earth. We will rest for a while in town, but our journey is not yet finished."
I looked up to the sky. I hoped Anders would think the bright sunlight caused my tears. But it was the beginning of a loneliness that would become my only companion. Our home, once we built it, would be an island.
We rested overnight in the town by the river. I listened to the water rushing over rocks that gave the town its name. Anders registered his claim, and we refreshed ourselves briefly. I bought a sun bonnet. Anders laughed when I first put on the floppy, calico covering. "You will need this," the woman who sold it told me. "There is little shade on the prairie."
A long day's ride later, Anders stopped at the three homesteads of the Schaller family. The two sons- and daughters-in-law of Hermann Schaller lived side by side. They shared a barn, a smokehouse, and an enormous coop for dozens of chickens and geese. Behind each house, the families’ land spread out like pieces of a pie.
Mr. and Mrs. Schaller welcomed us and fed us. We drank the beer the sons brewed and talked through the night. The family community was so welcoming, the young wives full of laughter. I followed the wives like a pup, asking question after question about making a prairie home. I learned what to use for fire fuel in a treeless land. I would never have guessed the answer. "Buffalo chips," they laughed. "When the wind howls you won't care what makes your fire."
In Mrs. Schaller's kitchen, we kneaded dough together for dumplings.
"Your home is so clean and warm," I said.
“I have many hands to help me," she said.
Mrs. Schaller knew I was frightened. She patted my arm with her dough-covered hands. “Life is hard here for a woman. But do not be afraid. When you make a good life for your children, all the hardship is forgotten.” When we left the little community, Mrs. Schaller gave me four chickens and a pair of goslings, for eggs and down, and meat at Christmas.
“We are to live in the dirt?” I whimpered.
“A sod house, yes. Made from the earth with the tight roots of ancient grass holding everything together.”
“The Schallers have wooden houses.”
“They started out in a sod house just like this one. The sons helped me build it, so it is strong and will keep us warm when winter comes. Trees are precious on the prairie. A proper house will come in time.”
Whatever the reasons for our sod house, however I t