The American dream of Norway
Part 4: Madison Leiren
Our ancestors came to America to give their families a better life. Now young Norwegian Americans dream of the old country. This series of interviews was conducted by a visiting Norwegian journalist.
In her small apartment in Northgate, Seattle, Madison Leiren, 27, keeps an old photograph on her bookshelf. It is black and white, and shows a young couple standing in a field, surrounded by mountains. This is Madison’s great-grandmother and great-grandfather, at Stamnes in Vaksdal in the western part of Norway. They are named Anna Hagen and Håkon Leiren and came from the farm called Leiro. A few years after this picture was taken, the young couple traveled across the sea. With them, they brought Madison’s grandmother Miki, who was 10 years old when the family settled on the Alberta prairie in Canada.
Anna had a pedal-driven sewing machine with her; she had worked at the factory at Dale. Now her descendant Madison is a fashion designer, working full-time as a seamstress at Leiren Designs, with Nordic design as a specialty.
The rest of the apartment is mostly filled with clothes, fabric, and of course a sewing machine. “I do not know exactly why my grandparents moved, but there were many children in the family, and the farm was small. After the war, my great-grandfather’s family could afford to send one of the children to the new world, and he seized the opportunity.”
The family from Stamnes did well in Canada. The grandfather became a carpenter, and the family fostered both a successful journalist and psychologist. At one point, they moved to Seattle. Her grandmother, Miki, who was born in Norway, was to become particularly important for Madison as a child. Her childhood was filled with vafler, traditional pastry, brunost, and baked Norwegian Christmas cakes. Madison borrowed Grandma’s bunad and went to the parade in Ballard every Syttende Mai.
“It was Grandmother who raised me, and we have a very good relationship. The women in my family have made a strong impression on me. I feel that Norway is like a grandmother to me. When I come to Norway, it is as if many questions are answered. In a way, we are a little ‘lost in America;’ we know we have a connection somewhere else. It gives me both a special knowledge and security. But I was born in the United States and feel that this is where I have a story to tell.”
Madison is inspired by Nordic mythology and wants that to show in her clothes. She mentions huldra, goddesses, and nature as sources of inspiration.
“The Norwegian nature is just so … overwhelming. Waterfalls and water that change with the seasons from water to ice, the white snow. In addition, I am very inspired by fantasy, Game of Thrones and Tolkien, which in turn are inspired by the Nordic. Also the craft traditions. I certainly have a tendency for sentimentality around objects—I mean, they tell stories. That’s what I’m trying to achieve in what I’m making. Clothing and fashion is a way to tell stories that transcend borders. It is a way to capture so much with so few words.”
Madison has visited Norway several times. She lists a number of things that have impressed her.
“You have a much better social system in Norway. The public supports health, parental leave, education. In the United States, it is your own problem if you get cancer and do not have health insurance.”
The minuses about Norway come mostly in the form of “the Nordic chill.”
“Many in the family who have lived in Norway say that it is difficult to get to know people and that they are generally more private. We have the same phenomenon here, ‘the Seattle freeze.’ Maybe it’s something our ancestors brought with them from Norway! It’s probably not rude, but it takes longer to thaw you.”
Visit Ingerid Jordal’s website at www.ingeridjordal.no.
To learn more about Madison Leiren, see also:
This article originally appeared in the July 26, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.