"There was a lot of immigration [to America] when I was a child. We used to go down to the train and watch the train. There was a train station where I lived in Mattmar. The people leaving had wreaths of flowers around their necks because that was the end. They would never see them again, you see? So those were funeral flowers practically around their necks." (Caren Lundgren)
Swedish train station circa 1920 courtesy
Caren Lundgren was born in raised in Mattmar, Sweden, a settlement which consisted mainly of farmers. Her father worked in the local mill. She and her three younger brothers grew up in a modest house where they slept in the kitchen in the summer and the pantry in the winter. They existed on fish as red meat was scarce.
Caren finished school at 12 years of age. She wanted to train to be a teacher, but had to wait until she was 16. Her parents sent her to her grandparents house where she worked as a maid. Her stingy grandfather, however, refused to pay her. Caren longed to get out of the situation. Her grandmother recommended: "If I was a young girl, I would go to America."
That's exactly what Caren did. "There was a lot of immigration [to America] when I was a child. We used to go down to the train and watch the train. There was a train station where I lived in Mattmar. The people leaving had wreaths of flowers around their necks because that was the end. They would never see them again, you see? So those were funeral flowers practically around their necks."
In 1921, borrowing the passage money from her stingy grandfather, she packed her belongings in a square wooden box with a padlock, painted blue (perhaps for Sweden's flag). Settled in steerage, Caren sailed on the M. S. Stockholm for America. Arriving in New York Harbor, she waited three days until the immigration officials let the passengers disembark.
Caren stayed for a few weeks at the Swedish Seaman's Home in New York City. She secured a job as a kitchen maid in Long Island making $50 a week. She worked with a Swedish cook who was insecure and took out her frustrations on Caren, calling her stupid every day. Caren believed her. She would wake up the next morning, her pillow soaked from the tears she had shed.
Caren was homesick for her family, but determined to stick it out. "When I wrote home, I had to be so careful about getting tears on the paper. I thought, 'I can't go back and admit i's so stupid.' You know? I was saving my money to pay back my grandfather and I did. He couldn't understand how I could make that kind of money in such a short time."
Mercifully, Caren found another kitchen job and worked with a wonderful cook. She saved enough money to visit her family twice, in 1926 and 1930. They didn't have to wear the wreaths at the train station after all.
Villa Blue, a Long Island estate owned by Mr. Carter, circa 1910 courtesy http://www.oldlongisland.com/.