I have begun to learn to speak Swedish. The reason that I have an interest in doing this is a bit unclear to me, but I think that one of the reasons is Eva Rae. Eva Rae is an older lady (if you want to call a woman of 103 years “older”) whom I go to see in the nursing home. Eva Rae’s parents were immigrants from Sweden, and she grew up speaking only Swedish until she began to go to school.
A bread board hanging on the wall of our kitchen
(not from the poem that Eva Rae quotes to me)
When I ask her about things that happened almost a hundred years ago, and depending upon how her memory is jogged, my questions often start her speaking Swedish to me. She especially likes to quote some Swedish poems; at least, I think that they are poems. They seem to rhyme.
Eva Rae sits in her chair and quotes long lines of this poetry to me. The lower plate of her dentures always seems to be loose, so when she speaks it kind of wiggles around. Because of this, even if I could understand a bit of Swedish, I think that I might have a difficult time picking out the words.
I listen for a bit, and then I tell her, “Eva Rae, I can’t understand Swedish. I don’t know what you are saying. What does the poem say?”
She suddenly stops speaking. When she was reciting the poem, her eyes had the look of being a thousand miles away in distance and decades away in time. Now she looks at me with those eyes to say to me in English, “Wherever I go in this world, the Lord is with me.”
Then she starts off in Swedish again. If I stop her again to ask what she is saying, she again tells me, “Wherever I go in this world, the Lord is with me.”
I assume that this is a line from the poem. There must be many other things in the poem, but this is the only line that she ever tells me. As she is speaking in Swedish, my mind goes to those early Swedish immigrants like Eva Rae’s parents. It must have been a tremendously stressful experience for them to leave their homeland back in the mid to late 1800’s in order to make a new life for themselves in a distant land; a land about which they actually knew very little.
Perhaps as they made that long voyage across the Atlantic, in order to find comfort, they quoted this poem, “Wherever I go in this world, the Lord is with me.” For the believer, there is really little else that matters.
Another reason that I have an interest in learning Swedish is because for a couple of years, I have had it in my mind to write a novel having to do with the immigration years. I know that there have been many novels and histories written about this, but I hope this one to be different. I call this idea for a book, “an allegorical novel of history.” The word order here is significant, because most importantly, it will be an allegory. It will be a story, certainly, but with applications far beyond the storyline. I also call it a novel of history instead of an historical novel. There is also a reason that I do this, but I won’t go into this now.
Not all immigrants of that era came to America in search of better economic opportunities. My great-grandfather, for instance, was making quite a good living in Sweden, but emigrated to America for religious reasons (Some of his story can be found in the post, Johan Anders Blomberg - click on the name to open a new page)
While it may not be absolutely necessary to know Swedish to write a book about the years of immigration, there is something about language learning that opens an understanding to a culture far more than anything else. I recently read a quote by Charlemagne that speaks of this: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
To know the words of a language is important for far more than mere communication. It also provides a window of understanding into the people and culture itself. As I was in the process of learning Spanish, I found this to be true.
There are many other things that I must do first, but it is my hope that before I reach the ranks of centenarians, like Eva Rae, I can write this book. The reason that I am telling you about this is because I know that many of you have ancestors that were also part of the wave of immigration from Scandinavia during that era. I am hoping that perhaps there are some of you that have some personal family stories about that time that can further open that window of understanding about the events of the time. If you do, please email me about them (firstname.lastname@example.org). I thank you in advance for any insightful stories that you may have.