A hundred years ago, there was a legendary “tie yourself down” stretch of railroad along Beaver Canyon, one of the places my great grandmother, Sophia, worked as a cook for the railroad crews laying track. The road was so rough, several men were stationed there with the sole purpose of cleaning up the box cars that weren’t tied down and therefore tipped over and smashed on the rocks below. “Tie yourself down,” meaning prepare for a rough ride, is a phrase I whispered, to give myself courage, long before I knew the term probably originated with my family’s railroad background.
Stories are so powerful we don’t have to remember how or when we heard them only that they work. In this case, the family mantra for courage was just there, often repeated, not explained, until I asked.
What’s your “tie yourself down” story?
My great grandmother, Sophia Nielsen, is the undisputed matriarch of our family. She started in a log cabin and ended owning a 40,000 acre ranch. She worked hard and fought harder. Our favorite story is about how she brought a railroad to a stop–not just one train, a whole railroad because they owed her money. That makes her sound hard, but, in fact, she lived long and became greatly beloved, called “grandma” by everyone. It is said that a letter, mailed in Germany in the 1950s, addressed only to “Grandma Nielsen, The Big Ranch, Idaho Falls USA” got delivered.
Ah, yes, but it’s Mother’s Day.
So I have to ask, what would my great grandmother Sophia say was the most difficult part of her life—stopping a railroad, building a ranch, or raising a family? Obviously, I can’t speak for her, but consider the following:
- Her first child was born premature because she’d contracted typhoid fever, which caused her to go into early labor.
- When a sister-in-law died, she adopted the baby that was left behind. The baby, a girl, died three months later.
- She raised five children by herself, as a widow of the 1918 flu pandemic, and buried a grandchild the same week she buried her husband.
- After age sixty, she assumed primary responsibility for two children that she raised as a single grandparent.
The way I see it, stopping trains takes grit, building a ranch requires more than a little ambition, but raising a family will tear your heart out.
A friend, Julene Bair, just posted a moving article about selling the family farm in Kansas.
Out in the Cold at High Country News http://www.hcn.org/issues/40.22/out-in-the-cold
Knowing she had no choice didn’t help. The fact that her mother and brother supported her decision didn’t help. Hang onto the land, was her father’s oft repeated advice–words that haunted her and continue to haunt her. She still feels like her roots were severed. Roots becomes a theme.
Buffalo Grass, An American Native
She talks about buffalo grass, a Kansas native with a root system five miles deep. She notes that only a fraction of any living thing meets the eye. We all have roots, a subterranean life that is deep, immense and often invisible, even to us.
I know what she means. A hundred years ago, there was a legendary “tie yourself down” stretch of railroad along Beaver Canyon, one of the places my great grandmother worked as a cook. The road was so rough, a crew was stationed there with the sole purpose of cleaning up the box cars that tipped over and smashed on the rocks below. “Tie yourself down,” meaning prepare for a rough ride, is a phrase I whisper, whenever I need to give myself courage. I did that long before I understood the term probably originated with my family’s railroad background.
Most of us have no idea how deep the stories go. Most of the time, we never pause long enough to question our family’s way of describing the world. “Tie yourself down” or “Hang onto the land,” we say and go on like that’s the only way.
Buffalo grass is popular in the suburbs these days. Because it needs little water (those deep roots) it has become part of the ornamental grasses landscaping movement. Wonder if we appreciate how deep and how native that choice is?