“Is there anything of mine that you’d like when I die? Tell me now, so I can make note of it,” my sister said.
(Not that she’s going anywhere anytime soon, I hope, but yeah, it never hurts to have all your funerial ducks in a row.)
“Just the pansy picture,” I replied.
“As a matter of fact, I have a housewarming gift for you,” my sister said, handing me a package.
When I unwrapped the present, it was the pansy picture! I had coveted it since childhood, but being the youngest, I never thought it would be mine. Sisters connecting. I flew home to Seattle with it sitting on my lap, encased in bubble wrap for safe keeping. If it could talk, it would have quite a tale to tell.
That painting has been a part of my family since long before I was born. My grandmother, Helga Schon, brought it over from Denmark around 1916, when she was 24 years old. She taught herself English on the way over, using the Saturday Evening Post, newspapers, and a Danish/English dictionary. Her husband, my grandfather, insisted that his family would speak English. We would be Americans.
Helga came through Ellis Island with only 10 dollars in her pocket. My grandfather arranged for her to be met by a Danish minister in New York. He arrived soon after, and they started a family. Through it all, this pansy picture bore witness.
Imagine. My grandmother moved 3845 miles away from home, away from everything she had ever known, to a place she’d never been, where she knew no one. I can sort of relate to that, because I moved 3100 miles from Florida to Seattle a few years ago. I knew no one, and had never been here before. And it was scary. I can’t imagine adding additional layers of complexity to the mix, such as knowing you’d probably never see your loved ones or hear their voices again, and barely speaking the language. She was brave. I have cell phones and e-mail and skype to stay connected. She may as well have been jumping off a cliff into a bottomless pit.
But the story gets even more poignant. My cousin once sent us a ton of old family photos, and my sister mentioned that in the background of one is another pansy painting, almost identical to ours, but not quite. If you zoom in on it, you’ll see that each one has a few differences, the most obvious being the fact that they both have a different number of fallen petals. (I love that these pansies are in typical Danish copper pots, because that is another thing that has been passed down to me. My grandmother’s copper pot sits proudly on my mantelpiece.)
So the question became, where is the second pansy picture now? I asked my cousin about the photo in question. She’s the family’s history expert. She felt that the photo may have been taken at the house of my grandmother’s sister, Else, who lived in Copenhagen until she died. She never had any children. They also had a brother, Paul Petersen, who lived near Birkerød, who apparently did have children, so maybe one of them has the painting now.
The third photo from the left below the pansy is my great grandmother, Sophie Dorothea Nielsen. My mother shares Sophie’s middle name. Grandma loved her very much, and never saw her again after coming to America. That must have been particularly hard for her, because shortly after she got here, she had her first child, Henry, but he died within a few weeks. She had to cope with that in a foreign land without her family. She went on to have 4 more children, including my mother, but my grandfather died during WWII, when my mother was only 17 years old. The family was pretty much destitute for many years after that.
Helga did visit Denmark one last time in the 50’s, but her mother was long gone by then. She did see her sister. I’m sure she also saw that second pansy painting and mentioned that she still had hers, too. Sisters connecting.
Did they know the artist? (The signature seems to say Ayn Kras, but nothing pops up on Google.) Did the family buy these paintings at a festival as a remembrance of a wonderful day? Did they get them just before Helga boarded the ship, as a way to feel connected? We’ll probably never know, now. My grandmother died when I was 8. She was 80.
I think my grandmother would be amazed to know that her painting has been from Copenhagen to New York to Pittsburgh to Portland to Connecticut to Florida to Georgia to Washington State. That’s approximately 15,000 miles, or the equivalent of more than half of the way around the planet at the equator.
Somewhere in Denmark is a pansy painting hanging on a distant relative’s wall. That branch of the family has probably forgotten that it even has a twin. As for the one that made it across the Atlantic and across America and has witnessed births and deaths and wars and sacrifices, it now hangs proudly over my bed. I like to think that it watches over me while I sleep, as it has watched over my family for generations.
I wrote this to demonstrate that immigration (and art) provides us with a richly-woven historical tapestry. It connects us to the wider world. We are much the better for it.