My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was one of the strongest women I have known.
Born into a working-class family in Norway, she lost her father to drowning at a young age. After her mother remarried, the family emigrated to the Canadian prairies, into conditions just as harsh as the ones they had left behind. She didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived, and only had a Grade 8 education when she left school. Norwegianisms used to creep into her language now and again: “I hope you are keeping well,” she would say, and “Uff-da” instead of “Oh dear”.
She was working as a housemaid to Vancouver’s grand families when she met the man she would marry.
He too had emigrated from Norway, having been born and raised in a little valley at the end of a fjord, snugly enclosed by mountains. He was a fisherman; she was never comfortable around water. But they married and bought a little two-storey house and started a family.
One day my grandfather set out with his crew on his fishing boat…and never came home. The boat was lost at sea with all hands, leaving my grandmother alone with five children. Yet she, and they, persevered. She was strongly Lutheran and took great comfort from her faith. She had no choice but to keep going.
Later, she took in foster children and was closely involved in raising several of her grandchildren. I wasn’t one of them — living elsewhere in Canada, my siblings and I only saw her once every few years. I wish I’d had a chance to get to know her better as a person instead of a grandmother before she passed away, five years ago this month.
But she is not lost, not forgotten. Her influence has stretched a long way. I learned Norwegian in university and spent the summer after I graduated there, visiting the people and places my grandparents left behind. The house where she lived for so many years is no longer in the family, but the house I am buying is from a similar pre-war era; the doorknobs, the hardwood floors, the windows all remind me very much of hers. I still own a sweater made by her hands, and now I am a knitter too. She used to make a Norwegian Christmas treat called krumkake every year; my mother still owns and uses a krumkake iron, and she’s not the only one in the family who does. Her gift for gardening was passed down to my mother — however much my mother might deny it — and now that I will have space for a garden, I’m hoping it has reached me too.
There’s more than that, though. She was a strong woman but a gentle one, the glue that held more than one family together, the centre. Her sense of humour was gentle, her sense of service strong. All those hardships I talked about never made her bitter. She found joy in small things.
These are traits I also see in my mother, my aunt, my uncles. I see her in my cousins and siblings, the strong women and thoughtful men they have become. Even her great-grandchildren, who won’t all remember her, carry pieces of her in them. She will live on.
Jeg elsker deg, Bestemor.
What are your favourite memories of your grandmother?