When the American dream turns tragic
A Norwegian-American odyssey of pain and renewal
Much has been made of the American dream, and many still gravitate to the United States for its economic and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Norwegian immigrants certainly have had many success stories throughout our country. But it is rare that we hear about or focus on those stories of tragedy or failure. Tanja Eie has taken on the challenge of this task with a self-published memoir, A Norwegian-American Tragedy: A Memoir by Tanja K. Eie.
Tanja’s parents both immigrated to the United States from Norway in the early 1960s and were making their way up. Her father eventually opened his own business, and her mother became an assistant bank manager. The family spent idyllic summers in Norway. All was right with their world.
But on July 4,1975, when Tanja was just 6 years old, her mother was tragically murdered. Understandably, her family was shattered and the ramifications of how it affected each member reverberate to this day. Four-plus decades later, Eie had the courage to put pen to paper and tell her story. My interview with her follows.
VICTORIA HOFMO: Tanja, can you speak a little about your Norwegian immigrant parents and where they came from?
Tanja Eie: My mother, Patricia Anne, came from Mandal, Norway, also in the Agder region. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about my mother’s side of the family, only that her father also died tragically when struck and killed by a drunk driver, and her mother died from illness when she was only in her mid-fifties, I believe. So, I never even met my maternal grandparents—both died before I was born.
My father, Thom Arne, was born in 1943 and raised in Flekkefjord, Norway. He was an only child but had a lot of cousins who were like siblings, because they were close in age. My father’s parents worked very hard. My grandfather worked in a textile factory, and my grandmother cleaned houses, but they also dedicated an enormous amount of their free time as volunteers and officers with the Frelsesarmeen [the Norwegian equivalent of the Salvation Army].
VH: What made them come to the United States, and what kind of work did they do here?
TE: My father decided to come to Brooklyn after many visits during his time with the Norwegian Merchant Marines and stayed with his aunt and uncle in Bay Ridge. He fell in love with the city, and as soon as his time was up in the marines, he packed his bags and headed for his new home in Brooklyn.
My mother followed several months later, my father proposed marriage, and she accepted. For work, my father first built ships, then learned the trade of carpentry, and eventually started his own construction business. My mother struggled at first to find work because of her limited English, so she cleaned houses, initially, but after a few years, she landed a job at a bank and worked her way up from bank teller to assistant branch manager.
VH: You were born in 1969 in Brooklyn, where your parents had settled. Did you have any siblings?
TE: I was born in 1969, but not in Brooklyn. I was born after my parents left Brooklyn and moved to upstate New York. I have one brother, who’s named Gunnar in my memoir (I can’t use his real name) and is two years older than I am.
VH: What do you remember about visiting the Norwegian community in Brooklyn in the 1970s?
TE: What I remember most about Brooklyn in the 1970s are the visits to my great aunt and uncle’s brownstone and how it was decorated in traditional Norwegian/Scandinavian style, along with the delicious Norwegian meals and desserts my great aunt Tonette would make.
I also remember watching a few of the Syttende Mai [17th of May] parades and having cakes at the Sons of Norway lodge around Christmastime. I don’t remember much about the neighborhood itself, but it seemed safe, clean, and was very much a Scandinavian section [of town] at that time.
VH: Were you raised with Norwegian, American, or both traditions?
TE: I was raised mostly with Norwegian traditions at first. We spoke Norwegian at home and celebrated all the Norwegian holidays in the traditional way, but my father wanted to immerse us in American culture and traditions as well. We started celebrating the Fourth of July with camping trips, barbecues, and fireworks,and, of course, there was Thanksgiving Day, with turkey and the whole nine yards. I feel we had a good balance at one point.
VH: You were so young, only 6, when your mother was tragically murdered. How did you find out? Who was there to help you mourn and heal?
TE: I found out about my mother’s death straight from my father. We had been away camping for the Fourth of July in 1975, and my mother stayed behind this time, because she had a terrible migraine. She insisted we still go without her, and that would be the last time I saw her alive.
A friend of my father’s learned of my mother’s death and knew where we were, so he drove to the campground and informed my father—privately. It wasn’t until later that evening, after we came back from the hospital where my father had to identify my mother, did he sit my brother and me down to tell us she had passed away. He told us it was a car accident at first, because he thought that a 6-year-old and 8-year-old couldn’t possibly comprehend what murder was.
I didn’t find out the truth until seven years later when I was 13, but it wasn’t my father who told me (that’s in the book). I have to say that it was my grandparents in Norway who helped me mourn and deal with the sudden and tragic loss of my mother.
My father became emotionally absent and buried himself in his work, understandably. He never spoke of my mother’s death again or even much about her in general. It was very sad and confusing. I feel very strongly that it was the summers I spent in Norway with my grandparents that helped me through, even though we didn’t talk much about what happened, they were there for me on an emotional level. Therapy would come much later in my life.
VH: After you lost your mother, how did it affect your family?
TE: The loss of my mother affected my family in different ways and in varying degrees. My father, as I mentioned earlier, became very withdrawn, worked a lot and became an alcoholic, as did my brother. My father would go on to have many failed relationships (four more marriages) after my mother’s death. My brother dropped out of high school and never married or had children.
The death of our mother affected all of us deeply but my brother even more so. We used to be very close as children and well into adulthood, but unfortunately, we are estranged and haven’t been in contact for nearly seven years. It breaks my heart. I’ve tried reaching out to him, but he won’t reciprocate. I can only hope he is doing well.
I became very shy and felt very alone, as if I were the only one who had lost their mother, and because of this, I didn’t make friends easily. I would, however, finish high school, miraculously, and even go so far as to put myself through college and earn a master of science degree in adolescent education.
I’ve been told that I am one of the rare and lucky cases. I just don’t understand how two siblings can endure the same tragedy and upbringing and turn out so differently. The bottom line is that it eventually destroyed our family dynamic and relationships with one another.
VH: After this horrific tragedy, your family suffered, your father turned to alcohol and work. That must have been confusing and painful for you. How were you able to cope?
TE: I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of my father’s pain and suffering until I was in my early 20s, so as an adolescent, I was angry with him for drinking so much and not being there, which made me feel like I had lost both of my parents on that fateful Fourth of July day.
I would say that I coped by getting involved in all sorts of school activities to occupy my time, such as sports (gymnastics and soccer), playing flute in jazz band and marching band, and singing in chorus. My father never attended any of these events, sadly, which also hurt me. I know that I reminded my father of my mother very much, because there’s no doubt that I’m her daughter—I look just like her. It must have been difficult for him to look at me, especially the older I became.
VH: That must have been incredibly painful and confusing. Were you able to overcome the despair and not succumb to harmful behavior or addictions as an adolescent?
TE: Yes, fortunately I was somehow able to overcome all of this and not succumb to harmful behavior or addictions. Never as a teenager or at any point in my life. I feel like my mother or something bigger than myself was watching over and protecting me. My brother, however, was not so lucky. I think it also had a lot to do with our individual choices and personalities. We are very different in that regard.
VH: You spent summers in Norway. Did those trips provide stability?
TE: Absolutely—100%! The summers spent in Norway as a child and adolescent were my “saving grace,” as I describe it in my book. My grandparents in Flekkefjord provided stability, love, structure, and discipline, which every child needs. I’m not sure I would have had the same positive outcome or outlook on life without their influence.
VH: What are your memories of your days spent there?
TE: My fondest memories of summers spent in Norway with my grandparents (and my parents) are deep sea fishing in the Norwegian Sea with my father, grandfather, and great uncle, crabbing at dusk with a flashlight, cloudberry picking, gardening with my bestemor [grandmother], and spending time at the family cabin nested by the fjord. Also, just walking around the narrow streets of the quaint and charming town that is Flekkefjord.
VH: That sounds lovely. Why did you decide to write this story now?
TE: I can thank COVID-19, oddly enough, for being laid off from my job and having the extra time to focus on finally finishing my book. It had been a work in progress and an idea in the back of my mind for many years, but it took a very long time to heal and piece everything together.
It wasn’t until after my son went away to college that I thought I needed to find some kind of hobby to occupy my time and the loneliness that set in while he was gone. I started horseback riding and yoga, and then it dawned on me one day that I now had the extra time to write everything down about my life. I wasn’t intending on writing a book; at first, it was more for myself and something I could leave to my son.
When I finished writing the book in 2020, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in my story, but I thought if it could resonate with and help just one person out there who may have experienced similar trauma and family dysfunction in their life, and give them hope, then my story would be worth sharing.
VH: Was it a cathartic experience?
TE: Yes, it was very cathartic! If nothing else comes of my story and book, I will still be satisfied for having written it, because it’s helped me tremendously.
VH: How has your family responded?
TE: I’ve had very positive feedback and support for writing my story. My son, especially, is proud of me.
VH: How has your Norwegian upbringing affected your journey, both negatively and positively?
TE: My Norwegian upbringing has 100% affected my life in a positive manner. I feel truly blessed that I have had the privilege, honor, and exposure to my Norwegian heritage as a first generation Norwegian American. I have heard so many others say that they wished their parents or grandparents had taught them Norwegian and continued traditions while they were growing up.
So much gets lost over the generations. I’m guilty of it myself, because I should have taught my son more Norwegian than I did, but he has definitely experienced Norwegian traditions and cooking with me, as well as trips to Norway from the time he was just 6 months old!
VH: Is there anything you’d like to add?
TE: I am so thankful and grateful for my son, Wesley, because from the moment he was born and was placed in my arms, I felt pure unconditional love for the first time and felt I had a purpose in life and reason to keep on living—he is, no doubt in my mind, the reason I’m still here.
With the telling of her story, Tanja has reveled in the sweet—her heritage, her summers in Norway, her family—to endure and overcome the tragic. She has not only undergone a transformational journey, but she has also courageously chosen to share her journey and saga with us.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.