Sunday, July 12, 2009

Folke Ferdinand Gummesson

I've been to New York City before, you know. I was there with my husband about a year-and-a-half ago, partially at the invitation of friends and parish members. I went once when I worked for the infamous AIG, and I went to New York in 1981 when I interviewed to become a missionary and teacher in Japan for three years.

But last week, we were in New York again. For me, it means getting used to the trains and the faster-paced lifestyle, at least for a few days. It means long days of trying to fit everything in, and not succeeding. It means sensory overload: music, history, language, theatre, creativity.

This time, there was really only one place I wanted to go, had to go: Ellis Island.

Both of my dad's parents emigrated from Sweden in the early twentieth century. They certainly came through Ellis Island on the way to the new world and their new life. So this place has held a certain fascination for me for a long time. I wondered what it was like for them coming over both as single people . What were they looking for? Did they find it? We never asked them. All we can do now is imagine.

We wandered through the hallways and exhibits in the great hall on Wednesday, and then I had to spend some time at a computer, trying to find my grandparents' records amid the 25 million that are stored in the Ellis Island database. Had I been better prepared, I could have brought more information from home, but I was armed only with names: Judith Andersdotter (I thought), and Folke Gummesson. It was my grandmother I was most interested in, but finding her proved elusive. I could not find any matches in the computer anywhere near her name.

Finally, I gave up and type in my grandfather's name: F. Gummesson.

And there it was: Folke F. Gummesson, from Karlskrona, Sweden, sailed from Copenhagen to New York and arrived in November of 1913. He arrived on the ship Hellig Olav, together with his younger brother Allan. They each had 25 dollars in their pockets. The manifest indicated that they hoped to go to Iowa, although that is not where they ended up.

Folke Ferdinand Gummeson. He was the 4th of ten children from a sea-faring family in Blekinge, Sweden. He was only 5 feet, 5 inches tall. He came to the United States in 1913, but he didn't meet my grandmother until 1920 (or so it is told). They got married in 1921, and had four children. My father is the youngest.

My grandfather died when I was in the 5th grade. He smoked pipes, and sang Swedish songs that I didn't really understand, even though I remember some of the words. (Du och jag och Anna gick segla i en kanna.... nar vi kom til Kopenhagen de hela kan var full of van....) (or something like that.)

Standing at Ellis Island, I think about all the things I never knew about my grandfather. Who was he? What were his dreams? What did he do between 1913 and 1920? Did he wander around the U.S.A., working and having adventures? Or did he come to Minneapolis and settle down right away? Why did we never ask him?

In my mind I am still standing at the ferry at Ellis Island, or I am standing in line in the great hall, or I am carrying a heavy trunk, or I am on a boat, and I am wondering what my life will be. Are there still great oceans to be crossed, and what lies on the other side? What hope and what courage (sometimes born of desperation) those immigrants held. I realize how little I know them, and I pray to be just a little like them.

They were not rich, or educated, or well-born, my ancestors. They didn't have prestigious names to pass down to their children or their grandchildren. But they reached for something, they reached for something, and I hope they passed just a little of their reaching down to me.


Jan said...

How interesting. So glad you found this and could share about your family.

Presbyterian Gal said...

What a fantastic blessing that you found this! I am so happy for you. This is great!

God bless your brave family.

Barbara B. said...

I agree -- family history is so interesting. Glad you got to go to Ellis Island.

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

what a beautiful story diane... and i say keep writing... that's your way of reaching!

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Great post. I always wonder about those setting out and also the parents. Even though there was mail, it would have been very slow. And how did the parents know where to send mail if the immigrants were moving on? No telephone, no email, and was there any other mode of communication? I would think that even though the parents hoped to hear from their loved ones, the realistic view was there they would never hear from them again.

Diane said...

PS -- I think you are right on some levels. But here's the interesting thing, at least with the later immigrants (and my grandparents): I know that my grandmother sent pictures and letters regularly back to Sweden, because when my parents visited, the Swedish relatives had all the pictures.

Also, I know because I discovered three passages for my grandmother, one (at 20) in 1910, one in 1914, and one in 1920. She brought her younger sister Johanna to America on the 1920 ship. According to the story, that's when she met my grandmother, although I can't quite figure it out because they were both on the same ship that year, but, according to the records, on different months!

Jennifer said...

What good reaching you're doing!

FranIAm said...

Oh Diane, what an experience, to connect across time like that. So glad you got to do this. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Law+Gospel said...

Aside from your rich writing here, I keep hearing the resonating refrain," Why didn't we ask?" In our age of ever faster pace and busy-ness, this proves why the art of story telling must not fade away and how important it is to listen to the stories of our lives while we can. Thanks.

mompriest said...

How cool, your trip to Ellis Island. I have some of my family history, thanks to the geneology of some family is so interesting.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I love your closing paragraph. Reaching is often what makes life seem worthwhile, isn't it?

And I'm glad from seeing the later post that you did find your grandmother.