Lois Tonnessen Andersen is a visual artist living in Concord, Mass. She works in a variety of media and most recently self-published a children’s book. The book, which she wrote and illustrated, is mostly autobiographical, conjuring her childhood memories in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and the impact her Norwegian grandfather had on her. These must have been powerful joyful times, because Lois’s grandfather died when she was 5.
Written in the first person, the reader follows little Lois on her daily encounters with “Badda” (her version of the Norwegian word for grandfather, bestefar): watching the boats sail along the Narrows, buying ice cream from the Good Humor cart, and riding in his Buick.
The author explained where the idea originated: “Making my memories into a children’s picture book was prompted by my husband. Doing the illustrations has been a good counterpoint to the painting I spend most of my time on. All illustrations are completely from my memories. Everything from my grandparents’ house on 91st Street—the attic, living room, basement, kitchen, my little room, the view from the window—are taken from memory. At the time, the Bay Ridge Hospital was on Shore Road and had a large, unused field behind it on 91st Street. The hospital custodian let my grandfather use the land for a garden.”
I asked Andersen if she could elaborate what was so special about Bay Ridge when she was a child.
“Since my early years were so happy, I think of my Bay Ridge years in golden terms. Having extended family in the area, the parks along Shore Road, being part of a warm church family (59th Street Church), being able to walk around the corner to the hardware store, the deli, and across the street to the butcher; the neighborhood was safe, small-scale and friendly.
“We had Owl’s Head (Bliss!) and the other parks along Shore Road, the ferry to Staten Island, and could walk a few blocks, go down into the subway and come up in Manhattan! My life was rich and fascinating! When my parents moved our family to New Jersey, I thought it a pretty poor deal to trade Brooklyn for a bunch of trees!”
The rhythm of this story’s idyllic duo is strained when a new kid, Anna, a recent immigrant from China, arrives. She becomes Lois’s neighbor and tries to befriend her. But Lois has reservations, wondering if including Anna will destroy the precious time she spends with Badda. She cautiously opens up to the possibility of a trio, with encouragement from her mother and father who remind her that she should be kind to Anna, as Anna’s parents came to America to find work, just as her Badda and Mormor had.
This is the one place where the author has taken liberty with reality, and that was only because Lois could not remember the name of the real-life neighbor child. “But there was a little girl who did enter our lives and change the picture,” Andersen clarified.
Andersen’s use of smell to trigger memory is very poignant. She has the reader enjoy the drifting scent of cookies and bread seeping under the door of Larsen’s Bakery. You can imagine what it would be like to sit on Badda’s lap, with his specific aroma: a mixture of sunshine on skin and cherry tobacco wafting from his pipe.
The book’s images capture the small-town feel of Bay Ridge, which has been able to retain its sense of neighborhood to this day. Bay Ridge’s uniqueness is not just my opinion—I am a native—but was recently voiced to me by a newer neighbor I met by chance. She had lived in several New York neighborhoods, but said she loved that Bay Ridge is a community. And it is a community that can weather change and incorporate newcomers.
Quaint houses surrounded by gardens, open space with parkland, and its unique location at the mouth of New York harbor are what keep me and so many others here. And that is what Andersen’s illustrations capture.
I asked Andersen to describe what the real-life Badda was like. “Actually, my grandfather and I had the precise relationship represented in Badda’s Buddy. That kind, loving, patient man imprinted my life with his goodness. We just spent quiet, ordinary day-to-day life together.”
She went on to give a brief bio of Badda: “Bernhard Hagen, my mother’s father, emigrated from Hamar, Norway, as a young man. He became a licensed electrical contractor and made his living bringing electric power into homes as gaslight was being eliminated. He owned Hagen & Helmers Appliance and Electrical store at 5503 Eighth Avenue.” Also known as Lapskaus Boulevard.
The lessons in this book are simple but essential: relationships are what matter. Strangers are not threats, so welcome them. Childhood memories ring deep, so cherish them, share them, and let them breathe.
Badda’s Buddy: Best Friends in Brooklyn would make a lovely addition to anyone’s library. Badda’s Buddy is available online only at MakingArtWays.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.