Leaving Herrljunga, Goteborg, and Sweden…Then and Now

They stood on the platform at Herrljunga, laden with their heavy luggage, surrounded by relatives who had come to see them off. A hopeful turn to the conversation at one point: ‘I hope you will find what you are looking for.’  At another moment tears: ‘I hope we will see you again some day.’ Then the train approaches from the east and stops. The travelers look back as they board and wave before entering the train car to find a seat for the journey to Göteborg.

In the big city they disembark amidst bustling natives of the major sea port: men and women, children and the elderly, shopping in the central market area or hustling home, grabbing a quick bite to eat in a sidewalk cafe or walking to work, resting at the foot of the Gustav Adolf statue or strolling in the park along the Stora Hamn canal.  Our travelers continue to the waterfront where they board a crowded ship. As the vessel pulls away from the dock out into the river, the travelers stand at the back of the boat and watch the shoreline recede.  The rocking boat travels west, always west, along the river, and landmarks pop out of the landscape, church steeples, government buildings, the immigrant processing center, riverside docks and piers.  The gentle motion of the boat slightly sickens the woman wiping tears from her stinging eyes.

A swirl of emotions surges through her as she looks back.  Joy for the coming journey.  Gratitude for her good fortune.  Sadness to leave the beloved ones behind. ‘Come to America,’ she said to everyone in the days before she left. ‘Come to America.’  Maybe was the guarded reply.

As the ship approached the entrance to the sea, the travelers saw black clouds and heard the rumblings of distant thunder.  The rain was on a collision course with the boat, so all went below deck, with one last lingering look at Göteborg harbor.

1885…?  2008…?  Yes.  Both.

I left the town of my great-grandfather yesterday. My new-found realtives showed up to see us off, just as no doubt the old ones did in Oscar’s day. We went to Göteborg, where we had heard that we could take a ferry all the way down the river, almost to the sea.  And the storm did come up right at land’s end.

Of course, this is pretty much the end of the similarity since we got off the ferry boat at the little town of Klippan to see the 14th-century Alvsborg Castle and Saint Birgittas’ Chapel, where the massive bell measured out the noon hour fifteen feet from us (yes, we were rather surprised!) Then we returned to the quay and took the boat back to the ferry terminal.  We ate lunch at a lovely little 17th-century inn, bought some chocolate at an artisan chocolate and carmel shop, visited the city museum to do some more research, and finally returned to the station to board a bus that would take us to another town where we could catch the train to Oslo, Norway. (They are repairing rails near Göteborg, so we had to go by bus for the first leg of the journey.)

And so we left Sweden.  Not quite as my forebearers did, but we left nonetheless and felt a bit of what it must have been like.  In Swedish, they have a phrase that means ‘a taste’: smaka   (sounds like smoke-a-pore, or as we mistakenly heard it, smoked pork!) Anyway, we had a smaka på of Sweden and of the immigrant experience. I hope this is not goodbye forever as it was for Oscar and his family, who never returned to their homeland. I hope they shall come to visit me and my family and we shall come Sweden, as well. But one never knows.  That is one reason why this experience is filled with so much emotion for me.  The lost have been found.  I shall try not to lose them again, but a vast ocean rests between us.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Frederick Buechner, written on a slip of paper that I have carried with me since my grandmother died:

‘Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer. It is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still.  The people we loved. The people who loved us. The people who, for good or ill, taught us things.  Dead and gone they may be, as we come to understand them in new ways, it is as though they come to understand us — and through them to understand ourselves — in new ways, too.’

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