Originally, when I started writing, I did not envision a book about my grandmother. I envisioned a telling of the details of both her life and Fredrik's. How I got to Kristine Finding Home is the subject for another post. The best outcome of publishing a book and writing it as a story is to connect with people in a way that speaks to them. I have had many unexpected people across a wide spectrum read and appreciate Kristine Finding Home which humbles and delights me. Recently though, I was surprised to find that Kristine's story was used as an example of how to research family history by Daytona Danielsen.
Daytona was a journalist specializing in Scandinavian Food writing based in the Seattle area. I came across her work while doing my research. I had at one time thought to tell Kristine's story in recipes. Danielsen's life has changed somewhat but she maitains an active online presence including hosting a book club while writing, working and going to graduate school. She writes about her grandparents,
"They, like Kristine, intended to return to Norway after a period of time. They, like Kristine, never moved back. Although much is different between my grandparents’ experience and that of this woman and her family, I appreciated this glimpse into her story, knowing that there is something universal about being human and the way we experience life. Even though I’ll never know much about what it was like for my grandparents to leave Norway, reading Kristine’s story—as written by her granddaughter based on letters, reports, and oral history—expands my understanding of an experience that I’ve never had, and helps me to perhaps understand my grandparents more as well." Her website daytonadanielsen.com is filled with interesting stories and another way to delve into how we become the people we are.
Writing down family stories continues to open doors that I never knew existed. I have discovered a rich and varied community for which I am grateful.
Once again it has been quite sometime since I posted to this blog. However, I am delighted to add a family story from my history. Flying solo without Kristine, however, she is always with me.
The following essay was written in the spring of 2022 and received Honorable mention in the Jade Ring Non-fiction contest of the Wisconsin Writer's Association. Introducing you to Olga.
I smooth the lavender fabric and stand back to admire our table. A plant with periwinkle blossoms picks up the delicate stitched pattern on the tablecloth. Winter has been long and dark, so I have chosen a pastel cloth to lighten the table for the small group that will gather on Easter Sunday. Because Olga Yevgushchenko, a Ukrainian student, gave me this cloth nearly 30 years ago, I think it’s fitting to use this year, 2022. My thoughts go to the Ukrainian grandmothers who will not set an Easter or Passover table because they have fled their homes. Images of mothers and teenagers shepherding young children with their warm jackets, stuffed animals and a single suitcase, bring back memories of Olga.
Nearly thirty years ago, a friend asked us if we could provide housing for a 15-year-old piano prodigy who was going from an exchange program in Racine to study with a particular piano teacher at UWM, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Because she was underage, the terms of her student visa required her to stay with responsible adults, but she also needed to be within range of UWM’s campus transportation system. As recent empty nesters, we fit all the criteria. Our friend introduced us to Olga’s Racine sponsors, Cathy and Scott Olson, who assured us that they would be responsible should any trouble occur.
Olga was fluent in English and had spent 6 months going to school and studying piano in Racine. So young to be living in a different country without her parents, she brought with her many of the social adjustment problems of a teen whose talent or intellect gallops ahead of her social maturity.
Now, when I see teen girls speaking for their whole families fleeing Ukraine in reports from Poland and Hungary, I marvel at their courage and think about our experience with Olga.
Our difficulties began with unspoken expectations for boundaries around her behavior. We assumed that she would eat at our house because she didn’t have a campus meal plan, but she never appeared when we were eating. We always invited her to join us if she was at home when we ate. She rarely did.
We expected her home in the early evening, that she would study and practice at our house. She generally slept until we had gone to work and returned between 10:00 pm and midnight with the UWM transportation van.
We expected that she would show some interest in our lives. She did not. From the beginning she treated us like annoying landlords.
We anticipated that the Olsons would be the parents in absentia. For the first weeks she was with us, they picked her up on the weekends and took her to their home in Racine, where she had lived the previous semester. Three or four Saturdays into her stay, we assumed, they would again, but she was still asleep in her room at noon. I woke her and asked why she was still with us. She grunted and pulled the covers over her head. Later as she was headed out the door, I stopped her. “Where are you going? Aren’t the Olsons coming for you?”
“I am going to practice,” she called over her shoulder, the front door banging behind her. The pattern was set. She interacted with us as little as possible. The Olsons got all the formal communications about grades and tuition.
Occasionally, I would find her doing her laundry or hear the piano as I came in the door from work. She made an effort to be self-sufficient, but still left towels in a heap on the bathroom floor. When an entire bag of oranges disappeared overnight or the peanut butter jar was emptied almost as soon as I brought it home, my maternal concerns heightened.
I talked with Cathy Olson about my uneasiness with what we were experiencing. She was both sympathetic and casual about Olga’s late practice times. She assured me that I didn’t need to worry. She would talk with Olga.
My husband, Walt, and I were both busy with our careers and volunteer commitments. The days passed without too many incidents. We didn’t see much of one another since we left before 8:00 am and her schedule, if there was one, seemed to begin at noon. Every once in a while, we did share a meal. We learned a bit about her. She was from Odessa. Her mother and father both worked for the government, but she was vague about what they did. We learned that she had gotten the scholarship to Prairie School in Wind Point Wisconsin after winning a piano competition in Prague. Her favorite composer was Rachmaninoff, her challenge was Chopin.
In November, she agreed to play piano for a visiting artist who had a small show in our home. Olga, young and vibrant, her long flowing blond hair and her broad Slavic hands creating magic on the keyboard, enchanted our guests. She seemed delighted with the attention. For Thanksgiving she went to the Olson’s, but chose to be with us for the Christmas holiday.
Our son and daughter, freshman and senior at different colleges, brought out a youthfulness we had not seen in Olga. She was kind to my grandmother and laughed at my father’s jokes. It was that Christmas that she gave us the lavender tablecloth. Looking back, I should have recognized that in its intricate design, beauty and complexity mixed, much as it did in Olga.
Walt received a very elaborate Russian-made wristwatch. We wondered how Olga’s parents were able to send such an expensive gift. We heard rumors of involvement with the Russian mafia, but no one really knew.
In the New Year, we were hopeful that the easy mood of the holidays would continue. It didn’t. The erratic hours, night-time binge eating and disregard for our feeble attempts to be responsible quasi-parents reached a crisis point in early February. I confronted her one evening at midnight.
“Olga, you must start coming home earlier. We could both get in trouble for you being out so late.”
Her response was furious and immediate. “You have no right to tell me when I can come and go.”
I tried to keep my voice calmer than I felt. “No. Local law does not allow young people under 17 to be out past 11:00 pm on weekends. If you don’t start coming home by then, I will report you.”
She tossed her hair, eyes blazing as she spit back at me, “It is late because that’s when the practice rooms are available to me. I always come home with the UWM van.” She continued with teen age drama, “I left Odessa because of people like you.”
We were at an impasse. I was bluffing, but worn out from not sleeping until she came in. We had paid our teen-age parent dues with our own children and considered sending her back to Racine. I called the Olsons, who encouraged patience, urging us to give Olga more time to improve her ways.
Days passed with her coming in after curfew but not so late. Most nights, I lay in bed listening for the UWM van to pull up and our front door to open. Our encounters diminished to leaving notes taped to her bedroom door. She never left any for us. Mail arrived regarding piano competitions all over the country. When I peeked into her room, among the usual clothes strewn everywhere were thick musical scores. Walt and I began to count the days until the end of the semester. Lacking any cooperation from Olga, we could not continue this arrangement.
On a wintry day in March, I got a call at work from Cathy Olson. This time, she was the frantic one. Olga had not been attending classes and was in danger of flunking out. If she wasn’t in school, her visa wasn’t valid. And she was still a few months from turning 16, a child for whom the Olsons were legally responsible but who was living under our roof. Her piano professor and the Olsons met with her. They were not bluffing about the consequences of what would happen. Regardless, not much changed.
A month or so later, the Olsons decided to send Olga back to Ukraine. Attempts to communicate with her parents had failed. Olga was still only sporadically attending piano classes. The Olsons set a date with us but did not tell Olga. The day before they were to pick her up, I came home after work and noticed the door to her room was open. Her clothes and cosmetics were gone. Sheet music, junk mail and empty chip bags littered the floor. Later, I found her house key on an entry table.
I was alarmed, but given the tension we had been living with, I called Cathy Olson just to make sure I hadn’t mixed up our days. She was shocked. Where was Olga? She called her contacts at UWM. I called Walt. By this time, it was dark. Nevertheless, we drove up and down the streets of Shorewood and the East Side of Milwaukee looking for any sign of her. We contacted UWM security and the Milwaukee Police. Because we were not her legal guardians, they couldn’t help us. Cathy Olson called them both. There was no evidence of foul play, but I had come to distrust anything about the Olga situation.
Around midnight, Carole conveyed a call from the Milwaukee PD. Olga had been found in an East Side apartment with one of the security van drivers from UWM. The police had tracked them down from their marriage at the courthouse earlier that day. Olga’s parents had faxed their permission for their almost sixteen-year-old daughter to marry a stranger in his twenties. As much as we had known that the situation was bad, we had never suspected that it would lead to this. Olga asked to retrieve the bags she had left in our garage. We left the garage open for her but did not see her again.
In later years, we heard that her marriage had been brief, but she somehow had managed to stay in the United States. Living then in California, she was studying to be a doctor. She had married again and had twin daughters. Ten years ago, we heard that she very much regretted her behavior with us and would like to be in contact. We were happy for her that things worked out but, in the midst of a family transition of our own, we didn’t follow up.
With the events in the Ukraine and the images of those young, bereft and fearful women on the nightly news, I now wish we had made the connection with Olga. Was her family involved with Russia? Does she have someone she loves in the fighting? Are we seeing her mother, aunt, niece being interviewed? Is Olga using her medical skills to help them? Will they survive only to find the world harsh and lonely to navigate, torn from their home communities? I’d like to pass my tablecloth on to someone from there who has lost both fine linens and a table to spread them on.
There is a grim beauty in the strength of Ukrainian people in the face of horrific acts of war. We who sit in our comfortable living rooms cannot imagine what it would be like to see everything we call home destroyed. The days and weeks to come for five million displaced Ukrainians will be filled with brave but frustrating stories from helpers and helped alike. More than one Olga-like situation will occur.
I examine the tiny intricate stitches on my Easter cloth closely. Only when I step away do I see any pattern.
Finally returning to the blog. This is a section of the story from Kristine Finding Home that did not make it into the final book but adds another point of view to Chapter 18, Ordinary People Extraordinary Times.
This story is based on a letter written during the depression,Fredrik Hjelmeland, my grandfather and the letter writer has promised his wife Kristine that he will try to get an extra chicken for the Sunday dinner she will make for their unemployed friends, Louise and Hans Wange and their friends. We pick up the story with Fredrik trying to make a sale.
Letter from Fredrik Hjelmeland in Waukegan Illinois to his brother F. Mikal Hjelmeland in Bygstad, Norway, September 3, 1933.
“For more than three years now, we have been having bad times here in America and it isn’t any better now as far as we can see. Activities within the building trades have completely stopped… Brother it is hard to understand that this can be America. I have never seen a mess like this.”
“So, what do you say Mueller? Barn and house in a package? Better price that way than if you do them separately?” Fredrik stretched back in his chair, full from the hearty midday meal with Mueller on his dairy farm in Kenosha County, Wisconsin. “Safer, too. Did you hear about the place near Brown’s Lake? Barn burned to the ground. Said it was the lanterns the milk hands used.”
The ruddy German farmer sipped his dinner beer. “You’re making it hard for me to say no, Hjelmeland.”
“We’ll make both our wives easier to live with if you add some lights to this place.” Fredrik pressed his advantage as Mueller’s wife topped off their glasses before serving them baked apples. “Thank you, Frieda, the meatballs were delicious. Your meal reminded me of home.”
Frieda smiled as she turned to fetch the dessert but not before lifting an eyebrow at her husband,
“So, you’ll take $25 off if I give you a few chickens?” Mueller asked.
“Not the scrawny ones. One today and one a month until Christmas.” Fredrik was pretty sure he had the sale now. This tight old farmer loved a bargain even though he had plenty of cash.
The trick was to be patient. He’d shared more than one glass of home brew listening to men talk about who was buying, who was going under.
“I’m going up the road to see Kipnes before milking, should I stop back here?” Fredrik asked.
“Can you get here before we milk? I want to know where exactly in the barn you’ll be putting the wires and lights.”
Hours later Fredrik drove through the dusk accompanied by cackling from the back seat. A large hen, with her legs tied together was part of Fredrik’s deposit from Mueller. Kristine preferred her birds butchered but she would not complain over the extra chicken for Sunday dinner.
Hans Wange and Fredrik sat down for kaffe at a table in Kristine’s flower garden. Fall roses and orange zinnias bloomed in the mild September sun. “Almost like Sogn, isn’t it Fredrik? Sitting in the garden after Sunday middag.”
Fredrik passed him the sugar cubes and they slurped the thick, dark coffee through the cube. The children played behind them. Kristine and Louise cleaned up from dinner in the house. Fredrik thought about gardens in Norway. He remembered long summer days but too many Sundays when there wasn’t enough cash for a decent cup of coffee.
“How’s it going? Any job prospects?” Fredrik knew the answer but felt he should ask.
“None here. I heard from my cousin in Minnesota. He said that I could come help him on the farm. We’d have a roof over our heads and something to eat, but it’s been a long time since I was a farmer. And Louise, she’s never lived on a farm.”
“Kristine hasn’t either. She’s never even milked a cow. Must be why she and Louise spend so much time together, complaining about plucking chickens.” They both laughed. Fredrik thought it was the first time he’d seen Hans smile.
“Do you know if your cousin has the land free and clear? If he has a mortgage, you could be worse off than you are here.” Fredrik’s trade was electricity but his passion was real estate.
Han’s smile disappeared. “That’s Louise’s argument. If we’re going to move, she wants to go back to Norway. What have you heard from home?”
Fredrik offered him a cigarette and they both lit up.
“Takk, thanks, I haven’t had many lately. Can’t afford them.”
“What I hear is not good. I’ve thought about going back myself, but my brother wrote, that without the family farm he would have a tough time. Work off the farm is hard to find, especially for tradesmen. It’s the worst in Oslo and Bergen. .” Fredrik said.
Hans didn’t say anything for what seemed a long time. “Well, I guess that leaves me out there too.”
Fredrik sighed, “Ah well, I think things will get better. I like Roosevelt. Maybe he can turn things around. Don’t give up, it took a lot for you to leave Norway and get here. You’ll see, the factories will come back.”
“Maybe, but I tell you Fredrik, it’s a terrible thing to have only bad choices.”
“I’d like to compare the situation with an abyss or bottomless pit. ………. But still, I’m much better off than many in my class.”
Over fifty years ago, I accompanied my grandmother on a trip to Førde, Norway to visit her aging brothers and sister. The eldest grandchild, I was designated to help Grandma in her travels if she needed it. Even though I went along with my duty to represent our family, I did not anticipate feeling any connection to Grandma’s family or her far away home in Norway. A teenager still trying to figure myself out, I had never wondered about my grandma going to school or having friends or being my age. She was Grandma. If I helped her a bit, I also learned how closely I am tied to the people and location of Førde, my mother`s birthplace.
Today, I am the eldest living person in our immediate family who has personal memories of the people of Grandma´s generation. My mother, her sister and most of their fifty- two first cousins have died. Dusty boxes of black and white brittle snapshots, fading color slides, crumbling, handwritten letters and postcards bring back names and expand stories, many from that first trip with Grandma Kristine. I have returned to Førde regularly and claim it as one of my homes even though I lived there for only a few months as a college student.
For four weeks, Grandma took me to Grandpa and her sibling´s homes. We stayed in the house where my mother was born, and worshipped at the church where she was baptized. We visited Grandma’s childhood friends’ apartments, farms and hyttes, mountain cabins, and day after day had kaffe, the Norwegian version of tea-time, a mini meal. Not understanding Norwegian, I learned to cross stitch, ate too many cakes and grew to understand this was a trip about people more than places.
We did do some sight-seeing on the way to visiting. I am still teased about the pumps, dress coat and white straw hat I wore to see my first glacier. We saw medieval stave churches and I hiked in the mountains, but the real purpose of the trip was to experience a Grandma´s way of life before America.
I celebrated my birthday at a summer home, hytte, on the sparkling shores of a mountain lake, Jølster. I knew very few of the thirty family members who were in and out of the cabin and sitting in the sun. Grandma knew everyone, three of her brothers, a sister, their spouses, their children, their grandchildren. She moved among them with a joy I had never noticed before. As generous and kind as they were to me, the real celebration was the coming together of the generations with two of the family who went to America.
After the traditional birthday bløtkake, a sponge cake with berry jam glaze, covered in whipped cream and fresh strawberries was served, I was given the ultimate symbol of Norway, a handknit white sweater with a yoke of blue and yellow in a stars and snowflake pattern.
My birthday sweater was knit in the Nordic style of stranded knitting. There is a base color and other colors are introduced into the pattern. When a new color yarn is knit into the sweater, the other strands of yarn are carried along the back of the garment and picked up again to form the pattern. The yarn is not cut even when it is not visible in the pattern. For me, my Norwegian heritage is an important strand in the pattern of life. It is not always visible in the forefront of my days but is carried along, not cut, until it emerges in people and shared experiences.
The lives of Grandma Kristine and my mother Odny, are the uncut strands in the pattern of my life. Now, a grandma I knit stories for another generation, carrying the colors of heritage and identity. I am the keeper of the stories.
When the occasion seems to call for it, I have proudly claimed being a first generation American, based on the fact that my mother was born in Norway and “emigrated” here. While this is technically true, I use this fact like a politician to claim a sensitivity to something I have never really experienced. My mother was a year old when she came to this country. Her father was on his way to citizenship and her only sibling, a sister, was born in this country. Through effort and determination, her mother assimilated quickly among other young mothers in the growing town of Waukegan, Illinois.
Even though I did not suffer any trials of assimilation or indeed adjustment issues of a first generation immigrant, I am drawn to the stories of those early years. I explore the details, looking for clues to who they were, that can tell me who I am, why I have taken the paths and made the choices that I have.
My sisters and I reminisce about our mother and her independent spirit. Life as a housewife in the 1950’s did not really suit her. She was more interested in politics and the library than cocktail parties and neighborhood gatherings. When other mothers were creating adorable Halloween costumes, our mother was writing programs for the local YMCA or a letter to the editor. She loved to cook but was not content with meat, potatoes and jello. An early adherent to fresh and local, she would haul us out of bed during summer vacation to help her pick strawberries or apples at the nearest U-Pick farm. Her mothering of five children was loving but haphazard. We might be enrolled in swimming lessons but sent alone on the bus to attend without the proper swimsuit and hat.
At the height of the civil rights movement, she enlisted the local synagogue’s help to pilot the first HeadStart program in Northern Illinois. With too little funding to hire someone to recruit students, she drafted her teenage children to go door to door in poor neighborhoods. At ages 13 to 16, my siblings and I were cold calling on families to enroll their four year olds in this new program. Her single minded pursuit of what she believed in was perceived as boldness. Today, jeopardizing our safety for her program would be considered folly at best.
In a time when women choose their names, own property and have their own checking accounts, my sisters and I marvel over her choices and bemoan that she was so unconventional. We laugh to remember how she got us to cook, clean bathrooms and scrub floors, so she could pursue what really interested her.
My peers and I think we were the first generation to make hard choices about careers and child rearing, whether to marry or stay married, to use our college degrees in a male dominated work force. We are proud of what we rejected. We didn’t trust anyone over thirty, or forty or whatever decade marker we were approaching until sometime in our fifties when that no longer worked. We insist on not being ignored in our old age. As boomers, we believe that we are the ones who changed it all.
But in fact, we stand on the shoulders of those women who stayed at home and made our school lunches, sewed our clothes and read us stories, who advocated for college for both girls and boys. If they worked outside the home, they balanced the routine jobs of sales, typing, nursing, social work or teaching with their family life. Devoting time to leading the Sunday School, or the PTA, organizing the neighborhood fundraiser, they taught us how to use our skills in the community.
Now, my granddaughters listen to my stories of immigration as pleasant but archaic tales of a time that has little to do with them and their concerns. But our daughter asks about my life? What was it really like to be the only woman in the boardroom? Did your employee ever do this? How did you figure out how to be where when?
She recognizes in my stories the determination of her grandma and courage of her great grandma, to leave homeland and everything familiar. I tell her that I only recently have come to appreciate the difficulties they faced and the strengths we inherit.
The Shakers have an old song that ends,
To bow and to bend I will not be ashamed
To turn, turn will be my delight
'Til by turning, turning,
I come 'round right.
Do daughters just keep turning? Have I turned away from, around and now towards my mother? Eldest daughter of eldest daughter am I coming round right? Maybe, we are all assimilating, adapting the past to the present. A new generation in the way things are now, built upon the bowing and bending of another generation.