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Motherhood is not an island
I went to Sweden to find a part of myself, and now it's with me. Forever.
I did a thing.
A big thing.
A couple of big things, actually, but only one am I telling about in today’s newsletter.
(Stay tuned next week for details about The Other Thing.)
I got a new tattoo. On May 11, which is a very special day in my world.
That’s the day my grandmother and my best friend Troy were born. Many years apart (1930 and 1983), but they were forever connected by this date. Troy died in 2006, and it changed my life. Gaga died in 2017, amid yet another season of grief.
These days, I look forward to May 11.
It’s a day I get to celebrate both of these humans and my own still living life.
In April, I booked a tattoo appointment for May 11 with one of my favorite humans and forever tattoo artist, Bart Willis of Southside Tattoo.
I knew it would be the new moon, but I didn’t even know what I wanted permanently etched in my skin, but it soon came to me: My mother island.
Literally, the island where my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was born. The island where my sister and I visited in 2016 to see the ancestral homeland.
The island I’m still thinking about 5 years later.
Gotland is the island, and Karolina was her name.
She was 37 when she left Gotland to move to the U.S. with her two children, headed to Springfield, where here husband had moved a decade before. I’m 37 and have two children I’m moving through the world with, their dad in some Other Place.
And now she’s with me forever.
If you want to read Karolina’s story of being a single mom crossing the ocean with her two children, I’m re-sharing a post I wrote from the airport as we were leaving for Stockholm. When you get invested in this story, here’s the post I wrote after Chelsea and I returned, and here’s the story of when I finally (finally!) got to meet my Swedish relatives with my sweet late grandmother by my side.
From The Feminist Kitchen, August 8, 2016:
In 1892, my great great grandmother got on a boat.
She was 37 years old and living on an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea with her two children.
By some measures, she was a single mother, raising children not far from where she was born outside Visby.
Although Karolina Sofia Andersen was married, she hadn’t seen her husband in a decade. He had left Sweden 10 years earlier — while she was pregnant with their second child — and was living in Springfield, Missouri.
Springfield is a place I know well. I was born there. My mother was born there. My grandmother was born there. My great grandmother was born there.
But not Karolina.
Like so many millions of immigrants to the U.S., she and Gustav were strangers in a foreign land. They didn’t speak English when they arrived. They didn’t know the customs or the food or the music. I presume they found a church and schools and a community of people like them who were adjusting to this new life.
I make that assumption because they thrived once they reunited. They had four more children, including my great grandmother. Karolina had her last child at age 48.
She lived until 1932. My grandmother was born in 1930. Those same arms that swaddled her own babies in Gotland and even more in Southwest Missouri lived long enough to swaddle one more child.
A baby who, fifty years later, swaddled me.
My grandmother didn’t choose to be the keeper of this story. She didn’t ask to be the link between these generations. She didn’t always love having to repeat the same tale over and over again to kids and grandkids who didn’t really care.
Until they did.
A few years ago, we were talking about family history, and this story of our ancestors coming over from Sweden came up.
“Where did you say they were from?” I asked.
“Wisby, but it could be Visby,” she replied.
“Gaga, that’s on an island,” I told her, after I’d searched the name in Google Maps.
Suddenly, Where We Came From wasn’t some vague region of the plant. It was a specific place. A starting point.
But it was also a destination. A place I could go.
And so here I am, sitting in an airport, waiting on a flight to Stockholm.
What’s waiting for me on the other side? My sister, who is meeting me there. A church outside Visby where Karolina was confirmed. A graveyard where her parents might be buried. A culture we are still trying to retain some kind of connection to. Untold descendants I’ll never meet.
A place my ancestors never saw again.
A part of the world that no one in our family has seen in 124 years.
A piece of myself.