Business & Trauma Resilience: Lessons from My Great Grandmother, Signe
Meet My Paternal Great-Grandmother, Signe Alida Teresia Eriksson Peterson
She and I share the same last name, eye color, hair color, and the same height: 5 feet, 4 inches.
Our family has strong memories of Signe's hands, "They were misshapen by years and years of hard labor." I'm told she almost lost her hands as a child from working too hard. Signe's daughter, my great-aunt Muriel, told the story like this: one day, young Signe was given rugs to clean outdoors in a stream in early spring (umm... Sweden!?!!) Her hands were so cold and frozen that blood had to be released to save them. Yikes.
Signe left her homeland of Sweden for hardship reasons (read: early childhood trauma). Her mother died when she was 9 years old. Soon after, her father abandoned his six children. Signe was the youngest, cared for by older siblings for a time, but eventually was sent to a distant relative to earn her keep there. Like many modern immigrant families, Signe's older brothers emigrated from home (to Canada) and sent money back for her eventual travels.
At the age of 17, Signe bravely emigrated from Sweden to Chicago alone. On October 31st, 1912, she boarded the SS Cymric, pictured above. The boat had dorm-style lodging for all the unaccompanied women and was designed to travel around 15 knots (~17 mph). The math on that works out to a 13-day, one-way trip from Liverpool to New York. Awaiting for her in Chicago was a job as a housemaid and cook for a family.
She eventually met and married my great-grandfather, Hilding Peterson, whose parents had previously emigrated from Fjallbacka and Sundsvall, Sweden. They lived in South Chicago and had three kiddos.
My grandpa was their oldest. He enlisted in the Marines immediately after high school in 1942. My great-aunt Muriel was their middle child. This picture below is of Hilding, Signe, and their youngest son (my great-uncle), Richard.
The picture below is of Signe and Hilding celebrating "Gene the Marine" and his miraculously safe return from fighting in Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Bouganville, and Guam in WWII.
This is Saw-Bridg Restaurant
During WWII, Signe and Hilding became proud small business owners of a roadside diner named Saw-Bridg, located just outside Michigan's Warren Dunes State Park, pictured in the postcard below. [BIG HUGE THANKS to Out West Postcards for finding and selling me what was likely the last existing postcard of the Saw-Bridg Restaurant, so cool!]
Pies, Potatoes & Patronage
My aunt Marnie tells me that "Signe got up every morning at 4 am to start making pies and put the roasts on for dinner. Truly, she was one of the hardest-working people ever!" My dad says it was 3 am.
The restaurant had a warm and neighborly atmosphere. My grandpa remembers his dad, Hilding, “would sit on the back porch with his friends and peel mounds of potatoes for hours and hours."
If community members, friends, or family visited for socializing, they quickly learned Signe’s boundaries of patronage. She would calmly place a potato peeler in a socializer’s hands and silently push a bowl of potatoes in their direction. My grandpa laughed when he told us that despite Signe's thick Swedish accent, "she really knew how to get her point across."
Location, Location, Location!
Below is a better picture of Saw-Bridg Restaurant's signage in all its roadside branding glory. The sign above the door reads, "THIS IS SAW-BRIDG"
It just goes to show that you don't need fancy branding if the business model and market positioning are excellent. So copywriters and branding strategists, take note: This is back-to-basics minimalism-meets-effectiveness for ya!
Speaking of the restaurant's successful location, the State of Michigan ultimately bought the restaurant for $14,500 during one of its conservation expansions for Warren Dunes State Park in 1967. Adjusting for inflation, that amount is equivalent in purchasing power to $128,638 today. While it’s not top-dollar, it’s not too shabby for a traumatized orphan turned resilient immigrant/entrepreneur!
One of my favorite bits from that deed of sale contract is seen in the picture above. It reads, "Vendor reserves the right to remove the flower bulbs now planted on the above-described premises..." and proves to me two things:
Clearly, Signe and Hilding cared about every tiny detail of this little restaurant
Running a business (including the sale of it!) is fully customizable, flower bulbs 'n all!
Also relevant to those flower bulbs and resilience: Hilding, pictured below standing in his front yard garden, was given the horrifying news at the age of 56 that he only had a short time to live; however, he fooled them all and lived to 96—tending to those precious flower bulbs the whole time. Heck yes!
This is a very Peterson-esque (long-winded) way of saying...
I'm so proud of Signe. I'm honored to be her great-granddaughter.
A family member had this to say about Signe’s early childhood trauma: "I remember well my grandmother's hands which were misshapen by years and years of hard work, but I always remember how much love she showed to us all, putting aside the harshness of her early years."
I hope we (my clients and I) can do as she did, setting aside the harshness of our traumas while building businesses we’re proud of.
I am encouraged to read between the lines. Her story of survivor-entrepreneurship and restorative labor probably did what it does for many of my clients.
In her case, I'm guessing that the 4 am alarm clock provided a daily practice of joyfully owning and tending to her space in the world. I bet that bowl of potatoes symbolized another lesson learned through entrepreneurship too, like the delicate balance between the flaws of traumatic childhood meritocracy, grown-up mutual reciprocity, and their effects on personal relationships within the business.
Although, I might be over-romanticizing the symbolism in that bowl of potatoes! ;-)
Historical Tidbit: In the 1600's, Christians moved to Sweden and colonized the Vikings, soon after banning their pagan practices. Not many people know this, but Christian leadership referred to the dala horse as a "devil's toy" because it had ties to underground pagan practices (hello, ancient religious trauma!)
Fittingly, among other things today, the dalahäst is a Swedish symbol of resilience.
The Peterson Resilience Consulting logo is a reminder of resilience and a symbol of our entrepreneurial journeys beyond trauma. Signe’s story, in particular, is a reminder that regardless of our traumatic experiences, it is still possible to:
ask for help
rely on the resources of others
lean into new adventures
fall in love
care for our family & friends
grow beautiful flowers
watch our children grow up
enjoy our neighbors while peeling potatoes
bake yummy pastries at 4 am
build a financially sustainable business
AND take your flower bulbs with you after the contract is signed!
Trauma might've shaped Signe's life and hands, but it certainly did not break them.
File:SS Cymric.tif - Wikipedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SS_Cymric.tif
SS Cymric - Wikipedia. (2008, August 23). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia; Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Cymric
The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England; BT27 Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and Successors: Outwards Passenger Lists; Reference Number: Series BT27-106898
Ancestry.com. Sweden, Emigrants Registered in Church Books, 1783-1991 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
Ancestry.com. Sweden, Emigration Registers, 1869-1948 [database on-line]. Lehi, Utah, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2018.Original data:Images provided courtesy of ArkivDigital. Göteborgs Poliskammare, 1869–1948, Landsarkivet i Göteborg; Norrköpings poliskammare; Huvudarkivet Polisen in Helsingborg; Poliskammaren i Malmö Överståthållarämbetet för polisärenden 1 (ÖÄ): Äldre poliskammaren (Stockholm 1869-1904); Överståthållarämbetet för polisärenden 2 (ÖÄ): Poliskammaren (Stockholm 1905-1940).
Thank you for the introduction to Signe whose qualities you both aspire to and exhibit! Steve
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