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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Norwegian China From Switzerland - A Motherhood Musing by Cynthia Bemis Abrams | Maris Ehlers Photography

Sharing Too Much, But For a Good Cause
Storytelling by Norwegian Americans is not a singular retelling of a story.  It’s a lifetime of fact crumbs, set forth like clues to a puzzle for an inquisitive family member to absorb. To actually tell the story would be, well, sharing too much.
From common people come incredible efforts. This story that helps me better understand my own DNA, told in the bits of information shared during holidays and long car rides. I still wonder why it was deemed of worthy of not sharing, in full regale.
It started with the dishes, special and only used on holidays.  Place settings for 12, there were enough for my family, cousins, aunt, uncle and grandmas.  As the family grew and no one wanted to wash dishes, they were seen less often.  Stored in a cabinet above the refrigerator, faded napkins protected them from each other, wear and weight.
I knew they were given to my mother by her mother, or was it grandmother? And I was told they came from Norway, except that imprinted on the back was a scripted icon of the manufacturer and the word Switzerland.  Norway?
My great-grandmother, Alma, was born in Bergen, Norway, came to America and married Paul Swanson.  They settled in Minneapolis around 1900 and had three children. My grandmother Bernice was the youngest.  I learned that my grandmother was a classic first generation American, detesting all things Norwegian.  According to my mother, my “vain” grandmother hurled curse and biting criticism at her own mother for speaking Norwegian in public.  “You are in America now, you should speak English,” is how my mother told the story, none too proud of her own mother’s behavior.

An old photo postcard of the Fairview Hospital where Cynthia's grandmother worked.  Cynthia herself would later become a part of Fairview for several years.
My Norwegian-speaking, Bergen-born great-grandmother worked hard in her new city, as a housekeeper for the newly created Fairview Hospital. Speaking Norwegian came in handy, since the hospital was founded by Norwegian Lutherans who distrusted Swedish Lutherans for their healthcare.  Talk about hair-splitting!

Late in my teenage years, my mother shared stories about being a pre-teen during World War II.  It seems that even before she had outgrown her clothes, they might be boxed up and sent to relatives in Norway who, due to the occupation, could not buy new clothes.  Same with coffee and sugar rations.  Times might have been tough, but when you never got your share of sugar because it was being sent to relatives occupied by the Nazis, the war must have seemed endless.
Upon a relative’s death, we received pictures taken in Norway circa 1938.  “Oh, those were taken when your great-grandmother went back to Norway to visit, right before the war.  They all knew that the Nazis would occupy and she wanted to see her family before war broke out.” Hmmm.  NAZIS!
“Gee Mom, we have a lot of wooden knick knacks from Norway.”  Her reply, almost annoyed, “Yes, those were sent over by the relatives before and after the war in exchange for all the food and clothes we sent.”  The t-shirt saying laced within my mother’s words: “They sent the clothes off my back to Occupied Norwegians and all I got was this wooden s# *t." 
Years passed before I assembled the clues: the dishes, clothes, trip, the sugar and the burden placed on the daughter of a family who left her home, family and country to live in America.  My great-grandmother returned from Norway with the family’s best dishes.  Was it payment up front for all that would get sent? Where did these dishes come from that they were deemed too valuable to let the Nazis have? 

The dishes
I think of this proud, stocky woman corresponding with relatives about the prospects of war. In my head, they share fears and contemplate scenarios.  In reality, she saved her wages from the hospital housekeeper gig and bought fare to Norway in the summer of 1938.  She returned with a trunk full of items deemed to be too important to let the Nazis get. I can hear her parting words filled with promises of whatever commodities they can send and that they will write often.  Or did the Norwegians say, “Here, take these,” and my great-grandmother replied, “Oh no, I can’t” and they played the classic Minnesotan game of “oh no, oh yes.”
My mother’s Will dictated that I take the dishes on the day of her funeral.  They are now mine.
They represent promises kept, commitments pledged in return for liberty and the trepidation of acting upon strategy to foil getting bested by the Nazis.  They are safely stored in china packing, cloaked in anonymity and easily confused with the ordinary.  They are the legacy of a woman I never knew, but whose loyalty and steadfast character I now greatly admire. To a few scared souls, my great-grandmother was the lifeline to freedom and necessities temporarily held by the Nazis. Sure sounds like a story worth telling, and now it is, every time the dishes come out.

Cynthia is the owner of CBA: Platforms for 21st Century Leadership.  She is a speaker, writer, trainer and educator of all things leadership - 21st century style. 

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