My father was a quiet man. Language seemed unnatural to him. He was born on the dour plains of North Dakota, in 1886, and I always imagine a vast silence around him.
He was born an Olsen. His father, a Norwegian immigrant, decided one day there were too many Olsens in North Dakota. He scratched out that name on my father's birth certificate, and wrote "Stuefloten" over it. That was the name of the hamlet he came from, north of Oslo. The whole family, his wife, his five sons and five daughters, all became Stueflotens. In those days changing one's name was rather simpler than today. Martin had four brothers, Ole, Sever, John, and I believe Paul. One of his five sisters was named Bertha. When I was a child I met some of them, plus some cousins. The family gatherings seemed to end after my father died, in 1962. I have few pictures of his pre-marriage years—there's the studio portrait above, and the picture of him (in his ubiquitous hat) holding the three little girls, and looking out the window of the car. Perhaps one of the boys in the other pictures is him, too. I could see him as the child standing in the water, his pants legs pulled up, grinning at the camera. His mother, Karen, is the old, tired-looking woman in two of the pictures. Her tombstone I believe is in Canada. In those days, Canada and North Dakota were scarcely separated by a border. The others in the photos are probably relatives or family friends. I cant identify them.
He married my mother when he was about 50. What did he do during those first 50 years of his life? He never volunteered information. By the time I graduated from high school—I was 17—he was suffering from dementia. Alzheimer's Disease ran in the family—one sister and one of his brothers, I believe, also had dementia. Ironically it was only then that he told me anything about his past. As a child I never inquired: one's father was a father, after all, a rather archetypal figure, especially in those days, not a pal. But as dementia set in we would sometimes sit together and talk. He seemed to like being with me. I could shave him—he would let me do this without fussing. Our conversations were a bit disjointed, often difficult to follow. But I learned, for instance, that he had once loved a woman in Canada. She was a Negress, he said. Why didnt he marry her? It would have been hard on their children, he said. Once he had gone with a prostitute, on Santa Catalina island. He had learned carpentry, and in Hollywood he worked on creating sets for movies. He helped on some Randolph Scott pictures. He liked Scott, his favorite Western star. During the depression years he wandered around, working at carpentry in exchange for room and board. It must have been a hard life, and I think a lonely one, but he was not the kind of man who complained. Once I asked him why he married my mother. She saved my life, he told me. I believe she gave him purpose, a reason to exist. He had a family then, a wife and finally three boys.
I was in Western Australia, working with an oil exploration crew in the desert, when he died. I got the letter, from my brother Marvin, a couple months afterwards. It took time for the letter to trace its way from one address to another. Father has died, Marvin wrote. He was 76. I wish I had been there.
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Dec. 23 2012
Good to meet you! I'm the wife of Rory, Ole Stuefloten's great great grandson. I love this story, and truly thank you for posting. Very best wishes,
Dec. 24, 2012
Thanks, Shannon. Delighted to hear from you! My family visited Ole in Paradise--a rather utopian name for a town--when I was a kid.
I remember him as a quiet, slightly gruff man, very much like my father. Say hello to his grandson for me!