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.