I Remember Mama

Norwegian-American nostalgia

John Smistad
Olympia, Wash.

Synopsis: A young writer recalls her ups and downs growing up as one of four children to Norwegian immigrant parents in 1910s San Francisco.

My paternal grandfather, Ingebrigt Smistad, left Norway for the United States during the heart of the Great Depression, leaving behind the only home he had ever known, his family’s farm in the tiny fishing village of Øksendal. Also not accompanying him on this intrepid journey were a wife and two children, one of whom is my dad, Olav.

Ingebrigt did not have a job and did not speak English. When he found work in Washington state with the help of Norwegian relatives who had  already immigrated to the United States, he brought his family overseas and then across the country to reunite with him. The nationwide economic disaster was only just beginning to show signs of ending.

I am proud beyond words of my grandpa, my dad, and the rest of my family. I will always be fiercely honored to have Norwegian blood running through my veins and pulsating through those of my three sons, all of whom are enormously vainglorious of their ancestral heritage, as well.

Which brings me now to my review of the classic 1948 film I Remember Mama.

Not much happens in this movie that likely hasn’t happened to you and me and our own families.

Martha and Lars Hanson have moved from Norway to San Francisco to be with relations from “the old country.” Both become citizens of their new home. Together they raise four children, all of whom were born in this magical City by the Bay. It is all captured and presented in exquisite and ingenious black and white brilliance by legendary filmmaker George Stevens (A Place in the Sun, Gunga Din).

But here’s what makes I Remember Mama a genuine treasure. As my father consistently imparts to me, my brother, and my sister, “Family is the most important thing.” Therein lies the point of this preciously poignant parable. Unwavering love for, support of, and belief in each other.

No matter the circumstance. No matter the sacrifice.

Uncle Chris (Oscar Homolka in a beautifully bombastic larger-than-life characterization) embodies my grandfather. Stout.  Tough. Unyielding. Intimidating. Yet, underneath that often gruff exterior, there beat a big heart forged of the purest gold. One tirelessly committed to those they steadfastly lead and love.

Martha Hanson (the gloriously talented Irene Dunne) so very vividly reminds me of my Grandma Smistad. Diminutive of stature.  Sparing of spoken word. Quiet by nature.

But this rock-solid Norwegian woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother was blessed of a manner, a soul that spoke volumes to us all. Quietly aware. Quietly patient. Quietly insightful.  Quietly resolute. Quietly strong. But perhaps, most of all, this: quietly in charge.

And so, then, as Mama herself proclaims to her family on a number of occasions over the course of this indelibly sweet story…

“Is good.”

I Remember Mama streams to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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John Smistad

John Smistad is a published author of short stories, poems, essays, and movie reviews. He lives and loves with his family and cat in the Puget Sound area of Washington state. He is the fiercely proud son of a native Norwegian dad. (He loves his mom, too.) You can follow him as on his blog at thequickflickcritic.blogspot.com.