Updated: Oct 6, 2019
The Friðrika Björnsdóttir Memorial Restoration Project
Riverton, Manitoba, Canada
It all comes with the cold water….
“Kemur allt með kalda vatninu”
By Salín Guttormsson
Photo Credit: Angela Helgason Chalmers As It Happened Productions
Many likely know at least a few things, by now, about Friðrika Björnsdóttir, the Icelandic woman who came to Canada in 1876 and who also happens to be my langalangamma (great-great-grandmother). She and her husband, Pétur Árnason, came with three children all under the age of six, lost those three a year later to the smallpox epidemic, had five more children within the following eight years, died as a result of birthing complications at the young age of 35, just three weeks after her namesake was born, and was buried - not in a cemetery but at her homestead, Árskógur, near Riverton, Manitoba. Friðrika’s life story has been extensively shared over the last fourteen months through both traditional and social media platforms, multiple community presentations, and most recently through the production of a documentary. Apart from a rather intriguing connection to Danish royalty, her story, while also historically significant in terms of home burial practises, is not particularly exceptional; it’s not so much different from so many of the Icelanders who sailed off after the Askja eruption in search of a “better life”. Friðrika’s story is unfortunately a rather typical one - one of hardship, challenges, obstacles, and perseverance. It is worth repeating, but not here. Because the story behind her Memorial Restoration Project is also one of hardship, challenges, obstacles, and perseverance. That’s my story here.
Back in 2015, I dubbed myself the “Lead” of the Memorial Restoration Project, later adding the qualifier “not so much by design, but much more so by default.” It all came about on that eve on which one is supposed to make resolutions. Mine was to either see this project to fruition, having sporadically inched along in fits and starts for well on eight years, or to shut it down. I had been asked to join the Project Team, then comprised of eight descendants of one of Friðrika’s daughters, Vilborg, and up to that point, this headstone project was beginning to feel more akin to a millstone.
The project was ambitious in scope, consisting of at least seven separate parts. First up on the list were the repairs to be made to the original picket fence, the fence that delineated the area where Friðrika’s remains lay, and the application of wood preservative. Located on private land, no longer owned by direct descendants, these seemingly simple tasks therefore presented their own challenges, complicated further with the fact that none of the Project Team had actually put down roots in Riverton. Attending to the overgrown and out-of-control plant forms surrounding the picket fence also called for pilgrimages, permissions, and prolonged periods of pruning and purging.
I persevered, despite a nasty encounter with some sort of plant-based toxin (likely poison ivy, but diagnosed as “unknown”) and a six-week course of prednisone.
I persevered, too, when the company initially contracted to install the pillar went out of business and when the other company that had been contracted to supply the limestone pieces erred and didn’t produce the inset area for the plaque to the required specifications.
I persevered when signages were not provided in proper format, when the pillar was toppled and chipped by “playful” cows - two weeks before the protective fencing was to go in - and when the fencing company decided on its own to deviate from what had been ordered (based on its version of “aesthetics”), after they had already failed to attend on the scheduled install day. As they were not alone in failing to adhere to the schedule, I began to expect this as the norm.
I persevered through broken promises of support, through website mishaps and disappearing pages, through further damage to the newly installed fence - two days before the Dedication and Unveiling Ceremony was to take place - and through fits of family pique and a frenzied outbreak of pandemonium when facts were reported as, well, not 100% factual.
Now might be a good time to offer up an explanation of the title to this piece. A literal translation of kemur allt með kalda vatninu is “it all comes with the cold water.” What it means, though, is: if one is patient, things will fall into place. Now might also be a good time to offer up a bit more about me; simply put, I have no patience. I am also a perfectionist and a person who does not usually roll with the punches particularly well.
With no project management or other relevant experience to draw upon, these and many other obstacles had me almost admitting defeat more than once - but I am also stubborn. Those of you who have caught onto the “p” theme here are likely thinking “pig-headed” might have been a more appropriate word choice.
So I persevered. I pushed myself. What I didn’t know, I was prepared to learn. But what I didn’t know and what I wasn’t prepared for was the extent of the rivalries and the resentments. Naively thinking “we’re all of made of this stuff our ancestors brought with them” and “this is a good thing we’re doing,” I never once thought there could be resistance and reluctance in so many forms: coteries, cliques, and claims of disbelief. Although not a superstitious type, it was hard not to conclude, at times, that the project was cursed.
When the day of celebration finally came around on Canada’s Sesquicentennial, my own cursing also finally came to an end. My punishment (for what, I’ll never know) seemed to be over. Will I ever agree to volunteer for such an undertaking in the future? Absolutely not! Do I regret having done so? Absolutely not!
Despite all the hardship, there were, in fact, far more positive outcomes. Friðrika’s burial site is no longer unrecognized - she has a beautiful triangular-shaped pillar, designed to represent the three generations of the past, the present, and the future. She has a plaque with her dates of birth and death - her “book-end” dates. As Kate Morton wrote in The Distant Hours, those dates are important:
“A life … a human life … is bracketed by a pair of events; one’s birth and one’s death. The dates of those two events belong to a person as much as their name, as much as the experiences that happen in between.”
The panel, publicly accessible in the local park, commemorates Friðrika’s brief, tragic life. The content included also contributes to the interpretation of Manitoba’s heritage. She is but one representative of the Icelandic settlement struggles in Canada. Perhaps, though, by bringing her personal story to life and preserving it, a deeper understanding of belonging and place will inspire others. Potentially, it will cultivate more respect and appreciation for those who came before us.
And the connections that have been made throughout the decade-long term of the project - in particular, those made with newly found relatives in Iceland who disclosed that they, too, had grown-up with the “royal blood” family lore - are priceless, probably worth more than a (Danish) king’s ransom.
Today is the 25th of July, Friðrika’s 168th birthday. If you’re so inclined, you can wish her well through Facebook. You can also wish me well, as I splash “the cold water” and repeat my new mantra: “Just Say Nei”.
Photo Credit: JEDS Construction Ltd.
The Project Team was very fortunate to receive a generous historic preservation project donation from Icelandic Roots, in keeping with just one of its many laudable goals. Financial support for future preservation and maintenance is still sought and welcomed!
The Friðrika Björnsdóttir Memorial Restoration Project: firstname.lastname@example.org