Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy Leif Erikson Day!

Well, actually it's tomorrow, but I thought I'd get a jump on the celebration before everyone is doing it!

(It's like this every year.)

In honor of America's true discoverer, I thought it would be nice to honor my own Vikings:  Frideborg Maria Persson and Johan Vilhelm Olsson.


This picture was taken about 1921, judging by the age of my grandmother (I'm guessing she's about 3 here).  I'm pretty sure my great-grandmother is seated because she towered over her rather diminutive husband.


Who said all Swedes are tall?  Well, she was anyway (that's her in the dark coat).

The two arrived in the U.S. a year apart (he, 1903; her, 1904), very young (both were 17), and from opposite sides of Sweden (he, from the east coast; her, from the west not far from the Norwegian border).  I don't know how much English Frideborg knew before arriving but I do know William (he switched his first and middle names, anglicizing them as "William John") had no English at all and used his time working to pay off his passage to acquire the language.  This would be impressive all by itself (if basically the norm), but what is even more impressive is that, having apprenticed to a jeweler and clockmaker back in Sweden, he worked off his indenture at a lumber yard in rural Pennsylvania.  His height couldn't have helped, but thinking about his hands, highly trained for delicate work, tossing around logs would seem a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately for all concerned, no such disaster happened.  His debt paid, William returned to his true profession and embarked on quite the pilgrimage.  Between 1907 and 1910 he traveled and worked in such far-flung places as Chicago and Butte, Montana.  At some point along the way, he met his future wife -- probably in Chicago, where she had cousins and might have been visiting from Minneapolis.  They were married in Buffalo in 1910 and settled back in PA in a town called Smethport.  Very quickly, William would buy out his employer and set up shop under his own name. Not bad for a relatively recent immigrant at the age of 24!

Their first child, a son, was born in Smethport in 1912; but, by the time my grandmother Helen came along, the family had relocated to Jamestown, New York, a town known for having a large Swedish colony.

Like many, the 1910s and 1920s were good to the Olsons. William's business was well-established and they enjoyed the pleasures of solid middle-classdom.


(Honestly, who mows the lawn in such a get-up?  I guess he did remove his coat and hat....)

And, like many, the Great Depression was their undoing.  The details are murky, but we do know that the business failed, the house they owned was replaced by a house they rented, and at some point in the early 1930s, they left Jamestown altogether and relocated to Chicago to be closer, presumably, to Frideborg's relatives.  Before long, the marriage failed as well; and while they never divorced, the pair became estranged. At William's death in 1949, he was living in Gary, Indiana.  While William was no doubt able to find some work (doing what exactly and where is unclear), Frideborg was forced to make ends meet by offering her services as a live-in cook to wealthy families -- even traveling with one (according to her Social Security application) to Darien, Connecticut.  One can only imagine this was not the life she imagined for herself during the halcyon days in Jamestown.


Here she is with her son Paul.  This picture always makes me sad. My mother, who got to meet her before she died, recalls that she wasn't the happiest of people.

I often wonder why she didn't return to Sweden.  The oldest of six, she had at least three other siblings come to the U.S., with two later returning.  (No one ever talks about some of the "reverse immigration" that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries.)  The family house was still there, still occupied by Perssons...and we know that she visited when times were better.  Of course, her children and grandchildren were here, so that probably decided it. William could have gone back, too, for that matter.  He had one surviving brother there, but he chose to remain as well.  I guess their lives were "American" by then; Sweden was a child's place.

Despite their somewhat sad ends, I take great pride in them and their lives.  I cannot imagine conceiving of and then following through with the decision to leave the lives and places they knew at such a young age.  The fact that they didn't come out on top at the end is irrelevant to me.  They rolled the dice and gave it their best shot.  There's no dishonor in that.  I hope -- somewhere -- they know that their descendant feels this way and seeks to honor them.

Just like with Leif, it's never too late to recognize too-long forgotten accomplishments.