We called her Grandma Gus. Her name was Esther. She had a serious countenance, but a quick smile and intelligent blue eyes. She was born during the long golden days of the Nordic Indian summer, early September 1887. Her home was Geta, the farthest north municipality on the edge of the Baltic Sea, in a cluster of islands forming the midpoint between Sweden and Finland. The group of over 6,000 islands, studded with red rocks and caves, and beaches and windblown pines, and thousands of apple trees, is known as Aland.
An agricultural mosaic of small farms, Aland provides a bounty of wheat, potatoes, rye and sugar beets, plums and pears. The harvest extends generously for sun-drenched weeks. Residents are healthy and active people who love the outdoors. They enjoy fishing, cross country skiing, hiking, horseback riding.
Despite its beauty and small-farm lifestyle, the islands have not always been peaceful. Until 1809, Aland was ruled under the mantle of Sweden. But it was relinquished to Russia, which held it for nearly 50 years. At the end of the Crimean War, Britain forced the end of Russian’s building of forts and military outposts. However, the Russian military continued to occupy the space, through the time my grandmother was born and into the early years of her life. During these years, residents of Aland still considered themselves Swedes, and the primary language was Swedish.
Esther was only 18 years old when she married Johan Gustafson, a carpenter with thick brown hair and a bristling mustache. Johan was 17 years her senior, a ship’s captain with ambitions of sailing to America.
In 1914, when Esther was 27, during the rumblings of a World War, the Russian government turned the islands of Aland into a submarine base.
Esther and Johan emigrated to the United States, sailing through the Great Lakes, where they came upon American’s version of Aland: a group of islands in Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula. The rocky shores, the sand pounded clean by Lake Huron, must have reminded them of home. I can only imagine how happy Esther was to see boulders smattered with orange lichens, the dripping cedar forests, the robust apple orchards. These islands were dubbed Les Cheneaux, French for “The Snows.” As Johan set about building an elaborate house on a corner in Cedarville, Michigan, a sprawling castle with turrets and steeples and windows, the couple had a passel of lively children.
Their second youngest girl was Marilyn Elaine Gustafson, my mother. She was 22 years old when Johan died in 1945.
With her children mostly grown, Esther carried on. She took in laundry to pay the bills. She rarely complained, always maintaining an air of cheerful dignity. As the years passed, she began spending winters in Arizona with her daughter Ruthie, but always returned for summer to stay with us in the far north. I always knew her to be active and fit. She took vigorous walks every day, and never accumulated excess body fat. She was seldom inert, choosing instead to move about the house with a broom in her hands, sweeping the floors briskly. Her legs were long and slender, with graceful calves that could rival those of any top model. Through her seventies and into her eighties, and then her nineties, she wore a dress, with pumps and panty hose, and finished off with a string of pearls. She would change her dress several times a day. Any small event warranted a dress change: A trip to the store. Dinner. A picnic near the shoreline.
To my amusement, her dresses were usually in neon colors; either pink or green, with polka dots. Her pumps always matched the exact shade of dress. This was long before neon was fashionable, and certainly not on someone whose years bordered on a century. She once told me, “I always wanted red shoes. For some reason, I never got them.”
Esther was so quiet that I never knew her to be afraid of anything. She was always a lady, traveling resolutely back to Michigan every season. As she aged, her trips eventually became less frequent. When she was about to turn 100, my mother arranged for a big party for her. I went to JCPenney’s and found her a pair of Naturalizers, red leather flats. I knew she loved heels, but she was getting so frail I was concerned she might trip or fall in a pair of new pumps.
She began to grow forgetful, and her last summer in Michigan was fraught with occasional bad dreams. She would wake up shouting, convinced that the Bolsheviks were coming for her. Someone would have to go into her room and calm her down. This gave me some indication of how traumatic those early years had been, even though she had never talked about it. It made sense to me that she would want to return each summer to Cedarville; her new Aland, her place of sanctuary where she could raise a big, happy family in peace.
Grandma Gus finally passed away in Arizona when she was 104. Recently, my cousin posted a photo of her on Facebook. It was taken shortly before Grandma’s last days. It showed her sitting on the couch with some of her grandchildren. She is smiling, wearing a a dress spattered with a wildly colorful floral pattern, and on her feet are the red shoes.