Family Feud

September 15, 2022

House from the road, built by John Erickson in the 1880s.

I thought a week’s stay in the 1880s farmhouse built by my great-grandfather would be an uninterrupted time of peaceful reflection amid a busy three weeks of visiting friends and relatives in three states. It was not.

There was no Wi-Fi to interrupt the day, although I could get faint internet access on my phone from an upper bedroom. My first cousin Harold, Jr. was at the farm when we arrived, repairing one of the sheds. We came to know Junior as a frequent visitor and inveterate talker. As Cindy said, perhaps he was trying to make up for all the years during which our families were estranged.

The driveway into the farm, Olson Road, Palestine, Michigan

The writing tips from the Ingram Sparks 30-day writing challenge say there should be no zig-zags in the storyline — no flashbacks. I think I’m breaking several rules right now: Extra words: “now,” “I think,” and using a –, and a flashback. But I find it difficult to tell a story, especially a memoir, without using flashbacks.

Upstairs memories: looking into the hall from the north bedroom, and holding the heavy wrapped brick that held the swinging door open at the bottom of the stairs throughout my childhood.

The reasons for the estrangement of the families go back to 1954, when my Uncle Harold, who was about to turn fifty, married Emma. Until then, he had lived on the farm with his sister Viola and their widowed father, Olof. Both Harold and Viola worked hard on the farm, although Viola also taught school and managed the household. In Viola’s eyes, no woman was good enough for Harold, whom she adored, and she had already thwarted at least one romance. The story goes that Harold bought a diamond for Ruthie Malmsten at my father’s jewelry store, but Viola threw a fit and put a stop to the engagement. Ruthie was not good enough for Harold, although the families had been friends for years.

Eventually, Harold found a wife in Emma, a widow twenty years younger who had two young boys, Milo (8) and Lyle (6). I was at the wedding, met my new cousins for the first time, and was envious as they set out on the honeymoon with their mother and her new husband. I wanted to go, too. Emma and Harold had a daughter Sylvia in a little over a year, and two years later, Harold, Jr. was born.

As anyone could have predicted, there was soon trouble between Emma and Viola, who had bought a farm half a mile down the road from the home place. Before he was married, Harold fixed up the house with a remodeled bathroom and other improvements. He and Emma moved into Viola’s house, called Jacobson’s Place, after the original owners, and Viola continued to live in her childhood home and cared for her father and elderly Aunt Gerda, who suffered from dementia and ended her life locked in the very upstairs bedroom in which I was now sleeping.

Gerda died in July 1955, and Olof that September. There seemed to be no good reason for Viola to continue living alone in the relatively large house. Harold had to drive to the farm to milk the cows each morning and evening. Emma demanded that Viola move out so she and Harold and their children could move in. I’m not sure where Harold stood, torn between his domineering sister, who loved him deeply, and his wife, but I know the fighting between his wife and sister caused him much anguish.

 It caused me anguish, too. In the summer of 1956, I stayed with Viola in the house that was strangely empty without my grandpa, Gerda, and Harold. There were horrible shouting matches outside the house between Emma and Viola. I ran away and covered my ears, not knowing what was going on and, like Harold, not knowing whose side to take.

Eventually, Viola left the home of her birth that she said Grandpa had promised would always be her home. The farm had been left equally to Harold and Viola. The enmity between Emma and Viola never diminished, despite the efforts of my mother to try to reconcile the two. We were all miserable, and the hard feelings continued, even after Harold built a new house for his family across the road from the old farmhouse and allowed Viola to move back to the family home, which she never did. Instead, she rented the place to a series of renters, each seeming to result in conflicts and altercations. Harold died in 1976 at the age of 71. I think he was a broken man. My mother died in 1987, Viola in 1995, the third sister Elsie in 1999, and Emma in 2004.

By 1977 I was married and had lived in distant places for many years, although Viola sent me frequent letters until her death, and I visited when I could. The 1960s and 70s were times of family conflict and separation because of disagreements over the Vietnam War and other issues larger than the conflict between Viola and Emma. It wasn’t until my children were born that I realized how important family contact was to me.

 Harold’s children inherited his half of the farm upon their father’s death, but it wasn’t until Viola’s death almost twenty years later that they had complete control of the property. I don’t know how long the dairy farm continued after Harold’s death. Junior told me recently that whenever some issue arose regarding the property, people tended to go to Viola rather than to him.

The first time I saw Junior after his childhood was on the eve of my Aunt Elsie’s funeral in 1999, the day before he was getting married, late in life, like his father. In 2007, after the death of my husband, I returned more often to visit the remaining relatives. We organized a family reunion that fall. Harold’s daughter, my cousin Sylvia, came to the reunion, where I greeted her with tears in my eyes. I had not seen her, either, since she was a child.

 Now, fifteen years later and eighteen years after Emma’s death, we cousins are still working on building our relationships and healing the rifts of our parents’ generation. Those rifts have left a long-lasting sadness caused by the pain and separation that lasted fifty years in what was once a loving, close family. Those years can never be recaptured. “Love one another. As I have loved you,” (John 13:34-35) is such an important commandment, yet not always easy to follow, as I am sure has been the experience of families other than mine.

Here are six cousins enjoying time together in August 2022. Cindy, Mary, John, Linnea, Sylvia, and Harold, Jr. Milo and Lyle were not able to join us.