When Karen Borrell’s grandparents had to leave Norway for the United States in the 1920’s, they struggled to build a new life as the economy plunged on a world-wide scale. The influence of difficult times left Karen with a feeling that possessions were important, until a destructive fire taught her otherwise. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class a the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for his free class offered through the Cerritos College adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
By Karen Borrell
My mother and her parents emigrated from Norway when she was a young girl. I understand that the reason my grandparents decided to leave Norway was because of an early economic depression that affected the whole country. My mother remained very proud of her family history and affluence up to that period.
The family life in their new country was a struggle and there were many difficulties. They were also heading into the worldwide depression of the thirties. My grandfather had been a businessman, and bitterly ended up painting houses.
My mother told me once how unrealistically her mother had packed for their new life in America. My grandmother had filled their trunks with fine clothing and cuts of cloth, as they had always had a dressmaker. She did not pack any pots or pans or many of the items that would satisfy more basic needs.
My grandfather evidently built our house with the help of family or friends, and to this day, it has not been greatly changed or enlarged from the original construction.
My brothers and I had the great luck and pleasure of being able to go through the old house ten years ago. The only big change was that the dirt basement was finished off and there were stairs to go down to it.
I don’t think that my grandparents ever fully adapted to their new life in this country, and typically, they socialized and functioned mostly in their own community. I don’t know how much English they mastered, but Norwegian was spoken at home until they died.
I was four years old when my grandmother died. My grandfather was already gone, as was my father.
My mother’s economic problems continued with three young children to raise. We spent time in a Children’s home and lived with my aunt for a year or so. At the age of seven, I moved with my brothers to New York State and we had a wonderful reunion with my mother.
But life was still never easy for Mom. She had made a poor second marriage, and we all hung together through very tough times until we each worked our individual ways out of the situation that would never get better.
Through all these years of difficulties, Mother had spoken proudly of her background and familiarized us with some of the fine items she still possessed from that earlier time.
She had some fine silver with her parents’ initials, hand-sewn and embroidered bed linen, a few precious pieces of dishware, a complete formal, heavily embroidered two-piece outfit of her mother’s, and more. After the war, she received more items from her aunt in Norway.
As the years went on and my brothers and I had all made our own lives, my mother was now living alone and surrounded by “her things.” These finer touches assumed so very much importance because of the poverty and embarrassment of her life with my stepfather.
She now displayed all the finer and new acquirements in a great accumulation of stuff, but she worried constantly about breaking pieces or who was going to keep it when she was gone.
This had great effect on me, and I grew up feeling the preciousness of possessions. I mourned the loss of almost anything.
But life has a wonderful way of teaching lessons. When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I had a fire, which I escaped from only in my bare feet and nightgown. Everything was lost. It was a very hard lesson and a difficult time for us to recover from.
Not long afterwards, though, I was able to look at that terrible loss as a very positive point in my life. It was so very much more affirming than negative.
I was given the gift of renewal and the knowledge that none of the material things really mattered. Only our lives were important. The photographs are all that are remembered or missed today. I have always said that the fire was a terrible gift, but a good one for me.