By By Ranveig Jacobsen, Princeton, NJ
We had traveled 11 days on Stavangerfjord. My mother, my two brothers, Birger and Knut Egil, and I were about to be reunited with my father who had gone to America the year before.
It was December, cold, raw and dark, but the ship was finally still. It had been an awful voyage. Rough seas the entire stretch. I had had only one meal in the dining room. Mamma got seasick right after we left Bergen and she was bedridden the entire trip. Birger and I got sick shortly after that, the only person feeling fine was Knut Egil, who was 3 years old.
This was kind of ironic since he was the reason we were moving to America. Knut Erik had been born with a heart condition that cold not be treated in Norway and my parents were hoping that in America they could find a doctor who would be able to repair Knut Egil’s heart.
We were so close to land, but not there yet. The ship anchored in the Narrows, having to wait for docking space. The waiting time gave us a chance to recover from seasickness that had left us shaky and weak. There wasn’t much to pack, but Mamma took great care preparing the clothes we were going to wear the next morning when we would actually step onto American land. After everything was ready, we allowed ourselves to gaze out the porthole. It was nighttime, and all we could see was a glittering skyline. I stood there on my bunk bed and just stared out the window. I let my eyes unfocus, or rather create their own shadows and lines and they no longer interpreted faithfully the visual signals entering through the iris. I thought I saw the lights moving in one continuous line along the edge of the land, like an endless train. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I was 12 years old at the time. Years later, when only snippets and snatchits of memory remained of that December night on Stavangerfjord, I realized it was the cars slithering along the Belt Parkway that I ha seen.
It was 1957, and this was America. We had finally made it. The immigration people came aboard the ship to inspect passports and visas. Mamma left me in charge of my brothers and she took our passports and went to meet with the immigration people. Knut Egil started to nose bleed; he had not been sick during the entire voyage and now his nosebleed would not stop. I fetched my other and she tried to find the ship’s doctor, but he was drunk as a skunk and totally useless. He had never treated so many seasick people in all his years as a ship’s doctor. Now that he had a day off, he escaped into a bottle. We managed somehow, and Mamma went back in the queue, but shortly thereafter I heard her name echoing over the loudspeaker. I left my brothers in the cabin and searched for Mamma…I found her unconscious in a heap at the bottom of a staircase. She was just too weak, so the immigration people placed her by a dining room table and arranged for the necessary papers to be examined and stamped right there. They also summoned my father to come aboard to help us. Mamma was so drained that Pappa practically had to carry her ashore.
My father had rented an apartment on 57th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. As he swung the front door open a strange odor seeped out of the house. We entered the hallway and the odor was stronger. I had never smelled anything like it. (I didn’t know then but the unfamiliar smell was garlic). As my eyes adjusted to the dim lit hallway, I saw a couple of little children standing there, pressing themselves against the wall, seemingly wanting to see but not be seen. They had on only underpants and this was December in the late afternoon…very odd. Older children poked their heads out from a doorway; they might have said something, I don’t remember. Pappa quickly explained that the family who owned the house had 7 children. The mother liked to sleep late and the children more or less fended for themselves. We meandered our way up to the third floor to what was our apartment. Here we had more space than we had ever had before.
Birger and I stated school at P.S. 140 on 59th Street and 4th Avenue, not a long walk from our apartment. I had been a good student in Norway, and very active in school and the Bedehus. I had loved my teachers there and had good friends whom I had gone to school with since 1st grade. School in America was very different. All the classes sort of melted together. In Norway, before entering the school building, we line up outside and marched in two by two. We had recess and had to go out after each class. There was order. I was used to firm rules, and here there seemed to be total chaos. I ended up comparing everything to the way it was in Norway and I was miserable. Most of the students in P.S. 140 were Italian, Puerto Rican or Irish. I was a 6-foot tall, 12-year girl with long blond hair. I felt totally out of place. People stared at me wherever I went. I do believe the other students tried to make me feel welcome, but I didn’t find anyone from Norway and I missed my friends terribly.
My parents attended the Lutheran Church on 46th Street and 4th Avenue where services were held in both Norwegian and English. As a matter of fact, we soon found out that this kind of service was available in several other churches in the Bay Ridge are. Here we could find Norwegians in all age groups.
Both my mother and father had relatives already living in Brooklyn, but even with their help everyday life seemed like an endless challenge. It was a cold, long winter and I longed for Norway. We had lived in a place where we had the ocean behind us and the forest in front of us. There would be things to do all winter long even if it was very cold. If we had snow, we would go skiing every day, or sledding, or skating. In America there was a whole different social atmosphere. Children didn’t even dress properly. They wore sneakers and socks all winter, and girls were not allowed to wear long pants to school even on the coldest of days.
That first year was very tough for us. My parents were able to find a doctor for Knut Egil and he was admitted to a hospital in downtown Brooklyn for tests. The prognosis was not good for Knut. His heart defect was too severe and surgery was not recommended. Knut struggled with poor health as a child, but gradually he grew stronger and to everyone’s surprise, he surpassed his expected life span and to this day he lives a busy, healthy life in Brooklyn.
Briger joined the army at the age of 19 and became a very patriotic American, now living in Washington State. My parents never talked about moving back to Norway—they visited a couple of times—but they were glad to come back here.
I married a Norwegian man and we have 3 children. After having lived a good life in America for over 40 years, I still feel I could move back to Norway in a heartbeat. However, now with today’s affordable telephone rates and airfares it feels like Norway is much nearer.