Better than Fiction (creative non fiction)
by Dr. Richard Brynteson
My father, Chuck, died at age 44 of a brain aneurism in 1972, with an almost-expired liver. He drank six martinis a night. I know; I mixed them. He had gone from a champion tennis and basketball player, educated at Harvard, to an overweight, Pall Mall smoking CEO of three companies in a short twenty years. His older brother Paul had died an alcoholic in a Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin nursing home, estranged from his only daughter and two ex-wives. He had been shot down over Germany and had shrapnel in his stomach; he used that as an excuse for unemployment, except as bartender at the local Post. His daughter had been raped by his best friend when she was twelve years old; Paul blamed his daughter for being provocative.
Chuck’s younger brother, Bill, died of liver failure in 2004. Bill had been a successful scholar and professor until he was offered an early retirement package for drinking too many martinis at lunch and cavorting with coeds. He froze one leg during a New Year’s Eve drunk when wandering lost during a blizzard, and the leg oozed puss and stunk for the rest of his life. His children did not visit him in his more drunken and waning years.
These boys’ mother, Christine, had raised them in Milwaukee during the depression and thereafter. She hid Mogen David wine and Manhattans through the house for a quick nip. Christine had grown up in the family homestead on Washington Island, at the tip of Door County, Wisconsin, daughter of Grandma Margaret.
Grandma Margaret, her loving husband Gunnar Gunnarson, and their two small children lived in the little seaside town of Eyrarbakke, Iceland. Gunnar was a skilled weaver but not a skilled fisherman. While Margaret and the two children watched, Gunnar’s fishing skiff capsized, he flailed about, and then sank into the waves.
Leaving the bleakness of Iceland, Margaret’s ship navigated the St. Lawrence Seaway toward Wisconsin and her brother in 1882. The story goes that she sent one of the children with a cup to bring back water from overboard. She was sure that she was being sent back to Iceland. The water was not salty; it was fresh. This was the new world.
But wait! The Milwaukee government officials would not let her disembark because, as an unwed mother, she would be a welfare burden. She was forced to marry an unmarried man aboard, Sievert Sigurdson. They spent their first months at the Icelandic Settlement House on Washington Island, not far from Margaret’s brother’s homestead, before moving to their own 40 acres.
Margaret’s husband was known as Black Sievert because of his “dark” moods, often inspired by alcohol. One newspaper account in the Door County Advocate in the late 1890s referred to Black Sievert driving his horse drawn wagon, selling mutton “covered with flies” door to door. In another account, he drunkenly drove his mutton wagon into a ditch and turned it over.
On the hottest summer days, Margaret would not let her children go to nearby Lake Michigan for a refreshing swim. The ghost of her drowning first husband still lurked in the cracks and crevasses of her psyche.
Only eight of Grandma Margaret’s fourteen children made it past the first year of life. Uncle Bill suggested that they starved. The babies that did not make it were buried together in the Island’s cemetery. The mass grave site is marked by muted limestone bricks, in the shade of a lilac bush.
Schoolhouse Beach lies spitting distance from the babies’ shaded cemetery in the northwest corner of Washington Island. It is not a sandy soft beach but a beach full of baseball sized, beautiful stones. A sign informs the visitor about the $500 fine for stealing these deliciously smooth stones. In this harbor, on this beach, Grandma Margaret first set foot on Washington Island in 1882, with her two children and new husband. On this beach, in 2004, Uncle Bill’s ashes were sprinkled.
Dr. Richard Brynteson is an author, professor, and consultant. His publications include works on innovation and decision-making. He has only bribed his way out of jail once.
Walking the lane to the homestead I look closely for the walls. Margaret’s children created these walls by walking back and forth across the field, picking up rocks. The stone walls have crumbled, overrun by weeds, and moss and time. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost. So true here. Trees, once saplings, have grown up around strands of barbed wire which used to delimit the fields.
I can imagine all three of them, my dad and his two brothers, romping about this property, being careless and happy boys. I can see them swing from the trees, playing tricks on one another in the outhouse, and hiding in the fruit cellar. And I wonder how those golden childhood times of Margaret’s grandchildren turned to alcohol-filled adulthoods.
It is even harder to get a deep understanding of Margaret’s children; they are all dead and their children are mostly dead. Great Uncle Lars killed himself by taking a bottleful of drugs, filling his pockets with rocks and walking into a river. My Uncle Bill said it was because of “his bad marriage.”
I knew my dad’s Uncle Augie; my family spent several Christmases and Thanksgivings at his orchard outside Milwaukee with him and his wife Maria. Augie had a temper which he unleashed at his poor tiny wife Maria, who skittered about the house in fear, and his mean German Shepherd. No other human being could get near Augie’s dog without it snarling and lunging, as if to kill or maim. When Augie died, the sheriff shot the dog; nothing else was possible.
At the end of the lane, I approached the homestead, dried mud between the Lincoln Logs, now nearing 120 years old. The windows have been replaced and the cabin looks cozy. What happened in this farmhouse so long ago? What secrets do these windows shield from the outside? Why were so many of Margaret’s descendants full of anger and booze and unhappiness?