One Brilliant Day

Via the Vesterheim Museum, Decorah, IA
Via the Vesterheim Museum, Decorah, IA

One Brilliant Day

A stolid Lutheran, in the photo she was
strapped into those boxy black shoes,
practical armor for the day ahead,
and for most of her life, until she began
to see things that others could not,
Anna leaned into her life, every day, as
she leaned into that well pump handle.

There was Anton, shot up as he waded ashore at Tarawa,
the gathering of uniforms, the knock at the door;
and the sale of the horses after the bank foreclosed,
the neighbors gathered in the barnyard, the move to town;
the slow loss of Emil’s mind as his heart gave out.

But now, as the shutter snapped,
on one brilliant day in March,
she was there, once again,
at the well pump. Capable hands
grasped the cool handle as she leaned in
to draw from the depths
her daily ration of the living water.

– Steve Peterson


This post is a response to a challenge issued by Mary Lee Hahn at her blog, Poetrepository. She found some family photos this summer at her home place and thought it would be fun to write poems about them in April.

Since I don’t have a flock of family photos handy right now, I’m using historical photos from various places. I spent the last several weeks exploring and finding a group of photos to think and write about.

The photograph in this post comes from the Vesterheim Museum, our local Norwegian-American museum. At school we’ve worked with them (they are excellent!) on some immigration and history projects. This photo comes from some of that work.

I have no direct connection to the person in this photo, although it could easily have been my grandmother on my father’s side of the family. Through the 1950s she lived on the farmstead, a hardscrabble farm in north central Minnesota. During all the time they lived there, they hand-pumped water from a well, kept animals of many types, raised some row crops as well as oats and hay for the horses. They barely got by. When grandfather died, grandma sold the animals, tools, and machinery and moved from the farm.

The events in the poem are not from my family’s story. As the son of a teacher and a Lutheran preacher in small town Illinois, I spent a lot of time during my youth in church basements talking to people. I got a real appreciation for the lives of those who lived in the rural midwest.

Published by

Steve Peterson

I teach fifth grade in Iowa.

6 thoughts on “One Brilliant Day”

  1. Steve, this is a touching tribute to an unknown person whose work ethic and fortitude allowed her to “lean into her life, every day, as she leaned into that well pump handle.” I am impressed by the research you did to create this piece.

    I am knee deep in trying to complete the gallery, Winter Wanderings, and was just about to look at your submission.

    1. Thanks for reading, Carol V.! This photo reminded me so much of my grandmother. The stories came from conversations with relatives, but especially with folks I’ve talked to over the years.

  2. Steve- I love this photo and the poem that came from it. I’m fascinated by your back story too. Your details are amazing- I was sure this was a real person, related to you, and you were telling her story. I love the “practical armor for the days head,” Anna “leaning into the well pump handle.” I love how you repeated that line, but changed the following line in the last stanza. You are definitely off to a great start!

    1. Thanks, Carol! My grandmother had a pair of shoes like those at one time. I can imagine her lacing them up before she did battle with the day’s chores.

      As for the stories…I love to talk to people and find out what I can about their stories, so many of these came from conversations over the years. One thing that struck me about the photo was the simplicity of the act of drawing water, a cat eating the the foreground, lingering snow in the background. It seems so idyllic, so provincial. But over the years I’ve been impressed with just how cosmopolitan our tragedies can be. I mean, who would expect rural MN or IA or anywhere, being so intimately connected with a small island in the Pacific Ocean, or the Khe Sanh region of Vietnam? People’s lives are upended by the crash of world-wide grain prices, by the gambles a few greedy men made with other people’s money.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  3. Love this. From the boxy shoes (my Great Aunt Edna wore them) to the heartbreaking loss of Anton and the slow demise of Emil. As with many of the pictures I found in the drawer, I can’t help wondering why anyone took this picture in the first place! Why her, why there, why then?

    1. Yes! I wonder those same things. It isn’t even a very well composed picture, in my opinion…but I am glad that I have it. It gives me just a little glimpse into a life. There’s something really powerful about knowing that the life we see in that photo had a BEFORE and an AFTER the moment by the pump, that her life was everything to her and a host of other folks. So many lives, so many stories.

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