Friday, July 3, 2020


by Martha Slavin
On the dining room wall of the home of my Aunt Alice and Uncle Finn hung my aunt's family tree, beautifully drawn using blues and greens, her favorite colors. Within the image of the tree, each name was carefully written. Alice married into a family with seven brothers and sisters. Perhaps the tree was her way to remind people that she had a family to remember too.

Many of my relatives on my dad's side developed an interest in their connections to Scandinavia. Several cousins delved into genealogy, gleaning old photographs and lists of ancestors. From one list, with names dating back to 1625, I decided to construct an ancestral tree for Clara Thorson, my paternal grandmother. I purchased a half-of-a-pie-shaped chart that covered a 20" by 30" piece of vellum. The chart was divided to indicate paternal and maternal origins. At the center of the half-circle, I could write the names of my grandmother Clara and grandfather Peter Heimdahl.

As I was posting the names of my grandmother's ancestors in pencil, I realized the impossibility of the task I had set out for myself. First, the sections were too small to write names, birth and death dates clearly or as beautifully as my original inspiration. I had to have a very sharp pencil to squeeze just the names into each space. Secondly, because the sections were so small, I made a mistake and used the while chart to write my grandmother's ancestors. Some of the names, such as Sigrei Guttormsdatter, Ambjorg Bjornsdatter, and Tolleiv Gjerdingadn Thorson, were long and hardly fit in the spaces. There was no room left for my paternal grandfather's family. At the time, I had no or little information about his family or my mother's side either.

Looking at the chart made me realize how many people it took to make me. Studying the names also made me wonder more about the people in the chart. What would a medical chart look like? Where did I get my nearsightedness or brown eyes? What did people do for a living and what did people die from?

Since they were ordinary people, I have few stories about those beyond my grandparents. I knew that there were two farms in Norway that belonged to the Thorsons and Heimdahls (original name Olson). My grandmother's father came to Minnesota, married another Norwegian immigrant, and became a farmer outside of Willmar. My grandfather and his brother came to the United States because as younger brothers they would not inherit their family's farm. They changed their name from Olson to Heimdahl because there were so many Olsons already in America. The brother continued on to Washington. My grandfather settled in Willmar, Minnesota, and eventually became the local tax accessor. Both families, the Thorsons and the Heimdahls, came originally from the district of Hallingdal, though they didn't know each other in Norway.

Elevated grain storage to keep rats out -- Hallingdal Outdoor Museum

I think of the tale we heard at an outdoor museum tour of farm buildings near Nesbyen, the town my grandfather came from in Norway. During the plague in the early 1300s, a father locked his daughter in a grain storeroom to keep her safe. She was the only one in her village to survive.

I think of our tour guide in Norway whose father was part of the resistance in WWII.

I think of my own great grandfather who walked from New York to Minnesota to settle there. Each of those people had life stories, which could be expanded from the one sentence on this page.

My aunts and uncles loved to tell stories and would regale us on summer evenings with tales of bringing in the harvest, swimming in the lakes, and catching rides on skis while holding on to the back of a local farmer's wagon.

by Ralph C. Heimdahl

 I remember hearing about the antics of Charlie Arnie who lived on the farm of one of my relatives and who has a street by the farm named after him. I remember hearing stories of my great grandparents, but the details for all of these stories are long gone from my memory. Stories that don't get written down, don't survive.


Another box load of boxes for the Soul Box Project.

Check out the Soul Box Project, a project to honor victims of gun violence:


  1. Wow. I love the chart [and all the details about your family's history] and I'm imagining your aunt's tree. Great art [by your dad, right?] and the Soul Box Project--perfect

    1. Thank you, Chandra, for your kind comments. Those family trees awaken a lot of interest in stories. And yes, my dad did the drawing of swimming in a lake.
      Several friends and I have been making boxes for the Soul Box Project. It's a thoughtful experience.

  2. I agree, in order to survive, stories must be written down--or sketched, as in your Dad's lovely swim scene! And I love the detail about your forbears changing their surname to one less common in America. My family has a similar story. My Dad's earliest ancestor to immigrate her was named John McDonnell, but when he secured a job for a railroad company his first paycheck was made out to John McDonald. He changed his name rather than jeopardize either the check or the job! Our ancestors were a hardy and resourceful bunch, for sure.

    1. Thanks, Teresa, for your comments.That's an interesting story about your ancestor changing names. They probably weren't as diligent about IDs back then!


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