“Aunt Fia,” Ensign, Mar. 1989, 47
Twice she crossed the ocean only to be turned away. Would she realize her dream?
I remember vividly, as a child, watching Aunt Fia make her bed with a lovely new bedspread she’d been given as a gift. She proclaimed how beautiful it was and how it brightened her and Uncle Andrew’s home. How could she know? By then she was totally blind. How could she make her bed so perfectly and keep her house so tidy?
I loved to watch her brush and braid her nearly knee-length hair and wind it neatly into a bun. What amazed me most of all, however, was her ability to communicate with Andrew, her sweetheart husband, whose hearing was almost gone. He would come in for lunch from his outdoor chores, affectionately greet her, and through gentle touch they would communicate what they needed to know.
It was not until after they had both departed this earth that I learned their love story—how Andrew, my grandmother’s brother, had worked and saved to bring Fia—Sophia Wahlgren—to America so this gracious lady with the sweet, musical voice could become his wife.
Sophia was born in 1879 in Malmo, Skona, Sweden, the daughter of Henric Wahlgren and Ulrica Vadst. She had one brother, who died in infancy, and a sister named Mia. Her father, an interior decorator, provided a fine home for his family, with fireplaces in each room. The family employed both a maid and a man-servant, and the children were given music lessons and many cultural advantages. Sophia held dear in her memory a picture of the cold northern lights when torches were lit around frozen ponds so the townspeople could hold skating parties.
She was seven years old when she caught a cold that settled in her eyes. Her mother took her to a doctor, still serving his internship, who was a very close friend of the family. By some tragic mistake, he put carbolic acid in her eyes instead of boric acid, robbing her completely of sight in one eye and severely damaging the other.
The following year, Sophia’s mother passed away, and, at the age of eight, Sophia was placed in the care of an aunt and an uncle. Her father went to Germany to further his studies and later died there. But he provided an inheritance for Sophia when she came of age, so that in her blindness she would not be in need.
As a young girl, Fia went one night with the daughter of the maid in her aunt’s household to attend a Latter-day Saint gathering. She was extremely impressed and later said that the message of the missionaries sounded strangely familiar, as though she was not hearing it for the first time. She had a strong desire to meet with them again. Feelings against LDS missionaries and the new converts to their faith were very great in Sweden at that time, and when her uncle learned where she had been, he was extremely upset. He told her she must never go again. She stayed away for one week but could not dismiss from her mind the messages she had heard. In spite of his warnings, she was again drawn to the meetings.
Fia had a lovely singing voice and was asked to sing and play her guitar one night at an LDS social. Andrew Christofferson, a missionary from Lehi, Utah, attended and heard her sing. He was deeply touched. When Fia learned he would soon be released from his mission and planned to go to Germany before his return home, she sought him out after the meeting and asked if he would look up Mia, her sister, who was in Germany at that time. He was happy to honor her request.
Missionary discussions continued for Fia, and when she turned eighteen, she asked for baptism. It was November, and the ice had to be broken on the Baltic Sea in order for the missionaries to baptize her. The ordinance was performed at night because of continuing opposition to the Church in that area. When her uncle learned of her commitment, he told her that if she did not give up her religion she must leave and that she would be disinherited. Fia’s testimony was strong, and she refused to give up that which she knew to be true. Handicapped though she was, she left her uncle’s home and went out on her own, securing a job in a match factory packing matches. She was pleased to learn later that the inheritance she gave up in order to join the Church was used to educate five Swedish children.
Andrew Christofferson, who had returned to Lehi, corresponded with Fia. He wanted her to come to Utah. She had a great desire to emigrate, but her meager earnings were not sufficient for the voyage, so Andrew saved until he could send the money for her passage. As she landed in Boston, her hopes for the future were high. But the immigration officer on duty noted her poor eyesight and refused her entry; her poor vision would cause her to be a burden on the country. Sadly she returned to England.
When Andrew learned what had happened, he determined to try again. Once again, he worked and saved and sent her passage money. He told her to try entry at New York City this time. Fia was again refused entry because of her poor vision.
This time a group of missionaries on their way to Europe on the return ship befriended the faithful young woman. The missionaries took Fia to the mission home with them in Liverpool, England, where Elder Heber J. Grant of the Council of the Twelve presided with his wife and young daughters. Sister Grant found Fia sobbing in the hall as she waited with the elders, who were to be interviewed by their mission president. Fia did not speak much English and Sister Grant did not speak Swedish, so Fia was unable to tell of her futile attempts to go to Zion until they obtained an interpreter. Learning that the young girl had no place to go and no money, Sister Grant felt compassion for her and asked if she would like to remain at the mission home to work as a maid. Fia was most grateful, though she had never had any experience as a domestic servant.
As they became better acquainted, Sister Grant realized that Fia had received a good education and possessed impressive musical talents. In spite of the fact that she had never done housework before, Fia knew how things should be done. She took pride in her work. Her disposition was so delightful that the whole family soon grew to love her. They marveled at her abilities, her patience, and her sweet spirit. They said she never spoke a cross word but always sang and gave praise to her Heavenly Father for the blessings she had received. Along with housekeeping duties, her first responsibility was the care of the two youngest Grant girls, Emily and Frances. Elder and Sister Grant traveled frequently on the continent, supervising the many areas of the European Mission, and they felt fortunate to know their daughters were under Fia’s care.
Fia believed in cold-water “Swedish” baths. Without a water heater, those who wanted a warm bath had to heat the water downstairs and carry it upstairs to the bathtub a bucket at a time, so Swedish baths were much more convenient. Each morning Fia filled the tub with cold water, tying a bag of rock salt to the faucet and letting the water run over it to simulate sea water. The squirming, protesting little girls were then given their morning “dip in the ocean.” After giving them a quick dunk, Fia rubbed them vigorously with a large Turkish towel. They said later that they hated their baths, but they loved Fia so dearly they were willing to endure them to please her.
When Frances Grant was five years old she took a keen interest in music and began picking out tunes on the piano. Fia was quick to notice and encourage her efforts. Fia had a zither that she taught the little girl to play, using an eraser to pluck the strings, which were too harsh for tiny fingers. While Frances’s parents were traveling, Fia would teach her young charge tunes to play and sing to surprise them when they returned. Elder Grant, who was tone deaf, was particularly delighted with his daughter’s musical accomplishments.
Meanwhile, in Utah, Andrew Christofferson was unable to forget the lovely girl he’d fallen in love with. He remained single and continued to save money in hopes she would one day be able to make a successful journey to Utah.
As the mission term for the Grant family came to a close, President Grant decided to try once more to get Fia into the United States. He booked passage for her as a nurse for his children and hoped that, inasmuch as he was prepared to guarantee her maintenance for the rest of her life, there would be no trouble. When their ship landed in New York, the excitement of returning home was nearly forgotten in the concern the Grant family had over whether Fia would be able to remain with them. But things went much easier than they had hoped. The immigration officers asked no questions and made no examinations. Someone looked casually at the stack of passports and said, “Mr. Grant and family returning to the United States after three years abroad.” Fia was in!
The Grant family arrived in Salt Lake City shortly before Christmas 1906. Fia was a most welcome addition. Elder Grant even talked of adopting her legally. Perhaps because of her age this was never done, but she was no longer considered hired help; she was loved and treated as a family member.
When Andrew Christofferson learned that Fia was living in Salt Lake City with the Grants, he wasted no time in calling to court her. Several months later, he asked Elder Grant for her hand. Sophia and Andrew were married in the Salt Lake Temple on 14 June 1907 with Elder Grant performing the ceremony.
Andrew took his bride to Lehi to live in a very modest cottage. Circumstances were quite different from those to which she had been accustomed. The adjustments she had to make must have been difficult indeed. But Fia had never regretted giving up a life of ease for the sake of the gospel, nor did she regret giving up life in the comparative luxury of the Grant home for life on a small farm. She was cheerful and pleasant and made the best of her surroundings. She learned many new skills as a farmer’s wife and helped care for her mother-in-law as well.
In time their home was blessed with two sons and two daughters: Grant, Reed, Mia, and Ellen. The first boy was named after Heber J. Grant. Fia was a meticulous person and had been reared where children were kept dressed up all the time. For quite a while she struggled to keep her sons formally dressed, but she finally had to admit that they were farmer’s sons and she gave up her task, allowing them to romp and play along with their cousins and friends.
Because the light was very painful to her eyes, she seldom went out in public, but she drew people to her like a magnet. She was known far and wide for her warm hospitality. All who came into her home felt her love. She entertained and fed them and, if they were downcast, she cheered and encouraged them.
Aunt Fia’s one sadness was the loss of contact with her family in Sweden. To her knowledge, she was the only family member to have accepted the gospel. She always felt a keen responsibility toward her relatives and ancestors. She did what she could to secure their genealogy and have the temple work done for them.
Her dear Andrew died 17 June 1954. Aunt Fia lived alone in her home until she suffered a stroke a few months before her death. She was taken into the home of her daughter Mia and cared for until she died suddenly of a heart attack on 8 May 1961, shortly before her eighty-second birthday.
Aunt Fia left memories that will be cherished by countless friends and relatives, and a legacy that will continue to bless many lives until we again enjoy the privilege of her friendship in the eternities.