Nurtured in the rich soils and pioneer roots of the Skagit Valley not far from the final home of the main characters of Anna’s Home, I developed an early appreciation for my ancestry. On the farm next door lived my grandmother, whose memories and keepsakes planted seeds of curiosity. Before returning to those long-dormant seeds, however, I was enticed by the world of literature to earn degrees in English from Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington and to a long career in secondary and higher education, ending with twenty years on the faculty at Bellingham Technical College. Finally, in retirement, the rediscovered keepsakes became the impetus for me to dig into my heritage, and my love of literature became the inspiration to unearth the story hidden in the litter. I live with my husband Richard in rural Whatcom County, Washington, where, when not at the computer, I can usually be found in the garden.
Going through an attic full of keepsakes in my parents’ home several years ago, I came upon an old, rusty breadbox. Prying it open carefully, I found packets of letters tied with string. Here were the letters written from 1884 to 1886 by my great-grandmother, Anna Lavinia Tilderquist, in Minnesota, to her fiancé, Gustaf Anderson, a minister far away in Washington Territory. Intrigued, I tucked them into an archival notebook until I had time to savor reading them and follow the threads of questions they raised about my family story.
Sorting through the keepsakes of one’s parents after they pass is an emotional and enlightening experience. Should I toss whole boxes of stuff or go through each item one by one? Looking at retirement within the next few years, I decided to bring home the boxes containing letters and photos and get to them later.
With time finally available, I dug in. I bought storage boxes, labeled them, and started organizing the artifacts by family and generation. When I had almost everything organized, I allowed myself to untie the packets and read my great-grandmother’s letters. I joined a writer’s group, and, without a plan in place, started to write the story suggested by the letters. Five years later, I reached the end of my great-grandmother’s letters and the beginning of her married life.
Those five years took me on a trail that led in the opposite direction of theirs, from Tacoma, Washington, to Vasa, Minnesota, to Småland, Sweden. As I met cousins, some whom I’d met a few times and others I didn’t know existed, the photos in the attic began to make sense, and their stories and keepsakes provided detail and context to my great-grandparents’ lives. I visited the places Anna and Gustaf lived and frequented, including the farm in Vasa, still occupied by Tilderquists, and Gustavus Adolphus College, in Saint Peter, Minnesota, where I gained access to old documents, even the minutes and journals of the women’s Irenian Society from 1884–85. Dr. Stephen Hilding, professor emeritus of Gustavus, and a grandson of Gustaf and Anna, showed me his office—the probable location of Professor Anderson’s—and I gazed out the window where the couple had shared many romantic moments more than a century before.
I traced Anna and Gustaf’s ancestral homes in Sweden, even visiting the distant cousin who lived on the farm where Gustaf’s mother was raised and dropping by the farm where Anna’s father was born. Both farms are still in the family. I enjoyed a fascinating weekend in San Francisco, tracking down the old Lutheran churches that Gustaf visited and enjoying the lush Conservatory of Flowers, where the giant Amazon lily pads still amaze visitors. Closer to home, I made several trips to Tacoma, where the house that Gustaf built for his bride and the old, unsteepled church no longer stand, but where the First Lutheran Church still keeps its archives intact. I spent many hours in the Tacoma Public Library, straining my neck to read The Tacoma Daily Ledger from 1884 to 1886 on microfiche, learning about the Chinese expulsion as seen through the perpetrators’ eyes, as well as other, more positive endeavors of early Tacoma.
The novel I’ve written follows the courtship of Anna Lavinia and Gustaf, placing them where the letters indicate and rounding out the story with clues from journals, a family history written by Eva Tilderquist in 1951, historical records, letters from family and friends, and my own imagination. Many of the secondary characters share the names of people the couple actually encountered, but the actions, words, and thoughts of these characters are entirely fictional, based solely on random clues and fabricated to help bring my family’s experience to life. My goal has been to place the reader in the time and place of my ancestors and provide a glimpse into what life might have been like for them and people like them.