A prairie town with mostly false
front stores, a meat market,
a wagon shop, one horse tethered
and an open automobile is parked
near a telephone pole: a Latin cross.
I was conceived here. My father,
a Lutheran Priest, among these Norse
(the first confirmation class had Nelsons,
Nokkens, Quists, Tolstads, the Reverend
Naeseth, and a ghost in the church).
This Priest, called that because of his
liturgical bent, trained in science,
discovered that the ghost thumping in the
Narthex was a steam train echo that sent
its sound through the belfry to the altar.
And when he taught his congregation
this, they were annoyed. They wanted
their ghost back; and I became
my father's son and left to him his
Bible ghosts for a more soundless train.
She and I almost missed the town;
it was small. We found a gravel road
curving by giant grain elevators
into the town, now not quite so
Western, but still lost in this steppe.
We could not find the church at first
until we stopped at a deck full of
a Saturday night party and asked.
"I was almost born here," I told them.
We were warmly received, directed
to the right place, given a key, entered
the tiny church, read his name,
returned to the deck later for happy
talking when one lady in her cups
addressed me in the old Norwegian.
of Søgnefjord. I could not speak
my Father's first tongue, bumbled
out a few memorized phrases
to certify my heritage, and after
receiving some history, took our
leave. North Dakota is surprisingly
beautiful, I commented to her as
we drove that immense countryside.
My mother did not allow her first
born there. She made him drive
to distant Minneapolis, where her
brother the doctor could deliver and
her father, a Priest himself, could
baptize me. That was a risky trip
then in midwinter. He must have
loved her. January, 1937. No highways.
A cranky car. Minnesota was primitive
then. I often wondered at what this
Minneapolis girl thought when father
first drove her into that desolate town.
I had a hard time loving that priest.
As a wartime chaplain he was
absent mostly, and when he returned
to acquire authority over three
mother-raised sons, it was too late.
He did not take kindly to dissent.
And we dissented. Universities taught
us to question. We questioned. And
to his rage we went our own ways.
He was farm raised, a serious Lutheran,
depression tempered, hardened by war,
hurt by a world modern that departed
him: his sons left him too, and when
he lost his youngest in another war,
he wept. He had failed us, he told his wife.
I no less. It took decades. But I no less,
on my own seminary pilgrimage
nestled into other spirits; not bought
cheaply but at a cost. Luther's
anfechtungen. My anxiety. At that cost.
We stayed in Valley City that night.
And I dreamed. I did not know
until now that it was of my Father
and Rogers, North Dakota and
how he strove against ghosts there.
My dream was of me weeping
hard, heart-sore, heart-rich weeping
that can happen only in dreams
when all fences are knocked
over. Noisy. Heart ache. Heart full.
Heart reveling in pain, purging
that Rogers pain, inconsolable
and of the deepest delight, delight
for the new Minneapolis I lived
in now, Joy sublime that seemed
to leap out of a coated root,
a shattered core, trembling,
tears that cleaned, that gilded
a new pulsing with sunshine
delight. Darkness and delight
together. Joy and grief bound.
Sunshine and rain, hurting him
lifting him, both at once. Father I
do not ask your forgiveness.
These tears are forgiveness enough.
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