Steinunn’s Saga

I met her only once, in person. It was during the summer of 1965. The Gimli Trip, which I will tell you about later.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir

She was born Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, June 20th, 1867 at Budarholshjaleig, Kross, Rangarvalla, Iceland, to Sigurður Sigurðsson and Sigríður Pétursdóttir. She had 4 older siblings and 3 younger. They worked a small farm near the south shore of Iceland. Across a small strait of ocean were the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar). It would have been a harsh life, as was common for most Icelanders of the time. Social life would have been very limited, revolving mostly around the family and the church.

I have come to imagine that Steinunn met her first husband, Magnus Jonsson, at a church function or at the fish market, where he had come to off load the days catch. Steinunn would have led a sheltered life, on the farm, and had very little opportunity to meet men. She was shy, but vivacious and liked to have fun. At 25 she was ready to leave the farm and set out on a married life. Magnus was a handsome, hardworking fisherman, a couple years older than Steinunn, but like Steinunn, not well acquainted with social interactions between men and women. But he too was ready for a family life of his own.

Iceland was built on fish and wool. It survived in inhospitable conditions for centuries on very little else, without any significant infrastructure, and with hardly any outside contact. It was a mean and cruel life, but it kept the population alive. I can well imagine that it was these two labors brought Steinunn and Magnus together. She selling woolen goods or mutton from the farm and he helping his boat mates bring barrels of mackerel or Atlantic cod to the dock near the market.

Fish Market

They met, the sparks were instant, the courting was brief and their wedding ceremony was pious and very traditional, held in the little parish church. Steinunn left the farm and made a home in the small wood and stone house near the harbor on Vestmannaeyjar. They were poor, like most folk in the village, but happy. Steinunn soon became pregnant.

One morning in late March, Magnus left the harbor with his boat mates, as they did every morning, to fish the cod. But a gale came unexpected off the freezing ocean and capsized the small boat. All aboard were flung into the ice-cold sea. None could swim, there was no point in having that skill as it was better to perish quickly if you had the misfortune to be hurled into the icy water. No boat could turn quickly enough to save you; you would just linger and die slowly if you were swimmer.

Made a widow just six months into her new life, Steinunn with their child 3 or 4 months away from birth, left Vestmannaeyjar in her anguish and returned to the farm at Budarholshjaleig. She had her family to comfort her and help her with the birth of her child. But it was a hard birth, made more difficult by Steinunn’s clinging despair, and the newborn infant lived only one day, despite the effort and care given by her mother and sisters Elin and Sigríður.

Thus were the early days of her saga. Steinunn Sigurðardóttir. My Langamma (Great Grandmother). I met her in person only once, at the Bethel home in Gimli when we took our Amma to visit. They were like sisters.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir and Bjarney Kristin Kristmundsdóttir

She fed us delicious ponnukokur and gave me and the Angel Monster each a dollar bill. For some unfair reason she gave the Evil Sister a five-dollar bill.

I thought she would live to be a hundred and celebrate the centenary along with Canada. She passed away at ninety-nine and a half, having married four times, outliving them all. She was known as very kindhearted.

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http://www.whjohnson.ca

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