dear evelyn

I’m a member of a Swedish/American genealogy group on Facebook. People post there asking for help finding records for missing relatives in either Sweden or the US. Often Americans need help with translations of Swedish documents or correspondence left behind by older relatives. This morning a man asked for help with a postcard dated March 28, 1928. Here is the translation I typed:

Dear Evelyn I am sending you a view that maybe one day you’ll come visit along with my very best wishes to you and everyone at home from grandma!

One run-on sentence from Värmland to Los Angeles on the back of a picture of Mårbacka.

when ‘maja christina’ became ‘mary c.’

I’m working on a large project that involves a good deal of family research. I’m spending time on genealogy sites and in Facebook groups. I’m discovering a side of my extended family that no one knew existed.

As a child I was told that no one in our family ever emigrated. Why? “Because we were never poor.”

But we were poor. Some stayed poor in Sweden. Others improved their lives through education. And it turns out that three women related to my grandfather (his aunt, his cousin, and his sister) emigrated from Sweden to the US.

One of my grandfather’s aunts, Maja Christina, emigrated with her family in 1870. They became farmers in Iowa. My grandfather’s cousin Alice emigrated, by herself, in 1915. She worked at a notorious institution for the physically and mentally disabled in upstate New York. Then she married an American man and moved with him across the industrial north. He worked for car manufacturers and the rail road. Alice died in Chicago in 1970.

My grandfather’s sister Elna left Sweden in 1896, when she was 21 years old. She had listed “New York” as her destination, and I’ve seen a document confirming that she arrived there. But that’s the end of her story.

Many immigrant Swedish women share her first and last names. One was a nurse in San Francisco, another a bookmaker in New York. There are dressmakers, home makers, and many, many, ‘domestics’. I don’t think it really matters which one of them is our relative. They were poor, they crossed an ocean, and they continued to work.

the extension of our senses

Yesterday I had online conversations with 3 people in 3 different places, in the span of an hour or two:

  1. I discussed Japanese pens with a former student. (She’s in Los Angeles.)
  2. I learned about a really old friend’s new interest in genealogy. (She’s in Göteborg, Sweden.)
  3. I helped an online acquaintance find a person in Sweden using only that person’s email address. (She’s in Arkansas somewhere, I think. I don’t know her beyond our mutual interest in online sleuthing around the history of the mysterious Captain William Matson, the man without a past*.)

I completely love how I’m able to talk about random things, answer random calls for help, or just keep lines of conversation open with people. It’s instantaneous and deeply satisfying because it really does keep me connected to different parts of my life, and different times in my life. I can’t imagine being an emigrant and an immigrant without it.

* Matson is said to have been born in Lysekil, Sweden, in 1849, but there is absolutely zero trace of him in Swedish records. So, who was he before he became a Master Mariner and the founder of the Matson Line in San Francisco in the 1880s?


In the wake of the election, during protests and in discussions about the new political landscape, you often hear the notion that “we don’t have the luxury of despair”. This means that only those who aren’t affected by the new immigration laws, or lessened legal protection of diverse groups, can afford to despair. Despair becomes a sign of privilege. Those truly affected, on the other hand, know they will have to fight. No time to rest, no time to despair.

I experience despair.

You can argue that it’s because I am privileged. I am white, heterosexual, employed. I have a roof over my head, a car to drive, two passports. I can use gender neutral or gender designated bathrooms, no problem.

Or, I can tell you this:

I have two passports because I am a dual citizen. I am Swedish by birth, and American by choice. I became a US citizen in 2010. I received a certificate, a little flag, and a form letter signed by Barack Obama. For the past 6 and a half years I have felt increasingly American. I have become more and more comfortable thinking about myself as an American. I use “we” when I teach. I eat Peeps for Easter and I kind of like baseball.

I worked at a polling place on election day last year. The precinct where I worked voted around 70% democratic. The precinct where I live voted 80% democratic. But, we all know how it ended. Donald Trump was elected president.

And I find myself in a new situation. I don’t know where to turn. I see white friends in pictures from protests, defending “their” America. But I don’t identify with their America. Their America existed while I was still living in Sweden. Their high school memories live in a place I never knew. If we travel far enough back into their America we end up in a place where all I knew of America was negative: The Vietnam war, Nixon, and Harrisburg.

My America had a black president, and a black first lady. As a white immigrant I could fit into their definition of America, because their definition of America was an expanding, evolving, one. If I am to be defined by my skin color only I cannot be an American. I am lost.

elna georgina nilsson kratz, b. 1875

This is the ship manifest listing the names of those traveling from Göteborg to New York on June 23, 1896 on the S/S Island. One of the passengers was Elna Nilson, my grandfather’s younger sister. They reached New York on July 13, but after that I have no idea what happened to Elna. Unlike her brother she didn’t use their stepfather’s last name (Kratz). Elna Nilson is a very common name, making it impossible to trace her. Family history aside, tho, look how young these emigrants were: 16, 23, 17, 18. Elna was 21.

tired and cranky

Years ago I was on my way back from a conference in Frederikshavn (that’s in Denmark, across the water from Gothenburg, Sweden), and the ship was late. We spent an hour or so waiting to board. The waiting area was dominated by a few kids 5-6 years old who were running, screaming, pushing carts, etc. Their moms had no way of controlling them.

My guess is that the moms were teachers, because it was clear that they had had some sort of new training. As their kids were raising hell, the moms were running after them, yelling at the kids to listen. They yelled nothing else, just for the kids to listen. They were also discussing the tactic amongst themselves, which is how I know they had had training. They had learnt that the important thing is to get kids to listen. Making them stop running, climbing, pushing carts into other people, apparently even to calm them down, is secondary.

So, what you had there were two out of control moms, running after four out of control kids, screaming at the top of their lungs for the kids to listen.

Something in the Swedish public discourse makes me think of those two moms.

(American public discourse makes me want to run away from home and spend the rest of my life alone on a stone in the forest. But that’s another story.)