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Unlikely union

Couple, married for 56 years, grew up in different worlds

By Deb Trygstad, M.S.

Edith Trygstad of Fargo. Photo by Britta Trygstad

Edith and Cyrus “Cy” Trygstad were married for 56 years. Both were Caucasian, spoke English and came from Scandinavian backgrounds, but the similarities stopped there. The two came from completely different worlds. Edith is from Brooklyn, New York, and Cyrus from Kidder, South Dakota. It was unlikely that these two would have ever met had it not been for a war. At age 96, Edith, now lives in Fargo, reflects on their life together and the challenges of blending these two cultures into a long marriage.

“Culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones, and a million other things,” said Cristina De Rossi, (an anthropologist) in an interview with Live Science. Understanding culture helps us understand other people’s reality, their paradigm, how they see the world. We can change and adapt our culture throughout our lives. The adventurous ones among us reach out and embrace people who are not like us and modify our culture to create something different. This was the case for Edith, who ventured outside her cultural norms to move from a very big city to a very small town.

Edith was born in Brooklyn in 1925. Her mother was a Swedish immigrant, coming to the United States when she was 17 on her own to start a life and stay with her older sister. Edith had a brother who was 15 months younger than her, Freddie. They always lived in apartments. The first apartment she remembered was very nice, as it had a maid’s apartment. She said that her entire family slept in one room.

Edith’s father was a carpenter but lost his business during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Virtually every New Yorker was affected. Middle-class families were forced to live paycheck to paycheck, heads of working-class families struggled to find work and pay the bills, and the already poor often fell into destitution and homelessness. This happened to eight year old Edith, who came home from school one day and found their family’s belongings all out on the street. The family had been evicted from their apartment (as many others were) because they failed to pay the rent. Edith and Freddie asked friends if they could spend the night with them. Her parents slept out in the street with their furniture.

The family found a place in the back of a storefront. It had an apartment in the back. There were many homeless men looking for work that did not have a place to stay. Edith’s dad felt sorry for them. So he got some Army cots and would invite the homeless men to sleep in the front of the storefront. He would set up and remove the cots every day. This went on for quite some time until one day the store owner found out.

“They put us all out,” Edith said. The next place they moved was called a “cold flat” because it had no heat. “I slept with my brother to stay warm, but I never thought of our family as poor.” Perhaps it was because many other families in New York were in the same situation.

Edith and Cyrus on their wedding day. She was from New York and he was from South Dakota. Contributed photo

Around 1938, Edith’s dad got a job in upstate New York working constructing a camp for the Army. The United States was gearing up for war. They stayed with their father in a cabin on Lake Seneca the entire summer. The family eventually moved back to Brooklyn, and both her brother and her father got a job upon their return so they could afford an apartment to live in. Freddie missed school because of it but later was able to make it up. Both Edith and Freddie attended a technical school, one for boys and one for girls, which provided them a good education. Edith’s mom also got a job working for a doctor house cleaning and cooking. Edith took care of the house as both her parents worked late, often not returning home until 8 or 9 in the evening. Her dad eventually became a Union Organizer and was very passionate about helping workers get humane work conditions and good pay.

On Dec. 7, 1941, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan. Edith was 16. During this time both her parents were employed. Edith graduated from Girls Commercial Technical School specializing in Art. After graduation Freddie was drafted in the war, but Edith remained at home with her parents. Her first job was working for Simplicity Pattern Company drawing up patterns. Then she got a job as a draftsman, working for ARMA, a defense company, making gyroscopes and radar equipment. Later her father became ill so she had to stay at home to help take care of him and gave her mother her War Bonds to pay for his hospital bill.

Edith wanted to contribute to the war effort by becoming an Army nurse but her father wouldn’t let her. The next best thing was working at the United Service Organization (USO) canteen where she worked as a volunteer. Unbeknownst to her, life would change forever one night at a USO dance.

Cyrus was born in 1922 about 1,232 miles from Brooklyn in a small town in Kidder, South Dakota. At the time, Kidder had about 100 people or so (now it has 18). His dad was the storekeeper of this small town and the family had a huge garden and berry patch. They would sell all the produce in their store and it was the kid’s responsibility to work in the garden as soon as they could pull a weed. During the Depression, things were hard for people in the rural areas, too. But they always had a place to live and food to eat. Later on, Cyrus’ dad would lose the store because of the impact of the Depression. He had extended quite a bit of credit to his customers and was never paid back.

Edith at age 20. Contributed photo

One summer at age 14, to help out and to have an adventure, Cyrus and his friend hopped on a train headed to Washington State to find work with only $5 in their pocket. They ended up staying and finding work in the orchards and made their way back to South Dakota with $100 to give to their families. The families were very upset they had left but very glad to see them. Cyrus completed high school and immediately joined the Navy, lying about his age to get in.

After basic training Cyrus was stationed on a supply ship on the coast of New Jersey that was headed for Africa. He had trained as a gunner in the Merchant Marines. Unfortunately it ran into another US convoy and was sunk. (Author’s Note: The details of the story were not told until Cyrus was on his deathbed. The survivors were sworn not to tell how the ship was really sunk.) Just a few soldiers survived, Cyrus being one of them. Both of his legs were broken but he was able to hoist himself by his arms and grab the life rope offered by an Army helicopter. One of the other soldiers panicked and grabbed onto his legs. This caused more damage to his legs. Cyrus was sent to a naval hospital in Bermuda, then to Brooklyn to have an operation on his foot to repair nerve damage. He couldn’t feel his foot. Before the operation, the affected nerve released and he could feel his foot again. The operation was cancelled. It was around that time that young Cyrus decided to attend the USO Navy Dance on a Wednesday night.

The United Services Organizations (USO), formed in February 1941 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, promoted entertainment and socialization for service men. The poster advertisement for the USO Dance, “promised attendees - exclusively servicemen and USO volunteers, mostly female - that they would ‘meet friends’ and have a ‘fun, enjoyable evening’” At the USO dance he met Edith. Unfortunately because of his injury (and strict Lutheran upbringing), Cyrus did not dance, so they went out for coffee instead. He promised her that he would marry her the first night they met.

At that time Edith had other thoughts about Cyrus but agreed to go to second dance with him. The night of the dance she told her mother, “This rude guy is going to come over and pick me up for the dance and he can’t even dance. Would you tell him I can’t come?” Her mother said if he was in the service, she must follow through with the date. So at the dance they just socialized. Later, they began seeing each other, double dating quite a bit with some other friends. Edith knew Cyrus had a girlfriend back home in South Dakota so she didn’t take the relationship that seriously. Cyrus had other plans. He was determined to follow through on his promise to her. They knew each other for two years before she said yes to marriage. They were married about a year later.

At that time Cy was still in the service and became a yeomen. He was in charge of assigning servicemen their duties. At the end of the war, Cy was discharged from the Navy and they got married in the old Swedish church where Edith’s mother was married and she was baptized. The next day they took a Greyhound bus to South Dakota.

Cyrus as a yeomen in Brooklyn. Contributed photo

Life was a lot different for Edith when she got to Kidder. First, she had never seen so much open land. The horizon went on forever. They lived with Cy’s parents at first and she said nobody in the family liked her (especially her mother in law) because of her “big city ways.” They were stoic devout Lutherans believing in no dancing... and no fun as it seemed to Edith. When Edith got pregnant she told Cy, “I will not have this baby in your mother’s house.” So they rented an apartment upstairs from Cyrus’ aunt.

When Edith was pregnant with her second child her mother-in-law came over and the two of them got into a huge spat. Edith was so angry she threw a pie in her mother-in-law’s face. Her mother in law left her apartment, dripping with pie and shocked. On Monday, Edith refused to go to her in-law’s house to eat. Her mother in law came over to get her and they patched things up and were good friends after that.

Adapting and changing to an entirely different environment was not easy for Edith. She wanted something different for their young family so she encouraged Cyrus to go college in Aberdeen, S.D., where they lived in married student housing on the GI Bill. Cyrus eventually became a much beloved high school teacher and counselor, eventually retiring from Pelican Rapids Minnesota. Edith went on to get a teaching and library science degree of her own. The couple had four sons, one of which this author married. The couple was married for 56 years before Cyrus passed away. Edith learned to adapt to life in the Midwest and to the people, changing her culture from big city girl to small town. “In a big city” she said, “you had to learn to get along with others.” Edith is now 96 and lives at Riverview Place in Fargo. One of her future goals is to make it to 100.

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