Labor Day Ghosts


Birget lost her six-year-old son in the winter of 1855 when the root cellar out back of their cabin collapsed and he was crushed under the snowy wind weight of a blizzard in Ephraim Wisconsin that they still talk about today.

She had sent him for a clay tub of sweet cherry preserves. It was just the two of them. She and her book-reading son. Why there was just the two of them, a story on it’s own.

A story that didn’t matter to her community. Because in her community, she was accepted.

The community was a tiny group of Moravians, a Christian group, living by the words:

In essentials unity

In non-essentials liberty

In all things love.

Their search was simply for a place to bring those words to life.

In the grey sky snows of February 1853, their leader, Rev. Andreas Iverson and 3 companions walked east from the tiny outpost of Green Bay Wisconsin. Treading across the ice of Sturgeon Bay and up through bare tree Indian trails, they found their place on a hill over a breathtakingly pristine bay. They called the place Ephraim.

In the spring, Birget, protecting her tiny son, and the community that protected Birget followed.

And as the community took root, Birget lived as a protector of the community. Whether it be the winds, the hunger or the mysteries of the sickness that swept across the community, she would be the one with the root berry teas, the breads, the brute strength to lift the logs in place and then seal off the cabins from the winds. With raw physical strength when she built, with just knowing what to blend when she cooked, and with knowing how to make the cooking fires simmer and roar, with a laughter that spoke to the warm winds of spring and endless tunes she would hum that somehow protected even stronger than the walls, Birget was a protector of the community.

But on that February day, it was noon, the sky was bright as it snowed, that February day when the root cellar collapsed and took the breath of life from her son, there was nothing she could do to protect.

There was only the wail of her sorrow. Echoing through the trees. Some in the community say that it seemed her cries never stopped. Even after she died in the very next frost you could still hear her cries. Years later people in the community say that they could still hear her cries. Cries that prompted prayers of comfort to continually be sang to the heavens.

In essentials unity

In non-essentials liberty

In all things love.

There is a winding hill that leads down into Ephraim and the Bay. Today it’s Highway 42. Back then it was a trail. But the stars that light the way are the same. Even after 153 years. And it’s right there on that hill, where if you listen very, very hard, there are still times you can still hear her cries.

Sometimes in the dancing starry night you can even see her. Chugging along. Off to protect. Off to soothe. Off to be strong. To lift the heaviest of logs if they will keep out the winds that chill her community.

And if the fever pitch of the world’s woes hit their boiling point, she will even leave that hill and shimmer into the souls of those who also try with all their might to protect.

Like that time in Madison.

Birget never belonged to a union. She never was a republican or a democrat, she never manufactured stories of deficits to divert the attention of anyone from anything. She simply would not know how.

But she does know evil.

In the beaten, desolate, too many beers every night auto worker from Janesville who has struggled on for three years now and just the other night was thinking of his favorite movie. “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The part where the evil banker Mr. Potter was offering ten cents on the dollar. And how maybe what the governor was saying in dismantling the union wasn’t all that bad.

Nothing else has worked.

And Birget saw the evil in the rivers of money flowing into the collective rivers of Wisconsin to grow the idea that the thing most harmful to the almost poor are those wretched souls who are very poor. Then lighting the fires of that fight.

Perhaps the very worst evil of all. Evil masked as reasonableness. In the calm, well fed, never missed a meal tones of columnist David Brooks, poisoning the minds of the reasonable by saying, “Private unions are OK because they fight shareholders. But public unions fight taxpayers.” So maybe we ought to take a nice gentle look at public unions. Before we crush them, bury them, suffocate them just the exact same way Birget’s six-year-old son was crushed when that root cellar collapsed 153 years ago. Birget sees as clear as the sun on Ephraim Bay that the goal here is to crush the community. The community that builds. That feeds. That flourishes. That serves.

Birget absorbs these words of pure evil and she starts to wail. She then starts to sing.

It’s a faint cry. Most in the Madison capital don’t hear it. It’s a tiny sound in the background. But then it starts to get louder. And suddenly there is more energy for the fight. That fight that is for nothing less than community. That fight that says: In essentials unity.

And suddenly it’s not just in Madison. It’s a spark. A tiny spark. To the desolate. The discouraged. And it starts playing like a song in every American community.

These forces of evil will not give up.

But Birget the protector won’t either.

So she starts singing loud now. A song that came after her time on earth. But a song she knows well.

Birget sing loud enough for anyone who cares to listen.

And she doesn’t tell. She doesn’t advise. She doesn’t quote a made up fake number. She asks a question. One from the song.

“What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?’

And this Labor Day Ghost keeps walking. She’s still here. Waiting for the next line to be sung back to her.

For the community makes us strong.

4 Responses to “Labor Day Ghosts”

  1. chicagoguy14 Says:

    For my Mom. Dr. Barbara Wright.

    Author

    “An Awakening Heart. A Novel of The Moravians in Early America.” Available at Moon Trail Books.

    http://www.moontrailbks.com/index.php

  2. Tom Simeone Says:

    Just incredible, Roger. Thanks for being our conscience, sucking us in with the story of the 19th century woman’s heartbreak just to expose us to the fact that our hearts should be breaking for the vulnerable in Wisconsin and, ultimately, ourselves.

    “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

  3. Paul Haider Says:

    Roger, this almost makes me miss living in Wisconsin, where I used to put the “sin” in Wisconsin. You didn’t include the town where I did a lot of that sinning: Beloit, WI. The ghost of Wisconsin is walking hand in hand with the ghost of Tom Joad; they do their best to scare the hell out of Ronald Raygun’s ghost, which still haunts this country and its soul.
    Paul Haider, Chicago

  4. Helen Gagel Says:

    Beautiful, beautiful

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