The Fifty Cent Bible

Judith Nakken

Copyright 2019 by Judith Nakken

Photo of an old bible.

I bought them, two old, small, brown leather bound bibles tied together with twine, at an antique auction in L.A. County in the autumn of 1958. Only because the antique-buying populace didn’t want them, and they went for the original dollar asked by the struggling auctioneer. As an avowed atheist, I didn’t want them for any reason except that, as an equally avowed book lover, I couldn’t bear to see ancient tomes ignored. They went on a stacked bookshelf in the granny room, the tiny spare bedroom where everything unused reposed at one time or another.

There they stayed, until a year had passed and I was recovering from surgery and couldn’t work or garden or even do much housework. I decided to compare passages in my Christian husband’s King James bible with one of those old ones keeping company with the ironing board and Christmas decorations in the granny room. Chose one at random, went out to the sofa and began my comparisons. I was particularly interested in the story of the Christ’s birth, and opened the brittle, yellowed pages carefully to what I suspected was the New Testament. The pages parted exactly there, and on the left-hand blank page was a list of names. Pencil-written in an unformed, youthful hand, I couldn’t discern the caption above the seven names, but assumed they were a Sunday School class. Now I was interested, and turned to the front of the book to perhaps see to whom it had belonged.

I gasped at the faded inscription.

It had belonged to one Christine Hanson, in Iroquois, South Dakota.

Iroquois, South Dakota was my home town! A hamlet of 350 or so souls, it was mostly in Kingsbury County, SD, where the Little House on the Prairie really was. I say mostly, because 12 or 14 of those souls lived across the county line, in the County of Beadle. What an odd coincidence, I thought.

Christine’s birth date in 1882 and her marriage date in 1901 were noted. She was near the age of my grandfather, Hans Peter Hansen, who was still in residence back there. I believed he would know some of those names, and went to the phone and called him.

Aunt Lois had to come and take the phone from him, he became so overwrought. Christine was his sister who moved to Los Angeles immediately after her marriage and died in an accident in 1905, at the age of 23. How wonderful that I had come into possession of her bible, and would I send it to him?

I assumed that I couldn’t make out the old fashioned handwriting and mistook a curlicue e” for what I thought was the “o” that made her last name Norwegian or Swedish, as opposed to the Danish Hansen-with-an-“e,” and didn’t think of it again for forty-odd years. Shipped the bible to Grandpa Pete on his promise that it would be returned to me when he crossed over, and forgot about doing the comparison study, although I did go look at the other bible to see if there was any interesting writing in it. There wasn’t.

Iroquois High School alumni created a giant all-school reunion to celebrate Y2K. The little town, now just a shade over 300 population, hosted folks from all over the Midwest and my sister and me from Washington State. It was 102 degrees outside and who knows how hot inside the pole-building gymnasium, but each class stood as their year was announced. (I didn’t stand for 1952, as I had been expelled before graduation and was grateful just to be invited to the festivities.) A living Congressional Medal of Honor winner stood with the Class of 1969, and I still get goose bumps as I write the words. The program was hurried, as the attendees were melting, but a good time was had by all.

We went to the cemetery to see our relatives, and couldn’t find them at first. Quite by accident, I looked at the name plates below a giant monument that screamed Hanson-with-an-“o.” There was great-grandfather Christian, Uncle Charl, and Christine. Great grandmother Elise, whom I remembered as an ancient, outspoken crone when I was 7 or 8, had her nameplate tucked at the back of that stone. It said “Elise Marie Hansen” (with an “e,”) and I applauded in silence. They couldn’t take her name away from her even in death!

Aunt Helen, the only one of my mother’s sisters still living, told me later that she had always known of the pseudo name change. It seemed that when Christian and Elise came to Kingsbury County and started their family in a sod shanty, the already ensconced Norwegian and Swedish settlers discriminated against the Danes. Christian changed the spelling of his name to avoid it.

The right flyleaf with Christine’s birth and marriage dates has disappeared, but her bible is intact and sits in a place of honor on the antique bookcase in my living room.

Even in 1958, long before I came to believe in anything but myself, I wondered about the orchestration of such a chance happening--my great-aunt’s bible coming to me for half a buck at auction half a continent away from where it began. Today I have learned that faith is the result of results, and that sooner or later I had to stop calling these extraordinary occurrences simple coincidence.

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