In 1906, my great-grandfather Stefán drowned. In those years, widows and their children automatically became wards of the district council. My great-grandmother Þórdís was sent away to work on a farm in the vicinity and one of her children – her daughter Guðrún – went there with her. The other three children were all sent away to different farms.
I’ve read some of the letters they wrote to each other in those years and it’s very moving to see how strong their bond remained, not to mention their affection for each other, despite the family being divided up.
The farm my great-grandmother was sent to was called Neðri-Núpur, and it was made of turf. This is what it looked like:
Here is the entrance, on the other side:
In a letter dated 1920 that Guðrún sent to her sister – my grandmother, Elínborg – she describes some of the living conditions at the time:
I’m going to get myself together and write a few lines to you, although there is not much news except of this continued hardship and shortage of hay and firewood. The health situation is fairly good of late, typhoid fever has been eradicated as we know, and the affected farms have been disinfected. Magnús at Torfust. [sic] did the disinfecting at Tunga and Bjarg. They are all running out of hay, one after the other, with Mundi at Sel and Rögnvaldur at Hnausakot among those worst affected, they ran out completely a while back. The farmers in Vesturárdalur are helping them, and Siggi at Sel has started getting hay and firewood down in Finnmörk. Jóhannes is virtually out of hay here, and mamma is completely out of firewood. A great deal of food is being handed out.
Space was pretty tight at Neðri-Núpur. She doesn’t say how many people lived there, but later in the same letter she describes how she’s worried about a trunk belonging to my grandmother that she’s obviously keeping for her:
Your trunk is causing me such trouble, I’m trying to protect it from being damaged because I’m really not allowed to keep it anywhere, there is so little space up front. But I’m trying my best to keep it from being damaged.
This is less than a century ago in this country. And despite our quips about going back to the turf houses, it’s pretty unthinkable that we’ll return to the way things were.
[My great-grandmother Þórdís with her four children. My grandmother is the one on the far left; Guðrún is the one in the middle. The others are Signý and Stefán. Þórdís went on to have two more children with her second husband.]