Olga’s Lullaby

Olga Amalie Vikse Ojala
b. January 18, 1891
d. April 12, 1947

My paternal grandmother, Olga, died before her grandchildren were born, so I never met her. But I love her, inasmuch as I have known her spirit through my dear father. And I have looked for her in the bits and pieces of her history that remain to me. This is what I have found.

Olga was born in 1891 to Norwegian immigrant parents, Annie and Christian Olsen Vikse. This is a Norwegian lullaby, a folk song from the region where Olga’s mother was born and raised. I imagine that Annie sang it to her children.

 

Annie and Christian had a farm at Viking, Marsh Grove Township, Warren County, in northwest Minnesota, just east of the Red River of the North. Most of the settlers there were Norwegian immigrants, and there were so many families named “Olsen” that mail delivery was a problem. So Olga’s parents began using the father’s birthplace-name, Vikse. About the time of WWI, they anglicized the spelling to Vixie.

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I don’t know when the family converted from the Lutheranism of their Norwegian homeland, but they attended the Seventh-day Adventist church in Viking, pictured here.

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In this picture, taken circa 1901 when Olga was about 10 or 11, she is the younger sister in the back row, at left.

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My Great-Aunt Effie, Olga’s youngest sister, told me that Olga had a beautiful singing voice and was often called on to perform at church and at camp-meeting, both when she was a child and when she was an adult, accompanying herself on her guitar. But Olga’s girlhood was savaged by “someone close to the family” who singled her out for abuse. Those who knew her well said that she never got over it.

Olga adored her brothers and sisters as they loved her. Here is the family circa 1911. Olga is the sister in the suit, middle of back row.

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Olga was especially close to her younger brother Levi, and had this portrait made with him.

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Despite her childhood tragedy, Olga focused on her studies and excelled in school. As soon as she graduated from eighth grade, she took training to be a teacher. Here she is with other young ladies in her teacher preparation school (Olga is second from the right), and with two of her younger sisters at about the same time (she is on the left, with the black collar).

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Olga then became the teacher at the same little school she had attended. She taught there for 10 years.

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Olga’s family believed that she would never marry, because of the lingering emotional disturbance and physical effects from her childhood trauma. But at the age of 28 she did marry Gustaf Ojala, a quiet, gentle, Finnish-American man who was a Seventh-day Adventist minister in Winnepeg, Canada.

Olga and Gust’s first child, my Uncle Melvin, was born within a year of their marriage. Olga suffered with severe postpartum depression. Still, she is smiling in these pictures with Gust and her baby Mel, when they were at camp-meeting.

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This is one of the songs Olga would have sung at church and camp-meeting, and — knowing how she suffered — I know it would have had deep meaning to her.

Too quickly after Mel was born, Gust and Olga had three more children. Meanwhile, they had moved from Winnipeg to Port Arthur, Canada (now “Thunder Bay”). Here are Gust and their first three children in Port Arthur. The little one on the right is my father, Verne Ojala (b. 1923).

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While they lived in Thunder Bay Gust worked as a traveling minister so he was rarely at home. Olga continued to suffer from depression, and was unable to manage. In 1925 Gust took her home to a family reunion in Minnesota, but her sadness and disengagement come through in these photographs.

Olga (far left) and her sisters.

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Olga (tallest sister) with all her brothers and sisters.

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The whole Vixie clan: Olga and Gust are at the right, back row. My father and his two older brothers are among the children.

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The following year, in late 1926, Olga had another child, my Aunt Irene. At that point she was not able to care for the children at all due to depression. So the family temporarily distributed the children among the aunts, Gust took Olga to Boulder, Colorado where one of her sisters was a nurse in a Seventh-day Adventist sanitarium, and Olga was admitted for “rest.”

The SDA church organization in Colorado did not hire Gust, and that was a great blow to the family. He found no job in Boulder, so he moved down to Pueblo where he had heard there was work.

Once Gust had a job in Pueblo as a Ford car salesman, and when Olga seemed to be doing better, she and the boys joined him there. (Their youngest, Irene, had been taken by Olga’s sister to California, where she remained.) But Olga soon had a fifth child, and sank into the black hole of depression again.

It hurts to think that my father was unable to remember his mother because she was unable to engage with him when he was so young. He told me that his only memory was of her playing her guitar, and singing “Red River Valley.”

The Great Depression hit in 1930, and Gust lost his job. So he — who had a degree from a college seminary and had been a Christian minister — sold newspapers on the street corner. And he stood in line, with the children, at the local fire station for a handout of beans so that they would not starve.

Things could hardly have been more desperate for the family. And then, Olga had a sixth child. My Uncle Melvin (the only child of Olga’s who could remember her clearly) told me that his mother had become paranoid by this time. She believed that someone had poisoned the milk supply, and that was why her baby had not thrived. To protect the baby, as she imagined she was doing, she gave him no milk. He died before he was two.

This song is by one who, like my own father, had a mother who suffered from debilitating depression and was unable to care for her children.

And she lays down on her bedroom floor
The chemicals that make her love
Don’t seem to be working anymore
She tries her best, but it hurts her chest
And even though her sun is gone
She’d like to love her child nevertheless

My hair is brown, she’s scared to touch
She just wants to feel something
And I don’t think that’s asking too much
And when I go to sleep
It’s when she begins to weep

She’s appalled by not loving me at all
She wears a frown and a dressing gown
When she lays down

 

Olga’s dear brother, Levi, visited the family in the winter of 1934, and saw how badly their situation had deteriorated. He arranged for their sister Christine to take two additional children to live with her in California, and for their sister Marie to take the youngest child in Miami. The oldest boy, Mel, remained with Gust.

Then Levi and Gust had Olga adjudged mentally incompetent, and had her committed to the Colorado State Hospital (a.k.a. the “insane asylum”) for treatment.

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In 1934, the only known “treatment” — in addition to commitment to a secure facility — for depression and other mental illnesses was hydrotherapy. This meant submitting the patient to long baths in extremely hot water, followed by dunking in extremely cold water. This treatment was not known to be particularly effective, we may not be surprised to learn.

With Olga and several of the children gone, Gust fell apart. He stopped going to church at all, and turned to whisky. In 1935, just a little more than a year after Olga was committed, he got pneumonia and died at home. Apparently the hospital brought Olga to the burial, because there is a picture of her by his grave. This is the last picture we have of Olga.

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In 1937, two innovative treatments were introduced for treatment of mentally ill patients: electroconvulsive therapy, and lobotomy. Effects of electroconvulsive therapy, as it was practiced at that time, included scrambled minds and broken bones. Effects of lobotomy included a state of disengagement, a sort of twilight of the mind, a zombie existence.

I have not been able to find out if Olga was subjected to either of the “innovative treatments,” or whether the blackness was uninterrupted by torture.

I do know that Olga was stalked by the black-eyed dog, in the state hospital, for 13 years.  Grandmother Olga died in the state hospital on April 12, 1947 at the age of 56. She never went home.

 

Olga’s grown children, who had rarely (or never) seen her since they had been taken from her in 1934, attended her funeral in 1947. Here they are later that year, on the occasion of Irene’s marriage. (L-R) Melvin, Charles, Verne (my father), Irene, Lawrence
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Olga’s children never stopped grieving for her. They were all bitten, to varying degrees of pain, by that same black-eyed dog that hounded her all her life. They loved her, and I know they worried that she never found peace.

Grandmother Olga, may you rest in peace. This is my lullaby for you.

Translation of Gjendines Lullaby, a Norwegian folk song from the region where Olga’s mother was born:

The child is laid in its cradle
Sometimes crying, sometimes smiling…

Sleep now, sleep in Jesus’s name
Jesus watch over this child…

Mother lifts me to her lap
Dances with me to and fro…

Dance then, dance with your children
Dance, and your children will dance too…

In Memory of Grandmother Olga Amalie Vikse Ojala
by Bette Ojala
January 18, 2016