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Dear Hilma

This letter is part of an ongoing project. I’ve been researching our family’s history for many years now and have really enjoyed all of the work. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of enjoying the process is that I often get bogged down in the details and lose sight of the people whom I’m studying. That’s the reason that I’ve started this letter-writing project. I hope that by addressing my relatives (which includes you!) directly, I’ll be able to form a clearer picture of who they were and what their lives were truly like.

So, now that I’ve explained the purpose of this letter, I want to tell you how we are related. I am your eldest great granddaughter. Your fifth child, George Wilhelm Anderson, was my grandfather.

Hilma, I have to tell you that as I started researching your life, I encountered surprising information right away! Every story that I’ve ever heard told me that our family was Swedish. In fact, our Swedish identity has always been very important to my family. Which is why I was really thrown for a loop when I learned that you were born in Finland (not Sweden!) in 1885. Before you say anything or throw this letter away in irritation- I know that you considered yourself Swedish even though you (and your parents) were born in Finland. I’m going to be honest and say that I still don’t understand all of the dynamics of the Swedish community in Finland, but I understand that this is an important distinction and promise to keep learning about it.

After I recovered from that Finnish surprise, I kept researching your life and learned a lot more about you. Even still, I have so many questions! From the records that I’ve found, it looks like you arrived in the United States after your father, Erik, had already settled in Wisconsin. One record says that you made that journey alone when you were only 13 years old! (I’m pretty sure that same manifest also labeled you, at the age of 13, as a “spinster” which means that in our next letter, we should confer about our impressions of the patriarchy and its habit of labeling young women in ridiculous ways.) Hilma, when I was 13 years old, I became a Bat Mitzvah (a young adult in the eyes of the Jewish community), and the relatively small amount of autonomy and maturity that my Bat Mitzvah required of me seemed overwhelming. I can not imagine the fear that you must have felt while making the journey from Finland to Wisconsin ALONE. You must have been a remarkably brave young woman. What was your journey like? Did you share a cabin with other young women or with a family? Did you know anyone on the ship? What did you feel when you saw your father's face and knew that you had arrived at your new home?

I wonder if the sense of accomplishment and the maturity that must have come from that experience helped you feel ready to get married when you were 19. Your husband, Andrew (Anders) Hästö Anderson, was only a few years older than you, and yet, your marriage lasted for sixty years, until his death in 1964. That’s a remarkable achievement. I wonder if at 19 you looked at Andrew and felt certain that your marriage would last for more than half a century. In your first fourteen years of marriage, you and Andrew had eight children. Hilma, that must of have an exhausting decade and a half! How did you manage all of those little ones running around? Did you and your neighbors look after one another’s children? Did your family help you? From what I’ve found, Andrew’s parents didn’t come to the United States, so I’ve assumed that your family by marriage wasn’t able to support your growing family.

I never asked my Grandpa George what kind of mother you were to him and his siblings. He passed away when I was still pretty young, and I hadn’t yet become fascinated by our family’s story. My Grandma Dolly (George’s wife) told me some great stories about you though. My favorite involves what I can only imagine is a kind of Swedish hazing ritual. As you know, Grandma Dolly had ancestors from Ireland, Prussia, Belgium, and Germany. Her diverse family tree, however, did not prepare her for one of her first interactions with you. As she told it, on one of her first trips to your home (the dairy), she was feeling nervous and wanted to impress you. At some point in the visit, you asked if she was hungry, and when she said that she was, you went to a cabinet and retrieved a bowl of filmjölk. (Hilma, I’m going to be honest and tell you that when she told this story, I heard her say, “billy-bong,” but after a few lucky Google searches, I found the correct spelling of this fascinating and terrifying Swedish food.) Grandma Dolly described a bowl of what looked like stringy yogurt that was kept in a dark cupboard, at room temperature. Stringy yogurt, Hilma! The perfect snack food for a nice Irish girl who desperately wanted to impress her beau’s Swedish family. More than 50 years after the filmjölk incident, Grandma Dolly laughed as she told me this story. I think my Grandma was still proud that she passed the test you set out for her more than half a century ago.

Last year, one of your grandsons, my uncle Kevin, sent me a box of slides. As I digitized them, I discovered photos that I had never seen before of you, Andrew, and our family. These photos revealed parts of your personality that I didn't know about.

My favorite revelation from these photos is that in pictures with you and one of your grandchildren, you are almost never looking at the camera because you're focused on the baby or child. The care and love that I see on your face and in your look make me think that the camera captured a moment when you were truly happy.

My other favorite revelation from these slides is that in lots of the photos of you and Andrew, you're holding onto one another. These photos are from the fifth and sixth decades of your marriage, and it makes me so happy to see that after all that time, you were still that connected.

Hilma, I so appreciate the opportunity to write to you. For as long as I can remember you've been a hazy hodgepodge of stories, filed in my brain under “Grandma Anderson,” but after writing this letter, I feel like have a much better picture of the woman you were.

I’ll write again once I figure out what it meant to live in Finland for generations while still considering yourself and your family Swedish. I’m determined to find the meaning behind that mystery!


Your Great Granddaughter, Rachel

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