The America connection
The great wave of emigration from Norway to America that started in the mid 1800s meant that almost every family in our community had relatives in the United States. Some kept in contact, some did not. The advantage of staying in contact with your American relatives (at least for us kids) was that it got you presents, especially at Christmas. My mother had three brothers who left the island of Fedje and settled in Oregon. Uncle Carl (the middle brother) came back to Norway for a visit in 1948, accompanied by his wife Bergliot and his five-year-old daughter Audrey. I remember that they brought great presents, especially hard candy in many colors.
On the day they arrived, our family made the trip to the island of Fedje (located on the outer coast, northwest of Bergen) to join the group assembled there to greet them. Having relatives visit from America was a big deal. I remember that there was a long table full of food prepared in my grandparents’ living room, and seated directly across from me was my new American aunt. Bergliot was raised by Norwegian parents in Portland, Oregon, and spoke Norwegian well. Sometime during the meal, to the great consternation of this six-year-old boy, she said something to me in English. I was totally embarrassed because I didn’t know what to do. How could I answer her when I didn’t know what she’d asked? Red-faced and silent I stared at my plate, like I was inspecting the lefse for defects, until she took pity on me and said something in Norwegian I could respond to. In due course, she became my favorite aunt.
I suspect that it was during that visit that my father discussed with uncle Carl the possibility of our family moving to the United States. When we finally did make the move five years later, uncle Carl was our sponsor.
I can’t remember what kind of Christmas presents we got from America prior to that visit, but for the Christmases following, my sister and I got great presents from uncle Carl and aunt Bergliot. I can remember getting Lincoln Logs one year and an erector set the next that made me the envy of my peers. There was always hard candy included in the package. My favorite things of all, however, were the coloring books and the crayons. The huge box of Crayolas contained more colors than I had ever seen before. I would color the pictures sequentially through the book and never, ever, did I go outside the lines. I remember when my four-year-old sister got a wooden nutcracker shaped like Santa Claus. You placed a nut in his mouth and pressed his legs together to crack it. My sister was always a brave little kid but this nutcracker scared her so that even seeing it made her cry. The America package also contained coffee for my parents. Coffee was available in Norway at that time but was heavily rationed.
Another person who got presents from America was my friend Emil Semmingsen, who was two years older than me and was our neighbor to the north. His father’s adopted sister lived in America and Emil and his siblings got regular presents. Only two of the presents Emil received stick in my memory. One was a wool jacket that was white with green checkers. The jacket was too big for Emil but he wore it anyway. We referred to it as Emil and his ullteppe (wool blanket).
Another present Emil got caused a great deal of excitement. Word got around that Emil had gotten a soccer ball from America. This was at a time when our group did not own a soccer ball but we wanted one badly. We got suspicious however, when we first saw the ball because it was not round. It had a point on each end. But we knew it had to be the real thing because it even said “FOOTBALL” right on the box, which is how we figured they spelled fotball in America. It had a bladder and we started to pump. Initially, the more air we pumped into it, the more round it appeared to become. We figured it was only a matter of time and these stupid points would go away. We took turns pumping until we were exhausted. Needless to say, it never got round. We kicked it around for a while but it just wouldn’t bounce right. I think Emil took it home and put it away, never to be used again.
Our family’s migration to the United States started with my maternal grandfather, Edvard Koppen, and his siblings. Of the six children in that family, four left Fedje for the greener pastures of America. My grandfather came to the United States in the year 1900 and went to work in the woods for a timber baron named Benson who built the Benson Hotel and financed the building of Benson Polytechnic High School, both in Portland. I spend four years at Benson High School and thought often of how my grandfather’s labor helped build the school. Mr. Benson was also famous for installing the drinking fountains around downtown Portland so his loggers would have something to drink when they came to the city, besides beer. Logs were usually moved by rail and it was on these rail cars that loggers went to town on weekends. In those days logging was much more dangerous than it is today and, according to my grandfather, it was not unusual for dead bodies to be lashed to the logs for delivery to the mortuary in Portland.
In 1905, grandfather took a trip back to Norway for a short visit. He had, however, not counted on the charms of Marta Toft, who had arrived on Fedje after his departure and was working as a clerk in one of the stores. Grandfather fell hopelessly in love and abandoned all plans of returning to America. It is said that my grandmother is the most beautiful bride to ever take her vows in the church on Fedje.
In 1957, on their 50th wedding anniversary, their children in America gave my grandparents a trip to the United States as an anniversary present. I can still see them stepping off the plane at Portland International Airport. Grandma in her long black dress and grandpa with his high-laced boots and wool socks were a wonderful sight on that scorching July day. I had only been in this country for four years and was terribly homesick for the people we left behind.
They took turns staying with my uncles and us. One day, grandpa and I took a walk around downtown Portland. I was amazed how he could remember places and names from over 50 years ago. There was even a tavern on West Burnside that had been there when he was a logger. They did not have TV on Fedje in those days and grandma just loved to watch The Real McCoys with Walter Brennan. Her English was not good enough to understand what was going on, so one of us kids would translate for her.
They could have stayed a whole year, but after six months they got homesick for Fedje and headed back to Norway. We will never know what kind of life grandpa would have had, had he stayed in the U.S. I expect he would have done well; he was a capable man. Returning to Fedje, he probably sacrificed some physical comforts. Uncle Carl tells of him and Grandpa fishing from an open boat in the dead of winter in the North Sea. As uncle Carl puts it: Livet på tåfto er livet til en hund (The life on a boat seat is the life of a dog). Grandma would have hot water waiting for them to soak their feet in when they got home. Uncle Carl said he used to scream in pain, whereas grandpa never uttered a sound. Uncle Carl left Norway on his 18th birthday.
This article is part of the column Long Ago & Far Away by John Lind.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.