Sunday, 25 February 2018

A long line of strong women

Yesterday I made the firm and final decision to go by the name Miriam in all my daily interactions. I still need to get my legal name change, which unfortunately I might not be able to do for several years due to bureaucratic issues. However, to me, this is a mere formality.

Transitioning from one gender to another is a process that encompasses all of your life and reaches deep into your inner self and your relations with other people. And even though this is rarely, if ever, discussed among genealogists (transgender genealogists being very few), it also affects your relationship with your family history and the way you see yourself in relation to your ancestors.

Suddenly, I have gone from being part of the male line of descent to being part of the female line. My descendants, if I have any, will be connected to my family on their female side instead of the male side, at least socially, if not biologically/genetically.

These thoughts inspired me to write this detailed blog post about my direct female/maternal ancestral line. I've written something about this line before, but in less detail.

I will start with the story of my 4th great-grandmother, Olea, who was born into rural poverty in the early 1800s and established herself as a crofter's wife far away from her home village. Each generation of her female descendants would work to improve their situation as well as they were able to, one step at a time. It has been a long journey.

Our story starts in Stange parish in Hedmark county, on the eastern shore of Mjøsa, Norway's biggest lake.




Generation 1

Olea (Olia) Hansdatter Lillehagen was born in Stange on October 23, 1817 as the illegitimate child of Hans Andersen and Berte Embretsdatter. Olea's childhood and teenage years seem to have been turbulent; as a young girl she moved a rather long distance away, to the parish of Elverum in Norway's largest and longest valley, Østerdalen, perhaps to stay with relatives. Olea was confirmed in Elverum church in 1833. Then, in 1842, she moved yet again, this time to the parish of Aurskog, in Akershus county, several hundred kilometers to the south. There she married Hans Hansen in 1843, and the couple settled in Blaker village, at the croft Kleiva (or Kleven, in the Dano-Norwegian orthography of the time), which was located on land belonging to Svarstad farm.

No photo of Olea exists. We know little of what she was like as a person, but in her burial record from the year 1900 she is described as sindsygt fattiglem, "mentally insane pauper". In other words, she must have suffered from serious mental illness.



Olea's burial record; she is number 5, "Sindsygt Fattiglem Enke Olea Hansen Kleven af Svarstad" ("Enke", widow, is a mistake by the priest, as her husband did not die until 1904). Immediately below Olea's burial record is that of her granddaughter, Dagny Gunvor Andreasdatter Kleven (1899-1900).




Generation 2

Thea Lovise Hansdatter Kleiva, daughter of Hans and Olea, was born at Kleiva on May 29, 1858, and grew up in a household dependent on poor relief from the government. In 1881, when she was 23 years old, Thea married Andreas Kristiansen, a carpenter who came from a background very similar to her own. The couple lived at Kleiva for several years (in fact moving between Kleiva and Hellerud) until they settled down at the croft Hellerud, which at the time belonged to the farm Toreid. It seems that Andreas somehow managed to buy the land and turned Hellerud into an independent farm. The whole family then started using Hellerud as their surname.

Thea (left), Andreas (right), and an unknown woman. The location is Hellerud farm in Blaker.

In 1917, Andreas lost his life (miraculously as the only person to do so!) in one of the worst railroad accidents ever to have taken place in that area of Norway. Life at Hellerud became tougher, but several of Thea's children were already adults with full-time jobs, and the family never fell into the kind of poverty that Thea had grown up in. Thea herself lived to a ripe old age and died in 1935.


Generation 3

Dagny Gunvor Andreasdatter Hellerud was born at Hellerud farm on October 10, 1901, as the youngest child of Thea and Andreas Hellerud. Dagny was named after her older sister who had died in infancy the year before she was born. Our Dagny was only fifteen years old when her father died, and it must have been a terrible blow to her. Since Thea could not run the farm by herself, her oldest son Karl Herman Hellerud (born 1882) took it over, and Dagny, who was the only remaining sibling who still lived in the childhood home, eventually had to leave to start her own independent life. She moved to the capital Oslo, or Kristiania as it was called then, where she married her first cousin Sofus Adolf Hansen in Petrus church on February 27, 1921. Sofus worked as a stoker at Christiania Sailcloth Factory (Christiania Seildugsfabrik), while Dagny, as far as I know, was a homemaker. The couple lived in the borough of Grünerløkka and had three children. Later in life, they had a small wooden motor boat named "Thea" in memory of Dagny's mother.

Great-great-grandmother Dagny having her morning coffee. I've heard that her hair was so coarse that the nurses at her retirement home broke at least one comb on it. I think I've inherited some of those genes! Dagny passed away in 1983, less than seven years before I was born.


Generation 4

Gerd Ovidia Hansen, the youngest child of Sofus and Dagny, was born in Grünerløkka, Oslo on December 29, 1924. Her first boyfriend was a local boy named Torbjørn Johansen, who was a year older than herself, but he went to sea at the age of 14 (or 16). During World War 2, Gerd is said to have been engaged to another man. At this time, while Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany, she was also active in the illegal press in Oslo, distributing patriotic newspapers and leaflets. Unfortunately I don't know the details of Gerd's underground activities, but I know that she was caught by the Nazis and sentenced to hard labour - she had to pick turnips at a farm in Blaker!

When the war was over, Gerd's old boyfriend Torbjørn came home after many years abroad (at sea and in the United States). The two got back together, and got married in Paulus church on February 23, 1946. Their first daughter, my grandmother Kari, was born later that year, and their second and last child, Mette, was born two years later. Eventually the young family moved to Lørenskog just outside Oslo. The family was not well off. Torbjørn worked at a factory and later as a window-cleaner, and Gerd, too, had to work in order to make ends meet. She and Torbjørn would both work night shifts, leaving the two children home alone. In the daytime, Gerd was at home being a housewife. It must have been extremely tough, but they managed.



Left: Great-grandma Gerd as a young woman in the 1940s. Right: Gerd in 2003 (my brother has been edited out for privacy reasons).



Generation 5

Kari Johansen, Gerd's oldest child and my maternal grandmother (mormor), was born in Grünerløkka, Oslo on July 7, 1946. She had to start working at a young age, and it was at her workplace that she met the man who would later become my grandfather. They married in 1965, and their oldest daughter, my mother, was born later that year. My grandmother was only 19 years old then. Out of respect for my her privacy and that of my mother and my aunts, I will not write in detail about my grandmother's life. Suffice it to say that things did not come to her for free, and she worked hard all her life. My grandmother died in 2003, only 57 years old, and was survived by her mother Gerd who died in 2005. We all wish my grandmother lived longer, not least because my brother and our younger cousins did not get the chance to know her well. I cherish the good memories I have of her.

My grandmother, as I remember her.



Generation 6

My mother is a self-made woman. She was the first person in her family to go to high school and university, where she studied geology, social anthropology as well as English and German. In 1989, she spent a semester in Austria and experienced the fall of the Iron Curtain up close. Back in Norway, my mother later became a schoolteacher, then a school inspector, and she is currently working as a headmistress. She has in fact headed three different elementary schools, and each school has ended up in a better state because of her leadership.

Although comfortably off today, my mother has never forgotten her working-class upbringing and has never failed to impress on me and my brother the importance of hard work and the mentality of not taking life for granted. I'm very proud of my mother's achievements and I always try to carry her down-to-earth values with me. Hopefully my brother and I will be able to pass those values on to the next - as yet unborn - generation. I also hope that if I ever have children, I will be as close to them as my mother has been to me and my brother, and to give my children as much love and support as my mother has always given us.

Olea, Thea, Dagny, Gerd, Kari and my mother - I'm extremely proud to be a descendant of this long line of strong, resilient, resourceful, loving women. And I feel very privileged, in transitioning, to join their ranks.

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