I’ve held such a story in my memory for years, thinking some day that I will write it in book form. The story is of my mother’s life and the book is yet unwritten. But today, July 16, on this anniversary of my deceased mother’s birth, I am writing a shortened version of her fascinating story. (More about her memory of the Cloquet fire is a column–What a Day to Remember–I included in my book, Cooler Near the Lake.) It’s a bit of family history that does not in any way include the heart of her life journey. But it is a beginning and worth the while to tell. It seemed appropriate to share this short version of her story on the very date she was born 110 years ago that also collided with two important world events: the date that the Atomic bomb was set off and the date Apollo 11 took off for the moon. It’s July 16 and a story of many life collisions is born.
The story of Ruth Anna Aurora…
Today, July 16, 2009, marks the 110th birthday anniversary of my mother, Ruth Anna Aurora Carlson (1899-1983). She shares that July date with a couple of momentous events in American history – both of which she lived to see.
The first atomic bomb was set off on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, marking the dawn of the nuclear age. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 embarked for the moon, landing astronauts there for the first time a few days later.
Ruth’s early life, beginning in the horse-and-buggy era, was quite dramatic as well. Her parents, Charles and Anna Carlson, were young Swedish immigrants who met in Duluth in the 1890s. Anna came to America in her teens and worked as a domestic servant in Duluth before her marriage at age 19. Charles held a variety of jobs from street railway conductor to grocery clerk.
Ruth was their first-born – in a house in Duluth’s West End that still stands, but has been moved about a block from where it was located on July 16, 1899. When she was very young, the family moved to Ellsworth, Wis., where Charles took possession of a farm. In Ellsworth the family started to grow, another daughter born three years after Ruth, and then a succession of additional daughters, all daughters, that numbered six girls by 1912.
Some of the daughters were born in Ellsworth, the younger ones in Duluth after the Carlsons moved back. Ruth always said that her mother didn’t want her daughters to grow up on a farm. Anna’s heart was in the city.
From an early age, Ruth showed a talent for music, having the ability to play the piano by ear without formal training. In Duluth, as she was growing up, she got formal training and was given many opportunities through their church – Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in the West End – to hone her talent. Her training also encompassed the pipe organ, which she played as a teenager at Bethany under the tutelage of the regular organist.
At home, the family, living on Piedmont Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, was growing, but dark days loomed. In 1917, at the age of 38, Ruth’s mother Anna died, leaving Charles with six daughters, Ruth being the eldest, not yet 18.
At about the same time, America became involved in World War I, and the regular organist at Bethany Lutheran was called into the Army. Ruth, by then his assistant, took over as chief organist pending the return of the regular organist. He never returned. He was killed in action in France.
So, while still in her teens, Ruth found herself as organist at a sizeable Lutheran Church established 30 years before by Swedish immigrants who settled in the West End, and which by 1918 had grown to some 900 members.
There was more drama. The great 1918 Cloquet fire, which devastated the Duluth area, leveling outlying communities and part of Duluth with massive loss of life and property, threw Ruth, her father and younger sisters into agonizing fear as the blaze threatened to move into the West End where they lived.
Ruth and her recently widowed father stayed up all night watching fiery refuse sweep before the strong wind down Piedmont Avenue, and making ready to evacuate their small home and flee with the children to the waterfront, about a mile away. To their great relief, the wind turned overnight, driving the fire back. The family was safe.
But the following year, her father, Charles, also died. He was in his mid-40s. It left the still-teenaged Ruth as the head of the family – six girls, one of which had been born with severe disabilities involving epilepsy and retardation. Ruth and her oldest sisters kept the parentless family together, declining offers from people at their church to adopt the younger girls. Ruth was the paid organist at Bethany and earned the remainder of her living giving piano lessons. In those days, piano teachers went to the homes of the students for the lessons, just as doctors went to the homes of the sick to treat them. In time, her two oldest sisters found jobs and helped support the parentless family.
The high drama of her early life was largely over by 1920, when she turned 21. She continued to study the piano at Duluth’s Lachmond studios, mastering the classical repertoire, as she organized the music of the church, including providing accompaniment for countless weddings and funerals, and shepherding the growth of her youngest sisters with the help of her oldest siblings.
She didn’t marry until 1932, when she and my father, George H. Heffernan, started their lives together. They had two sons, Rodney, born in 1933, and this writer, born six years later.
She continued as Bethany organist and director of choirs throughout, finally retiring in 1976 at the age of 77. She died in 1983 at age 84 and is buried in Bethany Cemetery in Hermantown alongside George (1894-1971), and in the same plot grouping as her parents, Charles and Anna, and three of her sisters. Two other sisters are buried nearby. Ruth had outlived them all.