I lean against the bleachers at the alumni banquet, looking down at my name tag and wondering why I'm here.
“HANSEN” my name tag says in black magic marker.
I need a drink, I think.
Red Cloud, like many small Nebraska towns, holds an annual gathering for anyone who ever graduated from its lone high school.
I happened to be in town on alumni weekend this year, and a bit of subtle guilt from my parents got me to attend the cocktail reception.
So here we are. I see no other 1998 graduates — that's when I donned a purple cap-and-gown — and for that matter I see no other graduates from 1997, 1996 or 1995, either. You know you are from a small town when you end up talking to your Grandpa Richard at your class reunion, which is exactly what I am doing when a white-haired stranger walks up and blows my mind.
She is tiny, so tiny I have to lean down to read her name tag. Hers is typed.
“Ardyce Rose Hanson,” it says. “Class of 1951.”
She identifies herself as my Grandpa Richard's second cousin. She is widowed, I later learn, and her married name is Ardyce Rose.
We shake hands, then I watch as they get down to the business of class reunions. John Yost is here, he tells her. He's over there sitting at a table. (It is a particularly small-town coincidence that John Yost happens to be my other grandfather, my mom's dad, who also graduated from Red Cloud High School in 1947. You can't out-small town me. Don't even try.)
Nobody else from the Class of 1947 that I see, my Grandpa Richard tells her.
What about Jim, they ask each other. What about Betty? Where is Ralph?
I admit I made up these last three names, because in truth my eyes have glazed over and I am contemplating heading back to the bar. But before I walk away, I look down at Ardyce's name tag again and a question forms in my head.
“Wait a second,” I say. “If we are cousins, why are our names spelled differently?”
This question has a bit of a back story in the Hansen family. When my people left Denmark and found their way to a little piece of ground northwest of Red Cloud, that's how they spelled it: Hansen. And then, for reasons lost to history, they changed it. If you visit my great-great-grandfather's gravesite in the Dane Cemetery outside Red Cloud, you will find a stone on which is inscribed “Oley Hanson.”
And then they changed it back. On my great-grandfather's gravestone, it says “Hansen.”
We have long speculated about why. Maybe the Hansens-turned-Hansons wanted to seem less Danish. Maybe the men who etched the gravestones couldn't spell. Maybe they were all too busy digging sod houses and taming unplowed ground and wondering about the whip-smart teenager in town named Willa Cather to care.
“It isn't like they had Social Security cards,” my Grandpa Richard says.
But still, I wonder, why is this tiny white-haired woman standing before me a Hanson?
“Why, let me tell you,” she says.
The trouble started with her great-uncle Pete. Pete was a bit of a troublemaker. OK, let's not cushion the truth.
“Pete was a horse thief,” she says.
Pete evidently got away with this brand of frowned-upon frontier criminality for a time, but his misdeeds eventually caught up to him.
“He sold mortgaged horses,” my Grandpa Richard says.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Wait a second, I think. You know this story and you never mentioned it?
As the story goes, Pete didn't just sell mortgaged horses. He sold mortgaged horses that were owned by the Cather family, which in addition to birthing one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century also happened to be fairly affluent and powerful in Red Cloud.
Bad move, Pete. Red Cloud's Wyatt Earp wannabes were on his trail now. He decided to flee to distant lands. He decided to flee to a place where the law would never catch him.
I'm going to Denver, he told the rest of the Hansen family.
“He was never heard from again,” Ardyce tells me.
It's true, she says. They don't know if he died on the way. They don't know if he got to Denver and then turned south and rode to Mexico.
All her grandfather — Pete's brother — knew was that Pete had vanished, never to steal another south-central Nebraska horse again.
Her grandfather was ashamed, Ardyce says. Her whole family was disgraced.
So this is what they did, she says: “They changed their name.”
They dropped the e and subbed in an o. Hansen became Hanson.
My Grandpa Richard is nodding his head now, and I swear to God that if he had his horse here, I would steal it. He knows this story! He never mentioned it!
And then he pulls this gem out of the dusty cobwebbed attic of the Great Depression: He says he remembers hearing his father and his uncle Charles having a conversation about their last name. A conversation about changing it back to “Hansen.”
“Something like, 'We'll change it back if you do,' ” he says.
I am no longer leaning against the bleachers. I am standing straight up, eyes bulged out of my head.
You mean to tell me, I say, that our entire family may have changed its name because of a 19th century horse thief who may or may not have sold horses owned by the family of Willa Cather?
And then, a generation or so later, some of us went back to the old spelling, and some of us kept it the same?
My grandpa and his second cousin all but shrug.
I look at my name tag. “Hansen.” I look at the tiny white-haired stranger's name tag. “Hanson.”
I excuse myself. I need to go tell everyone I know this story.
Also, I need a drink.