The third Sunday of June in the United States and Canada is set aside to honor our fathers and grandfathers, while Iceland celebrates these paternal bonds on the third Sunday of November. The influence of these men on their families and society can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives.
As a special treat, the Icelandic Roots Authors’ Corner writing group has shared memories of their grandfathers (afi in Icelandic) for you to enjoy.
This fall, the Icelandic Roots Author’s Corner group will offer two writing seminars for Icelandic Roots members to provide writing tips and ideas on how to write your own family story.
by Sharron Arksey
I always think of coffee when I think of Amma and Afi because morning and afternoon coffee breaks were part of their daily routine. They introduced all of their grandchildren to the taste of java. It was a diluted taste because the cup was one-quarter coffee and three-quarters milk. The proportion changed as we grew older. We called it Amma Coffee or Afi coffee, depending on who was serving it to us.
Afi liked to pour hot coffee from his cup into a saucer. I suppose it was a way of cooling the brew more quickly for drinking. We all followed his example.
Afi also had a few sugar tricks he liked to show us. He would take a sugar cube, dip it in the coffee and then put it in his mouth. Or he would put the sugar cube in his mouth and then take a sip of coffee, letting the liquid seep through the sweetness.
Years ago, children and grandchildren compiled a book of memories for a family reunion. Almost all of the stories about Afi contained the words “quiet” and ‘kind.” He WAS quiet and kind. He also had a mind of his own and quietly resisted any attempts to sway it.
Afi liked his brew sweet. One cube or one teaspoon was not enough. Amma, however, wanted him to change this habit. She had Type 2 diabetes and she wanted to save him from the same fate. Or perhaps it was a case of misery loves company and she figured that if she had to do without, so should he. At any rate, every time she poured him a cup of coffee, she reminded him that he was only allowed one sugar.
I vividly remember one afternoon when she remonstrated with him, then turned away to carry the pot back into the kitchen.
Afi reached for another cube, looked across the table where I was sitting, and winked.
by Sverrir Sigurdsson
I never met my two Afis. Both died before I came along. My paternal grandfather, Runólfur Hannesson, was a subsistence farmer in northeast Iceland. He passed away three years before I was born.
My maternal grandfather, Þorkell Magnússon, was the captain of a fishing vessel called Gyða. In 1910, he and his seven-man crew set sail from Bíldudalur in northwest Iceland. They ran into a furious storm and never made it home. My mother was eighteen months old at the time.
Even so, my two grandfathers have exerted a giant influence on my life. Following the footsteps of my farmer grandfather, I worked as a farmhand every summer from the age of 9 to 14.
Equipped with minimal resources on the farm, I learned to be inventive and self-sufficient. At age 13, I devised a block and tackle system for two horses to catapult a wagon-load of hay into the barn, a task earlier done with pitchforks. This kind of do-it-yourself independence has stayed with me all my life.
My fisherman grandfather is the reason I am what I am today. He started out as an impoverished farmhand. After he married a woman from a neighboring farm, they decided to strike out on their own. With nothing but their “askurs,” the wooden bowl Icelandic farmers ate from, they moved to the nearby town of Bíldudalur.
Afi seized with both hands every opportunity to advance himself. He apprenticed with a jewelry master and became a certified goldsmith, stitching silver and gold filigree on Icelandic national costumes worn by women.
He was also a fisherman. He took a maritime course and eventually fulfilled his dream of becoming a skipper of an oceangoing sailing vessel.
This Afi showed me that with hard work, I can be anything I want to be.
Vignettes of My Grandpa (Gudjon John Erickson a.k.a. "GJ" - IR# 84671)
by Alfreda Erickson
My grandpa did not want to be called afi; that was not the Canadian way. He was a cattleman, raised Herefords, and won many prizes for his bulls. By the time I was in the picture, his first wife, my amma, had passed away, his second wife had divorced him, and he was living with his housekeeper. They raised four children and eventually married.
For 35 years, he was the school trustee, in addition to being a municipal counselor for 16 years. His legacy, though, was his part in organizing the Lundar Bull Sale. At the awards in 1986, he received an achievement award for his efforts which formed the basis for the industry not only in our region but in other parts of Manitoba. At that time, the Lundar sale ranked 8th in all of Canada. A year later, in 1987, he passed away at the age of 89.
Miss Pringle was a peculiar nickname he used only for me. Even after some research on the name, I could never figure out why? Later, as an adult, I had a flashback of him sitting right in front of our newly acquired television. An avid sports fan, his nose almost touched the screen; he was that engrossed in watching a boxing match. Pugnacious he was; his hands were in the same mode as the fighters, as if he wanted to be part of their match. Thinking he was about to punch out the TV screen, chances are I had a few choice words of warning for him. If so, those words may have reminded him of someone? Obviously, a Miss Pringle, whoever she may have been?
Grandpa loved to party and especially to dance. In those days, at weddings or even for ordinary dances, we always had live old-time bands. If I was there, he would always ask me to do the *chotis. For his age, he had a lot of energy; it was fun to whirl around the dance floor with my grandpa dressed in his “going-out” suit-wearing a bolo tie. Or, as I called it, a cowboy tie.
*Chotis (Schottische) is a folk dance that originated from Bohemia. It became popular during the Victorian age and was brought to North America with the migration of thousands of people from different parts of Europe.
by Gay Strandemo
My grandfather, Leonard O. Strandemo, was called “Len” by his wife, friends and customers. Nobody knew what the “O” stood for, but the best guess was “Ole.” He owned a men’s clothing store that had mahogany paneling with mirrors that sent your image into infinity. The store stood on Main Street, and my dad and his two brothers grew up in the north, far from their Norwegian relatives living south of Minneapolis.
Dad ran Social Services for the county, and my mother taught music in the public school, so my daycare was Grandma. It was paradise in the apartment above the clothing store. The steep staircases leading to the street or private side garden, the upstairs roof patio with its clothesline full of white shirts swaying like ghosts.
At lunchtime, I’d hear my grandfather on the creaky stairs. We’d eat fish and mashed potatoes, and my grandparents drank Folger’s coffee out of iridescent mugs. Then my grandfather smoked a cigarette, sending perfect fat doughnuts of smoke above our heads, and then it was time to drive to the golf course.
My grandfather drove a pearl gray Cadillac – my feet ending at the edge of the seat. At every stop sign, I would have to spell S-T-O-P. In the clubhouse, Grandpa would buy me a red pop to drink. The place was full of wicker seating, had an enormous jukebox and a huge framed print displaying a gory battle scene of native tribes scalping soldiers.
The November I was ten, my grandfather died of a heart attack at midnight, and the next morning as I was pulling on maroon-colored tights to dress for school, Mom informed my sister and I that Grandpa had died. I was incredulous, asking stupidly, are you kidding? My mother, irritated, replied that no, she’d never kid about something like that. Unbelievably, we still went to school, where I held it together best I could not to cry in front of peers – which would have been mortifying.
That day marked the end of my happy childhood and the beginning of my dark ages.
My Paternal Afi
by Bryndís Víglundsdóttir
My paternal afi, Guðmundur Sigurðsson (1877-1956), was born in Gljúfurholt to Sigríður Jónsdóttir (1860-1945), a maid there and Sigurður Hansson (1860-1954) a fisherman. Sigríður was solely responsible for their baby and Sigurður had two more sons “for fun” before moving to Hull, England, where he lived out his life.
Afi was still a young child when his mother moved to another farm to work and left him at Gljúfurholt in Ölvus. He was an orphan for the rest of his childhood and was treated as such. My father told me the people at Gljúfurholt were not kind people. How they were not kind was never talked about.
Afi was hired as a fisherman on a boat from Stokkseyri and there he met Þóranna Þorsteinsdóttir (1881-1969), who became his wife in 1905. Their son, Víglundur Jósteinn (1905-1987) (later my father), was baptized at their wedding ceremony in the church of Stokkseyri. They built a little house in Stokkseyri, named it Deild, had two more children and life was good.
Then came the Spanish flu, an epidemic that hit the world in 1918. The western and southwestern parts of Iceland were hit hard. Many died and many never regained their health. Afi was bedridden, fighting for his life the entire winter of 1918 and in the end, his lungs were permanently damaged.
A very clear memory has stayed with me throughout my life, hearing afi coughing at night and fighting for his breath when he was in bed trying to sleep. Sometimes the family doctor would make a house call, trying to alleviate the chest pains afi lived with; however, I never heard afi complain about his poor health.
After afi's bout with the Spanish flu, he could no longer work as a fisherman and there was no work possible for him at Stokkseyri. Víglundur, who was only 13 years old at that time, went to Seyðisfjörður, where he found a job on a fishing boat for the Winter Season. The crew of eight fishermen rowed the boat out to the open ocean to fish and during that winter, my father became the strong man of body and soul that I awed and respected.
Eventually, Vígundur went to Reykjavík looking for a job. During these years, the age of the car had come to Iceland, so he got a driver´s license and found a job as a taxi driver at a newly opened taxi station, where the fleet consisted of eleven taxis.
In due time Víglundur had enough money to suggest to his parents that they move to Reykjavík, sell their house at Stokkseyri and they would buy a house together. Víglundur had found a girl to marry and they all moved into the house on Laugavegur 70, Reykjavík. The house had two stories and a good ground floor where my afi opened a grocery store.
It was what I saw and heard in that grocery story that I realized what kind of a person afi was.
There was severe poverty in some of the homes in our neighborhood. The families were big, several fathers didn’t have steady jobs and some had given up struggling and took to the bottle for comfort. Some mothers didn’t have money to pay for the food they needed for their families. So they came to Guðmundur, the merchant.
I was not supposed to be standing in the store, just listening and observing and would always leave when afi looked at me. I did, however, often hear the stories the women were telling afi, more often than not crying as they were talking. He spoke kindly to them while wrapping up the food he knew they needed. He had a ledger where he wrote what people were getting; thus, it looked like a regular visit to the store. Some debts were paid, more were crossed off. Often he would say to women as they were ready to leave- wouldn’t you like to visit my Tóta upstairs and have a cup of coffee with her?
Years later, my mother told me that afi and amma made sure that there always was hot coffee and some refreshments on the table in their home for the women afi invited to go upstairs to visit with his wife. Amma was usually at home during the opening hours of the store. As a child, I didn't understand the charity and kindness they were practicing.
Then one summer, his father appeared for a visit all the way from England and my afi and amma had him stay with them for over a month. I didn’t meet him because I was at Lækjarbotnar for the summer, but this was way above my understanding.
Later I asked afi how come he allowed that man who had abandoned him when he was a child to stay with him. I didn’t realize at that time that I had no right to ask that question.
Afi just stood there, silent. Then he said quietly as he stroked my head, “He is my father.”