A woman journeys into her Swedish past

To me, she is always Frida. Not my great-grandmother - I never knew her in that relationship - but Frida, like a character in a novel I am reading. I see her through the yellowish light of a microfilm reader and the search function of the website ellisisland.org. (She is one of millions of immigrant arrivals recorded there.)

Frida Eleonora Bergström: She was born in 1879 in Söderfors, an ironworking village - it was famous for its anchor works - in the region of Uppland, north of Stockholm.

In 1903, at the age of 24, she emigrated to Nordamerika, her decision recorded in the neat script of the Söderfors parish clerk. Destination: Bridgeport, Conn., according to the scrawl on the Ellis Island ship manifest.

It was a long way from Söderfors to Bridgeport. Another journey got her to a marriage and a life as a housekeeper in Brooklyn. Along the way, she became my great-grandmother. It is Frida's journey that made English my mother's tongue.

More than half a century after her death, I've set out to close the distance between us, tracing some of her steps in reverse and hoping to meet her on the way. To "find" Frida, I've enrolled in beginning Swedish.

The Scandinavian School in San Francisco is a language-immersion preschool. It also offers evening classes for adults. Kids' drawings hang on the walls. Sometimes our teacher, Anne-Louise, adopts the resident stuffed animals as teaching tools, introducing us students - an editor, a medical researcher, a computer consultant - to en björn (a bear) or en tusenfoting (a centipede).

There are seven of us in the class. Some have a Swedish spouse. Some, with young children enrolled at the school, are trying to keep up with the next generation's proficiency in the language. My recent discovery of cousins in Sweden - descendants of the family Frida left behind - motivated me to sign up for class.

Before going on this search for Frida, what Swedish meant to me was Ingmar Bergman movies and the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show.

In class, the language feels strange in my American mouth. Studying a language with the goal of actually speaking it is a new experience for me. In high school and college, I viewed languages as requirements, intellectual challenges. With three years of high school Latin, I'd been fondest of a language that lived only on the page.

Sometimes, after a class in which we've all attempted to pronounce sjö (sea) or stjärnor (stars) - trust me, they don't sound the way you'd expect - I imagine Frida arriving at Ellis Island. After 10 weeks of class, I probably know more Swedish than she did English.

Frida had a friend from her village on board, 17-year-old Lydia Sjöberg; they were going to Bridgeport because Lydia's brother Gustaf lived there. I picture the two young women poring over one of the phrasebooks designed to guide emigrants through the journey.

I want to ask her: Did you and Lydia practice English on the boat? Did you sound out the letters of Gustaf's address?

Instead of answers to my questions, there is the silence of old photographs. In the last one, taken about 1947, Frida is a plump woman in a flowered dress, her hair in a shining gray bun, at a picnic on Long Island. The photo is a little out of focus. She might be laughing, or just looking into the sun. My father is the only person left who knew her, and he has a small boy's memories. "She had a heavy Swedish accent," he tells me.

As for me, I stumble through broken conversations in class. I'm an editor - I make my living correcting other people's words - but while writing demands precision and refinement, I've always marveled at the elasticity and generosity of spoken language. We may hesitate, mispronounce, and use the wrong words, but we can be understood.

Someday I'll go to Sweden and meet my cousins there. In the meantime, six months into class, I'm finding that what I like most is knowing what Frida called the things of her world - the sea, and the stars. Speaking the words of her language tells me about mine. The shared roots, sjö and sea. There is more than one way for a language to live - and more than one way to hear a woman's voice.

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