Dear Grandma…

Dear Grandma,

I miss you.  Lately these flashes of memories keep intruding on my day.

Your laugh.  You looked so regal, so classy.  But your laugh was down home, real folk, spilling out of you whenever the smallest opportunity for mirth arose.  How much we laughed, working on your book, our book.  Every Sunday night when I called you on the phone, we inevitably found our way into a laughing fit.  Such simple things, too. Silly, really.  But you and I, fifty years apart, found so much to chuckle over.  No cynicism in you.  Honest and kind good humor.

I miss you.

Your reassurance.  When I sometimes had not had a chance to work on the book that week and we spoke on Sunday, I knew you were disappointed, but you always said such kind words. You knew I had other responsibilities. You never pressured.  You had faith in me to carry on after you were gone.  And I feel so bad that sabbatical is over and the book is still not finished.  I’m sorry, Grandma.  I’m still working on it. I thought I’d get farther.  Of course, I traveled a lot to research the book settings and stories.  And that was a jolly good thing I did since I found so much usable information that the book is being transformed into a much fuller account.  You’d hardly recognize chapter one anymore, Grandma.  Did you know that Grandpa Skaug’s mom was illegitimate?  Did you know your Dad’s relatives were soldiers back in Sweden?  Did you ever hear about the shipwreck at Kløkstad, Norway?  Did you know our famiiy church was built in 1240 and is still standing?  Did you know that the sea off the coast of Bodø can be as still as a pond and turn savage within minutes? Did you know in Sweden they had a big stick in church to poke people with when they fell asleep during the sermon?  No, you never knew these things.

I miss you. Lately all I want, suddenly, is write your story.

But timing is everything.  I know you’d say now that I ought not to be too hard on myself.  That I have to work and take care of my family.  You’d never begrudge me that.  I was thinking only the other day about the story you told me of when my mother was a baby and Grandpa wanted to go to a movie (always go go going, that Grandpa).  So you swooped up the baby in a blanket and got your coat.  In the theater, you wondered what was poking you, only to find the coat hanger still inside the coat you were wearing.  I understand such exhaustion. I know it’s okay with you that this project is taking a while longer than anticipated.  After all, we moved at a snail’s pace, and I asked you if you wanted me to speed up.  You said, “Do it right!  It’s more important for it to be good and to be read than for me to see it finished.” So you died without seeing it.  And here I am pluggin along over two years later. Still.  I’m sorry, Grandma.

I miss you.

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Vikings, Farmers, and Fiskers: A Day in Oslo

Blood rains from the cloudy web on the broad loom of slaughter.  The web of man, grey as armour, is now being woven; The Valkyries will cross it with a crimson weft.

Okay, not my words!  This comes from the Great Icelandic work, Njal’s Saga, written around 1200 AD. But I thought I’d start with it because my friend and I began our day today (after a leisurely and HUGE Norwegian breakfast) by going to the Vikings Museum across the bay.  It rained all morning but cleared around the time we walked over to the Folk Museum, which was a good thing since the first place was indoors and the second largely outdoors.

Vikings are amazing.  Okay, so I’m not thrilled about all the rape and pillage, kill and slaughter, etc. part.  But I saw and read a lot in the museum about Viking culture and how varied it really was.  Farmers and traders were even more numerous than warriors.  It’s just that the blood and guts stuff captures our imagination the most.  Well, I tell you, seeing a real 850 AD Viking ship is impressive!

Next, at the Folk Museum, we got to see houses and other buildings from different regions of the country.  And lo and behold, in one of the houses a woman was making LEFSE!!  I just about flipped.  Certainly I whipped out the 20 kroners fee and enjoyed every last bite.  I’ve written a lot about lefse and won’t bore you with that stuff now.  Suffice it to say that THIS lefse was soft and chewy and rather thicker than I had ever seen.  But it was also a potato-less lefse.  Several people have come to my blog looking for such recipes (lefse no potatoes), so here’s the one the museum provided:

Hardangerlefse

2 eggs

250 grams sugar

125 grams melted butter/margarine

1/2 litre buttermilk

1 teaspoon baking powder

about 1 kilo wheat flour

Barley flour

butter, sugar, cinnamon

Mix eggs with sugar and butter, and stir into the milk.  Mix the baking powder with some flour and stir into the blend.  Mix with so much flour that the dough is easy to roll.  Barley flour makes it easier to roll out the lefse.  Bake the lefse ona  griddle or in a dry frying pan. Serve with butter, sugar, and cinnamon on top.

Now, it was a pretty good treat and all, but NOT real lefse as far as I am concerned.  The lady making the lefse told me that this recipe is for special occasion lefse, and potato lefse is for everyday .  Yeh, that’s fine by me.

The Folk Museum was wonderful.  I learned a lot about Norwegian farming in the nineteenth century as well as architecture and culture.  Very cool place to visit, especially the stave church on the grounds.  Oh, and the funniest thing…we met a high school girl there who was born in the city where I now live.  Talk about “it’s a small world”!

Our final museums were nearby: the Kon Tiki where we saw the flimsy ships that Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the Pacific from Peru to Tahiti.  Cool but the museum was closing, so we just popped in for a glimpse. We had a little more time at the Norwegian Maritime Museum, which stays open later.  Also very interesting and helpful for my research, too.  I got to see the kinds of boats used by my ancestors when they fished in the Lofoten fisheries in the far north in Norway.  Hard to imagine such work being done in relatively small craft.  I’ll be up north tomorrow, though, and will hopefully be going out to a nearby island off the coast of Bodø, so I’ll get to try out the whole boat thing on the coast.  We’ll see how my stomach likes that!

So, it was a day of vikings, farmers, and fiskers (fishermen).  Tomorrow we fly to north of the Arctic Circle to Bodø.  I am unsure about internet connection in the apartment where we will be staying, so don’t be surprised if I do not post every day, as I have been doing.  I’ll try to get on the web every day if I can, but I have no idea if this will be possible.  For now, it’s time to pack for our early morning flight to the far north!

And Then She Died

Two years ago on this day, Grandma died. She had a massive stroke the day before and let go on July 3, 2006. She was 92.

As fate would have it, this date is important to our family for another reason. On July 3, 1879, also a Thursday like this year, my grandmother’s grandparents left Norway for America. I know this because last week I finally found the information for which I have been searching for the last several months. (Thanks to Norway Heritage: Hands Across the Sea.) All passenger lists of ships sailing from Norway have been destroyed from the time period through which I was searching, but I just learned that the police in Norway kept records of emigrants. The Norwegians passed a law dictating that emigrants had to sign contracts with shipping companies in front of the police. This was to help prevent scams! The further benefit is that these records remain and fill the gap.

Here is what I discovered:

Rikard (Richard) Skaug, though he had changed his name at twenty years old, registered for emigration by his birth name, Hanson. His wife, who went by her middle name, Maria, registered with her first name, Hannah. They sailed from Trondheim, which is the biggest city south of their hometown of Bodø, far above the Arctic Circle. Out of Trondheim, they sailed on the Wilson line’s steamer, S/S Tasso (1).

A total of 48 passengers boarded that ship in Trondheim, including another young family from Bodø, headed for Minnesota. Their ship stopped in two cities in Norway before heading across the open North Sea to Hull, England. The journey took 3 or 4 days, so they probably arrived in England by Sunday.

In England, Maria stayed on the ship until the emigrant train was ready to leave the station at Hull on Monday morning. Women and children were not allowed on the docks. Richard may have stretched his legs and strolled by the Minerva Hotel where many emigrants congregated. In any case, on Monday they took the train to Liverpool, a few hours journey across the industrial midlands. One more leg of the journey over and a welcome stopover in a strange land before braving the trans-Atlantic crossing.

After a couple of days in a rooming house in Liverpool, they boarded one of the Inman line ships, most likely The City of Brussels, bound for New York City. The ship left on July 10th, and it took eight days to cross the oceam in the steam liner. They took their passage in steerage, at about $30 a person. There were 363 passengers. Inman was known as a middle-class liner, with more comfort than some of the most notorious shipping companies, but Richard and Maria would not have been able to afford more than the basic fare.

Once in the United States, they made their way from New York to Decorah, Iowa, where they wintered with friends. The following spring, they headed north to Beltrami, Minnesota, where Richard’s sister Caroline and her husband had already settled. They homesteaded land that is still in our family four generations later.

What must it have been like to leave Norway and all their family and friends, the familiar sights of mountain and harbor, and head thousands of miles away to a land where they did not speak the language, where they would never see the ocean again?

Turns out I found another source, a diary that I didn’t know that I had, written by Grandma’s uncle, who visited Norway in the summer of 1939. He met several people in Bodø and the surrounding villages who knew his parents and grandparents. They told him of the night before the family left and how all the people of the little town of Skaug gathered at the Hanson home crying and singing hymns in unison long into the night. Sounds like a wake. I guess it was.

On this anniversary of my beloved grandmother’s passing from this world, my tears mix with those of my ancestors, mourning and celebrating. Loss and love. On Monday I will “return” to the land of Richard and Maria, my great-great-grandparents. I will walk in their village, pray in their church, sit and face the sea they left behind forever, a beautiful but dangerous companion. Life in this frontier was beyond difficult. I have no romatic notions of how lovely it would have been like to live like that. But, still, it was home to their families as long as anyone could remember. I can’t, as an American, imagine feeling so rooted. How painful, physically excruciating, it must have been to be ripped out of the soil and transplanted into the American Midwest.

I will honor their sacrifice, a sacrifice for the child Maria was carrying inside her during that dangerous journey that began this day one hundred and twenty-nine years ago. The sacrifice they made for me. They braved it all to try to make a better life for us. My grandmother appreciated their sacrifice and wanted to convey its enormity to the younger generations through her book. I have taken up that challenge with her death. I am writing grandma’s book; I am finishing what she started.

Tracing my Family’s Roots: My Trip to the Old Country

Did I mention I’m going to Sweden and Norway in less than three weeks to find my roots?

Yeh, well, I am. I’ve been planning the trip for months — it’s meant to help fill in the gaps in Grandma’s first chapter: “The Old Country.” I’m very excited about going and have been working frantically the last couple of days to finalize details that I had not taken care of earlier. My friend, W., is going with me, lor’ bless her!

Anyway, when we are there, I will be meeting my long-lost cousins in Sweden. Actually, they are not lost, technically speaking, since it was MY branch of the family that left the homeland! I contacted them via email as soon as I met a distant cousin for the first time and discovered that she had tracked down these good people. Nobody in my grandmother’s family knew of them or how to reach them, so this is really exciting.

These cousins made a reservation for us at a local hotel in their little town. I don’t know the hotel name, but I’ve been searching the internet for lots of other info and found what I think is the hotel. I used that wacky translator feature on google to read the website and LOL! That translator creates some funny phrases. Here are some to make you smile:

Under “Rooms” we find the following:

We have 31 rooms that can take up to 66 people, the hotel is newly renovated 2005, so the rooms are fresh.
But for us is not fresh rooms and comfortable beds enough …

When you live with us, you have access to broadband and lånedator, we have also kettles, coffee, tea, mineral water and a chokladbit in rooms which are part of our guests when they arrive. These things are natural to us that they will be available for your välfinnande.

Under “Activities” we find the following:

Take the opportunity to dream up something that förgyller time for us to the edge.
We have many activities to choose from that fit old as the young, boy or girl, CEO or employee.
Put the head in place through a variety of 5 or 10 – or struggles rid catch up in Iceland in a beautiful environment

We can offer different packages for your conference or kick-off.

  • Wine tasting
  • Whisky tastings (Single Malt)
  • Golftävlingar, greenfree or putting contests
  • Canoe trip on nossan with food in the open
  • Segelflygning if weather permits
  • Different 5 or 10 struggles
  • Vikingafest with contemporary get-up and grisbuffé
  • Blombindning
  • Pausgympa, learn how to streamline your work
  • Various speakers
  • Fishing trips on Sämsjön
  • Riding on Icelandic natural beauty
  • Crosscart
  • Bowling
  • Different bus with cultural and historical elements such as in Arn’s footsteps
  • Health on the farm and see how milk comes into existence.

Another Grandma Dream: Saving the Pictures

Last night Grandma’s house in California was in imminent danger of burning down. In my dream that is. I was there helping to save everything important in the house. My newish neighbor (here in Massachusetts) was sitting with Grandma, comforting her. He is a minister of the more traditional variety and has a soothing and calm manner — thus he appeared in dream, I guess.

I moved from room to room in Grandma’s house looking for what mattered. Over and over again I chose photos: big and bulky framed photos, loose photos, photo albums. I quickly found these hard to carry, so I looked for bags to hold them: old purses, shopping bags, luggage, etc.

Every once in a while, I paused and looked at an item and thought, this is special. Hokey but special. Wall plaques with sentimental sayings — but SOOOO Grandma.

From the front of the house, as I moved towards the back and then the upstairs, I heard Grandma and my neighbor. Organ music began to drift through the house, a plaintive and old fashioned tune. It sounded like funeral music but was somehow peaceful. I thought, Grandma is comforting herself with music. She was playing the organ in the dream, though she rarely played her organ and didn’t really know much about music in real life — certainly not enough to play that well. But she did have an organ in what she called the “music room” of the house.

When I got into the dining room, I had a flashback to my early childhood, well before my folks divorced. I remembered visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house before they built the addition that turned their kitchen into a formal dining room and their patio into a kitchen/family room. I must have been about five? This really happened, but it was strange how I was remembering this lost detail while in a dream. I was thinking at that point about how much had happened in that house.

The thing that bugs me about the dream is how I didn’t even bother trying to help Grandma herself. She was alive in the dream, but I basically ignored her. Or more accurately, I took her presence for granted. It was the pictures I had to save. They were the thing that would be lost. Grandma was safe and comfortable, talking to my minister neighbor. We would have plenty of time to get out safely — the neighborhood was being evacuated soon but not yet. There was time to gather the things we wanted to save.

I wonder what all this means….

After a Brief Intermission… Getting Back to Grandma’s Book

So, yeh, I’ve kinda had a hard time actually writing Grandma’s book this year (meaning academic calendar).  At first it was pure grief.  I couldn’t face it.  Then it was exhaustion.  Then it was other things like galivanting around in the Southern Hemisphere or editing an essay collection.  But the time has clearly come for me to face this writing project and get back in gear.

I was thinking that maybe the best approach would be to come up with some questions to ask The Last Living Relatives people. I mean, time’s a wastin’ so I gotta start somewhere, and I’m sure I’d enjoy the conversation, too.

Anyway, I decided to brainstorm a little in this post about what I need to find out.  If you readers think of anything else I should ask, please jump on in. 🙂  Also, if you have done this kind of research before and have suggestions on how to conduct the research, I’m all ears!

(1) Grandma’s first cousin, Delores:  I heard that her mom wrote letters to someone back in Sweden.  Does she know who it was?  Did anyone keep the letters from Sweden? (WOULDN’T THAT BE COOL?!!)  Does she remember hearing who her grandparents lived with when they first came to Minnesota?  Was it Uncle Carl?  Does she know anything about our mysterious Chicago relatives?  The ship’s manifest says the great-grandparents were to come from Sweden to Minn. via Chicago, but why?  Does she remember her cousins from Thief River (Grandma’s family) ever coming to visit? What were her aunts and uncles like, especially my grandma’s parents but also Aunt Anna, who played a big role in my great-grandparents’ early married life?

(2) First Cousin John: Who lived in Chicago? What was Uncle Carl like? Did he have any children?  Was his place the same spot as what later became Great-Grandpa’s or was it merely adjacent property? Did we ever find out what happened to Aunt Sophie?  Do any of her decendants survive? What ended up happening to Aunt Ricka, the one who moved to Beltrami and who sent for great-grandpa after her husband died?  Did she re-marry? Do we know what happened to her son, William?

(3) First Cousin Julene: What were the Aunts and Uncles like in terms of their personalities?  Who lived in Chicago?!!  (His family moved west early, so I’m not sure how much contact he really had with the midwesterners.  I’ll have to ask him more about that to see if the other questions I’m asking relatives might be able to be answered by him.)

(4) Grandma’s sister, Delores: What does she remember about the Norwegian relatives and their way of life in the old country?  Does she know if they were really fishermen?  Does she know what town they lived in (in case it doesn’t exist any longer, I need to find out what other small town it was near)?  Does she know who the Norwegians came to live with in Iowa before settling in Minnesota?  Does she know from which port they left Norway?  Does she know in which port they arrived in the US?  What relatives lived in Chicago?!!!!

(5) First cousin on the other side of the family, Marvin: same as above except no Chicago question for that side of the family!  Does he know if there was a sewing school in Crookston around the turn of the century?  We couldn’t find mention of it when I visited the archives there, but maybe he has a clue…?  Does he remember which families his grandparents and parents were friendly with?  What were the neighbors’ names?

Okay, so that ought get me started.  I’ll call them all this weekend and try to get in touch.  I’ll let y’all know if I find out something interesting.  Then it’s on to that manuscript.  Seriously.  I’m determined to get back to it now that I’ve almost cleared my plate of other obligations.  True, it kinda scares me.  I’m worried that it’ll be difficult emotionally to go back to it.  My heart still aches when I let myself think of Grandma more than a couple of minutes.

But, I must finish what she started.  She.  We. Me.

Grandma’s House; or, The Fine Art of Decorating

I used to love touring Grandma’s house. It was filled to the brim with all manner of bizzare items accumulated over the years. The glass eyes of the dead deer head on a panelled wall of the family room commanded me to pet the carcass. Sick, I know, but I found it necessary to oblige.

Then there was the old-fashioned crank phone on the wall by the stairs — it didn’t work but provided all manner of good fun winding it up and pretending. “One ringey-dingey,” we intoned with a nasally voice. Yes, I’m old enough to remember Laugh In!

By the window in the music room, a glass church with steeple and movable doors caught the light. Grandma had taken up the art of stained glass making after retirement, and this piece was her crowning achievement.

On the wall across from the bar, hung a massive crocheted tapestry of an English hunting scene, complete with jumping dogs with tongues hanging out. I never quite got the point of that one. My Scandanavian Grandma was not the English hunting party type. It was executed well, but never seemed to fit.

In the front foyer sat a deeply carved chest with an old military uniform in it (WWI, I think?) and on top rested a velvet-covered photo album, with garishly painted plate on the front … of cherubs, was it? Or a plump beauty? Behind the chest sat a large vase filled with peacock feathers. The mail would fall through the slit in the front door and land next to the chest. Whenever I went to pick it up for Grandma, I had to touch the carved trunk, velvet book, and luminescent feathers.

In the kitchen above the counter hung a “kitchen witch” doll. And slid into the space between the stove and the dishwashing machine, hid the lefse griddle and formica rolling board. Catching a glimpse of these from time to time could evoke all the wonderful emotions associated with our annual lefse-making marathon. Mom sent me the griddle a while back. It hides in my pantry now.

Dear sweet Grandma. Such a mountain of stuff left behind in that house and yet so utterly empty it feels. How difficult it is to part with the things she made so patiently with her own hands. Yet we do not have room in our homes for such things, and we don’t really want them. Honestly, the charm of these objects was entirely depenedent on Grandma imbuing them with meaning.

Yesterday a box arrived for me with Grandma’s beautifully framed photographs of her family (my first request when asked what I wanted from Grandma’s house was these photos): her parents’ wedding picture, two enlarged candids of kids with wiggling toes sitting on a porch and mounds of children piling into an old Ford, and Great-Grandma’s sewing school graduation picture with ten women solemly sewing for the photographer. Plus Mom sent me the photo of Grandma that I had brought to the funeral, an enlarged photo in black and white that I had taken on our last trip to Minnesota. Grandma is looking out into the distance with her back to the corner of the barn her dad built on the homestead. In fact, this is the photo I use on this blog for my avatar. I had matted and framed the photo for the service and given it to Mom to keep. But she gave it back to me. The corner of the frame was crushed from shipping, so I’ll need to get a new frame if I want to hang it. But I didn’t ask for that picture and didn’t really want it on my wall. It’s one thing to have the long dead and gone hanging there, but Grandma lives too much in my heart still to hang her up in the hall of the dead.

I don’t mind posting the photo here, though, so you can get a better look!

grandma-shrunk.jpg