Do you know your family history? I suddenly found out who I am. I knew a part of it. Ironically the history I have always known was of the family that I was never close to. My father’s side. He had been researching and collecting for a long time. We spent summers in oddly placed grave yards. One of the most important was a little family one in the middle of a corn field. Each summer we would make the drive down the east coast. Through southern state after southern state. Into the Tennessee mountains. I met family but never really knew them. I never totally felt welcome. When you are a kid you assume that it must be you. You don’t realize yet that people behave the way they do because of their own pain. Their own limitations. However, I do remember my grandfather being kind to me. He died when I was three so I mostly remember his knees. Funny the perspective you have when you are small. His socks were a treasured keepsake until I was old enough to be puzzled by that. Uncle Grayson (married to my father’s sister) was nice to me , but he wanted to show me his huntin’ dawgs and teach me how to pluck feathers from a duck. Quite horrifying to a borderline-vegetarian city girl. I also hung out on the beach once with my grandmother. She taught me that it was healing to walk in the ocean water. But I never got to know her. She was 100 when she died. I just know that she adored my grandfather. I think that when my father is not being adored he feels like a failure. Then he lashes out. He has the most uncanny knack for cutting you down to the smallest version of yourself. I eventually learned to let go of the “being daddy’s little girl” fantasy and just accepted his limitations. It took a while though.
Back to the recent discovery. My mother’s-grandmother’s history. I always felt closer to my mother and her family – New Englanders – although I grew up in the DC area. My grandmother and my aunt Beryl both loved animals and were known for taking them in like me. But Grammie was was already 80 when I was born and died when I was about 13. Just when I was getting old enough to really know her as a person. Aunt Beryl was 52 when I was born and died when I was about 26. I’m supposed to be a lot like her. I knew my mother heard Swedish spoken at home until she was 10. That’s when my great-grandmother died. Gram Erickson had come from Sweden in 1876 when she was 18, but that was about all we knew. So I’ve been in love with IKEA and anything else remotely Swedish that I ran into. Trying to catch a glimpse of myself. But suddenly since June, detail after detail has become known. The ship she arrived on. Her real name – Kjersti (not Chesta as she was named upon arriving in New York). Her father Ola Bengstsson. Her siblings – Hannah, Bengta, Anders, and twins Thilda & Benjt. Records of baptisms. The actual baptismal font. The remains of the tenant farm in Stoby, Sweden where they lived. The lots were numbered so Kjersti was a “fiver.” My cousin took pictures of these places. And now I know that I am a descendant of Bengt Olson from Ã
buen, Sweden and Kjerstin Isacsdotter from Ãrkened, Sweden. I know that Kjersti’s family was struggling to survive through a terrible time of poverty in Sweden. She and her siblings had to sell everything they owned to buy passage to America. Surviving a difficult journey on a ship called the SS Egypt. Risking everything for a chance to thrive.
I knew I came from strong women. There’s never been any doubt about that. But now when I look back in time, there is no longer a vague sense of Swedishness. There is a sense of connection to a rich history and a story – my family’s story – my story. Through finding my great-grandmother’s history, I feel like I have been found. Pamela: daughter of Bethyl Davis Wood, granddaughter of Alice Erickson Davis, great-granddaughter of Kjersti Olsdotter Erickson, great-great-granddaughter of Pernilla Andersdotter Bengtsson.