By Elaine Knudtson
It’s an age old ice-breaker question; who would you sit around the table at your ideal dinner party? They can be dead or alive, friend or celebrity, even fictional! But they have to interact together, create scintillating conversation, and make a dinner party that will go down in history as legendary. (https://hamptonmanor.com/dinner-party-question/)
It was a simple question that haunted me for days. Of course, in my piety, I thought of inviting religious figures, or maybe a great reformer or world changer. Yet they were all men. Where was my voice and identity?
“I would choose to have a tea party with all my great grandmothers,” was my final answer: Amelia (Rud) Carbol, Anna (Svard) Borg, Geraldine Engman, and Kerstin Anquist. I had met great grandma Carbol as a little girl on her acreage in Amisk. All the other women were anonymous. The stories and legends came to me through my parents, modified over time by memory. Yet, these four women held my DNA—they were the womb of my character.
Amelia and Ole had built a life for themselves on the prairies after they left their homestead in Warren county, Minnesota in 1908. She was small and bent over with a bun at the nape of her neck. I learned that she had once had beautiful red hair, but it had thinned when she contracted scarlet fever. She taught my grandmother how to bake Norwegian cookies.
By the time I knew her, she could only whisper because she had a huge goiter that blocked her vocal chords—something that I inherited. Perhaps because of her goiter, or simply because I was only a child of five, she spoke very few words to me, deferring to Ole, her more gregarious husband, who sat for hours reading his Bible with the use of a magnifying glass.
Amelia Rude—a Norwegian from Lillehammer in Norway, packed her steamer trunk and headed for New York to be a house maid to a wealthy Norwegian family in Brooklyn in the late 1890s. She had an education and could read and write, whereas Ole was self-taught. She met him through her brother Chris, who was working on threshing crews in North Dakota near Grand Forks. Chris later emigrated to Canada to take advantage of the generous enticement offered by the Canadian government to open up the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. By the early 1900s, all the homestead land in the American Midwest was gone, and what remained needed to be cleared before any crops could grow. Opportunities were limited, so young men worked on threshing crews, going from farm to farm harvesting crops by hand. The crew had to be fed frequently, and so each crew had a team of women who cooked and baked throughout the day to keep them nourished.
What drew Amelia away from the comforts of Brooklyn into the raw continent? Was it a whim, a restlessness, or a carefully thought out decision to move to be closer to her brother—the only family she had in this new land? She returned to Lille-hammer, briefly, after Ole proposed to her. Did she need time to think? Did she “settle” for this pious Swede or did she love the way he had survived on his own as a farm hand from the age of twelve. Did she recognize that he would be the means by which dozens of others would immigrate to Canada? It was a long way from the comforts of a wealthy home in Brooklyn to a sod house in the Canadian prairie by Amisk. Did she regret her decision, or had she answered a higher call?
When she was in North Dakota, she had a spiritual awakening. Fredrick Franson, the founder of The Evangelical Alliance Mission was holding revival meetings in Swedish communities across the Midwest. Both Amelia and Ole were captivated by the call to a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Their faith came alive. Is that what gave them the courage to leave Warren county, Minnesota, where they tried homesteading after they married in 1900, to follow her brother, Chris to the Canadian prairie near Amisk? “It’s flat here,” Chris reported to Ole in 1906 on a visit Ole made from Minnesota. “You don’t even have to cut down trees; you can plow right away. You get 160 acres for free if you agree to cultivate at least 40 acres and build a permanent dwelling within three years.”
In 1908 Amelia and Ole packed their three children, twin boys Alfred and Joseph, and their daughter, Ruth—my grandmother, along with livestock, Ruth’s cat, and other priceless possessions on a train in St. Paul, Minnesota, headed for Hardisty, Alberta. From there they took a team of horses to Amisk where they built a sod hut and broke land. The footprint of this house still exists, surrounded by saskatoon berry bushes that my grandmother, Ruth, remembered picking for pies and preserves. It was a long way from Lillehammer. Did Amelia regret her move or was she so busy raising her growing family that she set it all aside? They were made of tougher stuff back then. What part of that tenacity is still in me?
Or what about the impatience and fierce loyalty to family that I saw in Anna Borg. Her four sons decided to head to Canada to homestead in Matsqi, B.C. Albert, my grandfather, was the oldest of ten children. Sweden had few opportunities. His father had been part of the royal cavalry in Sweden, but the land was expensive and the homestead act in Canada was opening up free land to those willing to work and build a life. “If you go, we all go!” was Anna’s response. What kind of woman packs up her six children (at the time) and willingly leaves everything she has known behind? Was it because she was fiercely loyal to her sons, or did she have a restlessness that needed to be satisfied?
I was told that she was very religious. The only picture I have of her reveals little of her character. She was a Baptist—a unique choice for a Swede. How did that come about? What did their faith mean to them, and how did it shape her confidence in leaving Sweden? I know her son, Albert, my Grandpa Borg, (the family changed the name from Svard to Borg when they immigrated, thinking that it was too hard to say Svard in English), was a deeply religious man. The Bible was always at his side and he would give me moral lessons even when I was a little girl. He liked living in the “bush”, a reminder of his rural roots. Maybe the impetus to leave Sweden came from a desire to see more.
In April of 1912, Gideon, Anna and the six children left Stockholm, Sweden and headed on a steamer to Canada via Southampton, England. There they were to take an ocean liner the rest of the way: the Titanic. However, when they arrived, the Titanic, preparing for its maiden voyage, was delayed. Grandma was impatient and said, “I can’t wait around here for days with all these kids, let’s go to Liverpool and leave now.” So they trundled off to Liverpool, where they caught the Empress of Ireland, and set sail for Quebec City. On the way, as the story goes, the Titanic passed them. “It’s going too fast,” the captain was reported to have told the passengers. He proved to be right.
What would have happened if Anna had been more patient and waited to board the Titanic? Or if she had played it safe and stayed in Sweden, letting her sons, one of whom was my grandfather Albert, go on without her. Would they have made the same decision to take the Empress of Ireland rather than wait for the Titanic without her insistence? Would my mother have even been born?
I know little of Geraldine Engman because she gave away my grandmother, Annie, to a childless couple when she was twelve years old. Geraldine, a Swedish immigrant to Saskatchewan, had been abandoned by her husband after arriving in Canada, and she struggled to raise Jenny, Bill and Annie on her own. During the five years she waited before she could declare her husband “dead”, Annie was firmly established in the home of the Moes, a childless couple who became her foster parents. They took Annie to Kitsilano, B.C. before moving to Matsqui, where Annie grew up and met my grandfather Albert. The Moes provided Annie with opportunities and stability. My mother always referred to Grandma Moe as her grandmother, having only met “Grandma Gerry” once. How difficult it must have been for Geraldine to see her life fly apart once she left Sweden and came to Saskatchewan. Did her heart break to give away her child? Did it take courage to leave a bad marriage at a time when that was scandalous? She became an anonymous part of my history. How would she fit in around my table at my imaginary tea party?
The final place at the table would be set for Kerstin Anquist, the mother of Pete, Nils and Carl. They came to Canada around the time of World War One to avoid conscription in the army. Kerstin was a widow. Her husband had been a forester and a farmer near Stoliet, Sweden. It was reported that his heart had been damaged when a tree hit him in the chest and he died quite early leaving her with three sons, Pete, Nils and Carl. Pete had emigrated to Canada, sponsored by Ole Carbol. Kerstin was related to Ole through his step mother. They were from the same community. Sweden had a standing army with mandatory conscription. While the country was neutral during World War I, her sons would have had to serve if they had stayed, so she decided to follow Pete to Canada.
The boys taught themselves English from the book Black Beauty, but their English was limited. Karen needed new shoes when they arrived in Halifax, but the only word they knew was “lady’s slippers.” Not exactly what they were looking for.
When they arrived in Alberta, Nils started a ferrier business, delivering packages from the train station to local farmers. He married Ole’s daughter, Ruth in 1924, and they started a family in Amisk, alongside the other Scandinavian immigrants. Kerstin lived with them until she died one summer in 1944 from pneumonia. It had been a hot day, and she rested on the cold water barrel to cool off. The resulting illness ended in her death. She is buried in the Amisk cemetery along with the others who had come from Stoliet.
Her husband’s grave is unmarked in the stave church in Stoliet. I stood there in the summer of 2010 and told him that his family had done alright in the new world. I wish I could have said the same thing to Kerstin It took a long time to find the grave because my grandfather changed his name to Anquist when he came to Canada. His father was Ole Larsson. That made him Olson. As there were too many Olson’s in the Scandinavian settlements, Nels chose the name Anquist (one branch), after a couple he had admired in Sweden.
To find Kerstin in the Swedish census would be a daunting task; to see her in my DNA even more challenging. What would she bring to the table? Did her love for her sons provide the motivation to leave her home, or was it the draw of those who had gone ahead, like Ole Carbol and her son Pete, who made it possible to step out. World War One had its effect, and the politics of conscription and socialism added to uncertainty. What effects of World War One were felt in the western forests of Sweden near Stoliet? Was her emigration a matter of survival or adventure?
Those are the legends I’ve carried with me through the years. They are my ancestors—like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. United with their families, they had the courage to leave behind country, family and security to seek a better life for their children. I am the inheritor of their courage, vision and ambiguity.
I look ahead at my children and grandchildren. What qualities will I pass on to them? Tenaciousness? Vision? Piety? Impatience? Impulsiveness? A sharp tongue? A fierce love of family? An inquiring mind? Restlessness? How will I be remembered? Who am I to them?
Would I recognize you if you arrived at my tea party?
Would I see my face in yours?
Did you ask the questions I ask myself about
The providence and faithfulness of God,
Your impact on family,
Or the influence of your actions and character on generations to come?
Or were you too busy forging a life from the raw soil of a new land to stop and think?
Am I a “doer” because I came from you?
Is my restlessness harvested from the Scandinavian soil of a hundred years ago?
Did your love for family sustain you through the hardship of staring a new life in the harsh realities of western Canada?
How did you view the prairie mornings and the frozen landscape, or the endless rain of the Fraser valley?
Did you find beauty and hope and God’s love in this land you came to, or did you have the luxury of reflection?
Did anyone see you in the shadow of your husbands’ acts—whether heroic or cowardly?
Why are your stories forgotten?
Does it matter?
Am I not a product of your lives?
You are not anonymous to me. I exist.
I know God because you were held in His hand, whether you knew Him or not.
I am the inheritor of His blessings through you to the thousandth generation.
I pass on His story and your story to generations yet unborn.
United in that one story—of alienation, redemption and grace,
I hope we will ultimately meet and have that tea party at the marriage feast of the lamb.
Together we will raise our voices in praise as we answer the question, “Who am I?”
With the resounded affirmation—I am your child.