“THE HELLIG OLAV IS APPROACHING NEW YORK CITY IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. WE WILL BE AT THE DOCKS IN THREE HOURS. PREPARE TO DISEMBARK UPON ARRIVAL.”
It has been eleven long days since May 7th when the Hellig Olav pulled away from the docks in Kristiansand and Asborg’s life was split in two as though by the sharpest of blades. Before and After. Old Country and New Country.
It is overcast this morning and the seagull cries grow ever more raucous. The passengers entering and leaving the dining room appear dazed in spite of their newly spiffed up appearances. America is very near. There had been only brød with smør and the thinnest and bitterest of surmelk for breakfast which is fine since anxiety has killed most appetites.
Svein and Ellen are quiet, holding hands, Eilif is sniffly and Gyro, after eight days of non-stop admiration of her blonde, blue-eyed, curly-haired self is as close to open rebellion as a three-year-old can get.
Asborg is reluctant to leave the dining hall which has become gossip, romance, counseling and complaint central. It started out all shiny clean and filled with strangers. Then she met Brit and Aslaug and Mattea. Each story is a little different, some have husbands to meet them at the ship, some like Asborg will travel with their children halfway across the country to Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin….
It’s still not unpleasant down here although smudged with small fingerprints and boot marks and perfumed with eight days of partially-washed bodies, repeatedly worn clothes, peed baby pants and leftover foodstuffs. It is in fact a warm rocking lulling contained place, familiar—like a womb—real life to commence soon.
She sits with Mattea for a last few minutes.
“How will you know the people who are to meet you, Asborg?”
“They’ll be there on the dock so we must hold our name card high. Then they’ll help us through Ellis Island and take us to the train. Do you know much about Chicago, that’s where the train goes first?”
Mattea is younger than Asborg, a pretty blonde woman in her twenties. She’s never been away from Evje before but her husband and his sister will meet her at the dock so she’s not worried. In fact she is literally bouncing up and down with excitement to see this new husband who left for America soon after they were married.
“I hope god will go with you too, Asborg. You are a good woman. But not a happy one I think.”
“That’s true, and god never seems to be around. Maybe he’s lost track of me.” Asborg slumps for a moment, then straightens up, face set in hard sad lines.
They are both quiet, thinking about unknown times ahead. Asborg is nervous about the rest of her long journey. “We’ll go to a place called Thief River Falls after Chicago. Torgus must work there until he has paid back the farmer who gave the money for our tickets.”
Mattea says, “That’s a funny name—Thief River Falls. What does the river steal I wonder…”
“WE ARE APPROACHING THE HARBOR… PLEASE PREPARE TO DISEMBARK IN ONE HOUR.”
Asborg goes to the corner where children are half-heartedly playing. The idea of another change just as they’ve gotten use to the ship is starting to sink in. “Barn, you must come now.”
The little family gathers their things: Asborg with the old suitcase, Svein and Ellen with small sacks with their small jackets and their latest small treasures collected on board: a stray marble of extreme blueness and greenness and some pages from what must have been a picture book of America and a rose-colored ribbon and heavy red string and two gold buttons. The babies with handfuls of their mother’s skirt clutched tightly in grubby little fists.
They come out onto the lower deck and there it is. America. Its biggest city forever defined by that first glimpse. Buildings high, low, long, short, no end to buildings. All gray today, even the water. Smoke billows up and out from everywhere. What a dark place.
For just a moment, Asborg sees Kristiansand in her mind’s eye. It was sunny when they left wasn’t it? Looking back as the small steamship chugged out to meet the giant liner, it was all green and white…against the blue of Norwegian waters…but there’s no time for tears. They can wait until memories of Kristiansand fade and America is all there is.
“THIS IS THE CAPTAIN. PLEASE LISTEN CAREFULLY….”
Was it like that Grandma?
For anyone even slightly curious about their ancestors trip over to the US from Norway, there’s a most informative website, http://www.norwayheritage.com. There’s a wealth of information about the ships that carried most of the Norwegians who came and even some ships’ schedules and logs. I’ve included a few things from the site that seemed particularly pertinent to my family.
Third Class on the Hellig Olav
There was no steerage on the ships, as they operated with a third class. The third class staterooms, all of which were spacious, and well ventilated, were comfortably furnished with iron beds, springs, mattresses, sheets, pillows and blankets, wash-stands, mirrors, towels, soap and water. They were also supplied with fresh drinking water, and kept in order by stewards and stewardesses. They could accommodate two, four and six passengers, enabling whole families to keep together. Meals were served by uniformed waiters in clean dining rooms at tables set with clean linen and porcelain tableware, and the food was of good quality, cooked in the palatable Scandinavian style, served plentifully, and with a wide variety in the menus. Ample deck space for open air promenading and exercise was reserved for the third class passengers. Ladies’ saloon, well furnished comfortable smoking rooms, barber shops and many baths were a few of the conveniences furnished to those traveling in third class. The services of a physician and nurse, and the facilities of a well equipped hospital and dispensary were at the service of passengers. The same standards of courtesy and cleanliness that made traveling in the first and second cabins were also found in third class. Women and children traveling alone were in the care of a special matron and stewardesses. (www.norwayheritage.com)