By Erika Bolstad
My book was done. Off to the printers. So I was wary when an envelope showed up with documents my aunt found after her husband died. She thought they might be fodder for my book, Windfall, a memoir driven by a family mystery concerning potential oil riches. But what if the contents of the envelope changed everything I knew about the woman at the center of Windfall, my great-grandmother, Anna? Or what if I found information so juicy it should have been part of the story?
I stashed the envelope in my overstuffed office closet, among the tubs of family photos and my files from nine years of research. It was an uncharacteristic act of restraint for a journalist trained to report breaking news first.
But what else was left to find? I first started work on the project in 2013, and over the subsequent years, traveled 11 times to the oilfields of North Dakota in search of answers. In fact, it was in 2013 that I found some of the best material, including proof that Anna’s husband committed her to the state asylum shortly after their son—my grandfather—was born.
A few months after the envelope arrived, my curiosity finally got the better of me. Inside was a 5X11-inch manilla accordion file. The document wallet smelled of disintegrating paper and the past, and it appeared to contain papers treasured by my grandfather, Ed. One of the first documents I unfolded was a yellow certificate from May 2, 1942. It verified Ed had crossed the equator for the first time on the S.S. Argentina, a World War II-era troop transport ship.
I remembered my grandfather only as an old man in Helena, Montana, who enjoyed listening to the police scanner from his recliner. With this document in my hands, though, I could envision him as a 35-year-old private first class, on his way to war. The crossing ceremony, a naval tradition, would have been a morale boost for U.S. troops headed to the South Pacific. It was meaningful enough that Ed kept his proof of the longest journey he would ever take away from home and back.
Then there was his union membership card from the lead smelter where he worked before the war, and the brewery where he worked afterward. His Army discharge documents. Paperwork to prove he had lingering effects from contracting malaria in the South Pacific. A failed application to be a U.S. Border Patrol agent. And then, documents that would have provided a nice detail in my book: Cancelled checks from 30 years of taxes paid on the land he inherited in North Dakota from Anna. The checks demonstrated the importance to my grandfather of the land bequeathed to him from a mother he never knew. It was clear he had always held out hope that the land would yield oil riches for his family, one of the themes of Windfall.
And then, paydirt! It was a curious handwritten invoice from a retailer in Noonan, North Dakota. The letterhead on the invoice read: “Stakston’s General Merchandise and Meats.” In smaller script: “Undertaking Supplies.” It was a macabre mix of merchandise, but in small towns in the American West, where else but a hardware store would you buy a coffin?
The invoice was for the June 1946 funeral of a man named Torger Hysjulien, who along with his wife, fostered Ed as a baby after his mother was committed to the asylum. This is about all I knew about Torger, other than a curious detail I’d unearthed in previous research: He was missing his right arm at the shoulder, according to a 1918 document that excused him from the draft during World War I. His casket in 1946 cost $175, plus $3.50 in taxes. Embalming was itemized at $40. Flowers were $9.
It would have been my grandfather’s second journey to North Dakota for a funeral following his discharge from the U.S. Army in August 1945. His previous trip had been just nine months earlier, to bury his biological father. I knew this from a short newspaper item announcing his father’s death. I have driven those roads and could imagine this second trip for Ed, a few months from turning 40. He would have been a different man than the one who crossed the equator four years earlier. He was now a father to a baby girl, my mother, and a veteran safely home from the war.
I found a photo online of Stakston’s in 1940. It had two plate glass windows flanking the front door and an awning to shade the interior from the harsh northern prairie sunlight. I could imagine it much the same in 1946, a bell ringing as Ed pushed his way in. Perhaps the shopkeeper looked up from his work—butchering meat for a customer?—and nodded to my grandfather in wordless acknowledgment of grief. Other customers would have met Ed’s eyes, too. Certainly the news had already made its way to the store. The proprietor, a man named A.L. Stakston, most likely knew Ed was coming. It was always a small place.
Later, when the other customers returned home that evening, I could imagine them relaying the news at supper—over the meat they purchased at Stakston’s. “Ed Haraseth is back in town,” they would have said. “Another funeral.” And perhaps, with more hope: “He just had a baby girl.”
This is what our minds do for us as readers. They fill in the details we don’t know, eager to make meaning—to make a story—from what we do know, however scant our information. As a writer, I don’t need to know everything to tell you the story of what most likely happened that day. Because you, too, know what it feels like to return to your hometown, to be greeted by people who knew you as a child. We all know what it’s like to grieve a loved one or to be overjoyed by the birth of a baby. These universal human experiences bind us together with empathy. We never know the full details, of course. But we know enough to tell ourselves stories about what might have happened. And we know the cost of the coffin.
I suspect that’s why my grandfather saved the invoice—and not in a scrap book, but in the accordion file where he stored the most precious documents of his life. It was his personal ledger of expenses paid, of debts owed, of wars fought and benefits earned. He must have wanted to remember the day he went back to the place of his birth, otherwise he would have discarded the document. Seeing it when he opened the file would have brought back the embrace of a community long after he’d left it, with no intention ever of returning.
But I don’t know, not for sure. And I’m fine with that. Not all details are knowable, particularly when it comes to family secrets. Some mysteries are destined to stay buried in the caskets, the ones bought in the backrooms of the general mercantile, in the store just off Main Street, in a small town in a windy corner of the country, in the year after the war ended.
Erika Bolstad is a journalist in Portland, Ore., and the author of Windfall. Find her at erikabolstad.com