(My son asked me to explain our family background)

Our Family, the side that comes to you through me, has two parts: My Dad’s side and my Mom’s side.

They are very different. I’ll start with my Mom’s side because I know more about them. Also, they were nicer.

My Mom was Irene Dorothea Lundstrom. Born in 1929 on long Island, in New York and died in 2001 in Florida. She was a gem, by the way.

Her Parents were Hjalmar Georg Lundstrom and Aina Helena Sundberg. Both born in the 1880s in Finland and died both at 95 years old, on Long Island.

This is the hardy and competent (yet quirky) peasant side of the family.

Grandpa was born in the southwestern Houtskär region of Finland, a group of wild and thinly populated islands. (Wiki help included here)

It is located in the Archipelago Sea in the province of Western Finland and is part of the Southwest Finland region. The municipality had a population of 621 (as of 31 December 2008)[2] and covered a land area of 119.93 square kilometres (46.31 sq mi).[1] The population density was 5.18 inhabitants per square kilometre (13.4/sq mi).

There are three stores in Houtskär, (currently) a bank and post office, and the church of Santa Maria in Näsby center. At various times throughout the year dances, accompanied by live music, are held which are an old tradition kept alive by both older and younger participants who dance in a variety of styles.

Houtskär consists of a group of bigger islands and a large number of smaller islands in the surrounding sea area. Communications to the mainland is by the ”Archipelago road” through Pargas, Nagu and Korpo, with three ferries considered part of the road network, the trip with the last one from Korpo to Houtskär lasting half an hour. The main islands are connected by bridges or cable ferries, the outer inhabited islands usually have daily connections with ship-like ferries.

They look like this.

Grandpa’s parents were Oskar Lundstrom and Henrika Henriksdottir. He and his brother lived with them in the tiny house pictured below.

Oskar worked as a sailor on commercial ships to European ports and beyond. He and Henrika loved each other very much. Some love letters are linked here.

Oskar died tragically early. Hjalmar was just five years old. He adored his mom and did what he could to comfort her. Picture a widow raising two young boys alone on a windswept ocean rock. He said she was very kind and had a lovely singing voice. See that jewelry on her throat? I have that today. In that last picture of her in the gallery she just looks so sweet and sorrowful.

When Hjalmar Georg turned 18 or so he was faced with becoming a fisherman in the lonely freezing oceans around Houtskar and very likely being drafted into the Russian army if he stayed around. It was 1903 when he left for America.

(Pictures: Oskar young and about as old as he got. Henrika Henriksdottir. Hjalmar Georg and his brother Oskar. Their little home. HJ about the time he started in America. Brother visiting America. My Great-grandparent’s graves. Henrika alone.)

Your Great Grandmother, Aina Helena Sundberg was born and grew up in the town of Nykarleby, in the far north of Finland. And this (below) was her family.  She’s the little blonde Asian kid in the back. Northern Finns have a heavy “wandering Mongolian tribe” genetic history and it was very clear in Grandma. I did a little genealogy research and the earliest relative of our I could find was a guy in Nykarleby named Israel Sundberg …born 1625.

(Pictures: Her father was Johan Jakob Sundberg and her mother was Susanna Lena Fredriksdottir. Dad is to the right, behind Mom who is holding her (Aina’s)  baby brother. To the left are things we don’t speak of. Yes, we are partly troll. When she was about my current age Grandma wrote a sweet memory of what Christmas was like when she was growing up. She literally rode in sleighs with jingle bells to school. Link here.  Her Dad was kind of the manager of a school for boys. Below we see her little town, and the church she mentions in her Christmas memory.)

They didn’t travel at the same time of course, but both left for the US from Helsinki (Helsingfors) on the ship USS Philadelphia, and both, like every other European immigrant, had to pass through immigration check-in on Ellis Island, in New York Bay, within sight of New York City.  In the gallery are the ship’s manifests with Grandma and Grandpa’s information.: Where from, where to, how much money.

Grandpa HjG found Grandma Aina when they were young and poor and working in Brooklyn. She was a maid and he was a carpenter living in a single men’s barracks (a different world). Grandma didn’t take him seriously – they dated – they didn’t date – and dated again. She finally went back to Finland to consider her options. He showed up to be with her. They got married and had six kids.

Grandpa and Grandma moments: 

On the back of the beach picture, it says “you and me”.

Once he had a mishap and cut off the end of his nose with a circular saw. He walked over and picked it up out of the sawdust and taped it back on with electricians tape. It healed. No problem. Just a little white scar around the tip of his nose forever after.

He was interested in almost everything and highly opinionated. He was an environmentalist before anyone knew what the word meant. He designed and built houses on Long Island, had six kids, wrote poems and played the violin. He had an annoying habit of proudly walking strangers around their home, showing off the weird, ingenious features he had added. Once, the kids spotted him bringing another stranger on the house tour and warned the others. All six children crowded into a hall closet to hide. Suddenly Grandpa opened the door, said to the stranger, “and these are my kids”, then closed the door again.

Grandma gave birth to those six kids and loved and looked after all of them. My Mom, Irene was the last of the six. She almost didn’t make it, nearly dying of Rheumatic fever at 12, during WWII. She was wasting away in bed, too weak to move. The Sulfa antibiotics came out just in time and saved her life, allowing you and me to exist.

Grandma was a quiet and caring person. She had a gentle, rueful sense of humor. At 94 during a visit from my Mom, she said, “I guess I’m a tough nut to crack”. She also said “Everything has an end, except the bologna, which has two. ”

A few years ago I asked my Mom’s favorite sister, Helen, to share some family memories and she sent me this wonderful note:

Dear Hugh,

It has turned out to be an interesting exercise for me to look back at these times connected with Irene and early family relationships. I’ll start by going back to one of those early family incidents, when Irene was about 2 or 3.

You’ve heard about the time she was “lost.” That’s how we referred to it, but when the subject came up some years ago, Irene assured me that she was never lost. She knew exactly where she was going—it was to find Mama. Astrid was supposed to be taking care of her because Mama wasn’t home. This didn’t suit Irene, so she set off to find her—no problem, in her mind. Panic, of course, followed. The police were called. Everyone went off to scour the neighborhood. Eventually, Irene was brought home, seated on Astrid’s lap in a police car.

Since Irene was the youngest in the family, I don’t think we expected her to come up with her own notions about what she wanted to do.

When her 12th birthday was coming up, she told Mom that she was going to have a birthday party. Birthdays were never a special occasion in our family. Mom would buy a box of Dugan’s iced cupcakes, and that would be it. Maybe we’d have a candle. But Irene planned a special celebration and arranged all the details herself—games, etc. She invited two friends from across the street—Marjorie and Jean. Mom was to take pictures at the end, which she did. I think that independence and determination appeared even more strongly when Irene was older. Imagine writing, producing and performing alone in your own theater production (for audiences of maybe hundreds, when you add them up)! I will always marvel at that and her many other enterprises.

When Irene had rheumatic fever, the house became a serious, subdued place. We talked quietly because noise could upset Irene in a serious way. She lay upstairs in the big back bedroom. Mom was the only one who went in there. I remember that if I needed anything from the room, I would creep in on my hands and knees—very, very slowly and carefully so she wouldn’t hear me and find it disturbing.

When she was finally well enough to go out and sit in the back yard, she was thin and frail, but she was always ready to smile.

Mom remarked once, in talking of Irene, “She was such a NICE baby!” She put special emphasis on the word NICE, as if it had a strong and bright lilt to it.

Our parents were such good people, but also so obviously from the “old country.” I was always self-conscious about that. Why couldn’t Mom have a permanent, for example, like the mothers of my friends, instead of wearing her hair in an old-fashioned bun? (How admirable I find that to be today!) I don’t think Irene ever felt such petty concerns. I was always too concerned with what other people thought.

I remember a day of pouring rain, and I was scheduled to come home from school at the usual time. I was not happy to see Pop parked at the curb in our ancient family car, waiting for me. The front window had a wooden window (it rolled up and down) that Pop had installed to replace the broken glass pane. Of course, he had rolled up the wooden one because of the rain (much to my horror!). I slid down as far as I could, hoping no one I knew would see me in that contraption.

Pop had a lot of quirks and eccentricities. He would sometimes go off to a concert hall in Brooklyn to hear a song recital or violin performance by some visiting Swedish performer. He wouldn’t get home until many hours later, having taken (maybe) a subway going in the wrong direction.

He also loved to express endlessly (to anyone who would listen) the importance of developing the mind—not through reading books, but through reflective, analytical thinking. I used to wish that Mom would open up more and express her point of view, but she never did.

Years later when I was at Hunter, one of our assignments was to read a certain essay by John Stuart Mill. In it, he discussed certain individuals in every age who are considered too eccentric to be accepted in reasonable, sensible society. Instead, John Stuart Mill observed, some of those individuals actually play the role of leaders, in some manner.

It surprised me to find myself thinking of Pop in a new light. I had never considered his peculiarities as anything other than embarrassing.

I think my favorite picture of Mom and Pop is a tiny snapshot of the two of them seated on the sand at Lawrence Beach. Pop’s caption underneath says simply, “You and me.”

Once I asked Mom why she had married Pop (Irene remembered this too), and she replied that it was just something she felt that she was fated to do. We asked Pop the same question, and he said, “Because I loved her,” as if that were a surprising question. Why else would he have married her?


I’ll write more about Mom as an individual elsewhere, she deserves her own section.

Grandpa wrote a sweet poem about missing people you’ve lost and it seems like a nice ending to this section.

Chummy Chat

As I reached more maturity of age
I sometimes wished as I saw others do,
I could my dad in chummy chat engage;

Since we each other never knew we two.
Mere five but was I when he did depart,
Though still his features well remain in sight!
His passing all but broke my mother’s heart
And turned to bleakness what was once delight.

Since years have passed and mother has joined dad,
And though it’s said: “in time all wounds will heal”,
Still often moments filled with memories sad
Return anew with more intense appeal.

–But why the sadness? The departed dear,
They gave their share towards what we are today,
They lived and loved, faced much distress and fear
That we might love and live a fuller way.

Theirs was, no doubt, much sadness but more cheer
-That lives in us and ever spurs-us on.
-Your granny and granddaddy chat right here,
My dear devoted daughter, loving son.

Hj. Georg Lundstrom

Next: The Bloody Germans