Eight-year-old Thelma Estby, bewildered by the sudden death of her father from meningitis, moved to her Grandma Helga Estby’s home in Spokane, Washington, in 1924. Living with her beloved grandma was the one comfort in her new life as she adjusted to a strange school and unfamiliar neighborhood. The child sensed that her grandma understood how much she missed her dad. Sometimes Thelma and her grandma Helga rocked on the porch swing that her grandpa Ole built. Then, grandma told stories of what Thelma’s father, Arthur, was like as a young boy living on the Estby’s farm at Mica Creek, southeast of Spokane, Washington. Thelma loved hearing these stories, their lively memories easing the empty loss she felt. But more often the grandmother and grandchild sat in companionable silence as little Thelma grieved the loss of her dad, and Helga grieved the death of her fifth son. They found warmth and joy in each other, drawn together to relieve the sorrow surrounding them both. Even the scent of her grandmother’s Azure of Roses perfume comforted her.1
Thelma thrived on the special attention her grandmother gave her. Even at sixty-four years, with a crippled knee, Helga Estby loved to be on the go. When her small widow’s pension arrived each month from Ole’s trade union death benefit, Helga took Thelma on a trolley ride over the Spokane River to downtown. Often they watched Spokane Falls tumble over the basalt rocks, enchanted with its beauty and power, and then paused at the water’s edge to feed scraps of stale bread to the ducks. Usually they stopped at the stately Crescent department store where Helga found colorful fabrics, threads, ribbons, and buttons to make special clothes for Thelma and her dolls. Sometimes they strolled uptown past the twin towers of Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral, which Ole helped build, and continued down through the stately tree-lined streets of Browne’s Addition. Here the turn-of-the-century mansions and formal gardens spoke of a world of wealth unfamiliar to the farm child more at home with wheat fields and sunflowers. To Thelma’s surprise, many fashionably dressed women in this prestigious neighborhood seemed to know her grandmother and spoke to her with respect. They were obviously interested in Helga’s thoughts and friendship, something Thelma also noticed among Norwegian-American women in their own middle-class neighborhood on Mallon Street.2 On summer days, they joined the throngs of people riding the carousel at Natatorium Park or rode the train east to Lake Coeur d’Alene where Helga visited a friend from her earlier work in the women’s suffrage movement.
Thelma Estby, mid-1920s, Spokane, Washington.
Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection. Detail of this photograph on page xxiv.
If daytime gave Thelma fun adventures with her grandma, nighttime gave her an abiding sense of security in her grandma Helga’s faith. Helga loved to read, and Thelma liked climbing under the quilt in her grandma’s pine bed while grandma read to her from one of her favorite books, The Lamplighter, over and over. Second only in popularity to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this popular religious novel showed how suffering, self-discipline, and devotion can form a person’s character in positive ways. The main character, Gerty, was also an unhappy eight-year-old girl who had lost her parents. Neglected and abused, she developed into a troublesome orphan with an explosive temper. Eventually, a loving blind woman adopted Gerty and taught two truths to the little girl. First, that “The world is full of trials, everyone gets a share,” and second, “Even in the midst of our distress, we can look to God in faith and love.” Thelma loved the reassurance of hearing how the sad, fatherless child grew into a strong, happy woman.3
Helga told Thelma how she also suddenly lost her own father when she was just two years old, so she seemed to understand her granddaughter’s loss. Born in Christiana (now Oslo), Norway, on May 30 in 1860, Helga knew her parents enjoyed a union of genuine love because she saw how this unexpected loss left her mother grief stricken for years.4 But she told Thelma that good experiences still came after their family’s distress, especially when her mother remarried a merchant when Helga was seven years old. Because her stepfather, Mr. Haug, had money, the family sent Helga to a private school in Norway that included instruction in English, science, and religion.5 Coming to America when she was eleven was another wonderful surprise in Helga’s life that happened because of her mother’s remarriage.
Every evening, even if their meal seemed quite simple, Helga set the table with white linen, china dishes, silver napkin rings, and whatever flowers were blooming in their garden. The family loved music, often listening to classical musical on the radio. Although they could not afford a piano, Aunt Ida played the harmonica, Uncle Bill enjoyed the violin, and grandma loved to sing, even if off-key. For their festive Norwegian Christmas Eve celebration, Helga always made lefse, sour-creme pudding with almonds and lingonberries, and homemade wine from the backyard cherry tree.6
Although much in her grandmother’s home gave Thelma comfort and pleasure, she sensed something was not quite right in the family. To the young child, it felt as though a cloud hovered over her grandmother inside the house. Whenever Helga wanted to talk politics, Thelma noticed that the family either ignored her or just cut her off rudely. It upset Thelma when her aunts or uncles said mean things to their mother. This seemed to happen most if Helga wanted to talk about women’s rights and the recent suffrage laws allowing women to vote, something that Helga’s daughters resolutely refused to do.7 She wondered why her grandma never talked back, seeming instead to slip into a silent, unreachable world of her own. Thelma noticed that when this happened, Grandma Helga’s face became melancholy. Was this why she rarely laughed? She seemed to be treated so differently outside their home. Yet, Thelma never heard her grandma say anything judgmental about her family or other people.
She also wondered if this was why her grandma often retreated upstairs where she created in a room of her own. In this upper room, Helga painted with oils, pastels, and watercolors and worked on writing a book. Helga considered this her private space, so Thelma felt quite special when Grandma invited her up. One morning, when the Indian-summer sun was pouring through the north window, she saw that her grandma was leafing through hundreds of pages of yellow foolscap paper. When Helga saw Thelma, she hugged the child into the folds of her long Victorian skirt and said, “Honey, be sure to take care of this story for me.” But Thelma had no idea what “story” she was talking about.8
Forty-five years elapsed before Thelma discovered just what she had been asked to treasure. She was appalled to learn that this story had been so silenced by the entire family that it was almost lost forever. Nor had her grandma, who loved to read adventure stories to her at bedtime, ever breathed a word of her own grand adventure. When Thelma learned the truth, she vowed to fulfill her grandmother’s request and became the story keeper, passing the legacy of Helga’s courageous spirit to her own children and grandchildren. Bold Spirit emerged because Thelma believed in the power and value of preserving her family stories.