Rao had hung a copy of the painting “The Prairie Is My Garden” to cover a bare spot on her wall. She didn’t know it was a family heirloom.

Courtesy of the South Dakota Art Museum,

Although Rao, right, never met her grandfather, his childhood friend, Omar, brought him to life through his stories.

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Questions about her grandfather led Maya Rao on a quest to learn about her family history.

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In a 1915 photo, Rao’s great-grandmother Clara and her siblings pose in front of their Albert Lea home, which was later torn down.

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Reporter never knew she had Minn. roots until job brought her … home

  • Article by: Maya Rao
  • Star Tribune
  • May 16, 2014 - 6:19 PM

I once drove over the site of my great-great grandparents’ old farm without knowing it.

If you’ve traveled around southern Minnesota much, you have, too.

Bulldozed to make way for the construction of Interstate 90 near its junction with Interstate 35 in Albert Lea, the fields they once tended are now striped over by asphalt, near a McDonald’s and an Applebee’s.

Their cabin was moved in the 1960s to the local historical museum — where I stumbled across this relic of my Norwegian heritage last year.

Seeing it jolted my sense of cultural identity: I was used to thinking of myself as a biracial East Coaster. I never knew I had Minnesota roots.

Edward, my Norwegian-American grandfather, had been dead for 15 years by the time I was born. His mother had grown up on the Albert Lea farm, but had moved to Brookings, S.D. Edward never picked up her fluency in Norwegian or returned to Minnesota.

The only remnant of Norway my mother carried was that she was named after Kristin Lavransdatter, the heroine of a trilogy about life in Norway during the Middle Ages. My mother was raised in the South, and by the time she married a man from India and raised my sister and me in a Washington, D.C., suburb, the threads of our Norwegian heritage had weakened from time and loss of connection.

But on a road trip around the country three summers ago, I barreled east out of South Dakota through Albert Lea and, I learned later, right over the farm where my great-great grandfather Guttorm had settled after emigrating from Norway in the 1870s. Four months later, I accepted a job writing for the Star Tribune, moving from Philadelphia to Minneapolis — and into my family’s past.

My mother’s sister in California, Aunt Lore, had tracked our ancestry and shared a raft of papers and photographs detailing my Minnesota connections. Her research led me to a distant cousin in Eden Prairie, Frank, who showed me a book of our family tree that had my own name in it, along with hundreds of others going back to 19th-century Norway. One of the first pages had a map of Norway pointing to the location of the farm in Ringerike “where the journey to America began.”

Viking pride

On a trip to Minneapolis to see me, my parents drove with me to Albert Lea to meet another distant cousin. She took us to the Freeborn County Historical Museum, which featured a log-cabin replica of the home where my great-great grandparents had raised their 10 children. It had a wooden piano, a spinning wheel and a narrow staircase leading to the one bedroom. On the walls hung somber portraits of Guttorm and his wife, Sophie, and a framed copy of the Lord’s prayer. Guttorm and Sophie were buried a few miles away.

My aunt gave me a letter Guttorm had written to his daughter, my great-grandmother Clara. In it, he lamented in Norwegian that his sons were not helping tend to the livestock while he lay in bed sick. He said that because of his ill health, he might not make it back East. That was in 1911, exactly 100 years before I accepted a job in the Midwest.

Nothing in the family archives explains why Clara and her husband left Albert Lea for Brookings, but she clearly built a good life there. After her husband died, she ran the savings and loan where he had been an executive, eventually tucking away enough for the education of several generations.

Learning about my ancestors’ lives — where they lived, how hard they worked — prompted me to consider my own life. I realized that I wanted to find somewhere to put down roots, to have children to pass a legacy onto.

But I wanted to know more about my grandfather ­­— and how I came to be a part of this Midwestern pioneer family.

I knew that he had moved to a series of warmer states after college, married a girl of British and German descent, had three children and became a plant pathologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He died of a heart condition at 50.

A staid, autobiographical paper he wrote in the 1930s while he was at South Dakota State University expressed his pride in “my Viking ancestors … and their love of life and adventure.” He went on to confess his disappointment in his shyness and his sense of being a social failure.

His words seemed at odds with the handsome man in the photographs I’d seen, but they struck me deeply: I had struggled with the same insecurities.

Painting the past

My mother had a hard time answering my questions about her father because he had been so reserved, and had died so young. I hadn’t thought to ask my grandmother about him before she died. Frank didn’t remember much, but Aunt Lore knew someone who would: Omar, his childhood best friend.

Now 95 and living in a nursing home in Northfield, Omar spoke haltingly, as though he were always short of breath. The retired St. Olaf College religion professor joked that the lives of some people, like my grandfather’s, were too short, while other people, like him, lived too long.

He told me how he and my grandfather used to make prank calls at the local store and how they spent their Sunday afternoons working on their stamp collections. Edward even brought stamps back from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

Omar hadn’t seen Edward in more than 70 years and the details were fading, but he spoke fondly of my grandfather, remembering him as a leader, even pulling out their high school yearbook to show me that my grandfather had been the editor.

If I could never know my grandfather, knowing Omar was the next best thing. He was cheerful despite his flagging energy, always eager to show me photographs and tell me one more story. He took me around St. Olaf and invited me to dinner at the retirement home.

Before we ate, he bowed his head and began the prayer, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest” — the same prayer my mother taught us to say every night. I had never heard that prayer at any other kitchen table on the East Coast.

On a wall in his room, he had a painting of a woman standing on the prairie. She was looking into the distance, holding a bouquet of wildflowers, her two children close by.

I had the same painting hanging in my living room. My mother had given it to me to help fill the bare walls of my first apartment, but I never thought it had any significance.

Omar did. He told me it was “The Prairie Is My Garden,” by prominent South Dakota artist Harvey Dunn.

It suddenly clicked for me. My copy of the painting had been passed down from my great-grandmother, moving from state to state and generation to generation.

And now, decades later, it was close to where it had begun its journey. In a way, so was I.


Maya Rao • 612-673-4210


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