Amerika

Photo by Dave Williams/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Photo by Dave Williams/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I didn’t know what to expect coming to the United States. I wasn’t even sure why we had to come here. I remember hearing the muffled voices of my parents downstairs, talking about the war. Some of my friends said there was a lot of fighting going on, but none of that was happening in my world. I didn’t realize until much later how lucky we were to leave Norway before the German occupation of WWII. Mamma said families in Amerika didn’t have to worry about the war. I think she was right, but there was a different kind of war I had to fight when we came here.

I remember coming in the summer. We were on a small boat, shut in with a lot of other people from all over the world. Some wore what looked like expensive jewelry, but many wore dirty and shabby clothes. I saw dusty, tired men in heavy coats, and fearful women holding crying children. I didn’t like being so close to all those people for so long. Some of them talked to each other but for the most part, we were strangers. I heard a lot of languages I couldn’t understand, a cacophony of syllables I didn’t even know existed. The sound of their words was like music in a dream. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but I felt like there was not much difference between them and me. Mamma held my hand tight the whole time, her palm dry and her knuckles white. It was uncomfortable but it was more comforting than the unknown strangers. I wanted to go out, to the outside of the boat and see the ocean, just like we used to do back home, but Mamma and Pappa said it was too dangerous. I stayed crowded in the boat for what seemed like forever. I slept and I dreamed of home. I dreamed of the trips into Oslo and the kringla Pappa would sometimes bring me when he came home from work. It was soft and warm and had sometimes broken apart in Pappa’s coat while he walked home from work, but I savored every last crumb every time. The sweet taste was always a gift to look forward to. I wasn’t sure of what to look forward to but, I hoped they had kringla in Amerika.

When we finally arrived, the first thing to greet me was an explosion of sound and the sight of the giant statue of a woman I had never seen before. The smell was startling. It was dirty, like a mixture of sick and smoke. I had never seen this many people in one place before. It was like we had left a boat from one ocean just to become part of another, with waves of people swaying through the lines towards the base of the statue up ahead. Mamma told me to hold onto her hand, and I was not upset to do so this time. We had to talk to a lot of people that afternoon. I remember the man at the counter was very angry when Pappa told him our name. Ingebritsen. Pappa was trying to spell it to this man, but the man’s face was getting redder with every passing moment and his voice kept getting louder and louder, saying things I didn’t understand. I was scared so I grabbed Mamma’s coat and asked her if we were going to have to go back on the boat, but she softly hushed me while listening to Pappa talk.

After a little while, a small man with a smile on his cheerful face came over and talked with Pappa and then talked to the angry man. The small man laughed a hearty laugh, shook hands with Pappa and then we left. I never saw that man again, but I would like to thank him. I didn’t realize at the time just how much he did for my family that day. Without that man, we may have been stuck there, in that in-between. Not quite there, but not quite home. 

We got on a smaller boat and then we left the island with the big statue behind, going towards the buildings I could see across the water. When we got off that boat, a man was waiting for us and Mamma hugged him tight. He shook hands with Pappa and then crouched to speak to me. He was a large man, and he looked shiny from the sweat on his balding brow, even though it wasn’t a particularly hot day. He smelled like fish and Pappa’s pipe. I moved behind Mamma and he laughed. I didn’t know at the time, but this was my Onkel, Mamma’s brother, who had come to Amerika a few years before. Momma told me we were going to stay with him. When I asked her when we were going back home, she looked at me and said, “Kari, this is home now. Amerika is our home.” I didn’t say anything. Pappa and Onkel were talking and already walking to a car and Mamma pulled me along. It was that day I was reborn, becoming someone different than what I was when I arrived.

Pappa found a job with the boats, and Mamma started working with Onkel’s daughter cleaning houses. I stayed home alone most days and waited for Mamma to return and make lunch. Most of the time it was only soup with bread. I didn’t particularly like the food, the bread was always hard and the soup tasted like salt. We didn’t talk much during our lunches, and she only spoke less and less as more time passed. The silence was unnerving as we sat and ate, the tick of the clock was the only sound that reminded us that we were still awake.

Pappa met someone at his work who had a son and daughter my age, and we started to spend time together while our parents were working. They spoke English but I was only just learning. I didn’t like being with them because I didn’t understand them that well, but Mamma insisted I play with them. She said I needed to start speaking English because, “In Amerika, we speak English.” I didn’t want to upset Mamma and Pappa so I started practicing with some of the books Mamma had taken from the homes she cleaned, even though it was difficult. English letters were so different for me then, but I kept practicing and eventually learned to stay quiet if I didn’t know how to say something.

Mamma and Pappa were speaking less. I thought something was wrong, but they would both smile at me if I asked them why they were so quiet. At first they wouldn’t talk until I went to bed, but eventually I stopped hearing them through the walls completely.

We hardly spoke any Norwegian after we moved out of Onkel’s house. Mamma only used it when she got upset, and Pappa barely spoke at all. I remember the second birthday I had in Amerika. I begged Mamma and Pappa for kringla but Mamma got angry with me. She shouted at me and even though I shook and cried I could hear the fear in her voice, like a rat who hides in the dark corners of a house and bares its teeth when it is confronted. She told me I do not get to ask for kringla in Amerika, and I needed to stop. I didn’t even know what I was doing that I needed to stop. I ran to my room and cried all day. That night, Pappa came into my room and woke me up. He said he had found a man in the market who made kringla and he unfolded his dirty red kerchief and held me close while I ate it. It was broken into pieces and not as good as I remembered, but I loved it all the same. He told me not to tell Mamma, put me back to bed, and kissed me goodnight. That was the last time I asked for kringla.

The next year, Mamma said I was going to start going to school. I was so excited. I was in school when we left Norway and I was best in my class when we learned the alfabet. I tried not to get too excited though, because Mamma didn’t think it was good when I was loud. She told me her friend from work would be taking me and I could sit with her friend’s daughter in school. That was all we said about it.

The next day, Mamma woke up early to fit me into my best outfit and made me wear my itchy sweater but I didn’t complain. I could hardly contain myself that morning, because Mamma and Pappa were always happy when I did well in school in Norway, and I thought that this would finally be a place where I could shine. Mamma walked with me through the streets early in the morning and we met her friend, Patricia, and her daughter Alice. Alice had beautiful dark hair and it fell in delicate curls around her shoulders. Her eyes were brown like chocolates and she looked happy. She immediately complimented my blonde hair and tried talking to me. I didn’t know what to do, but ever since we had come to America I had learned that it was best not to speak. I nodded to Alice, and she seemed not to care. She just kept talking as if I had been just as conversational as her. We walked with Patricia in the cold, foggy morning all the way to the school.

Nothing could prepare me for what followed on that first day. I shuffled along behind Alice quietly and for the first time since we had met, she too fell silent as we entered the cold grey gates of the building. None of the other girls were talking either. Everyone was silent. We made our way through the hall and into one of the classrooms labelled 1-A. I found it odd that our classroom was empty except for the desks where we all sat. There were no pictures on the walls like there were in Norway. Where there should have been windows, there was only a wall. The teacher came in and she wrote “Etiquette” sharply on the board in white chalk. She said this word in a funny way. I remember we learned that day about what to wear on Sundays and not to talk back to grown ups. It was also that day our teacher told us we were all going to be wives someday, and I thought about Mamma and Pappa. I didn’t want to marry a man, even one as perfect as Pappa. I wanted to run away, and cross the ocean back to Norway and to the snow and the kringla. After our first class, we went to a different classroom labelled 1-C and we had to use the sewing machines. The teacher, like a prison warden, came around to confirm we were all doing our work, lest she had some sort of punishment for us. When she passed, I whispered to Alice asking when we were going to do schoolwork. She looked confused and whispered back, “This is schoolwork. Don’t let the teacher catch you slowing down, she can be really mean.” I was lucky to never find out what Alice meant by mean.

I kept sewing. Mamma had taught me how to do the simple parts in Norway when she made my clothes for me, and most of what we had to do was simple, but I was angry. This wasn’t school. We didn’t have books or pencils. I never wanted to come back. I walked back home with Patricia and Alice that afternoon. I didn’t say anything to them. When I got home, Mamma was making dinner and Pappa was still at work, so I went to my room and cried. I must have fallen asleep because it was dark when Pappa came in to wake me up. He brought me a glass of milk, and asked me how school was. I told him everything. I told him about Alice and the teacher and sewing and not having books or pencils or pictures or the alphabet. He listened and waited for me to finish, and I wanted him to say something. I wanted him to say I wouldn’t have to go back, and he would bring me home to Norway and my real school, and he and Mamma would talk more and laugh and smile. I just wanted to go back.

Pappa said to me, “Kari, this is how things in America are. We aren’t Norwegian anymore, we are American.” I stared at my feet. I hated being American. I hated that it made Mamma so angry and Pappa so quiet. I hated that I didn’t get to go to school and wasn’t allowed to speak Norwegian. I hated all of it. But Pappa held me close. He told me one day I would understand. He said “Kari, try to do this. Try to do this for your Mamma and Pappa. We brought you here so you could have something better. We know it is hard and you don’t like it, but please try.” I stayed quiet. Maybe Pappa was right. Maybe this was the better he and Mamma wanted to bring me to. He left me and I went back to sleep. I dreamed of Norway and of the snow and Oslo.I dreamed of the park next to my school where the swings were always occupied by children my age laughing and playing. I dreamed of the lights in the sky in the wintertime. I dreamed of the quiet. All of that was gone in America. But I think it was that night I that truly realized we weren’t going back. I realized if I ever wanted to be a part of something, I needed to be a part of America, like Pappa and Mamma were trying to do.

I finished school that year and did very well. Alice was my friend in the beginning, but I grew distant from her the more I learned. She spoke too loudly, and her hair was dark like a horse’s hair and she would never get a good husband. The more time I spent with her the more anger and frustration I felt towards her. Every day she would greet me with a smile but I never returned the friendly gesture. Mamma and Poppa were smiling more. We were a family and they told me they were very proud of me. I only spoke English now, I didn’t even write in my journal in Norwegian anymore. I started to talk to more of the kids on our street. A lot of them played in the dirt, but Mamma always told me that she wouldn’t let me in the house if I was dirty, so I only played with the girls who sang songs at the church on Sundays and wore nice dresses like the ones Mamma would sew for me. I even stopped using my last name, as often as possible. I would pretend to be Kari Smith, or Kari Jackson like the president. I didn’t want people to know I was from somewhere else, and a lot of the time, they didn’t.. I looked just like everyone else. At that point, I sounded like them too. I could be an American, I told myself.

A few years later, and I would marry Donny. He was an American, he had grown up here and his parents had grown up here too. They didn’t remember a home that was no longer a home, they didn’t ever have to pretend. But I wouldn’t have to pretend to have a different last name anymore. Kari Crawford was my name. I was becoming an American. Mamma and Pappa gave Donny their blessing and I went to live with him. They were proud of me. Donny’s parents liked me, they said I was the perfect girl. I didn’t talk back to Donny, and I didn’t stop him from working or drinking. I didn’t stop him when he yelled. I didn’t stop him when he hit me. He worked long hours doing work outdoors for the more wealthy families, and he was only cruel to me when something went wrong at work, I am sure.

I didn’t get angry. I didn’t fight back. I didn’t tell anyone what was happening. These were all things we learned in school. These were all things that a good wife didn’t do. I remember thinking back to Mamma and Pappa and Norway whenever Donny would leave and go to work and I would be home alone. Norway felt like a different world, a different life. Mamma and Pappa were happy to see me married and living an American life. My friends from school were jealous of my marriage. Donny’s family had enough money so I didn’t have to work. I stayed home a lot, and wrote letters to acquaintances I had made through my time becoming an American. I cooked and cleaned. And when Donny came home from work, if he came home, I wouldn’t say anything to him unless he spoke to me first. I was a good wife. I was a good daughter. I was a good American.

Written By
More from Gavin Crawford

Amerika

I didn’t know what to expect coming to the United States. I...
Read More