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Dear Anna

Dear Anna,

This letter is part of a new project I’m starting. You see, over the last five or six years, I’ve been fascinated by our family’s history. I’ve learned so much and have had so much fun exploring the different branches of our family tree. Sometimes, I’ve gotten so bogged down in the details of my research that I haven’t been able to zoom out and see the woman or man that I’m studying as a real person who had a real life. That’s the reason that I’ve started this new letter-writing project. I hope that by addressing my relatives (which includes you!) directly, I’ll be able to form a clearer picture of who they were and what their lives were truly like.

So, now that I’ve told you what I’m doing, I should probably tell you who I am. I’m your eldest great, great-granddaughter. Your granddaughter, Dolores (Dolly), was my grandmother.

Anna, I think you must have had a very interesting life. I’m the oldest of my sisters, so it’s hard for me to imagine what it was like for you to have so many older siblings. Did your big sisters and brothers help take care of you? Both of your parents were 41 when you were born and were probably busy on your farm. I can’t imagine that there was a lot of time for them to play with you, but maybe I’m not imagining hard enough. I’ve researched a little about the Polish Catholic schools in and around Browerville, MN. I even found a picture of the Catholic School in Browerville.

Holy Angels School, Browerville, MN

It was called Holy Angels School, but I’m not sure if it’s the one you attended because it was founded in 1892 when you were already a teenager. Even if you didn’t attend, I’m pretty sure that it was where your younger siblings went to school. I looked at the faces of all the kids, searching for something familiar that would help me identify them as family, but between the children’s similar clothes and blank stares, all of the kids look too much alike for any one of them to stand out. I kind of hope that your little brother, Frank, is one of the two boys who are goofing around instead of standing like little soldiers.

You married my great, great-grandfather, John Maske, in 1897 when you were 18, and he was 28. I know that you grew up in towns that are less than 10 miles apart. Did you meet him at community gatherings? Did you court for a long time? Where did you get married? Did you wear a dress that someone else in our family had worn?

A year after you were married, you had your first son. From that moment on, I’m betting that your house was never, ever quiet. By the time you were thirty nine, you had thirteen children. Thirteen, Anna! All I can say is WOW! When your youngest child was born, your eldest was 20 years old, and when you were my age, you had eight children, the youngest of whom was my great-grandmother, Mathilda. Any mother of thirteen has to be a strong woman, and from some of the stories I’ve heard, it sounds like your husband, John, wasn’t always there to take care of his share of the responsibilities. Anna, I so admire your strong spirit. I hope that you would be pleased to know that each generation of your descendents includes strong women who are definitely capable of taking care of themselves and their families.

I have a few pictures of you- all of which I love- but I have to admit that there are two that I consider my favorites. I found both of them in one of my Grandma Dolly’s oldest photo albums.

In the first photo, you’re wearing a pretty cotton dress with what looks like tiny flowers printed on it. You’re standing on the front stairs, looking straight at the camera, and smiling a small smile. You’re also holding the hand of my Grandma Dolly who has a big smile on her face. Dolly is wearing what looks like a heavy coat that is all buttoned up. She’s such a little girl in this picture, and she looks like she was bouncing with energy. Every time I look at it (and since I’ve framed it and hung it on my wall, I look at it often), the same questions fill my mind: Are you taking my grandma somewhere or has she just come to visit you? How cold was it outside? Should I be more confused by my grandma wearing a coat or your not wearing one? From what I’ve found in Duluth directories from the 1930’s, I think you lived about a mile from my grandma’s parents (your daughter and son-in-law). Did you take care of my grandma often? Did you help raise her? She looks so comfortable and happy on those front steps; the look on her face makes me think that you spent a lot of time with her.

My other favorite photo of you is really amazing. You’re standing in a large field, in front of what I think is a well, and again, you’re wearing a cotton dress with a small print on it. This time, your hair is gray instead of black and your shoes are a little more sturdy than those that you wore in the first photo. In this picture, you’re standing with your eighth child, Mathilda, your granddaughter, Dolly, and your eldest great-granddaughter. Your faces are so similar that it almost looks like a photo of four different stages in one person’s life. I’m struck by the fact that even as you stood there, with your arms around one another, smiling at the camera, looking almost impossibly alike, you had different last names. You were Anna Gaffke Maske and you stood next to your daughter, Mathilda Maske Morgan, who stood next to her daughter, Dolores Morgan Anderson, who held her daughter, Colleen Anderson. Every time I look at this photo, I smile because I see four generations of women, holding onto one another, and celebrating their connection.

Anna, I have to tell you that I think we would get along well (something I can’t say about all the relatives I’ll be writing!). This is more gut instinct than anything else. On the surface, we have almost nothing in common. We were born in different parts of the country. You were the sixth child of Polish Catholic immigrants, and I’m the eldest child of American Jewish parents. You married young and had a huge family, and your life, very appropriately, revolved around caring for and supporting your children. As I write this letter, I’m just getting started in my career, and while I have a large family to whom I am very devoted, I’m really only directly responsible for caring for myself and my little dog. But, in spite of all these differences, I’m pretty sure we would have enjoyed spending time with one another. You are a woman that I would have loved to learn from. These photographs and the stories I’ve heard about your personality and values make me think that you had a strong backbone and a loving heart.

As I conclude this letter, Anna, I want to thank you for the care that you gave your children and grandchildren. I want to thank you for the strength that you passed down through the generations. My sisters and I are lucky to have your strength as a part of our inheritance.

With love,

Your great- great- granddaughter, Rachel


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