By Elsie Edwardson Willumsen
It has been a pleasure this year reading “Norway Times”, “IMAGES OF AN IMMIGRANT LIFE”. I, as well, am an immigrant’s daughter. My mother, Astrid Ingebretsen, born March 25, 1897, came over to America at the age of 16 from Oslo to Ellis Island. At that time it was called Kristiania. It had to be the most memorable experience of her life as when in her later years she lapsed into her memories, she related this story over and over. She loved to tell us about leaving Norway with her mother carrying her baby sister in her arms and two young brothers beside her waving from the pier. Sadly, she never saw her dear Mama and Papa again.
She remembered the crowded ship with six bunks in her cabin. Everyone was sick most of the trip. At last they arrived at Ellis Island with hopes of meeting her sister, Ingrid Olsen. But she was not there to meet her and Astrid was held over along with a Danish boy her age from another ship for three more days. They were both in great fear that they would be returned to their native countries. But thankfully a Danish lady Social Worker came to their rescue. The next day they were both in the arms of their families. Ingrid Olsen had never received the letter telling of Astrid’s coming. Apparently the address was incorrect. Luckily the Social Worker could make out the address Astrid had pinned to her blouse.
In about two weeks time she was working as a maid in a household. In fact there were many stories of both bad and good she told. Overworked, poor food, withheld wages, promised time off and last minute changes and disappointments. Worst of all was the room she had up in the attic where the roof leaked and, of course, no heat. The bedding was wet and her clothes were green-moldy. Everything was miserable. She shed lots of tears in the telling of that story, as well as myself.
Sometime later she found a housekeeping job for a doctor and family. Their name was Greenfield. “Do you know they were Jewish she would say, and they were always so good to me.” “I was so happy those years taking care of their babies. They even took me with them to the seashore in New Jersey called Long Branch. Mrs. Greenfield bought me a new black bathing dress with black stockings.” She stayed with them till she met up with Magnus Edwardson and they were married in June of 1919. My younger sister, Grace, still has a beautiful crystal bowl that Mom had received as a wedding gift from the Greenfields.
Magnus Edwardson was from an island outside Bergen and went out to sea very young. He also had a hard life. Poor times all over the world!!!When my sister and I reminisce about our parents we always remember his stories about life on the ships. (Papa was always a great storyteller!) He was always hungry growing up and it was not that much better out to sea on the ships.
Astrid and Magnus met in Carroll Park in Court Street. The housemaids and young seamen congregated there on the sunny days of Spring and Summer. In time many of the married and moved into the neighborhood. Astrid and Magnus eventually had a family of three girls, Elsie, Alice and Grace. We were all baptized in the Lutheran church on Henry Street. I can remember my happenings at that time – Tantes and Onkels and Christmases, krumkake with cream fillings etc., Mama saving her receipts from the A &P or Ralston to add to the price of a doll for her little girls. I recall that I found them hidden up in the clothes waiting for Julaften.
I was about 8 or 9 years old when we moved to upper Brooklyn, which is now known as Sunset Park, when the depression began. Papa was out of work with all the other fathers. We received a food allotment card for $10 every two weeks. Mama let me buy a box of National Biscuit cookies with cream filling if I would shop for her. She was so ashamed to be seen with the card. Then the W.P.A. started and Papa got more steady work. I can remember him coming home from a long day traveling to Hoboken ship yard or to the Bronx carrying his heavy wooden tool box. He would sit down at the kitchen table and eat hungrily. I remember Mama smearing his chapped sore hands with Vaseline many times through the years. He was a ship’s carpenter those days our winters were hard. I recall weeks of snow lying on the streets of Brooklyn.
In time we girls grew up and enjoyed the simple pleasures of the time. There were the Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls and activities in our church and choir. We had outings to Bear Mountain, ice skating, snow sledding down the hills of our streets from 6th Avenue to Third Avenue. We were lucky – there were so few cars around in those days. Mama had open house with hot cocoa and whatever to comfort us with our chilled bodies. They were happy times…brothers and sisters, we were all friends. Summer evenings we would all sit on each other’s stoops and talk and solve the world’s problems. We also had our ice cream parlors where we sat for hours with a five cent coca cola and were finally told to go.
In my group of friends we were of Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Scottish, Italian and Irish descent. All our parents came over the ocean as immigrants, as well. I still keep in touch with three of them.
There is much more to tell or write about, but that could come at another time. I am happy for my good life and the family values I was taught. My mother, Astrid, and my father, Magnus, always gave us three girls care and comfort. We miss them, along with my sister, Alice, who has passed on. They are fondly remembered in our family gatherings when we talk about our Scandinavian heritage.
Elsie Edwardson Willumsen
325 Marine Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11209
December 4, 1999