A NORWEGIAN'S FIRST DAY IN AMERICA by Erma Wilson Olsen
Mrs. Brederson’s deep blue eyes twinkled over her cup of strong, hot coffee. I never made it five feet into her house before I found just such a cup in my own unwilling hand. The only words of English Mrs. Brederson could not understand were, “No thank you. I don’t drink coffee.”
That big cup of coffee appeared to be the ticket necessary to sit down. It was, at first, an uncomfortable situation for a non-coffee drinker, and it did eventually drive me to great lengths to learn to tolerate the caustic fluid.
So, why did I accept invitations to visit my Norwegian neighbor? Because I discovered I could manage tiny sips of that bitter brew, made bearable by eating lots of Norwegian cookies, and get to hear her delightful stories. My favorite was in answer to the question, “Do you recall the day you arrived from Norway?”
“Oh, Ya,” she said. “I remember when I first come to America. Never will I forget. When we could see the shore, a lady attached a big tag with my name on it to my coat. It made me feel like an infant, and there I was, a big girl of thirteen. But with so many people on the deck, I guess it was the only way.
“Finally, a man pointed at my tag and said his name was Arne Jacobson. So I knew this man was my mother’s friend in America who’d arranged for me to work.
“He picked up my satchel and led me to a wagon that had bundles and baskets in it and off we went. He didn’t say a word, so I didn’t say anything, either. I tried to be brave, but I was kinda shaking. Mr. Jacobson said, ‘You must be hungry.’ He reached back into a box and handed me something he called a peach.
“‘Eat,’ he said. ‘It’s good.’
“I held it in my gloved hand and smelled it. It was different from anything I’d had at home, but it had a nice enough smell, and I was hungry. I took a big bite. Such an awful surprise. My mouth felt like it was filled up with nasty cobwebs. I looked at Mr Jacobson and tried to smile. I didn’t want to swallow the awful stuff. What to do? There was no place to spit it out. Finally, I couldn’t hold it in my mouth a second longer. I took a big gulp and swallowed it down. My stomach felt sick. I couldn’t take another bite.
“I took off my gloves and felt the peach. It was covered with terrible fuzz. I didn’t know where to hide the thing. It was wet and damp where I’d bitten it. I couldn’t put it in my pocket. It would soil my only coat. I didn’t dare drop it or throw it out over the side, ‘cause Mr. Jacobson would see.
“There it sat in my lap, like a huge furry spider. I hated the awful thing. I hated being in a strange place with food I couldn’t eat, and I didn’t know what to do. I grew more and more uncomfortable. That thing called a peach was to blame for everything. I was afraid Mr. Jacobson would ask me why I didn’t eat it. I couldn’t tell him my stomach turned at the very thought of taking another bite. It looked so ugly sitting there in my lap. It made me feel even more trapped and helpless.
Mr. Jacobson stopped the wagon and got out. He went ‘round to the back. I turned and watched while he rearranged some boxes and packets that must have slid. I kept my eyes glued right on him and made myself pick up that creepy, sticky peach that still sat on my lap. Without turning around, I slung it over my shoulder as far away as I could and hoped Mr. Jacobson didn’t see what I’d done.
“That’s what I most remember about my first day in America.”
She took a swallow of her now cooled coffee, then picked up the coffee pot for refills. She moved the pot toward my cup. I had managed to drink half of it, along with eating a pile of cookies. I covered my cup’s top with my hand and said, “Sadly, I don’t have time for more.”
I told her how very much I enjoyed her story and thanked her for sharing it with me. As I stood, I asked if over the years she’d come to like peaches, without the fuzz, of course.
“Nei da, nei da,” she said, with a look of sour disgust on her face and determined shakes of her head.