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The Immigrant Experience


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This is a story of immigrants from Scandinavia. An immigrant from Nås, Sweden to the United States in 1904 told of her upbringing in Sweden: "I remember a small house and lots of kids. We were twelve at the table. My grandmother, my mother's mother, lived with us. We had a couple of cows and some sheep and a pig every year. When I was seven I started to stay with my mother's sister. They had a big farm, eight or nine cows and two horses. I used to be there in the summer and come home and go to school in the wintertime. After I got through school, then I stayed with my auntie permanently and worked on the farm, learned to milk and other chores." Together with two brothers and a cousin, she emigrated to the US at the age of seventeen. She settled in Tacoma, Washington where she worked as a domestic servant and later married a fellow Swede.

Her story is one of separation and self-sufficiency. In past generations, the household unit fluctuated because of the early departure of children to live and work outside the home. Large families and limited resources made it practical, even mandatory, for children to leave home. A young person might be attached to another household as an apprentice. Through this they received training and in turn provided labor.

Work was a way of life also for children who had certain responsibilities at home. One related: "As soon as we could walk, we had to carry branches from trees every time we went home. We had to carry wood to the fire. It was a struggle, but it went fine. That's all we did - struggle. We always had to work hard." Once schooling and confirmation were finished, usually around age fourteen, young women moved out of their parents' home and took paid employment. It was expected of them that after confirmation they were on their own and had to take care of themselves.

Often the employers were relatives or neighbors. Sometimes the available work was seasonal; sometimes the parents continued to exert demands. Olga from Norway learned dressmaking from a sister who had a shop in the nearby town. At age seventeen she moved to another town where she worked as a cook. In the summertime she would go and work for farmers raking the hay which was what most of the girls did. They got paid per day and could make a lot of money that way. Frequently, through their work as farm servants, housemaids, and cooks, young women like Olga grew accustomed to an itinerant lifestyle.

The death of a parent was a childhood experience faced by a large number of children. Esther, born in Finland in 1901, lost her mother when she was two years old. She said her father was good to her and tried to take care of her. But he had to hire a place to put her in and he visited her often, but she didn't dare to complain that some of the people were cruel to her. Linnea said that her father worked at the sawmill on a barge. He slipped and fell overboard, leaving a young daughter nine months old. Three of the children had died when they were small. The two oldest girls had jobs and her oldest brother was getting confirmed. She doesn't know how her mother managed.

In the face of such crises, a family would uproot itself. Clara remembered that her father was a fisherman and there were six children. Her father drowned in 1898 and her brother was born a month later. Her mother's sister lived in Aberdeen, Washington and kept writing to her mother to come to America where it would be easier to make a living. So her mother sold the old farm, but two of the girls decided to stay behind. One was eight and the other ten. They were working for other people and able to make a living, so they stayed.

In the early decades the typical Scandinavian emigrant was a young, unmarried adult. By 1905 between 35% and 50% of the emigrants from the Nordic countries were female. Anna remembers that she left her home in northern Norway in 1914 at the age of twenty-three. Her sister and mother accompanied her on the first leg of the journey, but she last saw her grandmother as they rowed away from the farm. Her grandmother was sitting on a high hill above the water. She didn't cry, but turned and walked up the hill with her cane. The next day Anna went to the dock to board a steamer and said good-bye to her mother and sister. Her mother fainted on the dock and the last thing she saw was her mother being taken away in an ambulance to the hospital. That was all Anna could think about on her trip across the ocean. It was a wrenching experience for the parents who were left behind. The emigrants were full of excitement and anticipation which overshadowed much of the pain and guilt of departure. Ellen of Denmark said: "When you are eighteen, you are full of expectations and adventure. It really didn't sink in too much about leaving. I was coming home in five years." Some intended to spend only a few profitable years in America.

Some emigrants could look forward to contact with relatives in America. Many joined siblings, aunts and uncles, or cousins who had already settled in America. The American branch of the family often helped provide money for the ticket, a place to stay and a job referral. Pride and economic necessity drove the new arrivals into the job market right away. Ida stated: "I have never been used to depend on people. I like to be able to depend on myself. So I went to Seattle and started to work in houses. I didn't want to be beholden to anyone. I wanted to earn my own money and I felt I was imposing on relatives. I wanted to be on my own."

As domestic servants, the women lived in American households and associated with friends and relatives during their scheduled time off, Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Even if they had no relatives in the area, the immigrants found that the ethnic community offered opportunities for interaction and support. Some felt that certain cities were like an extension of their home community. They met a lot of people from back home.

Their childhood was not forgotten in the new land. Letters passed back and forth. Some even managed visits back home. Ester said: "I promised mother I would come home as soon as I paid for my fare coming over and saved enough money. And that I did. I saved every penny I possibly could, and I went home to visit my mother and sisters and had a lovely time. I forgot how beautiful it was in the wintertime." Homesickness was tempered by associations in the ethnic community and by the eventual establishment of a home and family in America. Ina said: "I got so lonesome for Finland. To tell the truth, I like it here but I wouldn't stay if I didn't have a daughter and grandchildren here".

The immigrant women expressed admiration for parents who cultivated a family identity to their children despite economic difficulty, personal loss and separation. Elsie of Sweden said: "We were taught as children to be very dependent upon ourselves, not to ask for anything, always to be able to take care of ourselves, never be afraid to work and to trust in God and everything will be alright. That was the attitude my mother had." These values equipped the Scandinavian women well for the challenges of a new country.

Scandinavian women who emigrated to North America in the early decades of the twentieth century grew up in fluctuating household circumstances and were socialized to move into other households, first as servants and later as wives. For these women, emigration was not abandonment of the family. The most fortunate individuals also brought with them familial affection and goodwill. Ina shared this memory: "When my daddy said good-by to me he said a prayer. We went to Gamlakarleby where the train left. I stood on the steps of the train and he stood one step lower. He put his hands over my head and he said, 'Now our little girl is going to the world. I can't give you riches or gold or silver, but take my blessing and keep it. Remember the old folks' prayers and this will always help you." No matter what happens, I have my father's blessing."

Excerpted from "Separation and Self-Sufficiency" by Janet Rasmussen

June Pelo

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