Amma, Mother, Daughter
By Bryndís Víglundsdóttir
My maternal grandmother, Sumarlína Pétursdóttir, IR #128090, born April 22nd, 1886 in Miðdalur, Kjós was the daughter of Pétur Árnason (1849-1931), IR #128085 and his wife Margrét Benjamínsdóttir (1857-1900), IR #128086.
Amma was born on the first day of summer, so her parents gave her the name Sumarlína which means ‘Summer Girl.’ In her adult years, she celebrated the first day of summer by inviting all her children and grandchildren to her and grandfather Grímur´s home for a feast, serving the best food and having great fun.
Amma was one in a group of fourteen siblings. When the fourteenth baby was being born, both her mother and the baby died, leaving the father with thirteen children, the oldest nineteen years old and the youngest two years old. Three of the oldest ones stayed home to help work the farm, but the rest of the group was taken in by families in the area.
Pétur, my great grandfather, was harsh with his children. When he took two of his daughters, one who later became my amma and her five-year-old sister, to the people who had agreed to take them in, Amma heard her father say to the couple there: “if they begin to whimper or cry, you just be sure to whack them properly.” Amma was four years old and she never forgot nor forgave this.
I sometimes wonder if these experiences in her early childhood molded her mindset towards those needing help and assistance.
Amma and Afi, Grímur Jónsson (1884-1957) IR #129017, married and built a home in Reykjavík. They were blessed with nine healthy children who all lived a long life, except a girl who died in infancy. One of their children was Margrét, my mother.
Amma was a seaman's wife, as so many women in Iceland were at that time. As a young man, Afi was a fisherman on a trawler. The boats might or might not come to the home port to land their catch. Often there were weeks, even months, when Amma was without her husband, so she had to take care of the children and the home on her own.
Once, the trawler my afi worked on was fishing off the banks of Newfoundland and the catch was landed there. The boat was damaged by high winds and had to be docked for repair. The closest shipyard was in Gloucester, a township north of Boston proper. The management found room and board for the crew in private homes and Afi stayed with a woman who told him she was a Yankee - whatever that was. The repair of the trawler was supposed not to take long, so having the men wait for the ship seemed the only sensible way and there were neither boats nor planes heading for Iceland at that time.
However, the repair took longer than expected and winter had already arrived. So Afi stayed for the majority of the winter with this Yankee woman. She taught him about nature’s remedies against many ailments, such as common cold, sore throat, stomach ache and more. He then taught these to Amma. One of the remedies I remember well was the onion remedy. Fresh yellow onions were cooked with slow heat and brown sugar, preferably honey, was stirred into the water and while still warm, the sick person should drink this in quantities. Afi also brought home a large clay pot that the Yankee woman had helped him fill with goodies. My mother told me the children thought that somehow America was a place filled with “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Afi spoke with great respect and fondness of this Yankee woman. No wonder I decided as a young child that I would go to that country!
Afi sent a telegram to Amma while in Glouchester. She had it framed and hung on the wall above her bed. It had a beautiful and loving text that I used to read on my visits to Amma. I was surprised that “old people'' could still be in love; I thought love was only for the young. When I ventured to mention this to my amma, she looked at me silently for some time and then she said something I have often come back to in my mind: “In the beginning, my dear child, it is a burning and high flame then later there will be the hot embers that keep you and your house warm.”
Amma would put on her Icelandic costume in the afternoon if no hard work was waiting for her. She owned a silver pin that she fastened to the upper part of the costume. This pin was more like a frame than a pin and in that frame, Amma had a photo of Afi. My mother gave this pin to me when Amma left us and I have it in my home where I see it every day.
My mother used to visit her mother quite often and usually, we, my siblings, and I would go with her. I was not keen on visiting my grandmother; I found it rather difficult. The reason for this was her need to stuff us with food. I didn’t understand the reason for this until I was an adult and could discuss it with my mother and really hear what she told me. When Amma lost her mother and was placed with an unrelated family in the district, she was constantly hungry. She would cry with hunger pains once she was in bed at night, but that made no difference. The food rations were miserly for the two little “needy” girls.
Making sure people were not hungry became a passion for my amma. She was a wizard with food, made the best meals of fish and meat, and managed to grow a variety of vegetables that she had a way of keeping in her cellar over the winter. Nowhere have I seen such big and juicy rhubarb as she had growing in her kitchen garden and in the fall, she took her children to the fells around Reykjavík to pick crowberries and blueberries that she pressed to make juice to enjoy in the winter. This way, she said, the children would also have sunshine in the winter. Then she mixed the pulp and rhubarb jam and it was used as a spread on bread and cakes and sometimes stirred into the skyr. When she told us to have some more at her table and we said, no, thank you, I have already had two (or three) pieces; she would say rather sternly: “Nobody is counting food in this house.”
My afi had brought the ‘ancestor’ of the Rhubarb plant 7-year-old Bergþóra is holding back from Norway. How big and juicy the rhubarb amma grew was, as the picture shows.
When my mother´s oldest brother was seventeen years old, he was working on a fishing boat when he fell overboard and drowned. His parents were given a sum of money, compensation, or insurance money. With this money, they bought a house some distance out of town. The lot was of a good size so Amma could increase her garden space and have a large potato field.
There were many old and elderly people living alone around my grandparents´ house. Amma made sure they got at least one good meal a day. She had a row of enamel containers on the kitchen counter and put hot food for her “aged friends” into them - fish, potatoes and in the summer, she added carrots and turnips. Then she poured on some melted butter or lard (depending on what people liked). The kids ran with these containers to the different recipients and knew who would get what!
The rumor began to be heard that Sumarlína had “healing hands.” The reason for this was that Amma took in a number of sick people who, more often than not, had no one to help them and nursed them back to health. Usually, the health care consisted of giving them good and nutritious food and a warm place to sleep, in one package, with “tender love and care.”
My mother told me that while she was growing up, she would often lend her bed to girls who came to her mother asking her for help when they- alone in the world- were about to give birth to their baby. Some of these girls stayed on with my grandparents while regaining their strength. Amma would always contact the same good midwife to come and help with the delivery and my mother said she never knew of any exchange of money. Amma evidently didn’t ask how these babies came into being. These girls needed help and had neither a boyfriend, a husband, nor a family that would support them.
My grandparent's house was on the outskirts of an area where there was and still is abundant hot water in the ground. A proper swimming pool for public use was built there in 1908 and people flocked to the pool and the wonderful showers there for bathing, learning to swim, and swimming. Around that time, it was decided that all children should learn to swim and they couldn’t leave grade school until they were able to pass the swimming test. Adults were also learning to swim and my mother was one of them, and so was Amma. We were frequent visitors to the swimming pool. The problem was that there were no swimsuits available in the stores for women of substantial size as my amma was. She was not about to let that stop her. She contacted a farmer, bought a whole fleece from him, washed it and carted, spun it into thread fit for a swimsuit and then knitted a swimsuit for herself. I remember Amma in that white swimsuit and thought she was pretty cool!
Amma left this earth a few years before Afi did. When she died, it was as if the light in his kind eyes went out. His Lína- as my amma was always called, wasn't there anymore.
I think of Amma, my mother´s mother, as an incredibly strong and resourceful woman and afi Grímur, quiet, calm and loving, provided the fuel for all that strength.