East of Elmgrove

Hidden Treasures

His name was Alf Mads Andreas Thorvald Sorensen, but everyone called him Alfie. I never met him, but I know a lot about him. He was my husband’s great uncle, a hardy Norwegian who tilled the earth …

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His name was Alf Mads Andreas Thorvald Sorensen, but everyone called him Alfie. I never met him, but I know a lot about him. He was my husband’s great uncle, a hardy Norwegian who tilled the earth and ate Gjetost cheese with crispbread during the holidays. 

He made an entrance eight years ago when I was sorting through my mother-in-law’s things. She had died and left behind a house filled with stuff, from rose-patterned teacups to old Christmas ornaments. 

Carol never threw anything out. When she was alive she rarely talked about her possessions, but I see now that she treasured them and probably looked at them often. They all had a history – her brother’s red agate cigarette holder, her father’s porcelain shaving bowl, her mother’s embroidery bag with a ball of thread still attached to the handkerchief she was stitching just before she died. 

Alfie’s box was in the eaves. I remember dragging it out from a cobwebbed corner and opening it as I sat on the dark wood floor. Here were the contents of a man’s life, neatly packed away in a cardboard box and, in some cases, even labeled. “Alfie’s letters.’’ Alfie’s war photos.’’ “Alfie’s papers.’’ 

Looking through a man’s past takes patience, so I sat there all day on the third floor of Carol’s ancient house and pieced together a life that took me from Alfie’s boyhood days in Providence to the battlefields of France to the hospital bed where he died. 

He was born December 8, 1893, the child of Thorvald Fredrik Sorensen and Emilie Jorgensen, who came to the United States from Norway in 1876 in search of the proverbial better life. The Sorensens and their seven children, including Alfie, settled in a clapboard house in Providence. I know this because I found the metal nameplate that Alfie nailed to his door for callers and the postman. “Alf. Th. Sorensen, 39 Lisbon Street,’’ it said in fanciful cursive. 

I opened a green-clothed photo album. There he was as a boy sitting next to his mother on the steps of their front porch, a medal pinned to his Sunday jacket. Did he win a spelling bee? His hair was cut short enough to show off a cowlick, and he had a pleasant smile. He seemed like a happy kid.

Everything in the photos spoke of nature – a picnic in the side yard, a blossomng dogwood, the sun shining through the lace curtains and bathing the front parlor with light. Life seemed simpler back then; small gestures brought great joy. Pruning the hydrangeas, for instance, or petting the fluffy white cat. 

After high school, Alfie worked as a machinist at Gorham, one of the largest makers of silverware in the United States at the time. His life would soon change. On his 24th birthday, he enlisted in World War I and began a great adventure – or so he thought. 

These are the facts: He served from 1917 to 1919 in France with the 19th Co., 2nd Regiment of the Air Service Mechanics. He worked on aircraft. He fought in the Champagne-Marne Defensive, the St. Mihiel Offensive and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was entitled to wear two gold chevrons.

But there was so much more. 

I found a pocket watch that he kept with him throughout the war. His army tag was attached to it, so he could be identified if he was killed in combat. Imprinted on the watch were his initials: ATS. 

There was a miniature painting of a sailboat on a lake in the mountains. The artist’s signature was on back: Hand-painted by “Pvt. Blair Cleveland in Nettancourt, France.’’ There were French postcards and a program from the The Folies-Bergère with a fetching Miss Shirley Kellogg on the cover. There were Alfie’s World War I buttons, 15 in all and linked together with red string. 

I counted 169 letters. They were censored, so little military information was revealed. But they were poignant in their simplicity. Artillery “rained down,’’ but he told his “folks’’ not to worry. His contingent camped in the woods to hide from air raids. He wrote of returning home to “Little Rhody in America – God’s country.’’ His scrap-
book was filled with war photos. The “muddy trenches’’ looked menacing.

After he was discharged, Alfie returned to Providence. He lived again with his parents on Lisbon Street and then moved to a small farm in Smithfield to live with his sister (my husband’s grandmother). 

But he was never the same. Back then, they called it shell-shock. Today, it’s known as post-traumatic stress disorder. For one, Alfie lost his hearing during the war from the bombs and shelling. 

He was also remote; he had a far-away look in his eyes as an older man. Children played quietly when Alfie was in the room. Something about his nerves. A lifelong bachelor, he tended to his corn field and vegetable garden as he withdrew into that valley of lonesomeness. 

On February 4, 1954, he died of colon cancer at the Veterans Administration Hospital, across the street from where he grew up. A condolence letter from the hospital’s medical director was still in its envelope. 

“I wish to offer my deepest sympathy to you,’’ wrote Dr. William J. Sullivan. “May you find consolation in the knowledge that he served his country and died honored and respected by all of us.’’ 

Things from the past clutter our houses and turn yellow on the long march of time. Why do we keep them? It’s so hard to let go. Maybe it was love that inspired Alfie’s mother to pack a box a century ago. I’m grateful that she did. Everyone deserves to be known.

Email Elizabeth Rau.