It’s just a short letter, nothing more than a note, really, but it has given me much to ponder for many years.
The man was but a lad, setting out on life’s journey, when his story began with a two-week ship journey over the Atlantic Ocean to his new home in America. Just 22, he had said goodbye to his father, Per, mother, Anna, and all his brothers and sisters. When he arrived in New York City in 1901, he was stripped of the identity he had known.
Authorities not only “Americanized” his first name, he also took on a new surname that the family he left behind would also adopt.
He spoke no English, but like all immigrants of that time, quickly set about learning the language and adapting his life to the ways of his new world.
Working first as a hired hand for a wealthy local farmer (he met his future bride there; she worked as a maid for the Mrs. of the family) he toiled long hours for little pay. Later, having married, he found a home and worked at a nearby tile factory, again working long hours for little pay. He fathered six children, four of whom lived beyond infancy.
Later, after he “retired” from the factory, he settled on his wife’s family farm north of Stratford where he fatted a couple hogs and raised chickens for meat and eggs. He planted corn on the 40 acres of tillable land and sold sand from a pit located on the small acreage.
After he came to America, he made only one trip back to his homeland. In 1920 he once again sailed across the ocean to re-unite with his family.
At the tile factory he had begun wearing steel gray pants and matching shirts, all the color of navy ships. That became his clothing of choice. Six days a week, he wore the gray pants and shirts, having enough of each to make sure his clothes were always clean and pressed. Only on Sundays and for special occasions, did he ever wear his dress-up clothing, which included one suit.
When his grandchildren would sit upon his knee, or in a chair nearby, and ask about his homeland, he seemed almost reluctant to speak as if doing so would bring back melancholy thoughts. But, the stories he did tell awakened curiosity among his descendants and conjured up pictures of what life must have been like in the Old Country.
While his entire life was one of hard work, he never complained. He always saw the task at hand and set about completing it. Often his grandson – the first of his 12 grandchildren to bear the family name – would tag along, imitating his grandfather by softly whistling under his breath and striding around the farm or through the fields. His hands were always grasped behind his back. Still today, his grandson does both. His wife often brings him out of a “trance” by asking, “Are you whistling again?”
The last five years of his life were particularly difficult for the old man.
His wife of 55 years passed away in March of 1960. His eldest son died in December of the same year. When his youngest son, just 44, died in June of 1963, it was almost too much for the old man. To anyone who would listen, he would say, “I don’t want to live to see any more of my family die. It isn’t right for a father to outlive his children.”
Although he was always fiercely independent, his health began to decline rapidly and he was finally relegated to spend his final years in a nursing home in Stratford, where caregivers could help him through each day.
His grandson visited him at the nursing home in June of 1965. He wore his Army uniform as his mother had asked. It pleased the old man. “You look so nice in your uniform, Carl,” he said. His grandson didn’t correct him and tell him that he was not Carl, that Carl was his father.
It was the last time the two would talk. The old man died less than two months later.
And it wasn’t until decades later that the grandson read his grandfather’s letter for the first time.
“I miss Sweden so much,” he wrote. “I long to visit just once more before I die. I only wish I could drive there – I would come next week.”
He wrote that letter to a niece with whom his grandson would one day live for a summer, and she passed along a copy to his grandson.
I loved the old man dearly. Even though it’s been nearly a half-century since he died, I think of him often. When I do, I also think of the letter he wrote “home” so many years ago and I admire him even more for the strength he showed us all every day of his life.
(Bill Haglund is a freelance writer with Stephens Media.)