They were teenagers when they walked through Ellis Island into a new life, she with her sewing machine and he with his masonry tools. They emigrated from Norway after World War I. Their parents believed each would have a better life in the United States.
Both of them boarded a train headed west to the Dakotas where other Norwegians had settled. Many opportunities for work awaited, and into their new life they rocked and rolled to South Dakota relatives. They met in school and later married young. They birthed five girls; one later died as a child. Their mother sewed clothes on her beloved sewing machine and their father examined each of them before they left for school. He wanted his girls to speak English and dress appropriately to increase their chances of success in this new country. Their mother took in sewing to add extra money and their father became a mason in demand. His patios and masonry work for homes was a thing to behold, so lovingly crafted.
The girls married husbands who led successful, respectful lives, while they were stay-at-home mothers. The four remaining girls became accomplished seamstresses who could sew and make all manner of beautiful things needed in a home. Their parents wanted the girls to speak English and didn’t teach their children Norwegian. The parents retired in Pacific Grove, California, both living into their late 90s.
Last week, I attended my mother-in-law’s 100th birthday celebration. She outlived her siblings and parents, a daughter and her husband, a son, my late husband, and often introduced herself as “Pearl Larson — they say I’m a real gem.” My late husband and she shared the same birthday and same dry sense of humor. It was fun to watch them banter back and forth, finding humor in each other’s stories when they were together.
Pearl has degenerative eye disease, but other than that, when she has her annual physical, the doctor shakes her head and remarks, “You’re healthier than most people I see on a regular basis.” The last time I asked her about her health, she chuckled and said, “I guess I’m healthy so I’m told. There’s still juice left in this old gal!”
She walks the halls daily, holding on to the railing in order to get “my steps in,” lives alone in a senior apartment, makes her own bed, dresses herself and makes her breakfast. She has help buying groceries and preparing food. She walks alone unaided, and when I’ve intended to assist her with her seat belt, she comments as she bats my hand away, “Now I can still do this. Just guide me to the belt fastener.”
In her earlier years, she made hundreds of newborn hats for the hospital. For years she helped make quilts to ship to refugee camps. She made 565 stuffed dolls, named each one, and they can be found the world over where she shipped them. She sewed for movie stars when they lived in California, her own curtains and clothes, most everything in her house.
During World War II, with her husband on the beaches of Normandy, she and three children under the age of 5 lived in Boston with her sister. Both mothers took in sewing to earn money and serve the war effort. She speaks solemnly of that worrisome time today.
At her birthday celebration, all manner of her famous Norwegian cookies were served, baked by her granddaughters. Regal in her chair, she welcomed guests who spoke lovingly and admiringly of her quiet, steady inspiration. In her 101st year, she’s still paying it forward.
Flo Larson is a Homer Foundation trustee.