Borghild Bergstedt Paulsen
I was born on an island called Hiso, across the fjord from the town of Arendal, in the southern part of Norway. The house I was born in and spent the first sixteen years of my life in was a small frame house painted white with green trimming, situated high up on a hillside overlooking a beautiful cove and the landing place of the ferryboat that commuted between the island and the town. The island and the surrounding territory is one of the most beautiful, picturesque places in the world.
I was born May 26, 1895, the seventh child of my parents, Johan Henrik Bergstedt and Charlotte Marie Mathiasson, who were married June 23 1884. My father had been married before, on June 23, 1874, and had two children, Anna Kristina and Johan Georg, by his first wife, Ingeborg Ovadia Osmundsen. The children were very young when their mother died, and were raised by my mother.
The only attendant at the time of my birth was a midwife named Mrs. Kristine Knudsen. As my parents took turns in naming the children, it was my father's turn at this time. They had just acquired a framed picture of Norway's great novelist, Bjornstjerne Martinius Bjornsen. It was hanging over my parents' bed. My father looked at it and said: "If we name her after Bjornstjerne Martinius Bjornsen, by giving her the same initials, she might inherit some of his ability to express herself in writing." In this, of course, his hopes were never realized. But his decision was that I should be named Borghild Marie Bergstedt, (B.M.B. after Bjornstjerne Martinius Bjornsen) which met with my mother's approval.
A few days before my sister, Ragna Hildeborg, was born on May 5, 1897, my mother had gone to visit her sister, Tante Wilhelmine Hansen. My sister Ingeborg, then twelve years of age, was tending me. I lacked a few weeks of being two years old. She had put me on the table in the garden while she was doing some embroidery work. She saw some clothes that had been hung up to dry and had fallen on the ground. She went to pick them up, and I wanted to go with her. In trying to get off the table, I fell and hit my nose on a post by a flower bed. I had to be rushed to the doctor to have it sewn up and later had to have the stitches taken out. In doing this the doctor forgot to remove a few stitches, and to this day I have a mark to show for it. I understand he was drunk at the time. Although I lacked a few weeks of being two years old, I can still remember being carried up the stairs to the doctor's office to have the stitches taken out. I had a feeling that my sister Charlotte, then 10 1/2 years old, was outside the office window, and that if I could call loud enough she would come to help me ... so they couldn't hurt me. I called and called, but of course Charlotte was not there.
When I was four, my younger sister, Hildeborg, (who was two years old) and I had gone down to the waterfront one day when the sun was shining bright, and I wanted to find out if the water was warm. I went down the steps that were covered with slimy moss caused by being under the water at high tide. Holding onto the railing on the side of the step, I put one foot in the water, but before I knew it, I was in the ocean and the water was way above my head. As I came up, I thought to myself that I have two more times before I'll be gone for good. I saw my sister standing, smiling at me ... a smile I'll never forget. Then I saw my red tam (cap) with a white anchor on it floating away on top of the water, I thought it too bad that nobody would get the use of it. Then I want under again. As I came up again, I thought this will be my last look at my sister and I had better take a good look at her. I also noticed my petticoat spread out on top of the water. And, as my mother was an expert seamstress of fine underwear, it had a lot of tucks and lace on it, and I wondered who would inherit it. Then I went under the third time, and I knew this was it. It never occurred to me to be frightened. But all of a sudden I felt someone grab my hair and pull me up. It so happened that two young men who were coming home for their lunch had seen me from across the fjord. One of the men had said, "We will have to row for our lives or one of those little girls at our landing place is going to drown." They had a light, small rowboat and made it just as I was going under the third time.
They told us to go straight home, which I didn't dare do. Instead I went behind some kindling wood that had been piled up to dry down by the dock and took my clothes off. I hung them in the sun and when they had warmed up a little, I dressed and decided to go up in the hills and play house until my clothes were dry. In passing our garden, my mother called and asked us where we were going. I said we were just going up in the hills to play house. She told us not to stay too long. When my clothes were dry, we went home and I thought I had gotten out of that pretty slick. But when I got ready for bed, my mother noticed my petticoat was turned inside out and asked me who had helped me dress that morning. I told her my sister, Charlotte. Although she thought it strange that Charlotte would have put my petticoat on inside out, nothing more was said until supper time the next night when my father said, "I just heard we came pretty near losing Borghild yesterday." When my mother asked how, he said he had just talked with the two young men who had pulled me out of the water. Now my mother knew why my petticoat had been turned inside out. To my great surprise I didn't even get a scolding. They must have been so happy to have me alive, they forgot to scold me.
I'm sure my childhood was as happy as anyone's could be...far happier than most. I feel every child raised in our neighborhood felt the same.
As I look back, we didn't lack for anything. We had a good home, goodly parents and each of us had twelve brothers and sisters. We had mountains with plenty of forests on them where we could pick wild flowers: violets in the spring, lily-of-the-valley in the summer, and late autumn flowers in the fall. Also, there were all kinds of wild berries to pick in the summer. There was good skiing in the winter. We also had exceptionally good coasting hills, and a fjord a few hundred feet below our home that froze solid enough to skate on in the winter and sail on during the summer, not to mention swimming which we started by permission on the 23rd of June (which is midsummer eve), but without permission long before when the water was so cold it stung us as if we were being pricked with sharp needles. For two summers, we swam every day in full winter garb (from heavy mittens and shoes to woolen caps). Our reason was to prove that if we were ever thrown into the ocean fully dressed we could save ourselves. But maybe more it was because we liked to hear the passengers on the ferry boat (as they passed us on the fjord between the island and the city) scream to the captain not to run over us when we swam over and ducked under the water and came close to the boat. The captain, who had two of his own daughters in the gang, usually replied, "Weeds aren't easy to get rid of.'' But at the end of the second summer, No Swimming Allowed signs were nailed by the sheriff in most of the places used for swimming. After that, we kept swimming just the same but were a little careful and kept away from the ferry boat.
My father frequently said, when he talked about someone, "Oh, he's a tall, handsome man, six feel tall just like me." And I always thought that was just what he was: six feel tall. Years later, after I had come to America, my sister brought some pictures of him and her together. I said, "Why he isn't any taller than you; he must have shrunk." She said, "No, he isn't any taller." I said, "Well, he always told me he was six feet and I always thought he was." But I wasn't the only one he had fooled; one of my other sisters felt the same way. He had us believe he was a tall, tall man. Actually he was probably about 5 feet 8 inches tall.
I remember at the turn of the century so many young people went to America. Whenever a young person left for America, there was a neighbor lady who always asked us when we were going. I remember telling her, "When we can have our breakfast in Norway and our supper in New York." Then we would go. Of course, we felt that would never be in all eternity. But now you can have your breakfast in Norway, your lunch in New York, and be back in Norway for supper.
Right below our house was a flat piece of ground that we used for a playground. It is strange when I think about it. There were all the children in the neighborhood playing most every evening and the mothers sitting watching us. They enjoyed it, I think. But maybe they wanted to be sure that we didn't do anything we shouldn't. We played all sorts of games, such as hiding-go-seek and hit-the-thick (similar to kick-the-can). We would be playing there when my father came up the hill from below our playground. Someone would spot him and call, "Here comes Far." We would all get out from our hiding places and run down the hill to meet him. He would put one of us on his shoulders, one under each arm, and one on each leg. I always crawled from behind with my head between his feet. We would hang onto him right up the hill until we got into the house. Then we would run down again and resume to play. All the other kids were really mad because we had stopped the game. We did it every night. So they could expect it, but they were still sore that it interfered with the game. But we didn't care. That was one thing we wanted to do, to be with him when he came home.
It was light practically all night in the summertime. We were allowed to play until ten minutes to ten. That was when the little ferry whistle would blow, letting the people know that at ten o'clock the fare would go up for the last hour of service. We often played in row boats. In make-believe we imagined the little bits of islands (some only 10 feet across) out in the fjord to be the continents of the world (America, Africa, Australia, etc.). Then we would go from one island to the other, leaving some of the kids on each island. Then we would go back and pick them up again.
We enjoyed the mountains. There we made our playhouses. We used rocks for sofas, tables and chairs. We covered them with beautiful, green, soft moss. We made sweet soup over a real fire out of berries which we picked in the woods. If we didn't go out to the other end of the island to swim, my mother would bring our dinner up there for us to eat. We had our big meal at noon, which was customary. By our playhouse we had a big tub of water that we would bathe in. Mother would bring the whole dinner most every day ... potatoes, meatballs, gravy, vegetables ... whatever we had. It was only a quarter of a block from our home on the mountain side. There was only one house above us. Then it was all thick forest ... beautiful to view. There were two beautiful sounds (open bodies of water) visible from our hilltop, one from the east and one from the west. Boats and ships were coming in and out daily. In those days there were big sail ships. A number of my girl friends' fathers were captains on the sail ships. When the wind was right, they would sail right in, otherwise they had to be towed in by a tugboat. Many had been away for years. These big ships with five large billowing sails were really beautiful. The minute we recognized someone we knew, we went right down there and climbed to the top of the mast. We were treated to some of the hard biscuits they ate on the ship. They had to have special food on the ships, because they were at sea so long. The meat had to be salted and cured.
Our home wasn't very large. Downstairs was the kitchen, the family or dining room, and a living room. We had a big table in the family room where we ate and also a bed where my parents slept. There was a sofa too, that could be made out into a bed for anyone who was sick so they could sleep there. We also had a sofa in the living room that could be made into a bed if we had company. There were two bedrooms upstairs that we used. Out of thirteen children, there were never more than about eight of us home at one time. When more little ones came, it seemed like the older ones left to work in other homes. When you were 14 you were through with school and went to work.
When 1 was seven years old, I remember we had an old milkman named Ludvig who delivered milk to us. One day he came and asked my mother if he could come and live with us. He was a bachelor who lived with his unmarried sister, and they were just getting too old to be able to take care of themselves. He always thought when he was delivering milk that if he had his choice of going to a home, this was that home in which he would like to live. He liked my mother and he loved the house. It was white with green trim. He thought we had children enough who would take care of his grave with flowers after he was gone. When he came and asked my mother, she just didn't know what to say. We didn't have very much room, and she was pregnant with the last baby. He told my mother that if we would take him, we would inherit their house, and his sister would take their cash and go to a nursing home. She told him she would have to talk it over with my father first. They talked it over and decided to take him. I have no idea how long he stayed with us. He was sick all the time he was with us, but one day very sick. My mother had to help him to the toilet. She got him there, but then she couldn't get him back again. My brother Karl and I were the only ones at home. Karl was thirteen (six years older than I). He ran out to get the neighbor lady. Between the two of them they got Ludvig back in bed. We stood around his bed. My mother, the neighbor lady, Karl and I watched him as he passed away. I felt nobody had the sorrow in this world like I had. I thought, how in the world could the captain of the ferryboat blow the horn when Ludvig was dead, and why did the bells at the wharf ring as if nothing had happened. The bells rang for the lunch and coffee breaks. People worked twelve hours a day then and had coffee breaks from 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. and again at 3:30 to 4:00 p.m., going home for a hot meal at noon. They would take their coffee and sandwiches from home for coffee breaks.
Well, I just felt terrible. But I had to go to school then. I was in the first grade and went in the afternoon. There I sat in school. I couldn't understand how others could go on reading and doing everything as if nothing had happened, while I had this terrible sorrow on my shoulders. I can remember the day of the funeral. They put branches from the pine trees all the way from the house down to where the playground was. There we had a horse and buggy that took the casket. I stood on our neighbor's porch and watched them go down with him. I've never felt so bad in my life as I did when Ludvig died.
We had to go down to the well on the playground for all our water. There was a little wooden house on top of the stone wall around the well. We had a long pole that we hooked the bucket on. We would hook the bucket on this and swing it into the water and pull it up. We didn't have a rope or a wheel. Even at seven years old, I would carry two filled buckets at a time. They told us it was easier to carry two than one, and that we wouldn't get crooked in our shoulders this way.
One day it was really icy all the way down the hill. I thought I would slide down on the sleigh and just take one bucket. I got on the sleigh and held this bucket and I had such speed that I couldn't turn or stop. I ran right against the well house. The palm of my hand hit the rock foundation of the well and was cut deeply. It was terrible. But I did get the bucket of water and pulled the it and the sleigh home. When my mother saw my hand, she bandaged it up with rags. That was all we had. Then I went to school. I was so anxious to show the teacher. She was cross-eyed ... but a very good teacher. I wanted to watch her eyes when she saw this injury. I kept fooling with it until I got the bandage off. Then she happened to look at me and she said, "Now what are you doing?" I said, "Well, this bandage has come off and I can't get it on decently." She came over and when she saw it she cried to high heaven. When I saw the expression in her eyes, I was repaid for my suffering. It was exactly what I expected her to look like when she saw my cut. But it healed and I still have a scar from it.
I remember when I was five years old, my brother Karl (who was eleven) was coming home from school when he saw an elderly neighbor named Andreas up in one of his cherry trees. He felt sorry for this man, so he went in his garden and asked him if he could help him pick the cherries and said that it was kind of dangerous for him to be up so high. The man looked at him as if to say, "I know why you want to help me ... you want to eat my cherries." He didn't say anything but my brother understood what he was thinking and said, "Now I'm not asking you this because I'm going to eat your cherries. We've got plenty of cherries home, but I really think you shouldn't be up there." He looked at my brother and said, "Why I believe you really mean it." He said, "Well I'd really appreciate it." So Karl picked all his cherries from several trees. He would stop after school every day until he got them all picked. When he finished, he said to the man, "Now if there is anything else I can do for you, I'd love to do it". The man said, "Well he could use his help." So Karl helped him for a few weeks until he was offered a paying job cleaning the motors in some of the little boats that went around the island. It required a kid that was small enough to get in to clean them and smart enough to do the job. He felt that he should take this job because of the money.
Karl said to me, "Can't you take this job at Ragnild and Andreas' place?" I said, "I couldn't take that job, I couldn't do anything." He said, "You couldn't? Couldn't you grind their coffee?" I said, "Oh yes, I could do that." He said, "Couldn't you go to the store?" I said, "Oh sure I could go to the store." "Well, you could sweep a kitchen floor couldn't you?" He said, "And you could feed the chickens, couldn't you?" I said, "Well, I guess I could do that." He said, "Then you can take the job." I said, "I guess I could." He went up and told them that he had to quit but I could take over. I wasn't paid for this either and didn't expect to be. These were old people and they had no one to help them. My mother made me an apron out of gunny sacks. She washed them and made the apron to cover my dress. I couldn't have swept with a big broom, being only 5, but I used a little hand broom, which was the kind every one used in those days. We had to kneel down on the floor to sweep it.
I had a good memory and no matter how many items they told me to get at the store, I could remember them. They never thought of giving me a written list. So I would run to the store for them, and I could grind the coffee and feed the chickens. And I worked there for a long time. One day while I was working there, an old lady who was a neighbor came to visit her. She saw me and said, "So you are the girl that threw the rocks down on our house from the mountainside. I said, "I never threw the rocks." She said, "Don't try to lie out of it. You threw the rocks." I said, "I never did. I never threw rocks down there." She claimed I did. I started to cry. The other lady, Ragnhild, who I helped, said, "If she said she didn't, she didn't." I found out later that it was Hildeborg, who was three years old. She, with a friend who was nine, had done it. The old couple were afraid to come out and stop them for fear of being hit with the rocks.
One day when I came to the Ragnhild's, the house smelled so good from bread baking, and the woman was there helping her husband on with his heavy boots. They were both crying. I said, "What's the matter. What has happened?" She said, "He has to go to the poor house." She had baked a big oven full of bread, about 35 loaves (our ovens baked that many) and put them in sacks for him to take with him. She was afraid he wouldn't get enough to eat at the poor house. He had to go because she couldn't take care of himself any more and she was unable to care for him. They found a distant relative that would take care of the woman. So that was the end of my first job.
My friend, Margaret Andersen, had a wonderful mother. She was one of the best souls I have ever known. She always thought of the other person. Anything she had she was willing to give it away. She had many beautiful things from all over the world. Her husband was a captain, and she sailed with him quite often. If any one needed or wanted something, she was willing to part with it and let them have it. Every Christmas she would go around to the different stores (she was related to several store keepers) and ask for things for children who were poor. She would take Margaret and me with her. There was one family who had several children, and then triplet girls were born to them. I remember one year we had the sleigh loaded to go over on the mainland where they lived. We had been there every year, and they were always glad, because we brought so many nice things to them. One year when we came, the old grandmother appeared to be in distress. She would take her glasses off and put them on and then go over and set them on the dresser. Then she would forget what she had done with them and go back and forth looking for them. Mrs. Anderson asked the mother what was the matter with grandmother tonight. She was so different. She said she has to go to the poorhouse in the morning. She just doesn't know what to do with herself. The family had been receiving four Crowns ($1.00) a month, as I remember it, to keep her. It had cost more than that to take care of her but they were willing to make up the difference even when they had so little. But the county officials decided she should live at the poor house. You can imagine the impression that made on me. To think that this dear old lady had to go. This family didn't have much but it was clean and warm and cozy. The mother took such good care of what they had. Of course, that is another experience about the poor house. Today, they don't have such things in Norway. Now they call it the Old Folks Home, and is more like a fine hotel for retired people.
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