Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Interview with Gudmundur Jacobsen

  • By Naomie Bulloch
  • Posted 9/23/2004
  • Essay 5766

Naomie Bulloch speaks with Gudmundur Jacobsen (b. 1935) in this Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Oral History Project interview that took place on May 2, 2000 in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard. Leaving Iceland at age 10, Gudmundur details his 43-day journey on a freighter crossing the Atlantic through rough weather. He reflects upon his own "Americanization," and speaks about the emotional difficulties of immigrants and the relatives they leave behind.

Today is May 2nd, in the year 2000, and I'll be interviewing Gudmundur Jacobsen. We are at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, and my name is Naomie Bulloch. Now we can begin.

Okay. My name is Gudmundur Egill Jacobsen. And I'm an immigrant from Iceland; came to the United States in 1945. And just a little quick review of maybe my early childhood in -- and by the way, I was ten years old at that time, 1945 -- a little review maybe on my earlier days in Iceland, and then on to the United States.

I grew up in Iceland as, actually, Gudmundur Egill Oddsson, O-D-D-S-S-O-N, and my father was Oddur and, of course, I became Oddson. But my father was an alcoholic and had some problems with that, and my mother and father were divorced when I was about two years old -- actually, about a year and a half. And so I really never remember, you know, much about my parents. I didn't see a lot of them back there, but I did live with my grandparents.

My grandfather was a doctor back there, a well-known doctor, Gudfinnur Gudmundsson, and so I lived with he and my grandmother, Margaret Larusdottir, and my two aunts, sisters of my dad's, on my dad's side. And so they pretty much raised me.

My fondest days in Iceland, I think, were probably of leaving the city of Reykjavik, where I was born, and going on to Varmahleid, which was a family, or friends of a family, farm in south coast of Iceland, and is still there. And those were really fond memories there, and I don't know if I should get into that at this point. I don't think I -- I think we can concentrate more on, maybe, my immigration here.

So I never really -- never knew my mother real well. She would come to visit once in a while, and my dad, of course, the same way. He had his hands full with his problem and had remarried and had two children after that, which we now are very, very close. My sister, half sister, Magga and my half sister -- or my half brother, rather, Hlolli, by the last name of Oddsson, which live in Reykjavik, and I visit frequently now and we communicate almost every day by either e-mail or telephone and see each other at least once a year. And many, many cousins I have back there.

But, I came to this country. We had to wait till after the war, and kind of as a surprise to me -- I guess I don't remember what kind of a surprise it was, but it must have been a shock -- my mother decided to take me away from Iceland and bring me to the United States. She had a sister in Seattle that married an American here in Seattle, and so she wanted to come and live with her sister. I think that she was probably trying to get me away from the influence of my dad back there and the problems that he was having, I suggest. I've talked to her about it, but she never has really told me what the whole story was.

But, anyway, I found myself going on a boat, and from Reykjavik, you have, I think, a write-up on that, so I don't have to go into that, do I?

I wish you would tell us just exactly what the circumstances were.

Okay. Well, I'm kind of -- I'm writing a book on our family, our whole family back to about 500 AD. Thorstein Jonsson in Reykjavik is doing that for me, so I've kind of written some different segments to put in that book. And it's not a book -- it's not about me; it's about my whole family. So I have a lot of writings from the rest of the members of the family that are living and some that are gone.

But this one, leaving Iceland, we had to wait till after the war was over, because of the German subs. Of course, they had that island very well surrounded, 'cause they were trying to get a hold of it, but the United States Army and Air Force, and whoever in those days, pretty much kept the -- there was no invasion of the island, but it was a very strategic thing in those days because of the crossing the Atlantic. The only way the Germans could get to the United States to bomb them is to have control of Iceland, and they were never allowed to do that, because of the great efforts of the United States to -- because Iceland has no army. So the United States Armed Forces took care of that, anyway. So it was a good thing, or they would have had bombs flying over New York. But they couldn't go across the ocean without refueling.

So, anyway, so we had to wait till the war was over. And so we left our journey from Iceland, 14th of October, 1945, right after the Second World War, and the ship was the Span Splice. It was a newly commissioned freighter, and on a maiden voyage, never crossed the Atlantic before, and also the captain's first crossing, he'd never crossed the Atlantic. And we -- I believe there were 14 passengers on that ship, and I was the only child there. So I was the 13th passenger. No, I'm sorry. There were 13 passengers and then me. Okay. And we all shared a room in the back, the lower part of the ship next to the engine room, and so it got to be kind of a noisy journey coming across.

But I remember so well the journey. This part of the journey that we took, we met with a vicious hurricane coming across, and it was probably -- most people know the Atlantic can throw off some pretty rough seas up there. Waves were up to 50 feet coming at us, and it was coming actually from the west to the east and, of course, we were heading into that. And so, anyway, so I don't know all the details, but what happened is that we got tossed around quite a bit there, and we actually wound up on the northern coast of Scotland, actually the opposite direction that we were going to go to New York.

But, during the storm, water began to find its way into every room, including the one we slept in, in the lower area by the -- down by the engines. In the fear that the ship was going to break up and sink, the captain ordered everybody to quarters up on top, in case we had to evacuate the ship. They were worried about me, I guess, because the captain had strapped me in his quarters and strapped me to the bunk. I had somebody there; I wasn't by myself. But I remember not being afraid. I don't know why; maybe it's the Icelandic Viking blood in me or something that -- and I'm still a big boater today; so I enjoy boating very much, but never encountered anything like this today. But it was a -- but they were afraid I was going to be washed overboard, you know, and lose maybe hold of something, and so they just strapped me in the bunk, and that's how I kind of went through the storm. And the captain took very good care of me. And my mother was totally frantic. She was going out of her -- she's told me that many a times, as a matter of fact. They had already calm her down and -- but the captain was very gracious.

But, anyway, many days later the hurricane subsided, and the Span Splice and the captain found their way back to New York. Now this was the 26th of November that we came into New York, so from the 14th of October to the 26th of November. And those engines and the waves were a lot. I mean, it was a very large storm, and one we endured for many days.

So the trip, actually, that was supposed to take actually ten days, took 43 days, which was really something. That ship should never have made it through that storm, but it did. I have a saying, though, in my older years here: If you're meant to be hung, you can't be shot. So I guess it wasn't my time to die. So there must have been some other purpose for my life, I guess. But I remember it so well.

And probably the greatest memory I have, was not the storm so much -- I thought it was fun, to be honest with you, and I don't remember ever being afraid or anything, but I woke very early -- now, we're back down into our bunk area down below by now, and I woke up very early at twilight one morning, and my bunk -- we had a double bunk, and I was on the top one, and there was a window, a porthole window right next to my bunk. And I remember waking up, and I had heard no sound of engines, which was really unusual, because we had heard them for the whole time we were -- the 43 days of journey. And -- but I noticed that there was no engine noise any more and everything was silent. I guess that's what woke me up.

So from my top of the bunk, I looked out the porthole next to my bunk and looked out, and I saw these buildings. Now, remember, when I was in Iceland, the tallest building I had ever seen in Iceland, or in Reykjavik, was just a few stories high. But I looked out the window and I saw the skyline of these incredible buildings and I thought it was a dream. I really thought it was a dream. And -- but the adrenaline started building up inside me, thinking, what is this, what is it? So I jumped out of my bunk, ran upstairs and really excited, and everybody else still asleep and ran up there on top, and the ship had been stopped out in the harbor.

And in the distance I saw these very large buildings. And I looked at them; I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I just didn't -- I'd never seen anything like that in my life. And --but then, as I turned around and discovered there was another incredible sight that I saw, and it was a very large statue of a lady holding a torch. And I had heard about this Statue of Liberty when I was in Iceland, and I inquired about it because I didn't know much about it; I'd just heard that there was this statue. I didn't know what it was. But in school I'd heard about that. And so, knowing what that was, I now realized that I was now in America, and that was my first adventure in really seeing America. So that was quite an incredible thought to me, and that's hung on me for a lot of years.

Was getting off the ship then kind of an anticlimax after all that experience?

Well, yeah, it really was. You know, we'd been on it so long, it became almost a way of life, you know. That's a long time to be on a ship, especially in that kind of a condition. But -- and then, on top of that, of course, I was -- I knew no English; I couldn't speak yes or no. And so, my mother could speak English, of course and -- but then we had some problems with my mom. She had some -- she worked for the consulate in Seattle -- or in Reykjavik, and in spite of that, they had made an error on her passport.

Oh, my.

So, what happened is that they had to detain her and, of course, there was a relative in New York, and I -- and shoot, I need to get that name, because I want to write all this down in my book. There was a relative in New York, anyway, that was there to greet us, and they took me, and I didn't know who they were, but they took me to their home while they detained my mom and took her to Ellis Island and detained her there for about three days until they got their records all squared. They had to get ahold of Iceland consulate, you know.

Do you remember where the home was; what type of home it was?

You know, it was a huge home. It was all gated. It was in New York. And it was -- I remember it was all gated and it was all big -- fence all the way, you know, those wrought iron fences. It was a very large home, but I don't remember. It was a relative, but I don't remember. I've got to find that out. They're gone; I know that. But I need to find out about that part of my Icelandic family. They were Icelanders, but they had immigrated here.

So -- but we stayed with them for a while in New York, and then we went on to see friends of my mother's. She had a lot of pen pals. My mother's very big, very big on writing letters when she was younger. She's 90 now, so she's kind of slowed down writing, but I tried to introduce her to e-mail. We can just talk into it and it will type it out for you. You don't even have to type, but she doesn't want to learn that. So.

So, anyway, but we went on to Cleveland for about a week. We stayed with friends of hers in Cleveland. And we flew there, and then we took a train from Cleveland, stopped in Chicago to see some other friends, or pen pals of hers, for about another week but on our journey to Seattle, actually, where her sister was. And then we left Chicago. And this was really, I mean, new to me, seeing all this; I mean, I couldn't believe some of the stuff I saw. I never even knew it existed.

And so, then we took the train from there to Seattle. That was a spectacular sight, going across the country like that, and especially through the Rockies. I mean, we don't have mountains in Iceland; we have molehills. I mean, that's what they are. I mean I'm not saying a bad thing about Iceland, but it's a different kind of beauty back there. We don't have the huge, jagged mountains like they have in the Rockies.

And -- but anyway, we came to Seattle and we stayed for a little bit, just for our first, gosh, very short time, we stayed with her sister, Tovy Walters. And my mom and Tovy, my Aunt Tovy -- she's passed away now -- and had two boys about my age, and so that was nice. I couldn't -- they didn't speak Icelandic, I couldn't English, so we got along great.

And I started school, actually, up on Beacon Hill, for a very short time. But one of the things that I think that made me very self-conscious for a lot of years after that, and I still get a case of it once in a while, and that is that we -- you know, I had a hard time with the English language, very difficult time, and what happened is that they had to tell my mother and my Aunt Tovy to stop talking Icelandic to me at home. Now they don't do that anymore in schools here. And so, I was kind of torn. I was just talking to Sig Johnson here, of the club, an Iceland club here in Seattle. We're old time friends, and, you know, talking about those days, 'cause he knew me in those days.

And it was very difficult for me because I couldn't speak English, and I had a very difficult time learning English. And when I started grade school, they had set up a desk in front of a classroom like this right here, and they set up -- the teacher's desk was, you know, one side of the blackboard, and my desk, another desk, just like the teacher's, was right next to it, so I was facing all the kids all the time. So I kind of felt like Hugo, you know, the big duck, 'cause I was a big kid, but I couldn't speak English. I got along with everybody real well and the kids were very good to me, but, you know, we couldn't understand each other. It was a very difficult time.

And I couldn't speak Icelandic when I got home. They were speaking English to me at home now, because the school, you know, wanted to do that. So I got very self-conscious, very self-conscious, you know, having to be in front of the class, and, you know, it was a difficult time in my life. It really was. And you know, I hadn't really -- and I started in the first grade when I was ten, you know, with the first grade class, and that was difficult 'cause I was the biggest kid by far in that class.

And so anyway, we left Beacon Hill shortly after. I was in that school for maybe six months, and -- with the intention that my mother -- she had had a job here, by the way, before she came, because in those days, you had to have a job and a sponsor before you could enter the country, which I wish they would do today. It worked in those days and I don't know why it doesn't work today. But, so she had got a job, Aunt Tovy helped her get a job with the telephone company, which she worked for for many, many years and retired much, you know, later from them.

But anyway, we had moved to Ballard after that. And that was very memorable. I really enjoyed that. That's where I met Sig Johnson and his great mother. And we lived with them, actually. My mother and I lived in -- we rented an apartment right on 70th and Earl, right here in Ballard, and those were wonderful days. I met some really good friends in the neighborhood, good, good kids. I started to learn my English a little bit better. Not there, but I was getting there and didn't realize, actually, what -- I was really becoming Americanized, is what I was, totally Americanized and which is good, but which is bad, too, because you can't forget your country. And so, what happened is that some things I remember now -- one reason that we lived with Sig and his mom is that she was -- my mother had worked all day, and when I came back, yes, from Webster Elementary, right here where the museum is -- and I was trying to think the other day, you know, which room was the one. I don't remember which room I was in here, but I was in the school. I remember that very well 'cause I used to walk up here from 70th and Earl. And that house is still there, by the way.

And -- but Mrs. Johnson would make sure that, you know, I was okay when I'd come home from school and she'd get me off to school, and my mother would hop on a bus early in the morning -- hop on a bus, 'cause she never drove a car her whole life. She caught a bus downtown and worked downtown for the telephone company. So Mrs. Johnson, for a couple years, a couple, three years after that, was really a wonderful influence in my life, and Sig, especially Sig Johnson. He became my friend. He was, yes, a lot older than I was, which means he's a lot older now, by the way. We were just kidding about that last night at the function, the Icelandic function.

Was he in high school then?

Sig was -- well, let's put it this way. He was going with Olga. Olga was -- they hadn't gotten married yet, so you can imagine how many years that's been back and -- but he was a great influence on me. He was just a good friend and a buddy. And another young man that was a good friend of theirs was Earl Paul, and Earl was a great friend, too, in those days and helped me a lot overcome some of my shyness and, you know, just being in a new world, and it was totally new for me.

So, anyway, so I left here actually after that short amount of time. I had skipped the second and third grade and so on, and I came here in the fourth grade to Webster. And some of the things that we were just talking about earlier, probably when I look on these pictures of, well, Shilshole, I guess, they call it now; I forget what they called it in those days. But looking at these little kids playing in the sand and I remember that very, very well. Very well. I wish you had the one picture here, and that is a picture of -- and that's before, remember, Golden Gardens was just one huge beach going all the way down to the canal. And those were wonderful days, because, gosh, it was just wonderful. I look at that picture and it looks fabulous seeing it that way. I don't know where this is taken from, but -- I don't know what that bridge is right there. Is that a bridge?

It's not really (inaudible) boats.

Yeah, I don't know, I don't know what that is, but I remember in those days, a big ship, and that's something I think -- this was a landmark here in Ballard for many, many, many years, I understand. And it was a big ship that had gone aground, evidently, at right now probably where the apartments are and the marina start right now, probably in that area right there. And we had some wonderful memories of that, because there was about five of us young guys in -- around the area of 70th and Earl, that we all lived there. And we used to go down -- gosh, I bet we went down almost every other day, we'd go down to that ship with our fishing poles. And you could enter the ship from the beach on the bow, 'cause it was resting on the beach. And it was a good sized ship, and rusty and just, you know, pretty well torn apart. But we would work to -- we would work ourselves out to the stern of the boat because the bow was on the beach, and we'd work our way through there, and we'd wind up on the end of the stern, right on the end there. We'd throw our poles in there, and that was far enough out into the bay where -- you know, where it was fairly deep out there. But those were great days. I remember a lot about that. We'd take our --

Did you catch fish?

Oh, yes. We'd take our lunch out there, you know, a little bag of lunch, and we probably did that three, four times a week for quite a while, quite a long time. So I'd sure like to know what happened to that ship. Well, it was probably part of the demolition of everything there, when everything came in that was built down there, the marina and the apartments and all that. But that was a great landmark here for a lot of years.

And so then, from there -- and, you know, I don't remember a lot about Ballard itself, except I remember, of course, going down to Ballard all the time. And I remember one thing in Ballard that's kind of interesting, kind of -- I guess it's my upbringing, was being honest and being -- not doing the wrong things, you get that spirit within you, I think, that's kind of drilled into you. And I was always very much against people doing wrong things, you know, and I was a pretty good-sized kid, not so heavy, but I was tall and lanky and, you know, I could take care of myself. And I remember being at a -- downtown. We went downtown to movies all the time down there, the little theater down there, and I think they called it, was it the Roxy in those days?

It may have been.

I think it was the Roxy.

It's been the Bay more recently.

Or maybe the Bay, yeah, right. But, I don't know why somehow I think it was -- people should write a journal.

It may well be.

Yeah. It could have been. But we used to go down all the time, 'cause the five and dime was down there at that time. And so I remember one time going in there, and I walked in. I was by myself that day. I don't know why, but I was. I'd walk downtown to Ballard all the time from 70th and Earl. I remember this kid one time, a good-sized kid, and he was just stuffing -- I mean, taking stuff off the counters and just jamming it into his coat and just -- you know, and I was watching him, and I don't know why, it was strange. I just thought, what is this guy doing? You know, it's not his stuff. And I was probably, I don't know, I was probably about 11 years old by then -- no, about maybe 11 and a half maybe. So I waited outside for the kid. And you do that today, and he'll probably pull a gun on you, but in those days, we didn't have those problems.

And so, I remember taking this kid -- wish I knew him today, I'd remind him of that -- but I took him -- and I was angered at the fact that he was stealing from somebody. So I grabbed him by the coat and I put him up against the wall, and I said, "Do you have something that doesn't belong to you here?" Now, I've always been the kind of a, maybe a public policeman. I've always kind of acted -- even today, I'm that way. I shouldn't be, but I am, you know. I just stand up for right. But anyway, so I took him and I just threw him against the wall, and like I said, "Do you have something that you shouldn't have here? You were going to take this back and put it where you got it." So the kid was -- I guess I must have scared him, and he walked inside and put all the stuff back and walked back out again. So, Ballard Police Department, that's my -- that's my donation to you. But, anyway, yeah, it was a lot of fun here.

Well, now, Webster School, it figured in your story just for, what, two years, something like that?

About two years, yeah. So it was a real young part of my life, and a part that was really a learning curve for me. I was kind of -- Ballard was really my first introduction to the U.S., to be honest with you, it really was. Beacon Hill, I don't really remember much about Beacon Hill. It was such a short time, anyway. And then my mother got a -- she felt like taking a bus in from Ballard every day, she'd be better up on Capitol Hill. So we wound up, she got an apartment on Capitol Hill. And I guess she was -- felt like I was -- no, actually, we -- no, we again, got a -- because I was too young, that's right. We got another apartment right from downtown up on 15th and Pine. And there was a house there. There was a lady, a widow lady that was there, again, just like, you know, Sig's mom. But that way, she could walk downtown instead of taking a bus. And she's a big walker, she's always been. Maybe that's why she's 91 years old and still in pretty good health.

But we again rented an apartment for her -- from her for a couple more years, and then she took care of me when I came home. And then, after that, she got an apartment right up one block from there, and we lived in that till I got into going to school up on Queen Anne Hill. Well, I went to elementary, finished elementary up there, actually, when I was in this house with this lady. And then I went on to Edmund Meany Junior High and then on to Garfield High. And I had all the experience of Garfield High, and that was new to me.


All the multi-racial, you know. But it was a wonderful experience again. I had a lot of experiences that way, that I had never, ever encountered. And so I played football and ran track at Garfield, and that was a fun thing for me. Didn't know I had that in me.

How did you decide -- what kind of brought you back to your Icelandic roots?

Well, that's an interesting thing that you mention that, because I wrote for the Icelandic newsletter. When I -- one thing I must say, as much as I love my mother and for whatever reason she brought me to the United States, was a blessing because I had -- I had great experiences from that that I would never have been able, you know, to get in Iceland. And drinking was a real problem in Iceland, and I know she wanted me to get away from that. It was a very big problem, not so much today, but in those days, it was a very big problem. And in the schools, I mean everywhere. That was just a way of life back there, and I think that's what caught my dad. And as a matter of fact, he died when he was 35 years old from that.

But I wrote a little article for the Icelandic newspaper, and I want to read that to you here. I entitled it, "Families are Forever." Now, my mother, before I start this, had for years and years hounded me to write, hounded me to write, to write, to write my relatives, my grandmother that raised me. My grandfather had passed away. My two aunts, Olla and Gunna. And Olla married a man back there, Addi, which, today, by the way, I embrace him every time I go back there. He's a wonderful man. He's still alive; Olla is gone.

Gunna married a nobleman from England, actually, an officer of the British Army in Iceland. And -- but he was a nobleman in Britain, you know, in England. So she married him and moved to England, and, of course, they both passed away. And so, I never got to meet them. And, you know, sometimes you go through life -- you know, I got so Americanized -- and there's nothing wrong with that; I love my country here. But I have another country, and I forgot that country for a lot of years, a lot of years. And so, when I came to my senses many, many, many years later, 'cause I'd never been back to Iceland since, and I kind of turned my back on Iceland. My mother was very pushy in getting me -- and it was not her fault. She was trying her hardest to get me to go back and get to know my relatives and all that, but I wouldn't listen. I was stubborn. "Hey, this is my country, Mom. You know, don't push something else on me; this is my country." That was a very bad attitude I had.

Was there some event that changed your mind?

You know, I don't know what made me that way. That's what I -- I was talking to my wife about it this morning, as a matter of fact, and I thought, why was I this way? Did she push too hard maybe, and made me -- you know, when you're younger, but I was a grown-up man, now. I mean, grown-up men don't act that way.

I think it was common.

So I started finding out -- and she had all the contacts were all there for me. All I had to go do was go back there, and they would welcome me with open arms. I never got to see my grandma. One day -- I don't know what -- it was the middle of the night, I woke up and I thought to myself, my gosh, you know, all these years I've gone, I've missed seeing my grandmother. I can't imagine what I did to her when I left here. I can't imagine the feeling that she would have had. Of course, now I have grandchildren about the same age. And I'm thinking Megan, my little Megan, if she would have gone to another country and left and never wrote me and never -- and I thought to myself, what did I do? And it really bothered me for a long time.

And, you know, the shoe is on the other foot, now. And so, it was -- and I start thinking about my grandfather; I never got to meet him again. And they were the influence of my life that really, really kept me afloat in Iceland, and -- 'cause they were the only stability I had back there. And, I mean, not that my mother wasn't unstable, but she had her hands full. She was working and she was, you know, skiing a lot and stuff like that. And she'd come and visit. I don't remember that too real well, but I do remember my grandparents and my aunts, two aunts.

And so, I really started thinking, and thinking about this, and I thought, what am I going to do to make up for all this? So I guess I went on to try to make up for the lost time that I'd really lost and I'd turned my back on my country, but all my relatives in that country, you know, and that was not good. It took me a lot of years, as you know, a lot of years before that happened. And I don't know why. You know, I've had my own business here for many, many years, and two businesses in my whole lifetime I've had here and been very successful, and I guess I was so busy working and developing my businesses here that I just forgot everything back there. I was American, totally Americanized. I was. And again, nothing wrong with that; I love my country. But you can never forget about where you're from. Never forget.

So I guess that's what prompted me to maybe write a little article. They'd asked me. I sat down and talked to -- when I first met the club members here, I had had that feeling for quite awhile. I was -- we were one day just sitting there talking, and I told him about my feelings, and he said, "Why don't you write a little note, or a little article about this?" And this was just after our first trip, and I was telling him that feeling I had when I went back there, the tremendous feeling I had when I went back and those wheels touched on that island, and how I felt. And that's what prompted me to. After telling him all this, he said, "Why don't you write an article for us?" I didn't want to write it too long, so I just did it very short. I'll read that to you right here.


And notice, I put -- I didn't realize that, I guess, at the time -- written by Gudmundur Egill, Oddsson, in parentheses Jacobsen, 'cause I didn't -- to make sure that my dad's name was not left out of there. And by the way, this -- my trip going back to Iceland again this year -- and we're taking about 110 people, and all people that have -- most of them have Icelandic descent, some don't. And my biggest goal is to get them to know more about their families back there, so we're meeting with a very large -- well, as a matter of fact, the authority in Iceland on genealogy, and that's Thorstein Jonsson. So, he's going to do this all free for me. He's the one who's writing the book for me. So he's charging me directly, probably. I pay for the book, they get it free, right? But no, the objective is to try to get everybody to know their roots.

But anyway, it goes: "At age ten, I left Iceland and every family member" -- I don't have my reading glasses on, but I'll try to do this.

"At age ten, I left Iceland and every family member and friend I had known to that point in my life. My mother decided that being in America would give me opportunity to both of us -- give more opportunity to both of us. Her sister and her family lived in Seattle.

"Many, many years have passed and somehow I lost all contact with my family and lost my native language. It was my stubborn choice. I wanted to be an American and never look back.

"After 52 years away from my country where my heritage lies, my wife, Sally, and I finally returned this last June. We traveled all over -- now this was a couple years ago. We all traveled all over the island for almost a month. It was wonderful and inspiring for me. Our fellow travelers were with Icelandic Club from Spanish Fork, Utah, about 30 of them. Many members of their club go back every year as a group. They all have one thing in common: They are descendants of Icelanders that migrated to America in the 1800s. They are determined to stay close to their heritage and families.

"Oh, how I wish I could have -- I could turn back time so that I could have had that feeling as a younger man. I would have been able to hug my grandmothers, my grandfathers, my uncles and all those that raised me and loved me. They have all been gone for many years.

"I am working with Thorstein Jonnson in Reykjavik writing a book on family dating back to about 500 AD. Thorstein could be a great resource in helping you, or helping with other Icelanders' family history.

"Why am I sharing these feelings with you? I would hope that all of you American/Icelanders at any age" -- and by the way, this is not just Icelanders, this could be Swedes, Norwegians, Italians. I don't care who you are, anybody -- "at any age, do not make the same mistake of being too Americanized as I was. Make plans to visit Iceland, or any country, and your relatives there often. It will bring tears of joy and happiness to you as it did to me.

"On our trip in June," which was a year and a half ago, two years ago, actually, "we met most of our cousins, nephews and nieces, as well as my half-brother and half-sister. In most cases, we had never met before, but the family bond was strong and it seemed we had known each other all of our lives. We had large gatherings of family waiting for us in many homes. Hugs and kisses were abundant. We also had the privilege of meeting the president of Iceland. He was a gracious man. That was an inspiring visit.

"If you have not been back to Iceland," or your country, I would say that again, "for many years, I encourage you to do so soon. God willing, Sally and I are planning to return often," which, by the way, means every year. We'll be back there every year from now on, trying to make up for this. Maybe twice a year. "No matter how small or large or distant your family is, families are forever."


Audio cassette interview of Gudmundur Jacobsen by Naomie Bulloch, May 2, 2000, Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle.

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