“I Can’t Leave My Baby Behind”
By Lois Storlie (with assistance from Jean Storlie)
The youngest of eleven, my Grandma Mary (Mimmi) was born in Målselv, Norway, a mountainous, apline region about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. In 1879, when Mimmi was about a year old, her parents, Ole and Marit Olson made a big decision to relocate to Oslo in the hopes of securing a better future. They trekked over rugged terrain to the port of Tromsø, where they boarded a boat to Oslo.
Uncertain of their prospects in Oslo, Marit and Ole also made a heart-wrenching decision to leave baby Mimmi behind with her oldest sister, 23-year-old Kari. Recently married, Kari stayed behind with her new husband. (Kari remained in Målsev the rest of her life and raised a large family. It’s doubtful that she ever saw her parents and siblings again.)
As they were embarking on their journey, Mimmi’s mother suddenly ran back and declared, “I can’t leave my baby behind!” Although she didn’t like to talk about her humble beginnings, I recall Mimmi telling me this story about how her life could have gone a different way.
Instead, Mimmi accompanied her family to Oslo, where they lived until she was 10. Then the family made another bold move: to try their fortunes in the United States. They immigrated to Porter’s Mills near Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1888. (Kari was the only family member to remain in Norway, staying in Malselv, where she raised a large family and died at age 76.)
Seven years after the Olson family settled in Wisconsin, Mimmi’s father died (1895). Marit carried on without her husband for five more years. Then around 1900, she moved west to Washington State along with seven of her grown children. Great-Grandma Marit lived there until the ripe old age of 101.
The same year her family immigrated to Washington, 22-year-old Mimmi married my grandpa, Clarence George Sprague. A pretty young woman, Mimmi was a highly skilled, professional seamstress, known for her detailed craftsmanship. Short and spry, she was quick-witted and tidy.
Mimmi spoke Norwegian, along with heavily accented English. I remember her telling me about how hard it was to start school in America. The kids teased her because she couldn’t speak English and pronounced words “funny,” like saying “kot” for “cat.” Because of the teasing, her siblings gave up on school, but Mimmi persevered.
Mimmi was a natural leader—very comfortable bossing people around. This irritated many family members, especially my mom. But Grandpa Clarence (her husband) laughed it off and let her rule the roost. He was ten years older than her—a great big man—jovial and good natured, while she was a tiny ball of fire. Full of energy, Mimmi was very social and fun to be around. She held office positions in various clubs and charities, quite often serving as the treasurer.
My family lived with Grandpa and Mimmi on the farm when I was a young girl. When Mimmi tried to boss me around, she met a stone wall—I held my own. But I was also devoted to Mimmi and loved to be with her. She stuck up for me against my parents when I was in trouble.
I also remember her taking me with her to visit her friend Mrs. Boyd, who ran a boarding house. They spoke Norwegian while I ran around with Mrs. Boyd’s niece, Gertrude, who lived in her house.
When I was older and Mimmi lived in town with Aunt Helen, I’d take the bus from school to visit her. We’d chatter while she kept her hands busy with needlework. But as much as she tried, she never succeeded in making me a seamstress—I hated sewing!
I admired Mimmi for not letting the fact that she was an immigrant hold her back. And I have always tried to follow her example to be confident, brave, and unafraid to tackle challenges that came my way. Until her death in 1961, she remained an active part of my life and those of my own children.
I’m grateful that Mimmi played big role in my life—and fortunate that my great-grandmother didn’t leave her behind.
1) Records show various spellings of her name: Mari, Marie, and Mary. Variations of her middle name also occur, alternating between a “K” and “C.” In some records, her last name appears as Oleson.
2) There are different family accounts of the circumstances surrounding Mimmi being left behind when the family was moving to Oslo, but most involve leaving her with an older sibling. Another version is that Mimmi’s parents left “Baby Mari” (and possibly one other sibling) with a pastor and his wife, who informally agreed to adopt her and give her a better life. My sister and I wonder if both versions might are true: Perhaps her older sister’s husband was himself a minister? The genealogy records line up in a way that makes this theory plausible.