The last few days I have been living in dreamtime with my Swedish ancestors, most especially with my great-great-grandmother Ingrid, about whom I have learned a great deal over the past year. Through a distant cousin Thomas Sievertsson, who has been researching the part of Sweden from which she came, I have discovered details about the kind of life she lived in the old country that few descendants of immigrants are lucky enough to know. Here are a few of them.
Ingrid Mattsdottor was born in 1829 in Jämtlands län in north central Sweden, in a mountainous wooded region where a river divides the small farming villages of Överhogdal and Ytterhogdal. Ingrid, the oldest of seven children, was only thirteen when her father died. From the age of seventeen she worked as a servant on a family farm in a distant village, returning at the age of twenty-three to take up the same occupation on a farm in her own village. From twenty-five to twenty-nine, she lived and worked with her mother and stepfather on their farm in Överhogdal.
At the age of twenty-nine (most Swedish women at that time married in their early twenties), Ingrid married Olof Olofsson and moved to his farm in Ytterhogdal. Over the next decade she gave birth to five daughters and no sons.
1867 and 1868 were known as the yeas of the crop failures in Sweden. As Ingrid’s brothers could not all inherit a single farm, three of them turned to trades: tailor, shoemaker, and blacksmith. The youngest looked after the homestead. In the years of the crop failures, no one bought new clothes, shoes, or tools. Ingrid’s family did not have enough to eat. Two of Ingrid’s brothers lost small sons in 1868. Two brothers and a sister left in 1868. Ingrid and husband with five daughters, aged eight, five, four, two, and six weeks, followed in 1869. They emigrated in order to survive.
They did not all survive. Within a year after their arrival, one of Ingrid’s brothers, his wife, and their small child and new baby son died. The other lost his wife soon after. One of Ingrid and Olof’s daughters died. The six adults who emigrated became three; the once ten children were reduced to five. Then the children were four: Ingrid and Olof gave one of their daughters into the care of a childless couple.
As I was thinking about this, for a time, Ingrid’s life became more vivid than my own. Writing late into the night, I found myself asking questions of Ingrid as I fell asleep. I wanted to know how she felt during the difficult years when so many members of her family died. I wanted to know how she was able to give her daughter up for adoption. I wondered how she found the courage to go on.
Ingrid did survive. A decade later she was a single mother supporting herself and her three daughters by running a boarding house. Her husband had returned to Sweden. I wondered if their relationship had been troubled all along. Had she ever loved him? Was he angry that she could give birth only to daughters? Was he the one who arranged the adoption? Did she resent him for that?
I did not get answers in words to my questions, but I got very strong feelings. One of them was of the deep depression that overtook Ingrid and her whole the family in the years of the deaths. Another had to do with how the resentment Ingrid and her daughters felt when Olof returned to Sweden was transformed into the knowledge that they could make it on their own: he simply stopped being important to them.
The Australian Aboriginal concept of contacting the ancestors in the dreamtime began to take on meaning. Even though I was addressing my questions to Ingrid, I did not feel like I was contacting a ghost living in another world. It felt more like I was contacting the part of Ingrid who lives in me as her story takes root in my body. The feelings I have are not solely her feelings: they are my feelings too as I am the one who is dreaming the story.
Ancestor connection in the dreamtime feels exactly right.
Some of my friends ask me why I undertake this journey. I answer that whereas once I felt ungrounded, now I am firmly planted in this world, because I know from where and from whom I come.
In Jämtlands län there is a small sure-footed breed of cow called fjällko or mountain cow. The women took the cows up the mountain in the summer and lived apart from the men during the midsummer days when the sun never set. I can’t wait to meet one of those cows.
**Re-published from Feminism and Religion with permission.