Letter writing is becoming a lost art. In my youth observing my grandma Maja writing letters home to Sweden on this desk is a beautiful cherished memory. Being in America while her beloved family was located an ocean away in Northern Sweden brought on terrible homesickness and perhaps feelings of regret leaving them behind. Letter writing for grandma was a passion. I so easily recall her sitting at what she called her, “secretary” desk and tears streamed down her cheeks as she wrote a letter back home. I would ask her, “grandma, why are you crying?” and her reply came after a pause as she composed herself. ” I am crying dear Donnie, because I am missing my loved ones back home, my tears are somewhat because my emotion is mixed with happiness and thankfulness that I remember each of them, and sadness, that they are out of reach so far away.” Then grandma would put the pen down and we would talk about the person to whom she was about to correspond. Maja shared how she wished she could send a letter to her mother and father in heaven, I remember that comment. Often, since she has gone to heaven nearly 50 years ago, I too wish I could write her a letter and hand it to her. Here I share, one of about a dozen letters I wrote to grandma that i include in my book. It is the first letter of love letters that express deep feelings and connections. In writing, I keep our relationship alive. The letters go with chapters of the book. There is a letter about her relatives that gave her a high standard to live up to as they, “made something of their lives”-someone Maja would look up to. I wrote about her homesickness. I wrote about the logjam tangles that complicated her life and challenged her to become a problem solver as she had to deal with much adversity. I wrote about her breakdowns that were brought on by tremendous strains. I wrote to express how she became an inspiration for me as a person, inspiring my career as a teacher, a father, a minister, a missionary in Africa, a college professor. My letters to grandma are one way to pass along to my children and grandchildren the admiration I have for our relatives. Here I shae my letters as a way for you to get to know Maja Kallgren Wittenstrom from an emotional view. It is important to me that grandma Maja’s life is not forgotten. I believe that her life deserves to be appreciated. I believe that her adventure as an immigrant is instructional in that it offers insights about character that it takes to begin fresh in new surroundings and use determination and resilience to forge new pathways and fight off the desire to quit. Maja had the ability to”grin and bear it”, come hell or high water, to force oneself to push on, even when there is no desire , no energy, no willpower left in one’s soul to strive forward. Her life legacy is a story of refusing to accept defeat. I write to do my best to explain what I have learned about human resilience in theory by pointing out principles she put into practice and can illustrate via a case history a pattern worth studying and analyzing.
I hope you enjoy my letter and get to know Grandma Maja and my relationship.
GRANDSON’S FIRST LETTER TO GRANDMA MAJA
Dear Grandma Maja:
Because I have recently almost died of heart failure, matters of life and death seem to be a priority more than at any time of my 71 years. I miss you Grandma now, more than ever. Because of our shared faith, I realize that it will not be very long until we are united once again in some kind of time and place, we describe in human terms as heaven.
I write you a letter from this mending heart of mine as a way to honor your ongoing presence in my life today. In my times of struggle, I have dug deep and found ways to connect with your Spirit as I have sought to proudly walk in your successful shoes and keep in touch with your legacy. So often now I so easily bring to mind some of the many lessons you taught me about being strong when life becomes tough to handle. Thank you, dear lady. Nostalgia tugs at my heart and pride overflows in recounting all you accomplished in the “old country.” (det gamla landet)
This letter must be like the many letters you sent across the sea from Chicago to Sweden. With the physical distance comes a yearning to bridge the gap and in the writing our minds can be close at hand as the words express the longings, the emotions and more. I recall so many years ago being away from home at boy scout camp and writing a post card to you. Every day with eager anticipation I hoped the scoutmaster would bring mail from home, from you. Alas, your letters would come and the money inside always made me smile. The best part of being connected to you Grandma was knowing that out of all the people in the world, you had made writing to just me a priority.
How I remember the times observing you write and reading letters from Sweden. I can still see your smiles and your tears and your eyes passed over the lines sent and lines of the letters received. I too was homesick at times at scout camp, when I took basic training in California after joining the US Army. Being away from home and loved ones is very difficult. I cannot even imagine how difficult it must have been for you to be away from your home in Sweden. You wrote me letters when I was in the army. The letters were uplifting and today I can reflect you understood homesickness so well and that is why I can still recall that your letters meant so much to me as I underwent the rough tough strain of mental anguish in basic combat training. You had training too to deal with being homesick in the process of assimilation in America. You took on new culture and traditions while remembering the old country and the first 25 years of your life growing up in Sweden.
Now, dear Grandma, I have made it my business to write this letter and what is more, write a long-extended biography-memoir about you. This book contains reflections about what I can remember, and narrates stories about what I have found out about you.
Over the years since your passing from this life I have tenderly felt your presence. You have been with me in so many ways. I ponder what it means to have “character”. I think that is the great mystery I am trying to explore about you dear Grandma. I am intrigued by your character.
Much is discussed in America and around the world about immigration. Much is made of the “American Spirit” of rugged individualism and self-determination, independence and the drive to making something of a legacy through one’s own inner powers of grit. Your life embodied those traits of character that so many admire and try to harness calling that powerful force: resilience a bouncing back, a flexibility to bend not break in the midst of great challenge of soul. Now more than ever I am interested in the character of Maja the immigrant from Sweden.
I have been reading books written by those who, like me are interested in the character of those that leave their native land and venture forth to travel distances great and small to leave and arrive and start anew. This particular letter I write will shine a light on what I see that might in some way describe your personality, your hopes and dreams as you live day by day as an adventurer coming to Chicago from Solleftea. The question is who is Maja Kallgren Wittenstrom? Who is this Maja in the context of the stories you leave behind? What makes you tick Maja? What did it take to make it as a survivor or all that you went through? Let me dig in and do some research and describe what I find and more importantly record a kind of profile of what I gather might be in some way descriptive of your “immigrant character”
In your smile, I have always perceived a verve, brisk, enthusiastic and hopeful, humor, a robust love of life even in the face of pain, discouragement and loss. You Maja somehow stored up via your upbringing, perhaps, your genes a hardiness, and venturesome curiosity, a restless seeking of adventure and discovery. You must have faced times of desolation, despair, failure, nostalgia, disenchantment and failure.
Times were hard on you. In your face I saw cheerfulness, and self-confidence and assurance that since you embarked on a journey that the destiny ahead could end in victory, that is if you could rally and dig deep and find the strength.
I can still hear the way you pronounced words like, “strength”. Your Swedish-English pronunciation was melodic and like a song for me. I loved hearing you speak. I loved watching the reaction of others in turning an ear to listen to your words, sometimes with a smile.
Grandma Maja you were unique, and you knew it and always seemed to stand tall with a sense of pride never ashamed.
I appreciate and admire you and am eager to share your story with your relatives and others so that they, like me, can grow to embrace grit and gumption and guts by practicing the use of them in solving the challenges and problems encountered in our everyday lives.
The following chapters will allow me an opportunity to share various dynamics and dimensions of your life story that deserve to be brought out into the light so others can appreciate your character as I have over the years.
Among the most beautiful memories I recall often is you sitting at the piano in your living room on Yates Avenue and singing in Swedish. The words were in Swedish so I did not understand. The tears and melody melted our heart and you interpreted the lyrics. “Say Hello to the Folks back home”
Love your grandson,