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."

September 19, 2016

Tracking Matilda

Harvest Festival, Skördefesten, is over now in the Åland Islands. Winter comes early and the tourists leave like flocks of migrant birds.  Their backpacks and bicycles fill the departing ferry boats that take them back to Stockholm, Tallinn or Helsinki. I’ve never been there, I’m not sure I have the time left to get there, but I’ve learned so much over the past days that I feel a kinship that must only be explained as genetic.

It has been ten days since I wrote about my journey trying to find my mother.  The journey has changed as all good and productive journeys do. In order to understand my mother I followed my Grandmother, Matilda Serelia Wiberg to her roots.  It was no easy task.  When last I talked about her I said that she was the youngest of seven children and that I had no clue how she got to America.

Genealogical research is not for the faint of heart even if you have Ancestry.com to help you. But with due diligence, I found that the 19 year old was actually the tenth of eleven children and that she followed her nearest older sister Alma over here.  Alma made it straight to New York City but for some reason Matilda landed in Boston.  I have no idea.

Well I might.  You see I believe that even the young Matilda was hard headed and bent on having her own way.  Spoiled?  Perhaps.  Does an older adult’s character offer a clue to the young girl?  If she was unable to follow her sister, (illness? ran out of money?) she would get here however she could.

I feel that they were both running away: away from a rather harsh land of boulders and subsistence farming, a land where your brothers and sisters disappeared from your family’s genealogical chart within a few months of their appearance.  Perhaps a land where you were meant to marry a distant cousin and as a woman produce 11, 13 or 15 children in the space of as many years, the last one being born after your husband died.  It is all there.  Right in her chart.

These days the Åland Islands are out there on Facebook looking Summery, with beautiful beaches and quiet roads where your bicycle will take you to charming cafes that sell local handcrafts.  Back then it was not so.  Living on tiny Andersö, in the parish of Geta, there was not much to attract a young girl in the early 20th Century.

She made it to the big city, in the land where the streets were supposed to be paved with gold.  What made her so afraid later on that she became bitter?  Was the freedom she craved too much?  Did she long for the cool nights and the sound of the Baltic Sea?

I have much more to write about Matilda and what I think made her the way she was.  But that will wait for the next installment.

September 8, 2016

I Remember Mama

I've never been one to write memoir, my life has been way too complicated and void of self-exploration, but recently I have been doing the Ancestry thing, for reasons described below, and I have decided to publish here this little memoir clip to see if this is something I want to pursue.
I Remember Mama
Last night I followed an Ancestry rabbit hole and a batch of memories cascaded out with me when I was done. 
For some time now I have been researching my mother’s family, trying to understand her complex and difficult personality.  The biggest rabbit hole in this research was my grandmother, Matilda Seralia Wiberg, a harsh, always judgmental dynamo whose English was barely understandable and who, when she walked pounded across the floor like an oncoming Rhino instead of the 110 pound bird she was.  At first I thought her an undocumented alien, there was so little information about her and her journey to America from the Aland Islands (look them up, all 6757 of them; they have a fascinating and dark history).
But then the dam opened up, and though I still can’t pinpoint how she got into the United States, I did find the documentation of her birth through Finnish records (ever try reading Finish?) and finally her US Passport application in 1919.  She was the youngest of seven children, the daughter of a “lake man, dependent lodger”, someone who ran a ferry and owned no property.  I assume with that many islands his was a popular occupation.
But I only knew her when she lived in a house on Staten Island that I visited quite often as a child.  Last night I decided to look for that house and through a series of memory chains I found out where it was (I really had no idea of the address), that it hadn’t been damaged by Sandy, and that it looked exactly the same if not better than it had in the 1950s.
As I stared at it on the screen (and attached a screen shot of it to Matilda’s Ancestry profile) music began playing in my head and I began to remember a strange practice of my childhood, the habit of my mother of calling me in from play to sit in front of the television every time both the TV series and the movie of I Remember Mama were on the screen.
Don’t get me wrong.  I liked both.  They spoke to an era of immigration and new things.  Set in the early 1900s San Francisco, it followed a Norwegian family in their daily struggle to assimilate and still remain a part of their own Scandinavian culture.  Not too deeply explored but in a loving way with Irene Dunne (in the movie) and Peggy Wood (in the TV series) as the wise and loving earth mother.
My mother seemed to identify with Mama but I identified with Katrin, the oldest daughter and the writer and narrator of the story.  It always started out (abbreviated version): “I remember the big white house on Steiner Street, and my little sister Dagmar, and my big brother Nels, and Papa. But most of all, I remember Mama.”
Now, as I look back on it, I realize that my mother wanted, in the worst way, for her family to have been that family and for us to be that family, to somehow drop back to when she was growing up in that Scandinavian/American culture, to be kinder and gentler and more family.  We weren’t.  We were a mid-twentieth century family with a far more complex history.
But now, at least, I respect her longing for a harder yet easier time in which she grew up; a close knit Scandinavian family, a loving quiet father and a mother she perceived as somewhat like the Peggy Wood character.  She would never be that character. She was the first in the family to go to college and would spend her life working while the neighborhood mothers were all disapproving, though perhaps secretly envious. She was a distant mother; I much preferred my sweet father and his kind, Victorian mother.
Explorations of this sort can never reveal to you the motivations of a person in their entirely but now, at least I can say that I better remember mama.