Conducted September 23rd, 2010
Karen’s memories of her parents and grandparents, and early life on Meldgaard
It’s Thursday the 23rd of September 2010. My name is Julia Statman and I’m interviewing Karen Finch in her home in Walthamstow. So first of all can you tell me your name, and when and where you were born?
Yes, my name is Karen Finch. And I was born in Rødding near Viborg in Denmark on Meldgaard, our ancestral home, on the 8th of May, 1921.
So first of all I wanted to ask you some questions about your family, and I thought we’d start by taking your mother’s parents first, so your grandmother, on your mother’s side – can you remember her?
Yes, very clearly, very clearly. All my other grandparents were dead so she was the only old person that I really knew.
First of all can you tell me her name?
Yes, Elsine Margrethe Sinding.
And when and where was she born?
She was born on a farm called Sindinggård in Salling, which is the peninsular that goes in to the Limfjord – the Limfjord was where our royals used to set off for their holidays in the 19th century.
And can you describe her to me – what kind of person was she?
She was a very strong, very wonderful woman. She brought up all her children – her husband died young, so she had to bring them up on her own. And she had to run a small farm and everything that that entails. Three of my uncles went to America as soon as they were grown. But my mother and her sisters stayed with her.
And what did she do?
She was a farmer’s wife.
And what did that involve?
Lots and lots of work (laughs), looking after the animals, cooking, darning socks, washing up – oh I don’t think she did any washing up (laughs), I think she found someone else.
Can you remember what she looked like? Could you describe how she looked?
She was very beautiful when she was young and she retained that beauty till she died at 79.
And did you spend much time with her?
As much as I could, but it was a long way between our homes because my home was near Viborg, which is south of Salling.
So what kind of relationship did you have with your grandmother?
Well, she talked, she told me things. She was plagued by rheumatism which meant that she had to spend an awful lot of time in bed. Her hands were crippled, very hard. Very hard.
Did you get a sense of what her main interest in life was?
I suppose her family mainly, I think. Her whole house was filled with mementos sent from the sons in America, and her brother too had gone. So they were among the things I always wanted to look at when I visited her. Also the photographs of all her grandchildren in America.
Do you remember your grandfather on your mother’s side?
No, he died young.
Do you know when he died?
No, but one of my nieces, no one of my cousins in America has been finding information about the family and also one of my brothers and one of my sisters have tried to find out about the family and what they did and what they liked.
And what was his name?
Oh Søren Møller, that was the name of all the first sons in the family and yes it’s still that.1
Are there any stories you heard about your grandparents, for example how they met?
No, only that they were very independent people. And they might have gone to church but they were atheists really, which was a strange thing to be in Denmark at that time. But the independence has come right down to now, certainly it is in all my brothers and sisters.
How do you know that they were atheist?
Because it was one of the things that my cousin in America found out, and I think she wrote to the vicar in our church in Rødding and he told her about it.
Maybe we’ll come back to that side of the family, but now I want to ask you if you have any memories of your grandparents on your father’s side.
They had both died before I was born. And what I do know is that my grandmother on the farm, Meldgaard, had the phone put in and I think that was because two of her children died in the Spanish flu, so we had a phone – 1917, which I think was quite early for the country.
And would that have been quite expensive to have put in?
Well I don’t think that would have come into it, when it was between her and her children.
So your grandparents on your father’s side died before you were born. But did you ever hear of any other stories that had been passed down to you, talked about?
I do remember one thing that my grandmother said: there was never any other man for her. They were married at 18 and 21 respectively and that was how she felt.
Do you remember her talking about him at all?
Yes, I remember that.
What else did she say?
I can’t remember anything else but my aunt who lived with her loved her family and wanted us to know that he was a clever, kind and loving person. But as I said he was quite young when he died.
Do you know how he died?
No I think that at that time there were epidemics, there were all sort of things. I don’t know. It may be that it’s in the history of the family that I haven’t noticed (laughs).
Can’t know everything. So were there any other stories that you may have heard about your grandfather, from anyone else in the family?
No I suppose he was too young and of course it was a long way away from our farm so we didn’t know the neighbours. I used to spend a lot of time there but I didn’t really meet any of the neighbours or the people around. Well, very rarely.
How far away did you live from your grandmother?
I think it must have been 50 kilometres, which was a long way when I was growing up.
So how often would you have seen her?
Well I suppose a few times a year or so, a few times a year. And at that time of course we could only, we had a horse and jumbe (laughs), I don’t know quite what that is in English.
Say it again, what is it?
A horse drawn carriage.
In Danish, how did you say it?
Jumbe, and so the traveling would take an awful long time and of course not very easy for little children to put up with.
And who would drive the carriage?
My father. Oh there was one winter, not going to Salling, but visiting family nearer. We were coming home in the night – it was another horse drawn wagon and the children were packed into the foot cover, that was normally over the legs of the grown ups sitting in front, but we were all in there. And then our father woke us and said “you must look” and it was the northern lights in the sky.
Can you describe what you saw?
It was fantastic. We stopped and looked at it as long as it was there. The flames in the sky, something totally unbelievable really. And it didn’t happen in Denmark that much, it’s more for the northern part of Scandinavia, not so much in Denmark.
Have you any idea what year that might have been?
I suppose about 1930, probably, just thinking about my own age.
You would have been about nine?
Yes, about eight or nine.
And so what kind of occasions would you have seen your grandmother or grandparents?
Well, birthdays, mainly, a few anniversaries. I do remember one thing that happened while I was staying with my grandmother. Bit horrible really. We were going to have chicken for dinner and her farm manager caught one and cut the head off – well that’s what you do of course (laughs) and the bird ran away from him, without a head, round and round and round. I couldn’t believe it.
Was it bleeding?
Yes of course. I mean we’re farmers, we’re not squeamish (laughs).
So what would a celebration, like a birthday, how would you celebrate it at your grandparents?
Well if it was celebrated in the afternoon it would always be with chocolate, a chocolate drink in a very beautiful, Royal Copenhagen, oh the words go out of my head.
You can say it in Danish if you like.
Yes kande [pitcher], and with cream on the top in the cup, yes lovely, lovely. And then there was fødselsdag kringle [birthday pastry] which is shaped a little bit like a pretzel, a kringle, that’s how you put it together. And it would have almonds in it and marzipan and… wonderful, wonderful. And that was very much a ceremony that was appreciated because it was good to eat and because of the shape and because of the occasion.
So I was wondering if you could remember hearing any stories about your great grandparents at all?
I’m afraid that my great grandparents were such a long time ago and had all died so no one in my close family would have known much about them. One doesn’t realise how much is forgotten or how quickly it’s forgotten.
Do you remember hearing any stories told about them or seeing any photographs of your great grandparents.
No, we had a row of family portraits in the dining room and I would look at them and I would think I hope I don’t look like that one (laughs).
What about the clothes, what did they look like?
Well fashion in the country was usually behind fashion anywhere else, and that’s how it was. Do you know anything about fashion?
You tell me.
(Laughs). So I suppose in the countryside most of my family would have had a black silk dress for best and then they would have had woollen silk, black, also black dress for Sunday, and church, and things like that. And probably it would have been very warm and very comfortable. We have got a drawer full of photographs of the family on the farm, but everyone’s forgotten, even my cousin who knows all about the family has forgotten who each person is, so we keep the photographs but we don’t know who they are (laughs).
When you look at those photographs do you look like any of the people on those photographs?
Yes we all look the same.
Can you say who you think you look like out of your family or ancestors at all?
Yes, all of them. And something more up to date – Katrina went travelling after university, she and a friend went to America and they visited all my cousins – there would have been about nine or ten – and they went from house to house, stayed with them, got to know them a little bit. When they came back Katrina’s friend wanted to tell me about it: “and we visited all those people, and all the women looked exactly like Katrina” (laughs) I thought that was funny, yes. And I remembered my cousin coming in 1953, you know the coronation year, she was about my age, my cousin Lillian, known as Billy. She was helping with the washing up one day and she stood there beside me washing, drying and suddenly it felt as if it was my aunt standing next to me. You know I mean it wasn’t so much the looks, it was the movements, it was the whole thing about their bodies, their closeness? Totally the same.
That’s very interesting.
That was interesting, it was nice too – whenever we have had visitors it has always been the same I must say.
We might come back to your grandparents and great grandparents but I thought now I would ask you about the memories of your parents. First of all, could you tell me about your father and his character?
My father married quite late. He was the eldest, of course, the eldest was the one who inherited the farm. His father died when he was 15. He had five sisters and he was totally totally spoiled, not allowed to lift a finger for anything on the farm you see. He wouldn’t even know how to get himself a glass of water. That’s how it was (laughs), five sisters and he was the man, from the age of 15. That I think sets its mark on a man just as much as being captain on a tanker or anything like that. I mean they are god (laughs), but he was a very good farmer and he ran the farm with precision and with the knowledge of everything that was going on for farmers everywhere, so of course he also served on all the numerous committees that farmers have to be on. In our case it was starting first of all the cooperative system, which meant a cooperative dairy, cooperative slaughterhouse, cooperative everything. And he was either the chairman or he was a very special member and managed everything. So he had to spend a lot of time away from home.
Karen can you remind us what he was called?
Oh my father’s name was Søren Møller. And he was the owner of Meldgaard, that’s the name of our farm. And we would usually have three farm workers living in and two maids when I was little, also living in of course. And so it was quite a big household which my mother ran like a Viking lady (laughs), in charge.
That’s telling us something about your mum.
And the one who knew everything, could do everything and saw to everything.
Going back to your father, how did you and him get on?
I’m not sure how to describe character – he was perhaps a little bit remote, on account perhaps of his standing, and we loved him, and when he died at 53 the whole family was disrupted to a degree which is impossible to really express. My eldest brother had asthma and so my parents decided that he should not be a farmer. Only when my father died he just could not accept that because he wanted to be the one helping my mother. And so he became a farmer instead. And my next brother was not really happy about that, but he too of course became a farmer and he got his own farm, some distance away. I don’t think I ever really got over my father’s death, at that early age.
What year did he die?
In 1942. Heart. He had been diagnosed as having problems with his heart the week before, but we hadn’t really understood what that meant or anything so his very sudden death was hard.
It must have been.
My mother too, because she had never had to deal with money or the farm or anything. And now she had to – we had managers, two I think before my brother was old enough to take over. She also wanted to make sure that we all learnt what we wanted to, there shouldn’t be any difference between boys and girls as far as she was concerned. I mean I was the eldest of eight and after me comes four boys and then three girls.
So you were the oldest child.
Yeah, with all that that means (sighs).
So maybe you could tell me something about your mother, what was her name and when was she born?
My mother’s name was Ellen Sinding Møller when she married, because my father’s family – I don’t quite know how – were connected to the mill where flour was milled. Some time in the middle of the 19th century our family moved onto the farm, our side of the family moved onto the farm and the miller side moved on to the mill and stayed neighbours, good neighbours. And so you could say that it’s possible that most of the village were related in some way or another. Well not most but some.
So do you know what year your parents got married?
Oh yes, 1920. I think Katrina has a photograph that shows the wedding.
So did they both come from farming backgrounds?
Yes, yes. And of course that’s what he expected from us. So he would not really have approved of me becoming a weaver.
What were your father’s expectations of you, do you think?
For me to be a good farmer’s wife (laughs), only I didn’t fancy any of them. So there you are.
And what about your mother?
She went to great lengths to make it possible for both my sisters and myself – and brothers who were younger, I mean the younger of my brothers – to do what we wanted to do. So I was able to go to Copenhagen, which during the war was not a happy place for parents to think about letting their children go. But I was accepted at the art school in Copenhagen and spent three years there.
But just coming back to your parents, can you remember what their relationship was like with each other?
Well, we are Jutes and Jutes are not demonstrative people.
You’ll have to explain a bit more. What are Jutes like?
Well you have read about the Jutes and the Saxons and the Angles and everything. Well people from Jutland are Jutes. And they are if possible more undemonstrative than Yorkshire people. So perhaps that gives an idea (laughs).
Depends if you’re from Yorkshire (laughs).
Well that would have been the same, yes.
So they’re undemonstrative. So how would they have expressed themselves?
Well like everybody else. It’s just not demonstrative in the sentimental sense. And I suppose we’re all like that.
So what did that mean on a day to day level. How did your parents communicate with each other and with you?
Well they talked, I can’t explain that, they were just like everybody else. Katrina thinks that they didn’t, she thinks that none of us communicates at all but we do. Maybe in a different way, I don’t know.
Your daughter, and intuitive.
Yes (laughs), it’s how it is.
Would you say they were quite different characters, your father and your mother?
Yes, my mother was very lively and very outgoing. And my father wasn’t. And my mother always managed to get everything to happen that she wanted to. And I suppose my father did too but in a different way.
What kind of things was your father interested in, what made him happy?
A little bit in history. His brother, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, was certainly interested in history and I think they shared that. My uncle left a very large library. And I read every book in that even though some of them were written in Gothic script (laughs).
How did you manage to read the script if it was in Gothic?
Well I don’t have any right now to show you but it’s a very convoluted script and not all that easy to read but I managed.
Can you remember any of the stories you read?
Yes it’s only now that I can’t remember anything from yesterday (laughs) but I can remember other things.
What kind of stories were they?
Oh Danish history, Norse mythology, literature of every kind.
Do you remember what your father looked like?
Can you give us a description of him?
No I’d rather show you a photograph (laughs).
Okay, could you describe his voice still?
I don’t think I’m very good at that, no.
What about your mother, could you describe how she sounded, what kind of voice she had?
Yeah, I could, that sort of springs back right away. She was very lively and fun and deeply loved by all of our farm workers and maids, who’d bring back their children to show her. That was nice.
And what kind of things did she like to wear?
Well, oh yes, that’s something else. My father liked to see us well dressed. And so he would always choose our clothes. And we would go to Viborg, the county town which was about nine kilometres away, and of course go by jumbe and the horse would be stabled in Viborg and then we would walk to the big store, and I still remember the name of the owner, Carl Kristensen. And we would come to the door, my parents and me, and we would be met by one of the assistants who would take us upstairs, the carpeted stairs up in the large space above where there were little sets of sofas and chairs spread in different positions. My father would be shown to one and a table would be put up for him with an ashtray on. And then my mother and I would be taken off to the changing rooms and the assistant would bring us clothes to put on and then we were paraded in front of my father (laughs), and he would say “yes” or “no” as the case may be.
So he would choose what you bought?
Yes, and we always looked good. He had very good taste.
Have you got a memory of an outfit you could tell us about?
Of the dresses? Ah, no, no, sorry.
That’s okay. What kinds of clothes did your father wear?
Very very staid, traditional suits and shirts and shoes, without laces, elastic at the sides.
How far did the shoes go up?
To the ankle.
Who chose his clothes?
He did – my mother would buy the shirts, things like that.
What kind of colours would he wear?
Grey and black.
What about jewellery? Did you or your mum wear any jewellery?
Oh he would find some really nice things to give to my mother.
Can you remember any pieces?
I remember she had two little pearl earrings, I remember them. Slightly. Can’t describe them really, pearls I suppose. What befitted a farmer’s wife in the 20th century.
- This is wrong – Karen’s maternal grandfather’s name was Laust Jensen Sinding. Søren Møller was her paternal grandfather.