Finding My History in Centuries Old Letters

By Nancy Heden Clayman

I write this story to introduce you to these immigrants who eventually made their way to Andover, New Hampshire, some two decades later. It was Andover’s lakes, nearby mountains, wide open fields that felt like Sweden to them, where they made a living, raised their family, developed friendships – Andover, their home for the remainder of their lives.

Their story, our story, my story continues…

A bundle of letters, carefully protected and kept organized by a familiar Swedish blue and yellow ribbon, holds center stage on my sister’s dining table. This must be the surprise my sister, Ruth, excitedly called me about – something found in an abandoned trunk, which lived in my parents’ attic until it was moved to my sister’s home when our father died almost thirty years before.

Details tumble forth as Ruth exclaims, “These letters were written by our parents, to one other, almost a century ago”. Gazing at the prize before us, we take in the moment with a deep breath. Without words, the ribbon is loosened, and more than 100 envelopes slide across the table.

Half, we find, are addressed to David Hedén, 9 Winton Street, Roslindale, Massachusetts, USA; the other half to Miss Ellen Ström, at many different home addresses, most in Åmal, Sweden. All are postmarked between March 1927 and February 1929. What might we learn from these letters – who were David and Ellen in their 20s, their family ties, how did they meet, where/how did they live and support themselves, their social lives, what was Sweden like or America in those years? Our father, always a proud Swede, told us a myriad of stories throughout our growing up years, our mother not so much. And honestly we listened with half an ear and asked few, if any, probing questions. Perhaps within these envelopes, much will be revealed.

David writes in a neat, block print, perfectly aligned despite the lineless stationary.  Of course, the words are in Swedish; even with some knowledge of the language, I’m lost after, “Älskade min Ellen” (My beloved Ellen). Ellen’s writing is much lighter, curvy on the page; little punctuation or capital letters delineate the sentences.  Despite my sister’s early years of Swedish as a primary language, she too is flummoxed. We try Google Translate with little success.

It took many weeks of research and possibilities which led nowhere before we learned of a Swedish speaking woman, living just outside of Boston, eager to help. David’s letters, she tells us, are easy to translate, Ellen’s more challenging.  His words were confident, straightforward and legible; Ellen’s were shy, tentative, full of colloquialism and unknowable terms.  As the translations slowly arrive, we find their communication with one another to be sweet, even romantic. David and Ellen reminisce about their chance meeting, their time together during those few weeks before David left for America. It was lovely to learn about their affection for one another then, as it was not always so obvious during our growing up years. But the myriad of questions we had at the outset were going unanswered – who were they before us?

We did know David, one of seven brothers, was born and raised in a small town Ånimskog, Sweden.  He immigrated with an older brother to the US in 1923 at age 27. Lured by the opportunities purported to be readily available in America and personally fascinated by the rapid growth of industry, he, like so many other immigrants, wanted to be a part of it all. After four years in the US, his brother decided to return to Sweden; David opted to join him, not only to visit his aging parents and brothers, but as the story goes, to “find himself a Swedish wife”.

Ellen, seven years younger than David, was also born in Ånimskog, one of eleven.  Hers was a farming family living far from the center of town; a serious ankle injury at a young age made walking the many miles to school impossible. As a result, Ellen received little formal education. Creative and highly motivated to be independent, she gained seamstress and culinary skills. Could Ellen have imagined then that the braided cardamom Swedish coffee bread, made to perfection, would support her family in America one bleak winter? Could she have pictured herself to be the first woman to wear a pantsuit, of her design, to the East Andover Congregational Church one day!

I’m imagining it was a cold February night at Salebol’s, a local kaffestuga, where David’s friends and townspeople gather to welcome him back home. David catches the lowered eye of a shy, dark haired 20ish-year-old sitting across the room amidst her own small group.  Oh, the racing heart and glowing blush of being noticed by this man, dressed “American”, with the swagger of one full of stories and the focus of all present. David moves toward Ellen to make her acquaintance as Ellen simultaneously wants to either disappear through the floorboards or bask in her good fortune.

As inferred in the letters, their relationship started then and there. The words they wrote to one another over the next two years described a dream in the making.  While each wrote snippets about their respective lives at the time, the preponderance of what was communicated was their hopes for a future together, building a Swedish homelife in America, extending the happiness they found in those few weeks of getting to know one another, before David returned to America.

To make that dream a reality, money for travel needed to be earned and saved from bare minimum incomes, a visa obtained, erupting doubts subdued. Ellen’s friends’ and family’s words of caution evolved into objections to be overcome or ignored. During those two years were periods of joblessness, bouts of melancholy, and the passing of Ellen’s sister during childbirth leaving a toddler child who then called Ellen “mamma” and sobbed upon learning she would leave him. When misunderstandings arose, resolutions took weeks to travel between the continents. Those were the stories we pieced together and the emotions we gleaned from their communication. We, greedily, always wanted more.