It was a common name for girls among Norwegian immigrants. Rutgersen, Börresen, Dahl, Aarstad. And others. All produced Mildreds. The vogue lasted across at least two generations. No one names girls that any more, not since the War. The median age for living Mildreds, I read somewhere, is seventy-eight, older even than the Gertrudes and the Beulahs.
One of our gang was a Mildred. Millie. We are in a photo together from 1955. At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for the annual lilies display. We are in best Sunday clothes.
Millie was smart, high-strung, inaccessible, out of my league. I met her again, once, many years after, and drew on the encounter for a short story, a story about intelligence, dignity and loss.
I was in doubt about the year of this outing to the Botanic Garden, even though someone had written 1955 on the edge of the print. We would have been only sixteen, about to graduate from high school. We look much older. Then I found a photo my father snapped of me and my brother and sister in our back garden. He has written on the back Påske 1955. I am not only wearing the same suit, the fold in the pocket hanky is identical. It has to be earlier that same day.
Then a picture taken three years later, in May 1958. Graduation day from a Bible school I attended, a sort of seminary or academy for the training of ministers and missionaries. I associate the day with another Mildred, a girlfriend, and with ceremonies in the great tabernacle. But mostly with the suit. The same suit, now a shapeless wreck. Navy blue serge. My only suit, which for three years I wore summer and winter, coaxing a crease into the trousers as long as possible on the communal ironing board in the men’s dormitory, trying to cut down the shine in the seat with ammonia-water, tying off holes in the pockets with string until there were no pockets left.
My calling to the Christian ministry did not outlast the suit. That winter I broke off with Mildred and the following spring joined the Army.
I thought I’d dredged up everything there was to know about Uncle Knud. Things I’ve written about in previous posts—the Copenhagen police report, the WWI draft card, the marriage to my Aunt Josefine in 1918, her death five months later, his lodging with his sister Elizabeth and brother-in-law Niels Nielsen until his death in 1942, his burial with Josefine. Until I happened to look again at the manuscript census return for 1930.
Mildred Hansen. Right there with Knud and the Nielsens in the same flat. Born in New York, sister-in-law to the head of the household, twenty-one, age at first marriage twenty-one. Just married, in other words. Sixteen years younger than Knud.
I check the 1940 census again. Definitely no Mildred. No survivor mentioned in Knud’s obituary in 1942 except for his sister. Moreover, no record whatever of a marriage between Knud and Mildred in New York City. No record of death or divorce of a Mildred Hansen. All that is sure is that when the census taker came round to the Nielsen’s door in April 1930 a young woman named Mildred was living there who was represented as, or taken to be, Knud Hansen’s wife.
I think about the material in this for a novel. I have already written it, in a way. The Yellow Room is about a Danish emigrant whose enduring passion is a Norwegian woman, who flees an unsuitable entanglement with a young girl in Brooklyn in the 1930s. But that amounts to considering everything from Knud’s perspective. What about Mildred? Who will imagine Mildred’s story? Out of this scrap of doubtful evidence? This wisp of an existence with no sequel?