Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Of Family, Books, and Immigration

My father, Otto, wrote an autobiography over the last twenty years of his life as a gift and reminder of where my brother and I came from and some family history that has not been forgotten. I have our Icelandic genealogy that goes back to before the settling of Iceland. Some names come up that would be known to some Scandinavians from the old sagas. The accuracy is questionable when you get back more than a few hundred years, but the cultural history is the same.

It seems that most people in the U.S. barely know a family history back more than two generations and even then the details are sketchy. Maybe because we are a relatively new country. There is nothing wrong with that, but I have an interest in the lives and struggles of people in the past. History has only become more important to me since I have lived through a little of it and have seen how big the changes are, yet human needs and behaviors are not very different than they have ever been.

I haven't had as much time to read as I would like in the last year, but I have been fortunate to read some really excellent work. Laxness' Salka Valka is a rare book in English, but my library was able to borrow one from the Big City Library. This is not the Laxness work to start with, but a great novel.

I also got a hold of The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley. This coming of age story mostly takes place in Gimli, Manitoba (about a day's drive from here) and Iceland. It has Grandmothers and an "interesting" aunt, family secrets and foibles, desperation and adventure and it took me two days to read because I had other obligations. It is Ms. Sunley's first novel and I hope she writes more. I could tell you much more, but you really should read it.

Fly Away Home is the book I just started. I am scheming to get blocks of undisturbed time to devour it. Maggie Myklebust is a bit younger than I (and much better looking!),comes from the same vicinity of the U.S., and has a lot of Norwegian connections. In fact, she lives there now. Some of my neighbors here on the Scandinavian Riviera (North Shore of Lake Superior) come from the same place in Norway that she does. Maggie's family, in different combinations, went back and forth across the ocean to the area where her family was from. She remembers some wonderful detail of those years and I can't wait to find out how she got to where she is now (life is a journey, isn't it?).

 My father was Norwegian and his father, my bestefar, was born in Iceland. My Icelandic grandmother, Jakobina Jakobsdottir even wrote a short greeting to me when I was a baby. I just found it in my father's effects this year. It was like finding buried treasure. She was born in the late 1860's. My mother was British.  She died in 1954 a few months after my brother was born, but her mother (my Nana) took care of us for a few years while my father recovered from his loss and financial burdens. Both of my parents came here from a Europe that had been fairly devastated by war. My father's house had been bombed and his mother, who had never been a picture of health (tuberculosis) died from the horrid living conditions of that era. Even my aunt in England still has a tattoo on her forearm from the concentration camps. America looked like a dream to them, but they never forgot where they came from.

This morning I listened to the end of  Grieg's  Peer Gynt Suite while driving along the North Shore to town and my job. The last part of the suite is Solveig's Sang. It usually makes me misty-eyed. This morning was no exception.


  1. Beautiful music. Thank you for sharing. I'm always appreciative of book recommendations and just downloaded "The Tricking of Freya."

  2. Interesting stuff, those old family histories. My husband's family is from a town in Western New York that has so many Swedish immigrants, it actually has a Swedish consulate. My brother-in-law is researching the family tree and visited ancestor's families in Sweden a few years back. Best memory of that trip: to walk into a distant cousin's living room and find the very same picture of ancestors hanging in the cousin's living room as in his parents' living room in New York State.

  3. Swedish was still spoken on the streets in my town when I was a youngster, with a dash of Norwegian. Barrels of lutefisk stood in front of stores and the aroma of baking limpa rye wafted through the air. Strong egg coffee was served in the cafes and extra strong glogg was manufactured in residents' back yards - away from the house in case it exploded.

    I'm one of the lucky ones who has pictures and geneology for much more than two generations. I have a 100% Swedish paternal heritage and 50% Norwegian/50% German maternal heritage. I haven't seen the homelands, but there is a town in Norway with my grandmother's maiden name.

  4. Thanks for the recommendations - I've added the Freya book to my wishlist!

    You are lucky to have a family that has treasured their past so much.

  5. My paternal and maternal grandparents died either before I was born or when I was young, my mother died over 25yrs ago and after dad died 7 yrs ago I realised all a little late, that I knew nothing of my ancestors, just knew some were Irish (an easy deduction since my name is O'Shea) and that my mother often said she was part Swedish...although her parents were born in Australia. In recent years I have extensively researched my family trees and yes there are many Irish and English ancestors but I did find out my maternal great grandfather was most definitely Swedish, he left Sweden alone on a ship when he was 14 and he jumped ship when it was in a Southern Western Australian port of Albany around 1887 (his family in Sweden declared him missing presumed dead after 10years). He was born Olof Nilsson but took his fathers name Nils Jönsson and anglicized it to Neil Johnson once in Australia.

    How fabulous to find the greeting from your grandmother and your fathers autobiography...both truly wonderful treasures. I intend to put my family research in book form for my descendants.

    The Tricking of Freya is on my to do reading list...I have heard only good reports about it.

  6. I wish I knew more about my family in the North European Plains; I know there are ancestors from the Netherlands to Poland but I only have direct knowledge of the German tribe.

    Do you think this going back into the past happens to us when we get older? I too am writing a memoir of my early years after WWII. My children aren't particularly interested, although they have gained yet another country and another European race has been added to their genetic make-up, this time from the Mediterranean world.

    Grieg, how wonderful.

    There is one other thing that happens with age: even the most matter-of-fact person occasionally succumbs to sentiment; I could sing a song of my own about that.

  7. What a great gift your father left with his biography. I have some of that from my folks, but mostly photos with no description and, therefore, lost to me. From a distant cousin I know about my paternal lineage traced back to first coming to American from England in the mid-1600's. But it's mostly a blur.

  8. Great stuff!!!! I love learning about my forbears!

    Thanks to a distant cousin on my dad's side there's a book about my family. We date back to Scottish highlands but emigrated to the colonies in early 1700s and settled in New Jersey. They fought in the Revolution under Washington and at this point we are all over the country.

    My mom's the daughter of Bavarian immigrants who became dairy farmers in Wisconsin.

    Roots are a good thing. I enjoyed learning about yours!

  9. Thanks for the book recommendations. What a wonderful gift your father left you. Sounds like you should consider writing one as well.

  10. Well, I have a new book to add to my "to read" list. Thanks! I have tried to write a bit about myself, my recollections from my family and my children and grandchildren's early years. My father also wrote a biography, although it ended long before he married and had a family. An entry on my to-do list is to edit it and put it together for other family members. Your family is very interesting. Did the old world names continue intact in the US? I love Jakobsdottir.

  11. Thanks for the book mention, I really appreciate it!
    I'm glad I found you Jon (or did you find me?)
    Now I'm going to listen to Solveig's Song and then call it a night...

  12. WHAT PRECIOUS gifts these all are..... an autobiography to help you know your heritage?? HOW AWESOME IS THAT?!
    It inspires me to do something similar for my grandchild who will arrive in October. Heritage is too important to just leave to chance!

  13. Thank you all for the input!

  14. chlost, the names had to be Anglicized to work in the U.S.

    Maggie, I am just glad we are here.

    Kelli, to me it is important to know where you are from and where you have been. Makes the future less scary.