Augusta Parsons Hylander’s memories of 19th-century Swedish life, part three: “Our home was broken up by my father’s death. That changed everything”
September 20, still 1959
This is written in Hamilton, back from Brooksville, Maine. I am sitting in my room here at Ray and Gay’s house [Gay was Augusta's daughter], writing at the big desk that came to us from Sweden after my husband’s sister Maria died. It is a beautiful desk, now considered a valuable antique. My husband’s father built it himself. The slanted front comes down to form a good writing surface, and inside are eight small drawers, four on each side. When they were small the children of the family each had a drawer for himself, with his name on the back. Some of the names are still there. There are also two secret drawers. Below are four very large drawers for storage. The desk is as heavy as a piano.
Today is Sunday. I shall continue now and talk about what happened after my confirmation, where at age 13 I had been the youngest in the class. My mother remained very ill. But life went on. Two of my brothers were now in America. Johannes had followed Jöns a little later. At this time, around 1880 or so, many young people could not find good work in Sweden and left to seek a better living elsewhere, mostly in America, and Jöns sent money for my younger brother’s ticket so that he could join him in this wonderful country.
At home life went on in this way for two years, my father working in the woods during the winters chopping down trees. His pay was one tree for every eight he chopped down. He would drag this tree home for firewood or sell it. He caught a heavy cold doing this work, and developed double pneumonia. He died in less than three days. I took care of him until the end, and still had the complete care of my helpless mother. I was then 15 years old. I suppose I worked too hard and became run down and over-tired, because I also got double pneumonia, and the day my father was buried a doctor was brought to the house for me. We had never had a doctor in the house before. He had to come on a horse from a town quite far away, and his bill was 25 crowns (kronor), an enormous sum to us. My father died in February and I had to stay in bed until May when I was still very weak. They all thought I was going to die. But I didn’t.
We wrote to my brothers in America. My older brother Jöns had now been there three years. He came home as soon as he could to help us straighten out everything. He was a wonderful help. Something had to be done because alone I couldn’t take care of my mother, do all the housework, and run our little farm. My oldest brother Anders had died earlier. So it was decided that my sister Johanna and her husband who owned and ran a carpenter shop nearby should move home and live there free for taking care of my mother and the home. But something still had to be decided about me. I felt that since I had to work out anyway I wanted to go to America. My brother said he did not want me to work as a servant, so he suggested that I should wait and come a year later, and he would send me money for my ticket, approximately one hundred and four dollars. In that year while still in Sweden I should go to the city of Malmö, a large city about 20 miles away, and learn dressmaking in some qualified school. This would assure me of a fine job in America. Two months of the year I should also learn to iron fine laundry, shirts and frills and complicated ruffles. Then I would have the earning power of two useful crafts instead of having to do housework, the future of many immigrants. My brother Jöns was a wise and sensible person.
Everyone thought this a good plan, including me. We had some good friends in Malmö, a family who had moved there from Sturup, and they were willing to take me in with them and live in their home for that year. In return I was to help the wife off and on, and they had a little girl with whom I was to stay when they wanted to go out at night.
All this came to pass, and I had a wonderful year in the city, a great change from the quiet life of little Sturup. I became quite citified, so much so that when I went home for visits, the village people said I had forgotten my mother tongue. In Sturup the people spoke with a heavy southern accent, while in Malmö a more cosmopolitan Swedish speech was used. It is a beautiful city, and I loved living there.
I had a very thorough course in dressmaking, sewing only for upper-class people and the theater. Besides working and learning I had to pay 12 kronor a month. It was a small school with about 25 girls. Here I learned really excellent dressmaking, with the last two months devoted to learning the correct methods of fine ironing.
So now I was all set for my trip, and to enter a new world and a new life. It was very hard to leave my mother. I knew I should probably never see her again. But it had to be done. Father was no longer there, life had changed for us all, and I had to earn a living. Of course my sister would be there with her and give her good care, but it was still hard to make the break. Except for my year in Malmö I had never been away from my mother for a day. We were very good friends, and I would miss her very much.
At this time I began to appreciate the excellent schooling I had had in our village. The school must have been used for a wide area, for it had a large number of pupils and a wonderful teacher for the upper grades. What I learned there gave me a foundation for the rest of my life. I was at the head of my class for three years, and after I left (at the end of the eighth grade, the final grade in the school) I went to night school for two years.
Since I seemed to be well advanced in school the schoolmaster came to our house one time and talked to my father and mother about me. He said they should let me go away to school and study for two years and become a school-teacher, that I had the gift to become one, and good teachers were needed. But my father did not want me to go away and the schoolmaster’s suggestion was dropped. I was needed at home to care for my mother.
I have mentioned before that I loved weaving. Whenever I had time I could be found at my loom. I wove quantities of linen for our sheets, pillow-cases, and such items, but I liked best to weave fancier things with patterns, like tablecloths, bedspreads, aprons, and material for our clothes. It was the custom when they married that each boy and girl in the family must have from home a complete new linen outfit – two sheets, two pillow-cases, two towels for dishes, two for face towels, and the cover for a feather puff. Puffs were used instead of blankets. I had woven and made such outfits for each of my brothers and my sister. I never made one for myself because our home was broken up by my father’s death. That changed everything.
We are about a third of the way through Augusta’s story now; the rest will follow as I type it up.