Augusta Parsons Hylander’s memories of 19th-century Swedish life: part two
Certain aspects of the life Augusta describes here seem rather like some sort of mad endurance challenge: the frequent lengthy walks to and from church (her church, in Börringe, is pictured here); the memorizing of entire testaments for confirmation, as well as two-hour sermons each week for her father’s approval; the responsibility of caring for her much-loved mother after a “bad shock” (what was that, then? Desperate to know, but I probably never will); and, of course, the arduous daily routine of rising at 4:00 AM to see her father off to the brick factory before knuckling down to do all the housework and domestic management.
I know I’m reading between the lines of the document – probably not a good approach – but I can’t help imagining that there must have been a certain amount of tension in the household. It sounds as if Augusta, as the youngest of the family, was holding everything together, while her siblings had moved on to begin independent lives.
One other minor point: I’ve looked up the “Swedish mile” that she mentions a few times. Wikipedia states that it was “equal to an older unit of measurement, the “rast” … representing a suitable distance between rests when walking,” and was standardized at 10 kilometres in 1889. Phew.
August 11, 1959, in Brooksville, Maine with my son and his family
It is a long time since I last wrote, but I will now continue.
I will speak first of my brothers and sisters. My older sister Bengta died young, so then we were five: brothers Anders and Jöns, sister Johanna, another brother Johannes, then me, Augusta. We were a nice-sized family. Our faith and religion was Lutheran, the State religion, to which we all had to belong. At about age 14 we were confirmed into the faith, and children then became members of the Lutheran church. In Sweden the process of being confirmed into the Lutheran faith covered about a whole year of classes, lessons, and studies, meeting twice a week in the parsonage under the supervision of the assistant minister. For my confirmation my brother Jöns who had emigrated to America sent me a beautiful Lutheran Psalm-Book. It had black velvet covers and was handsomely bound. I was very proud of it since it had come from Jöns whom I loved dearly, and from America.
The confirmation period was long because we had much to learn, practically the whole New Testament by heart, as well as the Lutheran catechism and a large book of Bible History. On Confirmation Sunday the whole class had to answer, individually in the altar area in front of the whole congregation, many questions about what they had learned. This went on for hours, and if they could not answer all the questions they were in deep disgrace. All the girls wore black dresses both that day and the next Sunday when were able to have our first communion with the rest of the congregation.
The church was not in our little village but several miles away at the cross-roads of a small country town called Börringe. The name of the church was, and is, Gustafskyrka. Going to church every Sunday necessitated a walk of several Swedish miles each way from our home. Sometimes we went to a second service in the afternoon, with another long walk. This was our regular routine, winter and summer. In the church it was then the custom for all the men to sit on one side of the center aisle, with all the women on the other side. I believe this is no longer true. There was the manor house of a duke nearby in Börringe, and he and his family used to come to church every Sunday. He sat among the people in no special place of honor, as far as I can remember.
My worst worry during the summer before my confirmation year was that I had had scarlet fever, and all my long thick hair (of which I was very proud) had fallen off. I was completely bald and had to wear a little cap all the time. By my confirmation it had grown in again only as far as my neck. Since it was the custom for all the girls to wear their hair very long in braids I felt deeply humiliated.
After the confirmation and first communion were over and I had graduated from school (the eighth grade, the final grade of the Sturup school) I was ready to step out in the world and work. Jöns was established in America and my two other brothers were out working on big farms. My sister Johanna also had a place where she did housework. But as the youngest I was needed at home. My mother had had a bad shock and was unable to do any housework for she was practically bedridden, and I had her full care as well as the housework to do. In addition I had numerous duties to take care of on our little farm.
My father was a busy and hard-working man. He would get up at four o’clock every morning and do most of the work around our farm at that time, preparing the ground, sowing seeds, harvesting, taking our cow out to pasture, and other such routine duties. I got up and made coffee for him at 4:00, then cooked breakfast for him at 7:00 and packed his lunch. He would then walk several Swedish miles to the brick factory where he worked in the summer, and come home at night for dinner. That was our daily routine.
I would do all the work that had to be done during the day – caring for my mother, cleaning, weaving, churning and making butter, milking the cow, taking care of the garden. On Sundays my father and I walked to church as usual while someone stayed with my mother. I can still recall that I had to remember the sermon and repeat it to my father when we got home. Woe to me if my mind had wandered during the sermon, which sometimes lasted two hours or more. On Sundays we never worked, and only took care of the animals. Food for the family was prepared the day before. No sewing was allowed, or any other worldliness that would disturb the Lord’s day. Cards were never seen in the house. That would have been a great sin. We could read, but only the Bible.
But my life was not all work. Several times during the year I went to dances (folk dances) in the neighborhood. Music was supplied by three violinists. I remember I thought the music was wonderful. Besides folk dances we had waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and galops. They were lively fast dances, and must have been good exercise. I believe I was a pretty fair dancer. I remember how much I loved it, and how proud I was never to be a wallflower.
I should go back to my school life before I was confirmed, and tell you more about those years. In our little village of Sturup, only a short walk from our house were our two school buildings, located on the main road that went through the village. One was for the older children in the higher grades, a handsome brick building, and a smaller one cared for the lower grades. The schoolmaster, whose name was Herr Anderson, was an expert teacher but strict. The beginning pupils started in the smaller building, taught by a lady teacher called Karolina Ljungdal. The children started school at six or seven years of age. When they had progressed in learning and passed certain tests they were moved into the larger building. The schoolmaster lived on the school grounds in a house that was part of his wages.
At recess we spent most of our time dancing in front of the school where there was a big yard between the school and a high hedge that ran along the road, holding hands and singing little folk dance songs like these: “Höga berger och djupa dalar” (High mountains and deep valleys”), “Jänta och ja” (“My lass and I”), or “Nu är det Jul igen” (“Now it is Christmas again”). A boy or a girl would be chosen to be in the center of the ring, then would take a dancing partner, and they would swing around and around until the song ended. Then the partner would choose someone and repeat the procedure, and the dancing would continue on and on. When the recess time was over, the schoolmaster would come out on the front step and call out loudly “Läxorna” (“Lessons”), and it was time for lessons again.
Once a year we had a school dance. In the big schoolroom all benches were moved to the two sides, leaving space in the center for the dancing. One boy, Frans Björk, played the violin for the dancing. A ticket to the dance cost 10 öre (less than 10 cents), and that included refreshments of milk and buns.
When the pupils were about 14 years of age an oral examination was held in the school, and parents and friends came to hear us. We were very nervous, for the room was filled with people. We were all dressed up for the occasion. I remember I had a new brown dress with a wide ruffle and a velvet band of the same colour.
Again, this is the point at which Augusta laid down her pen temporarily; the next part of her story will follow as soon as I’ve typed it out.