New reader asks: Is your name actually “Tild”? And my answer is always: Yep. It is.
Here is why I am Tild:
My paternal grandmother Mathilda Wulkan emigrated from Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century. Like many other young, impoverished Scandinavian women, Mathilda got a ticket to America in the form of a job waiting for her: to be a domestic for an upper middle class East Coast family.
When her new employers in White Plains, New York Boston, MA opened their door to greet the new Swedish maid on the day she arrived in 1905, they beheld a massive 19-year-old farm girl, over 6 feet tall, with an immense steamer trunk marked “Ostergotland Sverige” at her side.
For the next several years Mathilda did the cooking, laundry and housecleaning for a family of 7. She chopped wood and hauled coal, did carpentry and plumbing repairs, tended a kitchen garden, and in general toiled like a stevedore from before dawn to past dusk six days a week. On her day off she would attend a meeting of the International Order of Good Templars (IOGT), a temperance society she had joined in Sweden, or some other social gathering of young Swedes living in the White Plains Boston area.
Mathilda had grown up in a rural area but wasn’t uneducated. She read English far better than she could speak it, especially at first, and was a voracious reader of all types of literature. Like many of her friends she had a passion for poetry and oratory, and at meetings would often give dramatic recitations in her commanding, thunderous voice. With her impressive size and imperious demeanor (my father said she could give emperors lessons in how to be regal) when she took part in patriotic tableaux she would invariably be cast as an American president or other historical figure or icon such as Lady Liberty or (more often) Uncle Sam.
For several years Mathilda carried on a penpal correspondence with a fellow IOGT member named August Brodin. August had emigrated from Sweden some years before Mathilda, and various jobs had taken him all over the United States. He was a railroad clerk, then worked in an iron foundry. For a while he was a surveyor for one of the copper mining companies in Michigan, then became a union organizer for the IWW . Finally he decided he would make his career selling insurance.
He’d done his share of carousing and hard living, but when a drinking binge nearly killed him he swore off alcohol completely and joined the IOGT. For the rest of his life he would be an active member and frequent speaker at IOGT functions. At 5’6,” August stood a half-foot shorter than Mathilda, but his eloquence and abundant charm gave him a formidable stature all his own.
After ten years Mathilda left her life in domestic service and, in New Britain, Connecticut in 1915 Mathilda married August. The couple soon moved to Minnesota, where they settled in Minneapolis and raised one son, born in 1925, my father Carl Gunnar.
Mathilda worked all her life on behalf of numerous causes including temperance, the rural co-operative movement, civil rights, and the Red Cross. At the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis she lectured on the evils of alcohol. During WWII she participated in Swedish-language radio broadcasts beamed at Nazi-besieged Europe. Somewhere I have a newsletter clipping from 1943 that makes me laugh every time I think of the headline. It says in big bold letters:
MRS. BRODIN BLASTS AXIS
[and then in smaller lettering underneath, like an afterthought, the rest of the story:]
In Weekly Broadcast
She fought for better working and living conditions for immigrants of all ethnicities, especially for immigrant women and children. Young people newly arrived from Sweden who needed a place to stay could count on finding a temporary home with the Brodins.
In the 1940s Mathilda would frequently call on Hubert Humphrey, the dynamic young mayor of Minneapolis and crusading crimebuster whose political fortunes were on the rise. According to family legend, Mathilda was known to give Hubert stern lectures about the things he should be doing that he hadn’t done yet, as well as the things he had done that were just plain wrong and that he should stop doing immediately. She was a familiar face and voice to many other members of city government and social welfare organizations over the years.
In 1963, in recognition of her lifelong public service, the King of Sweden bestowed on Mathilda the Vasa Medal , one of the highest decorations given to civilians by the Swedish government.
Having said all of this, I have to say one more very important thing about Mathilda, and that is: she was the most terrifying person I have ever known.
For most of the early years of my life Grandma Mathilda aka “Farmor” (Father’s Mother) scared the living bejeezus out of me.
It was agony to be the captive audience for one of her lectures, delivered in her booming, heavily-inflected ‘Swenglish’. Which lecture would it be today? “Truth”? ” Hard Work”? “Eternal Vigilance Against Fascism”? “What Makes America Great”?
To see Mathilda was like seeing Ingrid Bergman playing Golda Meir doing an Eleanor Roosevelt impersonation, only scarier.
I learned the true meaning of horror when I was caught in her steely gaze as I suffered through a hideous adolescence. When the family went to her house for Sunday dinner, she would greet us each at the door with a flurry of comments and questions which instantly summed up all of our many imperfections. She had a knack for putting into words and blurting out each and every opinion she ever formed, with no regard for the pain or humiliation she might inflict. Her Sunday assessment of me usually went something like this:
“Yah. Well then. I see you’re getting fatter. Your skirt is too short. You have a lot of pimples today. Don’t you wash?”
She was never malicious, and in a very self-effacing, Scandinavian Lutheran masochistic sort of way she was always more than willing to admit all of her own faults and deficits, but her words still stung. I lived in dread of her for most of the first 20 years of my life.
She loved mottos and proverbs — the lamer the better, I thought at the time. An example of this would be: One day we were watching TV at her house and a news story came on about a civil rights march. She turned to us and said, with absolute sincerity and righteous fervor:
“You know, it takes the white keys AND the dark keys to play the Star Spangled Banner.”
I heard “dark keys” as “darkies” , and it both offended and shocked me that my social justice activist grandma could so casually use such a derogatory term. I finally summoned up the courage to comment:
“How can you say that? You’re calling black people “darkies”. It’s, like, a pun. Kind of an insulting pun.”
She looked at me, her eyes widening with shock. It turned out that in her mind she had always heard “dark keys”. She had never realized that it also sounded like “darkies”. She was horrified, and we never heard her repeat that particular saying ever again.
Mathilda was not a devout churchgoer. When she went with us to Mount Olivet she would fidget all through the service; tapping her foot and riffling impatiently through the Green Book (which was the Red Book back then) and humming along half-heartedly with the hymns. She was tone-deaf.
She viewed many Christian and quasi-Christian denominations with suspicion; especially the more fundamentalist, evangelical and charismatic ones. Once she was trying to say something about Holy Rollers and couldn’t remember what they were called so what she said was:
“Those Holy Jumpers, they’re just crazy.”
We all burst out laughing (I should probably add that she pronounced the word “Jumpers” as “Yumpers”) and she got quite miffed with us, until somebody pointed out that she said Holy Jumpers when she meant Holy Rollers, and then Mathilda herself started laughing too, and laughed so hard, tears ran down her cheeks. Finally when she was able to stop, she wiped her face with a handkerchief and muttered to herself:
“Yah, you are sure a nutty old lady. ‘Holy Jumpers’!”
And that started us guffawing all over again.
My parents brought Grandma Mathilda along to visit me at college one weekend in 1970. She was then in her 80s and hip surgery and arthritis had slowed her down somewhat, but she still walked with a purposeful stride as she came forward to greet me and my motley, rainbow-coalition gang of friends in the campus coffee shop. Grandma said hello to me, then turned to slowly survey the faces of my friends.
Her gaze stopped at the glowering countenance of an enormous young black man named Davis, a philosophy major not shy about expressing his militant Black separatist views. In his every glance and motion Davis bristled with barely-concealed contempt. This was not a façade. For whatever reasons he did indeed have contempt –not for any particular group or ideology to the exclusion of all others — everybody and everything stood a good chance of being the target of his disdain sooner or later.
And this was the person in front of whom my tough old battle-axe grandmother chose to stop, plant her feet, and say:
“Yah. Well then. It’s good to see boys like you off the streets and into college.”
Total silence. One beat. .. Two…
I thought “boys like you”? “off the streets”? Oh Jesus, Grandma, here it comes..
Then, mirabile dictu, Davis smiled and simply said
“Yes. It is.”
…and I started to breathe again.
Years after she died, I found a box full of postcards stashed in the bottom of her steamer trunk; the trunk she’d brought with her to America from Ostergotland all those years ago. The postcards were sent to Mathilda between the years 1905 and 1915, and were from many different senders, but most of them were from August.
The cards were always addressed to Miss Mathilda Wulkan, but the messages began with “Dear Tildy” or ”Dear Tillie” or “Dear Tild”.
I was dumbfounded. My stern, ferocious grandma was ”Tildy”?
Mathilda could be addressed simply as ”Tild”?
A frivolous, lighthearted nickname like that for an imposing presence like hers?
Yep. I suspect too that she enjoyed those short and sweet nicknames more than she ever let on.
When I first started doing some freelance writing and then going online during the early years of the intertubes, I decided I wanted to use a pseudonym, and thought for a considerable length of time about what attributes the ideal pseudonym would have. More than anything else I wanted a name that said “strength” to me; a name with power that I could draw on. It turned out that I didn’t have to search very far for a pseudonym that fit the bill. I have been “Tild” for many years now.
My hope, and what I strive for, is to be worthy of that name.