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All seven of Kirsti Engen's children celebrated her 100th birthday with her in 1964 in her wood frame farmhouse. There was a dip in the yard where the original sod house had stood. (GriggsDakota.com/ Used with permission)

History is a gift that gives roots to the present

Since March is National Women's History Month, I've been reflecting on a few stories I've been told about a woman in our family lineage whose tenacity encourages me despite never knowing her.

My great-great grandmother, Kirsti, whom my sister is named after, was born in 1864 in Norway. She was a young mother and wife in the 1880s when her husband, Einar, immigrated to the U.S., following his brother. They were hungry Norwegian farmers looking for exciting possibilities in America. Einar built a sod house on their homestead in what is now western Grand Forks County, N.D. Kirsti stayed behind in Norway with their two small children until Einar sent money for tickets.

The three of them took a boat from Norway to New York City, then made the journey to Dakota (North Dakota became a state in 1889) to meet up with Einar.

My mom blogged for several years at GriggsDakota.com and shared stories she had been told about Kirsti's journey. My mom shared: "She packed up a wooden trunk of possessions and a small wooden box of food for her children. She feared the fare on the boat would upset their tummies. The trip was especially dangerous for toddlers and her plan was to keep their food as close to normal as possible."

In New York City, Kirsti and the kids boarded a train to St. Paul, Minn. I don't know how they communicated the timing, but when the three of them got off the train, Einar was waiting for them.

Pause with me to picture this moment. Maybe you know stories of your immigrant ancestors and similar reunions after long separations. Can you imagine the elation? The relief? And still the unknowns they had of their future?

I have two daughters who travel with me from time to time. Between flight or phone trackers, my husband has access to every leg of a flight or mile driven, plus he can reach us by phone, text and video. Even with all the technology and ease of travel these days, I prefer to travel with my husband rather than without him.

The thought of leaving my home, my roots and everything I know and traveling with my kids by boat and train to an unknown land, with complete faith and trust I would reach my husband is difficult for me to comprehend in 2018 much less 130 years ago.

Do I have the same courageous faith as the women and men who laid the foundation for my family to be on the prairie today? The commitment? The tenacity? The will to keep going?

A year after reaching their sod house homestead in North Dakota, my great-grandma Signa was born to Kirsti and Einar. My uncle says in the winter, Kirsti and her children would stay with a neighbor in their sod house. The women and kids would survive the cold months together while the men went to Minnesota to make money logging. Then from spring through fall they all worked from dawn until dark farming their land.

In 1898, when Kirsti was pregnant with their seventh child, Einar died of a blood infection, I am told. Her son was born four months later and she named him Einar. Kirsti continued to live on the farm in a wooden frame house, raising her seven children. She worked as a farmer and midwife and never married again.

When Kirsti died in 1965, she was 101 years old. Longevity was on her side and thus the reason I know more of her history than other relatives. Her story stays with me, inspires me and gives me tenacity for the future.

Women's History Month is a little nudge to capture some of your family's history and stories. Ask the older generation to share stories. Write them down. Capture them on video. Make copies of old photos. My mom, Jane Kirsti, has done this for me and I feel a connection to a great-great grandmother I never knew. As my mom wrote on her GriggsDakota blog about her Great-Grandma Kirsti, "I don't know if her life was better for the sacrifices she made, but I know mine is."

Mine too.

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