Steve’s Swedish Heritage

Steve’s Swedish Heritage

Steve’s Swedish Heritage.

My Swedish grandfather on my father’s side was David George Larson, born to Johann and Selma Larson in Borgstena, Sweden, in 1889. He was one of ten children, and they lived on a farm. It’s no wonder they had to send David away as a seventeen-year-old to America to look for a job. He landed on Ellis Island after the long boat ride. We assume he didn’t know English, since its it is doubtful he picked up English on the poor, rural farm.  He eventually took the train from New York to Chicago, and then whatever form of public transportation he could find to get to Rockford, Illinois. Rockford was a mecca for lots of Swedes because of the many factories there. Also, many, many Swedish immigrants ended up in the Midwest because it is so similar to their homeland in Sweden. He had a strong mechanical aptitude, so he found a good job in a factory, and eventually became a supervisor over many other mechanics. He stayed with that same factory all his working life. David was a strong Christian young man who went to church at the Swedish Evangelical Free Church, which later on became the First Evangelical Free Church right there in Rockford. He and Signe met there at church, I believe, and they were married for 44 years. He died at the age of 71, when I was ten years old, of a heart attack in his sleep. I remember him as pretty tall for that era, about 6’2″ or 6’3″ with wide shoulders. He had a great love of fishing, and went to northern Wisconsin to the lakes there as often as he could. He always had a very strong Swedish accent, and mostly spoke Swedish around the home. In fact, my dad Willy was raised in that home and didn’t even speak English until he went to the local public school kindergarten. He was widely respected in Rockford as being a very kind-hearted person and a humble old Swede. Grandpa David had a heart for those who were troubled in some way, and he was a lifesaver for my brother Jack, as Jack continued to get into trouble in his growing up years. Grandpa would take him aside all the time for a ride every week and talk to him about life and generally love Jack and support him through the troublesome years. Jack said it was an enormous help to him during that time. David died in 1960 of a heart attack in his sleep. I remember his funeral, and it was packed full of mourners who grieved at losing such a good man. You can see why we named one of our sons after David. Grandpa David was buried in the, you guessed it, Scandinavian Cemetery in Rockford.

My Swedish grandmother was Signe Marie Grahn, born to Svante and Ada Grahn in Boras, Sweden in 1885. The hometowns of Signe and David were evidently adjacent to teach other. In fact, apparently their farms were neighboring to each other as well. They didn’t even know of each other till they met in Rockford after immigrating to the United States. Signe’s father Svante changed his name from Svante Carlson, because Carlson wouldn’t fit on his military ID badge. So we actually have a Carlson married to a Larson. Signe was one of thirteen children, and once again she probably had no choice but to immigrate to America for work, so she could send money back to the parents. She was received at Ellis Island while 18 years old, and settled in Lynn, Massachusetts for awhile with a job as someone’s laundress and cook. Yes, Signe was indeed a Swedish chef. She also undoubtedly didn’t know a word of English and had to learn it on the fly. Signe eventually ended up taking the train to Chicago and then got to Rockford somehow to look for work. Signe and David were faithful members of their Evangelical Church for their whole lives in Rockford. I remember Signe as being a big woman, rather imposing, but then I was pretty young at the time. She was definitely very strong and worked hard all her life at home and at their church. She was rather renowned for her cooking abilities, and was the go-to person for all the large church functions. Some of my favorite foods from Grandma were Christmas ham, Thanksgiving turkey, Swedish meatballs, hamballs, rice pudding, Swedish pancakes, scalloped potatoes, pepparkakor cookies, and her amazing homemade rye bread. Her Swedish accent was evident all her life and she tended to speak Swedish in the home like her husband David. I remember her as being the strong silent type, not given to chattiness unless she was with her Swedish friends, and all their conversations were in Swedish, of course. After David died in 1960, she lived in Fairhaven Nursing Home in Rockford, where she died at the age of 93 in 1978. She was very tenderhearted, which is very ironic since she was one strong lady. I remember her given to crying at the drop of a hat. Grandma Signe was buried in a plot next to David in the Scandinavian Cemetery.

My other Swedish grandma was on my mother’s side, and her name was Signe Lundberg. We don’t have as many details on her life, but she was born to a Swedish immigrant mother and father, Anna Louse and Peter Lundberg, and was one of nine children. Signe was a rebel from day one, it seems, and she saw many misfortunes in her long life. She didn’t become a Christian until her dying days at her nursing home in Rockford. My mom Lucille was born to Signe and Boyd Fry, who is not Swedish. Because it all was rather scandalous in terms of her pregnancy, I was not allowed to even meet my grandpa Boyd, even though he lived right there in Rockford. It’s a large mystery why my mom couldn’t even introduce me to him, but evidently Signe wouldn’t allow it. Signe and Boyd apparently soon divorced after Lucille was born, and I don’t even remember my mom contacting him much. My mom didn’t see much of her mother Signe because she was running around town and taking trips to California so often. Signe was indeed abandoning Lucy and mistreating her through much of Lucy’s life. Signe was a talented seamstress, and even worked often as a seamstress at Penny’s in Rockford, when she wasn’t taking one of her trips. So Lucille was pretty much raised by her saintly grandmother Anna Louse. Grandma had an enormous influence on Lucy’s life, and raised her in the Christian faith and with sweetness and kindness. The only stability Lucy knew came from Anna Louise. Signe lived an unstable life, unfortunately, was a really feisty character riding around in her red Mustang. When Sheri first met her, the first thing Sheri said to me later was, “That is not a grandma!” Anna Louise on the other hand was truly a wonderful grandma to Lucy. She lived to a ripe old age of 99. I remember Anna Louse sitting in her rocking chair in my home, smiling and getting a kick out of some of the goofy games I would play with her, like making paper airplanes and hiding them in her hair till she discovered them with a laugh. She kept her sense of humor, her kindness, and Christian faith till her dying breath. That is why we named one of our daughters Anna Louise.

As you can see, both of my grandma’s were named Signe, a common name in Sweden but a rather odd one here in the U.S. Growing up in my younger years, I always had the impression that Signe was just another word for grandma. As the story goes, I once saw an elderly woman with a neighbor friend, and later I asked him, ‘What is your Signe’s name?” I never heard the end of that little episode.

Evidently, one of the scoundrels in our family tree is a brother of David’s by the name of Victor. Whatever he did must have been pretty embarrassing, because I never got the full story from anyone, no matter how hard I tried. But I always liked the name Victor, so I mentioned to my mom and dad at some point that maybe we’ll name one of our kids Victor. My parents looked at each other, and they said to me very sweetly but surely, “Well, that’s fine, Steve, we’ll just call him something else.” So, the name Victor was crossed off the list.

Swedes are basically known for their abilities in the kitchen, their kindness to people, and their mechanical aptitude. That’s why so many Swedes found their way to Rockford to work in one of its factories that relied totally on machines of all kinds. The Larson family had their share of expert mechanics, as well as inventors. We had a cousin named Mats Davidson who invented the rolling carousel that you find in most dry cleaning establishments to this day. Grandpa David was known as an incredible mechanic, and so was Willy my dad. Willy had a lot of patents from his work on the machines at Rockford Products. My brother Jack got that gene, but it passed right by me. Evidently, we still have relatives in Sweden who make their living off their inventions. One cousin has a huge barn that is the site of his inventions, full of every piece of nut and bolt and machine part you can think of.