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52 Years as an emigrant

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Hjördis Sundblom Recalls:

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52 Years as an emigrant

Benita Mattsson-Eklund, Translated by Hjördis Sundblom

In November 2003, Hjördis Sundblom released her memoirs. "The Åland Emigrant Institute has requested this for some time, so I thought I might as well get it done," said Hjördis. The title is "A Föglö emigrant's memoirs" (she was born in the village of Föglö) and the benefactor is the Emigrant Institute.

"I have often been questioned by young people why I emigrated when we have it so good on Åland island. But, when I was young it was quite different here, with no way of supporting yourself," recalls Hjördis. She also explained that when she returned after a 52-year absence, times had changed on Åland.

Departure to the unknown

After her confirmation in 1935 at the age of 15, it was time for Hjördis to begin supporting herself. On a neighbor's fishing boat, bound for Stockholm to sell his fish, she was allowed to tag along and got a job there as a mother's helper with a family. There she stayed for two years. From an aunt in New York, she borrowed money for a ticket and emigrated to the USA in April of 1938 on board the Swedish America Line steamship Gripsholm. "We arrived on May 1, and I remember my first impression upon seeing the New York skyline, wondering if there would be enough air to breathe in such a crowded, small area. But yes, it proved to be more than sufficient," Hjördis said, smiling.

The American mother

Hjördis' aunt had arranged a position as a kitchen maid for a family in New York with a staff of 12 people, among them the cook Aina Engblom, with roots in Föglö. "She became my American mother and taught me how to behave in the big world. I soon understood that she saw herself in me, as she had also arrived in the USA as a young and poor emigrant." Hjördis savors the memory of Aina's cooking and the delicious food that she couldn't get enough of.

Hjördis remained with the family in New York for 5 years and thought that her $50.00 per month wage was far above what she deserved. "In time, I grew curious and wanted to know more about my new country, the values, and the way of life. The kitchen was a functioning unit in itself where we rarely saw anything at all of the family, and I wanted to 1earn to be a waitress so that I could be nearer to them. I soon learned that the step from the kitchen into the parlors was not an easy one," she remembers.

After many hard knocks, Hjördis made it. Years later she was offered a parlor maid job with the renowned family of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney who employed a staff of 60 and owned eight residences. Her job was to serve all the meals with the butler and to arrange all the large bouquets of flowers in the different parlors. "I loved the flowers. Almost every day, the most exquisite flowers were brought into the house from their greenhouses, and I could then make beautiful arrangements."

The family's guests included the elite, royalty, heads of state, and Hollywood stars. It was also on a Vanderbillt estate in the South where the classic film "Gone with the Wind" was filmed.

According to Hjördis, "It was a fantastic experience for me to hear and see these people at such close range and to hear their sophisticated conversations at the dinner table. It was more than I ever could have wished for.

The challenge

In 1959, Hjördis left the family and, wanting to do something else with her life, decided to study physical therapy. This was no doubt her life's biggest challenge. The director of the school was not impressed by her four years of public schooling back in Finland and told Hjördis that she didn't have much going for her, and doubted she would pass the course. Hjördis responded that she wanted at least to try. But pass, she did, and she was offered a fulltime job at the large St. Lukas Hospital where she remained for the next 27 years. At the hospital she began a new and different life where she had to take full responsibility for treatments and reporting patients' progress to the chief physician. At the hospital, Hjördis came in contact with well-known people from around the world, including the dying Russian Premier, Alexander Kerenskij, who was once the leader of Russia. "To see this once-powerful man lying weak, helpless, and dying with two guards on duty outside his hospital door was unforgettable for me," says Hjördis.

Still going strong.

After her retirement in New York, good friends who had moved back to Åland suggested that Hjördis should do the same. "I had not planned to return to Åland after 50 years in New York. I had all my friends there, although I had a brother and a sister still living on Åland," she said. This was not an easy decision, but circumstances contributed to the final decision, and in June 1987, she moved back to her native Åland. She obtained her first driver’s license at the age of 67. "I realized that if I were to live on Åland I had to be able to drive a car." Hjördis lives a very active life helping out at the Emigrant Institute and also doing family research. She spends time off and on at her summer cottage in Föglö. "I have never been idle and I don't plan to start now." With that attitude, writing this book was no effort for her.

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