Jerry Nelson: The time capsule
It looks like just a yellowed old postcard, but it’s actually a time capsule.
Postmarked October 24, 1918, the card is addressed to Mrs. Alex Johnson c/o Adolph Hermanson, Hudson, S.D. The postcard got to its recipient without a ZIP Code or a box number, a testament to the dependability of our postal system.
When I stumbled across this postcard some years ago, I instantly recognized my grandmother Elida Nelson’s cramped handwriting. What intrigued me most wasn’t the two one-penny stamps that carried the card from Volga to Hudson, S.D. — it was the content of the message on the other side.
The card was written to Clara, Elida’s sister and the wife of Alex Johnson. Elida expressed concern about their sister Laura, saying that she hadn’t heard from Laura for some while. Elida didn’t believe in using periods, so her missive reads like one long, breathless sentence.
Along about the fifth line, the word “Influenza” leaps off the card. Elida is clearly worried that Laura may have contracted the malady.
Toward the bottom third of the card, Elida asked Clara if she’d heard the news about their cousin Alva Taje. Alva had been making her way to Volga but fell ill with the Spanish flu and passed away in a Minneapolis hospital. Elida also shares the sad news that two of their friends had recently succumbed to the same sickness.
Elida was 25 years old when she mailed that postcard. She would marry my grandfather Erwin in 1921; by 1937, Elida and Erwin would have seven children.
In 1918, on the continent of Europe, vast numbers of men were being slaughtered with cold, industrial efficiency by guns, gas, and germs. Among those who were fighting in the trenches of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France was Erwin’s brother Herman.
The good news in all of this is that all of my kinfolk survived. This included Elida’s parents, Charlie and Anna, and Elida’s five siblings. Erwin’s parents, Henry and Betsy, and Erwin’s twelve siblings, including Herman, also made it through the global influenza pandemic.
Elida lived to be 96 years old. I only knew her as a sweet, elderly grandmother; I had never envisioned her as the anxious young woman who dashed off this note to her sister about the distressing events that had taken place.
I wished I had asked Grandma about that time of her life. It would have been good to know how they had coped and what sort of things they did to endure.
These days, the latest developments are instantly beamed into our eyeballs. In 1918, news came to us country folk at the speed of the U.S. Mail. No farms had electricity, broadcast radio had not yet taken root and the telephone was a newfangled oddity that only a select few town people could afford.
What was it like for Elida and her family? How did they handle the stress and the uncertainty, the slow drip, drip of news that came via newspapers and letters? News that was days or perhaps weeks old by the time it reached them?
Despite it all, they managed to keep their sense of humor. I know this due to an upside-down P.S. that Elida added above the Dear Clara. “Say, did Sis get to meet her old man?” reads the hasty addition. “I suppose that was why she stopped so long – “
The double-whammy of the Dustbowl and the Great Depression hit Elida and Erwin like a sledgehammer. By the early 1930s they became “economically displaced,” a genteel term for “flat broke with no place to go.” They moved to Minneota, Minn., and lived with Erwin’s relatives for a while.
This too, they endured. They didn’t give up; they persevered. As Grandpa Nelson was wont to say, “You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
We are living in a remarkable time. Thanks to the internet, we are more connected than ever to the world, but this global pandemic has made it imperative for each of us to retreat into our own little bubbles.
When things get weird, a person needs to do things that are normal. Every day, I take a walk on the gravel road that runs past our farm. I always have the road all to myself.
Out in our slough, scores of noisome waterfowl are setting up housekeeping. Emerald sprouts of new grass are quickly taking the place of rotting old snowdrifts.
I glance back at our farmstead and see the house and the barn that Erwin and Elida built and know that we are all in this together. We will endure.