The Last of the Pioneers

Once, they were myriad. You found them everywhere. Icelanders having kaffi and kleinar, passionately discussing politics or religion, reciting poetry, the state of the crops, the weather. All of it, of course, in Icelandic. That sing song language was heard in stores, on streets, in homes.

At first, of course, it was the original settlers who began to disappear into places like Brookside cemetery. Go to the cemetery and you will find gravestones with Icelandic names. My father’s great grandparents, for example. Lutheran ministers, business people, housewives with names like Ingimundson, Johnson, Thidriksson, Albertson.

Over the decades, their children grew up, then joined them, carried away from Lutheran and Unitarian churches to small plots of ground. Tears and prayers marked their passing. And kaffi and ponokokkur . We have given up Viking funerals and burning boats floating from the shore, replaced it with quiet conversations, the clanking of coffee cups, the eating of sandwiches and sweets. The Icelandic service is now in English. The conversation in the reception room is nearly all in English. Here and there a small group talks Icelandic.

However, as amazing as it seems, some of that second generation have lived, are still live, among us. A few days ago, one of them, born GUDLAUG ADALHEIDUR OLAFSSON but affectionately called Lauga, died in the nursing home at Selkirk. She was just about 99. Born in 1914, the year WWI started, she was born on a grain and cattle farm in the small Icelandic settlers community near Sinclair, Manitoba, the daughter of Thorgrimur Olafsson from Borganes, Iceland and Gudrun Rosa Thorsteinsdottir from Leira, Iceland. The farm actually straddled the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border.

Lauga had a phenomenal memory. She was the Wicki of West End Winnipeg. Mention an Icelandic name and she could tell you their genealogy plus their life stories.

She also remembered her childhood clearly. She described going to town, collecting the cheque for the cream, threshing, the rituals of funerals, much of it nine decades gone. Every afternoon at four o’clock, she had coffee and chocolate and it was during this time, at the kitchen table that I heard her stories.

It was she who, having worked as a mother’s helper after her father could no longer afford to send her to the Jon Bjarnason Academy in Winnipeg, explained to me that there was an error in my children’s picture book, Sarah and the People of Sand River. In the book Sarah had her own bedroom. Lauga said that wouldn’t have happened. Every bedroom would have been in use. As a servant girl, Sarah would have slept on a cot in the kitchen.

Times were hard when she was growing up. There were times of prosperity but those were followed by recessions and even depressions. She lived through the Great Depression. She proudly told of how the local Icelandic community held bridge evenings to raise money for people who could not afford to buy coal. In Winnipeg, in winter, fuel is necessary for survival. She also liked to tell about how individuals who were better off took clothes and food to those who were having a difficult time.

Lauga was a repository of Icelandic literature and lore. She and I quickly discovered we shared a belief in fylgjas. Fylgjas are spirits that are part of a person and often precede them on their journeys. Her husband, Agnar, had one. My father had one. My father, I told her at coffee one day, would be up at the fish camp. No cell phones in those days. No phones. My mother and I and my brother would be at home by ourselves for long stretches of time. Then my mother would start baking as if for a guest. When I’d inquire who was coming, she’d say, “Your father will be here shortly.” His fylgja had arrived. And he followed. After a while, I got so that I recognized his fylgja and would say to my mother, “I think Dad is going to turn up.”

Lauga was, without doubt, one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I liked her enormously. The greatest compliment I can give her is that I wish I’d met her earlier, known her longer. I’d have heard more stories, learned more of the details of what it was like being part of a pioneering Icelandic family in rural Manitoba. When she told her story of her shoes being burned fighting a prairie fire and having to wrap her feet in rags until there was enough money to pay for a new pair (money from a bounty on gopher tails), you knew you were listening to reality.

In the writing of fiction, we call those clincher details. Lauga was a fount of clincher details. Listening to her over coffee, I would think to myself, I couldn’t have made that up.

As a community, we are proud of the fact that some of our members still speak Icelandic. Lauga and her husband, Agnar, both spoke Icelandic. Agnar taught at the fabled Jon Bjarnason Academy, a private academy in Winnipeg that taught Icelandic among its other subjects. Agnar died in 1996. He was a gold medalist in Mathematics and Latin. He was a chess champion. He had lots of choices for a wife. He chose Lauga.

Because of illness and because of the Depression, she wasn’t able to complete her formal education but she had learned to read Icelandic at the age of three. She read widely and well in both Icelandic and English. She loved literature. It was her copy of Independent People that I first started reading. She was a good match for a gold medalist and chess champion.

She, like many who lived through the 30s and 40s, knew hard times. They didn’t stop her from having dreams. She reminded me in many ways of my Irish grandmother who lived in Winnipeg. She, too, had gone through the Great Depression with all its privations. These two women both discovered how to dress well with limited budgets. Sales at Holt Renfew meant the best of clothes without the highest of prices. Bargain hunting was a survival skill.

Luaga loved shoes. Her collection of shoes meant nothing until I heard about the prairie fire and her having no shoes. Then I understood the importance of that closet full of shoes.

She loved the West End of Winnipeg. At one time it was an Icelandic enclave. Over the decades she lived there, it gradually lost its Icelandic character as people moved away. However, she stuck with Garfield Street, with her memories of all the people in all the houses where Icelanders had lived.

I’ll fly to Winnipeg so I can be at her funeral. During the service, I won’t think lofty thoughts. I’ll think about how a girl from a dirt poor farm in the southwest of Manitoba made a life for herself, raised a family of four daughters, was an intellectual match for a chess champion and was a strong bridge partner, went from sleeping in someone else’s kitchen to her own five bedroom home filled with Icelandic artifacts. I’ll think of fylgjas and white horses that come galloping out of the north presaging blizzards.

A Fond Farewell


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.)