October 22, 2016


Welcome to those who have skidded in from somewhere else today.  Right now on my blog below I am exploring the journey of Matilda Serelia Wiberg from the Aland Islands to the US in the early 20th century.  If you are in for the longer haul you might want to pick up one of my books (see side panel) either in paperback or on Kindle.  Whichever you do on this blustery rainy day here in New Jersey, have a beautiful day.
Kastleholm, Aland Islands

October 12, 2016

The rest of Matilda

So now Matilda is pregnant (and married) and in NYC and it is 1911. Ruth, her only daughter, was born in August of 1911.  Matilda would have only one child.  Perhaps the difficulty of being one of 11 had had an effect on her.  The next year her older sister, Alma, with whom she immigrated, would get pregnant with her daughter Beatrice and unfortunately die in 1912.

Well so much for the glamour of the big city but at least Matilda is away from the islands and married to a good steady provider.  Wait.  She’s living on an island, so not exactly away from the water.  Except for a slight interruption in her life when she lived 50 miles from the sea in Plainfield NJ and raised her daughter, Ruth Walborg Johnson, Matilda never lived far from the sea. 

Swen and Matilda were good providers.  Never one to sit still for long, Matilda worked as a seamstress and it leaves me wondering if she ever took on work in her home while she lived in NYC where home work for the sweatshops was prevalent in her time. 

Here Ruth’s memories of her childhood take over which memories included living in grand houses in Plainfield.  What was she doing there?  Well besides Swen's job as a carpenter (usually for the railroad), Swen and Matilda were insurance caretakers for several well-to-do families living in and around Plainfield, the Malis the DeForests and the Hydes. 

The Hyde Mansion
The Deforest Mansion

Hydewood Hall was a grand house at the base of the Watchung Mountains. Due to insurance regulations, someone had to live in the spectacular mansions when the family and servants were away.  These mansions were the fabric of Plainfield and the wonderful task of baby sitting the mansions fell to the reliable Johnson family.  Swen worked at his job of the CRRNJ or at the flooring trade and Matilda kept house and sewed new drapery and slipcovers for their employers.  Their introverted egghead daughter read.

Ruth wasn’t very forthcoming about her life in these houses except for the vastness of the libraries and one other anecdote.  Every time Route 22 flooded by Terrill Road she said glumly, “Well, what do you expect? It used to be the Mali pond.”

In 1939 Ruth, after graduating from college and working for awhile (more on that in another post), married William Walter Christian Kirchner and settled down to watch the war pass by.  Swen and Matilda moved to Staten Island two blocks from the water where Swen could fish in his spare time and Matilda could take in sewing.
When Swen retired they moved to a bungalow in Stuart Florida where Swen could fish off the piers to his heart’s content and Matilda took in sewing. 
The handsome Swen died at age 73 in 1960 shortly after the above photo (front: Ruth, Tina, Walter and back: Matilda and Swen) and the hearty Matilda lived on until 1983 when she died at age 96, infamous for her heckling phone calls berating her son in law and her granddaughter to do her bidding.  Neither would give in.

Next time.  Matilda, Ruth and Christina.

September 29, 2016

Matilda's Journey and an Edwardian Scandal

A miserable rainy day outside so time to return to Matilda’s journey. 

As we have seen she arrived in Boston in 1906.  According to the Swedish Emigration records she was due to go to Rockford, Illinois.  Now how the heck she wound up working as a maid in NYC in the 1910 census will always be a mystery but there she is, doing what a self-respecting, farm raised Aland girl would be doing. 
(Not really Matilda but close enuf)
Since there was no census between 1906 and 1910 I will never know what path sent her to working for William (a stock broker) and Mary Oliver.  Perhaps the person who sponsored her in Rockford was just a foreign help broker.  I can only speculate. But at any rate, there she was in 1910 working for this couple at a swank NYC address, 71 Central Park West when the census taker knocked on the door.


Suddenly, in February 1911 she was in the marriage license bureau with Swen Olaf Johnson, a handsome Swedish laborer she had met (by family tradition) at the Vasa Orden in NYC.
Vasa Orden, or Vasa Order is a Swedish fraternal organization that aimed to acclimate the vast number of Swedish immigrants to this country and now serves as a repository of Swedish-American culture.  In all likelihood there was a chapter on 22nd St. at the Gustavus Adolphus Swedish Lutheran Church. (Which by coincidence I used to walk by almost every day when I was living in NYC)

So this is where the story gets interesting.  Long ago and far away my husband and I were going through my parents “stuff.”  Being young and unaware of what it meant to keep “stuff” we, of course, didn’t.  But the conversation sticks in my memory. 

Barry: I found a marriage certificate in Swedish from the Gustavus Adolpus Swedish Lutheran Church.  Were Swen and Matilda your grandparents?

Me: Ya.

Barry: Well I don’t read Swedish but I think this says February 1911.

(I scoot over to look and confirm.  Then turn red.)

Barry: Perhaps our elopement wasn’t the only family scandal.

Yepers, he was right.  My mother was born in August of 1911.  Family scandal confirmed to me later by her first cousin, Beatrice.  1911 was Edwardian, after all, not Victorian.

September 25, 2016

Where writers come from

This morning I read a passage on Facebook from one of my favorite spiritual guides, Bishop Steven Charleston.  He says in part, “On some journeys in life it is necessary to leave the luggage of our past behind.  We cannot run to catch the train leaving the station if we are loaded down with old memories and heavy hearts.”

While I agree with him in part, I also understand that one cannot leave that past behind until one examines it to understand what it has to teach us.

My, you say, you have suddenly turned from a writer into a preacher.

Um, we all, whether we acknowledge it or not, are the sum of our parts.

Some of my readers may know that I have other lives as my bio mentions.  I make no excuses for them.  Recently I took a course on spiritual journaling.  It made me think about the convergence of novel writing with the path of the writer’s life.  A writer cannot write in a vacuum.  Their writing is the sum of their past experiences. Rather than leaving their past behind I think we must integrate it into a place within ourselves that, while not weighing us down, it helps to inform our understanding of our actions in the future. 

That is why I have taken the diversion down Matilda’s path.  While it is giving me the experience of looking at life through an emigrant’s eyes, it has also begun to teach me why I write about the things that are at the heart of my writing, strong women and their drive to become what they were meant to be and to discover and make peace with the things that have guided them in their lives.

Bear with me on Matilda’s journey.  It may lead to more novels.

September 20, 2016

A small digression with a link to Matilda's journey

Last night I wrote about Matilda’s journey, at least some of it.  But I am a writer and I tend to go back and criticize and edit so this morning I reread what I wrote and realized that I had left out so much that was important.

Matilda came over on the SS Ivernia a workhorse of a ship owned by Cunard that made many trips brimming with immigrants between Liverpool and Boston and Trieste and New York between 1901 and 1914.  She was then hired by the British government to haul troops to war.  In 1917 commanded by Captain William Thomas Turner (who had, by coincidence Commanded the RMS Lusitania and was in command of the Ivernia when my grandmother sailed in her) she was attacked by a U-boat and sunk south east of Greece.  There were 2700 troops aboard, her capacity was listed as 1964. 120 souls were lost more than half of them crew.  Captain Turner was henceforth assigned a desk job.

Those facts send me to wondering about immigration in the early 1900s.  Though not as perilous as much earlier crossings had been, crossings that took months or as dangerous as crossing during wartime, the 13 day trip was still a journey of souls at sea and all sea travel was dangerous.

People take sea journeys these days because they either want a slow, luxurious vacation experience or because it seems a safer alternative to air travel.  I’m not sure the latter is true what with Noro virus and captains who can’t seem to navigate the coast of Greece.

There is a third reason they take sea journeys.  They take their journeys in leaky boats or rubber rafts.  They are fleeing political oppression or the complete dissolution of society as they know it or the bombs, the constant bombs.  So many of them don’t make it, and when they do they are locked into detention camps or must run for their lives across Europe to an uncertain future under the threat of deportation.

Now Matilda was probably only looking for a new life or perhaps an adventure, I will never know. 

But what I do know is the greatest number of us in the US, somewhere back in our history, came to this country, by ship and by airplane or by land and with a stubborn determination to survive.  By looking into Matilda’s journey I have even more empathy with those modern immigrants who want a better life for themselves and their children and who risk death at sea for that life. 

I will remember this the next time I hear someone who wants to build walls or close boarders and I will help them to remember too.

"Eternal Father strong to save
Whose arm has bound the restless wave
Who bidst the mighty ocean deep
It's own appointed limits keep
Oh hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea."