Mystery Poem

Genealogy can be an engrossing hobby — especially when you stumble upon somebody else's story

The poem took thousands of miles, three generations and 78 years to get to me. It took a flood — an inch and a half of water soaking the carpet in my grandma and grandpa's basement on Five Mile Prairie — to expose it.

She finds it in the room with the old National Geographic issues: An antique edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays and Representative Men. Grandma knows I like literature, so she gifts me the copy.

The book has a soft blue cover, thin yellowed pages, and no copyright date. But it's what's on the first page that grabs me.

It's a handwritten love poem, dated March 18, 1939. And as the poem progresses, it becomes less about attraction and more about the ability of love to transcend time and age. Here's how it ends:

And deeper than all that is seen or heard Time has not power to injure what you are. Weep not for youth when it has ceased to be, But now that all the years can never mar The loveliness that you reveal to me

It's signed "Elof Theodore Olson," and dedicated to "My Pet — Dawn in the 'Blue.'" It's a thrilling find, a sort of time capsule of emotion. It's like eavesdropping on a romantic confession from nearly eight decades ago.

But I want to know more. I want to know who Elof Theodore Olson is.

I Google his name, call librarians and look up obituaries. I bike over to the Spokane Public Library, log onto and begin poring through troves of documents — marriage records, death records, property records, military enlistment records, probate filings, state and federal censuses.

In 1939, there are at least two Elof Theodore Olsons alive in America. One is born in Sweden, moves to America, gets married, and spends 60 years living in Geneva, Illinois. He's 85 in 1960, when he's hit by a drunk driver and dies.

But there's one more Elof Theodore Olson; he was born in New York. Normally, it would be impossible to tell which Elof Theodore Olson had written the poem. But with the Emerson book, I have his signature.

It's June 5, 1918. The Elof from New York is 21 and thin, with light brown hair and blue eyes. He's a clerk at A.E. Outerbridge Co., the shipping agency that Mark Twain once used to charter a ship to Bermuda.

When he has to sign up for the draft, Elof does so with a flourish, continuing the line from the final "n" to underline his name. He does the same thing with the "y" in "you" in "The loveliness that you reveal to me" in the poem written 21 years later. The "O" in Olson and the "E" in Elof are nearly identical. It's got to be the same guy.

Gradually, I'm able to piece together snapshots of Elof's life. It's 1899. Elof is 2 when his mother, a 25-year-old Swedish immigrant named Ida, marries Charles Zakesio Petersen at a Lutheran church in Brooklyn. Petersen is a machinist, and he's an immigrant too, from Norway. His first wife has just died in childbirth a few months earlier.

It's 1910. Elof is 12. He's living in a newly constructed house on 12th Avenue in Brooklyn with nine other people, and his stepdad has been unemployed for nine months.

It's 1915. Elof is 18. His stepdad has found work as a pipefitter, but Elof goes in a different direction. He has a job at the public library. The sort of place, perhaps, where you develop a love for literature, for poetry, for the classics.

It's 1930. Elof is 33, and he's still unmarried. He's working as a bookkeeper at an auto supply company.

It's March 18, 1939. Elof is 41. "Chamberlain Denounces Hitler," the New York Times reports that day. "Hitler is cheered by Vienna as hero." It's the day he writes his love poem.

Here, the trail goes cold. From all indications on, Elof's branch of the family tree ends with his death in October 1965. There are no marriage records, no records of any children. Who his "Dawn in the 'Blue'" was, or what happened to her, remains unanswered.

We do know this: In red and blue ink, a few other phrases are underlined in the Emerson essays themselves. They look to be more recent. One underlined phrase in particular stands out. "The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is."

The annotations carry their own arc: A profession of undying love; then, flip through the pages and find a bitter expression of loss.

But the story doesn't quite end there.

It's 2017. Alison Apple is a 58-year-old pharmacist living in Memphis, Tennessee. She's spent quite a bit of time on, too.

"Once I start going on it, it's an all-consuming thing," Apple says. "I just like the investigative piece of it."

She's dug into the life of her grandfather, a World War I veteran named Charles Augustus Petersen. At one time, he was an accountant for an advertising firm. She has a framed print of a 1935 Camel cigarette ad featuring a testimonial of her grinning grandpa holding a cigarette between his fingers, enthusing that "Camels do not frazzle my nerves or upset my condition."

Apple's grandpa was Elof's half-brother. They lived together in the house on 12th Avenue in Brooklyn.

Somehow, the Emerson book ends up in the library of a farmhouse in Warrensburg, Missouri. When my grandpa and grandma leave Missouri in 1967, they take the Emerson book with them. A half-century later I'm given the book, find the inscription, and hunt down Apple by finding her sister on Facebook.

I spend a half-hour chatting with Apple by phone about her family, her memories and her passion for discovering her own history. When we're done talking, I send over a cellphone pic of the poem to Apple, bringing it all full circle.

Because here's the epigraph: Love dies. So do the men who profess it. But the words themselves, the grand pronouncements we write, can survive for centuries. And all the years can never mar the loveliness they reveal.♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...