Julie McDonald Commentary: Centenarian Recalls Five Decades of Life in the Mint City

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Last week, I shared the story of Lisa Pettersson’s early life in Sweden before she married George Blomdahl of Seattle. As the late great Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story.

After their marriage in 1953, George and Lisa Blomdahl traveled through Europe for their honeymoon. She strapped a guitar on her back that bore two hearts — one for her native Sweden and the other for George’s homeland, the United States.

“We started in England and went to 17 countries through Europe,” said Lisa, who turned 100 on Jan. 11. “We hitchhiked. We met such wonderful people on that trip.”

They moved to the United States because George wanted his wife at home raising their children rather than working outside the home and letting the government care for their kids as often happened in Sweden.

So, they boarded a ship called Kungsholm and arrived in New York on May 26, 1954. Lisa was processed through the immigration station at Ellis Island, one of the last to go through before it closed. They stayed a week in Philadelphia with a couple they had met on their honeymoon. It was the first time she’d ever seen a Black person.

In Seattle, Lisa met George’s stepmother, a Swedish immigrant named Anna. She raised him after his mother, also named Anna, died when he was a year old. Lisa also met George’s three older siblings — Albert, Roy and Esther — but his father had already passed away. His family loved her.

A month later, they drove south to Lewis County, where George interviewed for a photojournalism job at The Daily Chronicle. He was hired in July 1954, but Lisa almost rejected Chehalis as a hometown because the smell of spearmint wafting from the Callisons plant on National Avenue sickened her. On their next visit to Chehalis, the plant’s workers were extracting a less offensive flavor, so they rented a duplex apartment at the bottom of Washington Avenue. Lisa conversed with their Danish landlady in English, although she said, “I spoke German better than English.”

During her first year, struggling with the language and a new culture, Lisa nearly gave up and returned to Sweden, but she didn’t.

“We knew it was God’s will,” she said. “That’s what kept us together.”

The duplex sat directly behind the home of attorney Jim Vander Stoep and his wife, Suzi.

“George came to our house after dinner once a week to find out from Jim about the business of the justice of the peace that week,” Suzi Vander Stoep recalled. “He brought Lisa along, and she and I visited. That was 70 years ago, and I have admired her and enjoyed her all these 70 years that I have known her.”

Lisa talks nearly every day with her younger sister Tea (pronounced Tay-a), who married George’s best friend, Carl Heimdahl, and lives in Seattle. Another sister lives in Sweden not far from their childhood home. The rest of her siblings have died. 

“I have never regretted that I came here,” Lisa said. “He (George) was the best husband anybody could have.”

George and Lisa always wanted children, and their son, David, arrived in 1956, followed two years later by their daughter, Anne. When the family visited Sweden in the late 1950s, shy little Anne, who cried whenever most strangers held her, bonded quickly with her grandmother, Johanna.

During that visit, George chiseled into a rock two intertwined hearts bearing his and Lisa’s initials — G.B. and L.P. It remains on the shore near Lisa’s former home at Brantevik. 

“Across from our home was a Danish island — Bornholm,” Lisa said. “When the ocean was all frozen, George walked from our house to the place in Denmark in one day.”

Why? Because he could.

In February 1959, Lisa was among 17 adults enrolled in a 10-week evening citizenship class at W.F. West High School and became a U.S. citizen.

The Blomdahls left the duplex for a home on Fair Oaks Terrace, just above The Daily Chronicle’s Chehalis office. Lisa said the wives of the reporters and editors welcomed her to the community. Eventually, the newspaper closed the Chehalis office and George worked in Centralia.

They joined the First Baptist Church of Chehalis, where they taught Sunday school, and the Lewis County Camp of The Gideons International. George also served 14 years as lay pastor for Dryad Community Church. He belonged to the Chehalis Kiwanis Club, served 20 years on the Chehalis School Board, and juggled his journalism job for eight years with his duties as Lewis County coroner. He climbed mountains, skied, sailed, and played tennis with his family.

In February 1962, Lisa joined the St. Helens Club and gave hour-long lectures every couple of years, addressing such topics as “Royalty,” “Japan,” “Ladies of the Victorian Era,” and “My Swedish Heritage.” She served as recording secretary three years later and then president. She considered her club membership an honor.

“I was so happy to be invited,” she recalled. “I loved to learn.”

Lisa also liked giving back to others, which she did as a member of the P.E.O. Sisterhood’s Chehalis Chapter AV, which she joined in March 1964. More than a decade later, she served as president of the local P.E.O., which stands for Philanthropic Educational Organization and provides educational opportunities for women worldwide.

“That’s different but wonderful,” she said. “You do something special for people.”

Lisa hosted many P.E.O luncheons at their home through the decades. 

She also provided hospitality during intermissions when the Seattle Symphony Orchestra performed in Chehalis.

One time en route to Seattle, Lisa and George followed behind a large delivery truck with frozen turkeys. One fell out, so they picked it up, and Lisa learned quickly how to cook a turkey, which they never ate in Sweden.

After her mother died, Lisa’s father, Axel, visited the family in Chehalis in 1966. Three years later, Lisa and her sister Tea returned to Sweden for the summer, where they were greeted and welcomed home by old sea captains. Lisa wrote a piece published in The Daily Chronicle July 18, 1969, sharing her glimpses of Sweden. 

Barbara Mason of Chehalis was in her thirties when she met Lisa five decades ago at the Centralia-Chehalis Christian Women’s Club. They became neighbors, P.E.O. sisters, and fellow students in famed Gig Harbor designer Winston Coy’s interior design classes. 

Barbara and her husband, Frank, stopped by Jan. 11 to celebrate Lisa’s 100th birthday.

“She has inspired me for over 50 years,” Barbara Mason said of Lisa. “Despite her petite stature, she is a very strong person. Her faith, her family and friends are uppermost in her life. Her Scandinavian style never waivers in the decor of her home. Her optimistic attitude is a gift she shares with all.”

Lisa said her faith in God guided her life as a wife and a mother, a homemaker and a gardener. 

“That’s what made me live this long,” she said. “And I’ve taken care of myself.”

Lisa never smoked or drank alcohol, but she loved butter in her pastries. She excelled at cooking, with stuffed cabbage among her favorite concoctions. Was she as good a cook as her mother? “George thought so,” she said.

George and Lisa celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in July 2003 with David and Anne and their spouses and children, enjoying dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Olympia harbor.

“They had a wonderful marriage,” said their daughter, Anne. “The simple things in life kept them strong in their marriage — just sitting and drinking a cup of coffee.”

After more than four decades, George retired from the Chronicle in 1995. Two years later, he returned to journalism as editor of Frank DeVaul’s Business to Business, where he retired a second time in 2005.

“One thing that really characterized my parents here was their service to the community,” Anne said. 

“In their later years, they would go around and visit shut-ins. They both were all about visiting people who are lonely and forgotten.”

The Blomdahls built their retirement home near their longtime residence. It’s all on one floor with wide doorways to accommodate a wheelchair. George died of cancer Feb. 1, 2008, just shy of his 85th birthday.

Lisa still walks 20 minutes daily on her treadmill and alternates her exercise routine with a stationary bike. When her friend Pearl Miller stopped by for coffee last year, just before her 103rd birthday, Lisa showed her the exercise bike.

“Mom got on here and Pearl says, ‘I want to try it,’ so she did,” Anne recalled.

Although she survived colon cancer and a heart valve replacement in her late eighties, Lisa describes her health today as good. She still plays the guitar.

“You know, I can do what I used to do,” she said. “And I think I’m better now than I was when I was 75.”

Despite troubles like the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, “God is the same. God doesn’t change. What I have to look for is God.”

What’s the secret to her longevity?

“Believe in God,” she said. “I couldn’t live without His help because there have been times when I didn’t feel good.”

Emma Elisabet “Lisa” Blomdahl has five grandchildren — Kurt, Daniel, Jacob, Eric and Elizabeth or “Lisa” — and a great-granddaughter, Emma, also named in her honor.

Jenny Kirk described Lisa, her friend for a quarter of a century and fellow P.E.O. member, as “a lovely, inspirational woman.”

“Lisa may be small in stature, but she is large in faith and friendship,” Kirk said. “Lisa became a role model for me on how to age gracefully and accept the challenges of life peacefully. Her bright smile and the twinkle in her eye are a warm greeting even at 100 years of age. Lisa’s family lovingly surrounds her, a wonderful testament to the unconditional love she gives freely to others.”

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.