The Value of A Life

Whose stories get told? Why are some left out? What lessons are we missing, and why?

The following pages are a grandson’s tribute to a woman who personified grit and resilience, even as the hardships of her life tested her severely and, at times, overcame her. Maja Kallgren Wittenstrom was one of a kind–yet her story represents thousands that were never told. A daughter of privilege in Sweden. A nurse. An immigrant. A young wife in America’s Second City. A widowed mother, working to sustain her family through the Great Depression. A warm and caring human being who sometimes struggled to maintain her mental health. A mortal who contained multitudes. In her story, we can learn how to endure and overcome our own inevitable challenges and heartbreaks on the road of life.

Prologue: The Trunk

Maya with her Great-Great-Grandmother’s trunk (2017)

In 2004, I inherited a steamer trunk from the 1920s. This family heirloom originally accompanied Maja Wittenstrom, a Swedish immigrant, on her voyage to Chicago via New York’s Ellis Island. 

1: Logjams

Swedish “floaters” risked life and limb to break up the logjams, often with muscle power but sometimes with dynamite (another Swedish invention)

Every spring, when the ice thawed, the logs came floating down the rivers. Wood provided warmth, energy, and building materials for the people of Sweden and many more around the world. It produced charcoal for processing ore in the mines. Maja’s grandfather, August Kallgren, made a career of working with wood as a carpenter. Invariably, logjams occurred in the process of moving the timber downstream to market. It was a fact of life that now makes for a poetic metaphor: the Swedish resilience and determination to break up the logjams of life and keep moving on.

2: A Nurse’s Grit

In 1920, Maja was a nurse in training in her hometown of Solleftea, Sweden, when she was directed to report to surgery. She was to assist in an operation where a soldier’s leg was to be amputated just below the knee. Her job: to hold the amputated body part and remain holding it until it was severed. 

3: An American Immigrant

Postcard (above and verso, below) from Maja’s Uncle Albert Chalstrom, the first family member to immigrate to America

Maja set sail for the United States on a warm day in August, 1922. She left behind a comfortable home with 8 siblings and 2 successful parents, who owned a business on main street and enjoyed the respect of the community as leaders and generous philanthropists.

4: Love in the Second City

Carl Oscar Wittenstrom

Carl Oscar Wittenstrom sang beautifully in the church choir. This talent, according to family lore, first caught young Maja’s eye as a Lutheran congregant on the South Side of Chicago. The young couple were wed in 1923, the same year that Maja became an American citizen. Carl established a small auto-repair business, and they purchased a home and automobile. They had a daughter, named Delores, and journeyed back to Sweden to visit with the Kallgren family.

5: Tragedy and Heartbreak

What has since come to be known as the Great Depression struck soon after the Wittenstrom family’s return from Sweden, in October 1929. Within 3 years, some 15 million people (more than 20 percent of the U.S. population at the time) were out of work. In 1932, Carl Oscar Wittenstrom died suddenly of a heart attack at age 35. His auto repair business had failed amidst the Great Depression, which claimed his livelihood and then his life. By 1932, Maja’s only relatives in the U.S. were her younger brother, Oskar, and her Uncle Albert and Aunt Selma Chalstrom. At 35 years of age, she found herself a widowed mother of 3.

The above photo embodies the many battles that Grandma Maja won in order to qualify for the celebration and honor of this Blog, web site, and book.

Linnea on the left, Maja, Peter, and Delores are the proof of Grandma Maja’s great grit and gumption, overpowering adversity.

About the Author

Dr. Don Grossnickle is a 71-year-old retired educator and currently a medical missionary in Uganda, East Africa. He is married, and the father of three and grandfather of four.

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My Maja: A Grandson’s Tribute