There are goodbyes that are hard. These are the kind where it is likely that you will never see someone again. Such goodbyes were frequent in days past. I’ve heard about them in reminiscences of Icelandic people. Most emigrants getting onto a boat knew that they would never return to Iceland, the last glimpse of a mother, father, brother, sister, friend, would be the last glimpse they would ever have.
I’ve heard the same story on the train station in Liviv. The tearful goodbyes as a train left the station and their relatives and friends followed along for a few steps for one last look at the person who was leaving for America.
We have in Winnipeg the opposite situation now. Atli Asmundsson, the consul general, and his wife, Þrúður Helgadóttir, after spending years among us, will be leaving Canada and returning to Iceland.
It is normal for diplomats to be constantly on the move. Like people in the military, they get posted from Vancouver to some place in Africa. From Africa to China. From here to there, filling a position, doing a necessary job, then being moved for some unfathomable reason.
What is unique about Atli and Þrúður is the length of time they’ve stayed in Winnipeg and how, during that time, they have become so much a part of the community that it seems impossible that they would not continue to be part of it.
When I briefly took over as editor of Lögberg-Heimskingla, I had no experience as a reporter or newspaper editor. I had lived the quiet life of an academic and writer, analyzing and writing manuscripts. Newspapers, I quickly found out, even quite small ones such as LH, attract a lot of passion and conflict.
One of the first conflicts I faced, I was completely unprepared for. However, Atli bought me lunch (it should have been the other way around) and discussed the problem with me and the diplomatic way of handling it. I followed his advice and diplomacy triumphed. It was interesting because in conflict situations, I was inclined to go in with both guns blazing. That wouldn’t have worked too well with board members, subscribers, advertisers, writers, readers and staff.
Some of Atli´s wise counsel was an echo of my mother who always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Atli rephrased that in diplomatic terms but during my tenure, I did my best to practice it. I didn’t say I did it, I said, I did my best to do it. It takes discipline to govern one’s temper and one’s tongue.
We, that is those of us in Victoria, have had two receptions to honour Atli and þrúður, the Icelander’s of Victoria (that’s our club), the Beck Trust (that’s John Tucker and Patricia Baer and Uvic), and a number of people from the Icelandic Canadian community. We schmoozed, we ate, we had a little to drink, and Atli sat in the big leather chair and charmed us with his story about barely escaping with his life from an exploding Icelandic volcano and about his courting of Þrúður. He survived the volcano and he managed to woo Þrúður even though he says, “At first, she wasn’t impressed.”
It is hard to explain the impact of Atli and Þrúður. He has said about the Icelandic people he has dealt with over the years, “We love you.” And, truly, they do.
JO says that Atli and Þrúður are like royalty for us western Icelanders. Not royalty like the Tudors. More like Good King Wenceslas, full of strength, warmth, and love.
On both occasions of hosting them in my home, JO insisted that we clean and prepare my house as if the Queen were coming for tea. Crowds of Victorian Icelanders came out to see them. JO reminds me when Atli, on one of his visits to Victoria, addressed Iceland’s financial situation and asked us to love Iceland, in its difficulties, we could not but agree. Atli and Þrúður have done so much to strengthen the Icelandic diaspora in these modern times. We know Atli and Þrúður would not like to be called regal, but they likely understand that many Icelandic-Canadians, who are accustomed to the reign of Queen Elizabeth and her ancestors, who pledge allegiance to the British monarch in their work and service to their country, have always longed for stronger ties with our own mother country, Iceland. And through Atli and Þrúður, we have had this.
I have a friend, Lauga, whom I value dearly. Her parents were from Iceland. She married Agnar R. Magnússon, his people also from Iceland. He taught at the Jon Bjarnason academy, and in the public schools in Riverton and Winnipeg. Agnar died some years ago.
Lauga, at ninety seven, had to move into a nursing home recently. She has lived some 83 years in the west end, 57 years in their Garfield Street home. JO is their youngest daughter, and as the family got ready to sell the storied house, she was making sure that no documents of historic significance were lost. She invited me and Atli and Þrúður over to see the family treasures. We looked at the spinning wheel, old poems, chess games, books, books, and more books, and photographs from as far back as 1917 when Agnar first came to Winnipeg as a teenage student.
Among the photographs were those Agnar had taken on Empire Day 1939, of Icelandic Canadians, crowds of Icelandic-Canadians, dressed to the nines, heading for Sherbrook near Sargent, waiting for King George and his Queen Elizabeth. (I was there, a babe in my mother’s arms, seventy three years ago. )
After viewing these photos, we stepped out onto the streets of Goolietown, JO as our tour guide. Down Alverstone, up Sargent, up Home Street. Past the houses, the theatres, the Wevel Cafe, the woodlots, the publishers and printers, the J.B. Academy. And JO will tell you this. There were a lot of ghosts. Crowds of ghosts. All the old Icelanders came out, dressed in their finest. Old Arinbjorn Bardal in his bowler hat, Rev. B.B. Johnson in his morning coat, Loa Davidson in her Fjalkona dress. Salome Halldorson, M.L.A. The Jonssons from Borgafjord. The Longs, the Becks, the Bjerrings and all the other Goodtemplars. The Stephansons, the Sigurdsons, the Olafsons, the Kristjansons, the Swansons, the Eyjolfsons. Ragnar and his choir. The Unitarians, the Lutherans. Hjartur Leo and the chess club. The Icelandic-whist and bridge players. Finnur, the Book Binder. Olafur, the Almanak publisher. The Wevel waitresses. Woodlot Kelley and his brother. The fellows working at Columbia press and the Viking Press. Sig the Barber. Principal Marteinsson and his students. Lulli the poet-plasterer. They were all there, waiting to see our Icelandic royalty, Atli and Þrúður. And the crowds were not disappointed. Atli and Þrúður graced the streets and charmed the ghosts of Goolietown with their wit, love, and devotion.
And then Atli said, let’s go have supper and he and þrúður took us to a restaurant just off Corydon. The food was good, as one would expect since Atli likes good food and knows where to find it, the conversation was lively and interesting because Atli and þrúður are lively and interesting people but what is always most memorable about occasions is when something happens that is unexpected, spontaneous, and it happened as we were eating dessert.
What happened is that the discussion turned toward music and an Icelandic song was mentioned. þrúður started humming the tune and JO joined her. They sang what they remembered of it and the song was wonderful. There we were in a public restaurant and both JO and þrúður, both of whom have low, strong voices, were having a great time singing together about hope for Iceland’s future.
To me this typifies Atli and þrúður, natural, modest rather than self-important, open and involved, able to turn a meal into a memorable occasion without trying. It is easy to have a good time when you are with them.
Logberg-Heimskringla is having a ljósanótt (an evening of light) to honour them. They deserve to be honoured for all they have done for our community but also for the way that they have embraced the community.
I wish them well. It is hard to think of them not being with us but, today, unlike when our ancestors came to Canada, travel is easy, there are frequent flights to Iceland and from Iceland, goodbye isn’t necessarily for a life time nowadays. So, perhaps instead of saying goodbye, we should say, “Until we meet again.”
(Thanks to JO Magnusson for her help with writing this tribute to Atli and þrúður.)