Plausible musings on muted memories

by Craig E. Anderson

I have only faint recollections of my Grandpa Anderson, as he died in 1943 when I was only four. I can’t say I really knew him, though he would not have said the same of me. He was around when I was born and present at the Bethesda Covenant Church the day I was baptized. He no doubt cradled me in his arms and welcomed me in his own way as his third grandchild. He was a first-hand observer of my earliest years but I have only dim remembrances of being in his presence.

In one of my few memories of my grandfather, I can see him sitting in his rocking chair in the living room of his home. He was a quiet man, I believe, reserved and somewhat private. He was a man of modest education, modest employment, and modest means. He attended church with regularity, but to my knowledge never held office or served in leadership as did his brother Charles. He never learned to drive a car; instead he always rode his bicycle or took public transportation. The family walked to church on Sundays or took the streetcar until their son, Harold, bought his first car when he was fifteen.

John Alfred Anderson

He was a kind and gentle man. He may have been self-effacing, maybe even lacking a bit in self-confidence. However, I know he was no loner who avoided the public. He loved life — even as he loved his wife Frida — and had a vibrant interest in the things going on around him. I know this because his firstborn, my father, told me so. My dad would occasionally say to me, “I wish my father were here to see…”, and then he would name whatever it was. He loved to travel to Chicago by train or with his son in his car to see the sights of the big city and visit his brother Charles and his family there. He took trips with my dad and the Nyquist boys to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. We still have photos that confirm these travels.

It seems he laughed easily — probably because Frida was so jovial. She made him laugh. They loved good times and had plenty of them in spite of their pietistic upbringing and commitments. There is every reason to believe that John did too, and that he had a good and satisfying life.

He loved America. From the day he arrived in Rockford with his sister, Clara, he embraced his new homeland. He believed in the American dream that hard work, honesty and thrift could bring a reasonably comfortable life in the United States. Though the family spoke Swedish at home in those early years, he gradually learned English to the point where he was comfortable with this once strange-sounding language. I wish I could remember his voice.

He admired success and was deeply patriotic. I suspect he always voted Republican since that is what most Swedish-Americans did. After all, it was the party of Lincoln whom they admired. Like most of his generation, he would have valued education and wanted his children to finish high school — something he never had a chance to do.

He was born Johan Alfred Augustsson on April 14, 1876 in the Broddarp Parish of Älvsborgs Län in Västergötland. He was the youngest of four children born to peasant farmers Per August Anderson (1843-1890) and Anna Maria Andersdotter (1836-1915). When Johan was four years old the family moved to nearby Od, where the parents worked as a tenant farmers on a large farm estate called Thorstensgården. There they lived in a small croft known as Apelåsen (Apple Ridge) on the estate property. The family attended the Od Parish Church, about three miles from their home; here three of the children were confirmed. Closer by, however, was a Missionshus built by Mission Friends. Though there is no hard evidence that the family ever attended the little Mission Friends chapel, John’s decision to affiliate with the Mission Friends in Rockford suggests some knowledge of the pietistic awakenings so prevalent at the time.

In 1887 the oldest son, Karl Levin Augustsson, emigrated to America. The father died suddenly in 1890 which meant the family had to vacate the croft. Two years later in 1992, Johan Augustsson and his sister, Klara Augustsdotter, who was five years older, also left for America. In the United States the three children took the patronymic last name, Andersson, of their father as their family name. They were now known as Charles Levin Anderson, Clara Anderson and John Alfred Anderson. They all settled in Rockford, though Charles eventually moved to Chicago where he joined the North Side Mission Covenant Church. The other two affiliated with Rockford’s Swedish Mission Tabernacle.

I have no recollection of ever hearing of any homesickness among my grandparents, though it is reasonable to assume their thoughts must have drifted back to their birthplace occasionally. After all, they still had family living there with whom they corresponded. When you leave your home, you always take a part of your home with you, but whatever yearnings they might have had, they were certainly not inordinate. There is so much that we do not know about the events of our grandparents’ lives, to say nothing of their thoughts and feelings. If we could sit down with them now, there are many questions we would ask them about their memories of Sweden and their journey and adjustment to America.

Painting of the Od Parish Church in Älvsborgs län, Västergötland, Sweden. Lynne's mother was told by her father (Grandpa Anderson) that the building to the right with the flag is a school. We are reasonable sure this is the school that he, Charles and Clara attended.

I learned recently of a picture that belonged to my grandfather. It is a picture of the Od Parish Church with his childhood school in the distance that for years hung over the sofa in the living room of my grandparents’ home on Ninth Street in Rockford. Today the picture belongs to my cousin, Lynne (Larson) Nuber, whose mother Margaret was Grandpa and Grandma Anderson’s second child. “As a young person, I never liked the painting,” Lynne told me. “Later in life I discovered its significance to our family, and now I love it.” She and her husband had the painting restored and reframed, and it now occupies an honored place in their home.

I have pondered what that picture might have meant to my grandfather. Given its conspicuous location in his home, it must have been important as a link to that life he had left behind. I’ve wondered where he got it. It seems unlikely he could have brought it with him when he emigrated. Did he purchase it from a former Od resident living in Rockford, or was it given to him by a recent traveler to his old home?

It is not difficult for me to imagine the picture awakening profound and poignant memories of his childhood in Od Parish — much as the map of Ljuder Parish had done for Karl Oskar Nilsson in Vilhelm Moberg’s novel on Swedish emigration, The Last Letter Home. I can picture my grandpa sitting there in his rocking chair in the evenings looking at that familiar painting with his mind taking him back to the days of his childhood in Västergötland.

He thinks of the tiny croft where his family lived, and of his beloved mother and his older sister, Alma, whom they had left behind when he and Clara emigrated. He recalls his mother trying to hide her tears as they parted — his last memory of her. Perhaps he sees again his father bent over his hoe toiling to eke out a living for their family on the stony soil of Apelåsen, their humble little croft in Od Parish, or coming home after a long day’s work on Thorstensgården, the large estate on which their croft was situated. In those days, there was little hope for a better future for the family there. He himself recollects how hard those times were. He remembers his father’s sudden and unexpected death when only forty-seven, and of how much he missed him in the days that followed.

Sitting there, musing on the picture, his mind drifts back to that very parish church with its red free-standing bell tower, where they worshipped and where he took his first communion. He hears again the tolling of the old church bell — this time for his father on that day when the family entrusted his soul to God and his earthly body to the Swedish soil of the Od Parish churchyard, that same churchyard that held the remains of Od’s most celebrated son, Bishop Andreas Olavi Rhyzelius.

Grandpa Anderson as I dimly remember him sitting in his rocking chair in his Rockford home.

He is taken back in memory to those early morning Christmas Julotta services that began in the dim candlelight of that old stone sanctuary. He sees again the vicar as he mounts the steps to the elevated pulpit. He smiles as he recalls how easily his sleepy eyes would close in the early morning as the pastor preached his Christmas homily, and then how abruptly he

would awaken as the organ began playing the familiar strains of J.O. Wallin’s great Christmas hymn as the congregation rose to sing:

Var hälsad, sköna morgonstund,
Som av profeters helga mun
Är oss bebådad vorden!

All hail to thee, O blessed morn!
To tidings, long by prophets borne,
Hast Thou fulfillment given!

And outside the new day — Christmas Day! — was dawning, nature’s grand witness to the advent of the Light of the World. I wonder, did he also have memories of colporteurs speaking to him at their croft at Apelåsen or at the newly constructed Od Mission House — announcing, like the angels on that first Christmas, glad tidings of a God who loved him enough to send His Son to die for him, and who was now calling him to open his heart to his Savior?

As he slowly rocks in his chair, his eyes fall on the school house in the distance, the folkskola where he, Clara and Charles had learned to read, write and do their figures, and where they earned the equivalent of about an eighth grade education. His eyes close again – this time as he remembers the long walks to and from school along the roads and paths among the birch and linden trees with his schoolmates and friends. Those were the carefree days of childhood now long past.

Did John Anderson have these kinds of reveries stimulated by that painting that hung there on his living room wall, a souvenir of another life in another land? We will never know. There is so much that remains hidden about John Anderson’s inner thoughts and the details of his life. Though family research has opened the door a crack, unfortunately it is void of many details of the family’s life because these are unknown or forgotten. It is something many of us can say about that first generation of immigrants.