Socko's Girl -- Recounting grandfather's tales of life in Russia
CULBERTSON, Neb. -- Sitting on her grandfather's knee, little Norma Brecht Wilson listened to his stories of life in Russia and of his family's migration to the United States.
As she grew up, Norma felt a need ... a responsibility, really ... to preserve her grandparents' story. She also discovered she loved to write. It took many years to finally write her families' stories -- from her grandparents' stories in the very early 1900s through her own and her children's. She calls her book "Socko's Girl," and it is being sold by Barnes & Noble, the largest retail bookseller in the United States.
"I just felt I had stories to tell," Norma says.
"My grandfather, who was 17 years old, was in the Russian Army," Norma relates. "Back on leave one time, he met my grandmother, who was 15 years old." Norma adds with a giggle, "Oh, Honey, they got married -- at 17 and 15. That's where my book starts."
When Heinrich Hoff was discharged from the service, he and his young wife homestead in the Russian wilderness, along with fellow settlers, bandits and wolves. The young couple lost two babies and, after four years in the wilderness, realized things were never going to get any better and they returned to Heinrich's parents' home.
The parents had just gotten a letter from Heinrich's uncle who lived in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and he offered to sponsor Heinrich and his family in America. The uncle even got Heinrich a job with the railroad in Lincoln, Nebraska.
When the family left Russia, Heinrich and Katharina had three children -- the oldest was seven years old and the youngest (Norma's mother, Pauline) 15 months. And Katharina was pregnant with one more baby on the way.
The month-long voyage was rough. Norma writes in "Socko's Girl," "While typing this story, I have tears in my eyes thinking about my grandmother and the things she had to do. The fear of going to a new country ... with no idea of what she would find there." .... "They did this knowing they would never see their brothers, sisters or parents again." ... "My grandparents had great faith in God."
The ship Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm arrived at Ellis Island, New York, America, on June 18, 1912, and officials there "Americanized" the couple's names. They became Henry and Katherine, or Katie.
Over time, Henry and Katherine relocated from Lincoln to McCook, and their daughter Pauline and her husband, Jacob (also spelled "Jakob") Brecht (also an immigrant from Russia, on July 13, 1911), and their family lived next door. Norma was seven years old. She had two brothers, Kenny and Alan, and one sister, Lila.
Norma remembers, "I was very ornery growing up. My brother, Kenny, and I were always in trouble," she giggled. "Oh, Honey, I had a very good life."
It was on the tree stump in the front yard of the homes near today's South Street in McCook that Henry sat, and told stories to his granddaughter, Norma. Norma says, "I wasn't very old when he told me stories, but I remember them all."
In the book, Norma writes, "I was with my grandpa when he received a letter with the message that his mother had passed away. We were sitting on his tree stump where he held me as he cried. He told me how much he loved his mother and what a wonderful woman she was. She was a woman who always helped others."
Eighty-four-year-old Norma says she wrote her book for her family, to preserve their history, and that she originally printed it as a Christmas greeting to her children.
"I had just lost my husband, and I had to have something to do," she said.
Her doctor gave her his old computer, and she got bored quickly by its games. "So I decided to write my book," Norma says. She wanted her family to know that although her life wasn't easy, " ... I have had a very good life. I've been blessed all my life."
Norma sent the finished book to her daughter, Karen Krepcik in Virginia, and she and her husband, Harlan, got it printed by Bookstand Publishing.
"And now, Barnes & Noble has picked it up," Norma said, smiling.
Norma married Virgil Wilson in 1948, and the couple raised six kids. Norma was lucky: She had RH negative blood factor, but neither she nor the babies had any serious complications.
Virgil gave her an impressive gift with (almost) each child: "I got a kitchen set with the first, and then a vacuum cleaner and a dryer and an electric washing machine and a sewing machine, Oh, I was uptown," Norma giggled, remembering with a soft smile, "There was no money for a gift with the sixth child."
On one farm, with the first two kids, the family had no electricity and they had to carry their water. "Oh, it was pioneer," she laughed.
Norma also remembers raising 350 laying hens, along with her kids. "Oh, I didn't have it easy," she said.
When the family lived in Wauneta, Norma started a ball club for girls and helped with lessons at the swimming pool. After the family moved to Culbertson, Norma and her daughters helped manage the swimming pool.
"Life wouldn't be normal without the little glitches, but all my kids have done very well," Norma said.
When the kids were grown and gone, she and Virgil moved to Lincoln to work for the University of Nebraska.
At their retirements 12 years later, Norma received the "Sue Tidball Award for Creative Humanity" for personal contributions to the quality of individual and community life at UNL. Virgil worked at the campus gas station and knew all the coaches. At Virgil's retirement party, Charlie McBride gave him a 1994 National Championship football signed by the players and coaches and Tom Osborne presented him a copy of his book.
Norma and Virgil returned to Culbertson, where they occupied their time with handicrafts and fishing at Red Willow Lake until Virgil died of COPD and leukemia in November 2005.
It was then that the desire to write and the need to keep busy merged, and she wrote "Socko's Girl." "I was always going to write a book, way back when I was young," Norma said recently.
As it turn out, Norma's timing appears to be right. Without her grandparents', and her parents' and her own 84 years of experience, what would she have written of her family?