The mother an immigrant left behind

iNAEOleaingardenThis is my great-grandmother, Karen Olea (Knudsen) Næss, in her garden in Skien, Norway.

Have you ever wondered about the relatives left behind when people decided to try their chances in America? Olea was one of them.

In 1904, when her daughter Elise—my grandmother—was about 18, Elise decided to come to the USA. Elise’s daughters have told me she wanted to come just because “it was the thing to do.” She had an uncle living in Chicago and joined him there. She married my grandfather in 1908.

Olea missed her for the rest of her life.

The first stories I heard about Olea made me sympathize with my grandmother’s decision to leave. Olea was strict when Elise was growing up. When my grandmother took her first child, Florence, back to Norway to visit her parents in 1912, Olea tried to talk her into divorcing my American grandfather and staying in Norway. (If Elise had agreed to do that, I would not be here now.)

NAE Edvard Karen Olea BA Flo
Elise Næss Barrows stands between her parents, Edvard and Olea Næss. The little girl is Elise’s daughter Florence. Skien, Norway, 1912.

Olea was always begging her daughter to write, but for whatever reason or reasons, my grandmother rarely complied. My Aunt Florence tried to fill the gap.

But, as there always is, there was more to this woman.

Olea loved Elise unconditionally. She was always sending much-needed money and gifts to my grandmother’s family. My grandparents were never prosperous; my grandfather worked as a teamster when they weren’t trying to scratch out a living on a stump farm (former forest land) in northern Wisconsin in the 1920s. The family was the reverse of the stereotype of impoverished immigrants doing well in America and sending money back to the old country.

My grandmother’s brother, still in Norway, died in 1910, leaving Olea and her husband Edvard with an empty nest for the next 30 years. Looking at it from that point of view, I began to sympathize with Olea.

NA Edvard OleaMy great-grandfather died during the German occupation of Norway during World War II, which lasted from April 9, 1940, until May 8, 1945. One of Olea’s last letters (if not the last) to my Aunt Florence, dated August 10, 1945, was filled with pain.

By then Florence was married and the mother of two boys herself.  Some excerpts (translated into English for Olea by a student in Norway):

“I congratulate you as a mamma once again. You now have got another soldier to fight for America. But I heartily wish that he will not live so long as to see another war. We have had quite enough of war now.

“According to your cards your family has taken great part in the war. But I hope they shall all return healthy and unhurt to their homes. (Today we got good news: Japan will give in!) And peace is not far away! [NOTE: She doesn’t mention the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima August 6.]

“You understand that I am still alive, though things might have been better. I think you know that Edvard died in December 1943….An organic disease of the heart makes me much trouble all the time.

“I have no economical troubles. The loneliness is worse than all. I wish that one of you could come to me here in Norway, and stand here until I am gone. Please, try to do that!

“Florence, dear! Ask Elise whether she can’t write to me, and tell me how she is doing….

“The war has been a hard and sharing time. Especially for old people was it very difficult and troublesome to endure the psysical [sic] pressure. Food was often, and still is, scarce and bad. However, the restrictions and bondage was the worst of all. And the Germans did not care about old people, because they could not work for them and help them to win (or to lose) the war. Therefore we were put upon smaller rations than young people.”

Olea died October 10, 1945—two months after dictating this letter to a student, twelve days short of her 83rd birthday and seven years before I was born.

I would have written to her.