Last summer, my mom’s older brother, Emil Johnson, came to visit and related a story about my great-grandmother, Emma Ella Wessel Johnson. I’d meant to share this then, but had forgotten some of the details, so I asked my aunt Jane (who is the official storyteller) to send me a copy, which I am using now as she has a great writer’s voice.
The story starts in Madison, South Dakota, around 1920. I am leaving out some of the last names :
There are lots of stories to tell about Emma. After her divorce from John Alfred Johnson (forever known as that SOB) she went to work as a housekeeper on a farm for two brothers Gus and Ed. It is said that the brothers took a new last name when they came to Germany, that they were shirttail royalty that fled Russia, but we have not confirmed that. Evidently, she was cohabiting with both of them because she found herself with child. There was competition for her affections. She told the men she would marry whichever one got the marriage license. They had a horse race to town and Ed won. Afterwards, “Sonny” was born and Ed was killed by someone with a shotgun. It was strongly suspected the gunman was the spurned brother Gus. There was a trial but not enough evidence to convict. The judge felt that Gus was guilty and told him to get out of town and never come back. Emil tells this was the beginning of Emma’s paranoia. She was afraid that Gus would come for her too. She used to take the boys out in the ditch at night so if Gus came for them he would look in the lighted farmhouse and not find them. Emil tells of being very poor. Meals were often lard sandwiches. Emma’s father told her to come back to Iowa and he would help them. The farm was leased and the land went back but Emma was able to sell the personal possessions and farm equipment. She bought a new Model T and a player piano and left with the four boys. The move didn’t work out for them so they later came back to Madison. The older boys grew up and married. Emma lived with Sonny until he married at age 38.
Whenever Emil’s daughters, Joan, and her older sister, Arlene, went to visit, Grandma (Emma) made them wear a scarf so their hair was hidden and the bad guys couldn’t find her with the girls with the red hair. Larry says she used to go watch the guys play ball. She would stay and watch from the car. If anybody came too close she would call them a summabitch.
On the other side the grandkids loved her. They would stay with her when Sonny was gone in the service. She always played board games with them. Of course she kept weapons under her pillow and in the door in case the bad guys came. Larry has nightmares to this day about someone coming after him with a knife that probably originated then.
When she was elderly she had a stroke and went to Bethel Home. There she was given the right meds and the paranoia and anxiety went away. Too bad it couldn’t have been treated so many years earlier!
The point to this story – is sometimes – by uncovering the past, you can explain why things happen. My mom suffered paranoia throughout her life until she died. The episodes came-and-went and I never understood why someone so positive and cheerful could become so different; it was like seeing two people. When my uncle told me this story, everything became blindingly clear. Sometimes the past has a way of creeping into our lives and we can find clues to it by knowing our family history, having a good relationship with ourselves, our loved ones, and perhaps a family physician. There are several books in the library’s collection on the topic of medical genetics
, take a look.