Have you never met somebody personally, yet loved them immensely knowing only of their kindness and heart for others?
My maternal great-grandmother has for nearly all of my life been a source of inspiration and admiration, a very real influence although she died years before my birth.
She was born at Ronneby, Sweden, on the Baltic Sea, and gained passage to the U.S. as an indentured servant at about the age of 16.
The 1890's were a time of great population shifts to the rapidly boiling melting pot called America, and it was common practice for young ladies to come here as indentured servants. Their transport was paid by sponsors for whom they would work till their travel expenses, etc. was satisfied.
In many cases, these were difficult situations for immigrants, and their passage debt, with accumulating living expenses, was not easily fulfilled. Language and cultural differences further slowed the pace.
Within a few years, she would wed John Gillis, married at Jay by the first pastor of St. Athanasius Church. And become mother to 11 children, all of whom were born at Rumford. She lived a very private and difficult life, with many responsibilities, but her hard-working hands remained gentle and cared for many.
Though she had little, there always was a portion to share with others, whether friend or stranger. Without her thrifty husband's awareness, an occasional handful of flour and sugar was set aside, enabling her to bake breads and sweets for those in need, a kindly gesture still practiced by nearly all her descendents.
It was intriguing that years after her passing there remained confusion regarding her maiden name. Anderson or Peterson, depending upon which of her children's birth certificates you looked at. That mystery heightened curiosity.
My personal interest in family history brought to light a few letters written by her brother Karl, who remained in Sweden. They were long-ignored letters saved as souvenirs, waiting nearly seventy-five years to be translated to English.
The letters from her loving brother began with "Toussand Tacks!" - "A Thousand Thanks!", an unfailing gratitude for her written words to him.
One of the letters from Karl mentioned the name and age of his own son. That simple clue to family ties and Sweden's strict accuracy in keeping records soon resulted in new letter exchanges between new generations.
Like his father's loving letters to his sister in America, the flow of letters from Karl Gunnar Petterson of Kristianstad, Sweden, sent much love to us. Included were photographs (circa 1895) of my dear great-grandmother, including her wedding portrait. When you next visit my mother's Prospect Avenue home, ask to see them. Quite lovely!
Augusta Matilda Aurora Pettersdotter is a lengthy birth name, but was Americanized even as she arrived at Ellis Island; alone, yet with thousands of other immigrant strangers with similar fears, hopes and dreams.
Matilda's daughter Catherine had the same capacity for quietly loving and sharing, though she had little for herself. Another mother of eleven who never tired of doing for others. Her life was Kindness itself with a capital K. Hands to work, Hearts to God!
Like a legacy more precious than gold, the torch of kindness is passed from one generation to the next. Catherine (Gillis) Gallant reached personal greatness though always humble. Dearly loved, dearly missed by all who knew her.
One of the third generation "Torchbearers of Kindness" includes my own sweet mother, known by many of you as the usual author of this column. Also mother to 11 children!
The inherent kindness continues into the sixth generation already, so many having a heart for others, quietly touching lives.
And so the poor Swedish girl was a servant at heart, a servant indeed, and ended her life as a Gillis (which means "Servant of God"). She lived all three as a matter of course and continues to touch many lives with her goodness. She was a great Blessing to all, and I am heartfully grateful as one of those blessed.
She is with me always though we never met. Kindness forges a wonderful and durable bond. Proof that even small acts of kindness can influence others in deeply personal ways. Like friendship, a gift!