Welcome Back: On Loving Our Diverse and Complicated Country

The audience sat hushed in the oldest church in Lowell this morning. Even the baby near the back who had been fussing for most of the concert was silent. Then the familiar strains began of our national anthem. It was the final song of an hour-long concert. As I looked at the faces of the children, playing in this summer orchestra program for kids in our relatively impoverished and highly diverse city, I saw the face of America. Maybe more accurately, I saw the face of the world. Children of immigrants all, they played their instruments with concentration, skill, and joy. And I cried.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not really patriotic. I believe that patriotism is a dangerous stance. I fear it causes more harm than good most times. But this morning in that 184-year-old church, I wept. I felt so proud to belong to a country that has welcomed immigrants from every continent in every century since our founding, a place where my ancestors were welcomed when they risked all to leave Norway, Sweden, Ireland, England, Italy, and who knows where else.

Is there anti-immigrant sentiment in the US these days? You bet there is. Is there racism and discrimination? Quite obviously so. Still…there is a man running for president whose father was African. Obama is a first generation American, the son of an immigrant and he could end up holding our highest public office. Our country may have have it’s problems (no argument there), but we are in many ways still a welcoming place for newcomers — at least we ahve that intention and potential.

Like in my city, for instance. We face a lot of challenges here in this historic mill town. From its inception, though, Lowell has always welcomed immigrants. While it’s true that these newcomers generally live in the most degraded part of town when they first come, they often begin to improve their lot well within one person’s lifetime, if not sooner. As each new wave of immigrants has swept into the city — Irish, French Canadian, Russian, Greek, Southeast Asian (especially Cambodian), West African, Caribbean Latino, etc. — they have worked hard and moved out of “the acre” to make room for the next group of arrivals.

And there were these immigrants’ children and children’s children at the concert today, my son among them. Just having returned from Scandinavia and having spent the last three weeks thinking constantly about my immigrant ancestors, I heard and saw the concert with this filter in place.

So I made it home fine from my trip to Scandinavia. Our journey the last day was long and extended even longer due to a violent nor’easter storm in Boston that closed Logan airport. We finally arrived two hours late. At the immigration counter, we waited an especially long time. In our line before us, there was a family that looked to be Indian or Pakistani. The US government let these good folks enter our country, though not without a lot of checking and double checking and triple checking and quadruple checking. But after all that, the officer said, “Welcome to the United States.”

“What was your business in Sweden and Norway?” he asked me when I went up to the window after the family walked away to baggage claim.

I was there doing research for a book about my immigrant ancestors.

“Really?”

Yup. It was a great trip. Gotta lot accomplished.

“Okay. Welcome back.”

Welcome. Yes….

I get frustrated with the erosions of civil liberties and basic civil rights happening these days in the US. I am infuriated that we went to war in Iraq — a senseless and brutal act. I see so much that is broken or damaged in this country, so much work to do that it is overwhelming at times. But I also know that our diverse and complicated country has held and continues to hold out a beautiful promise to millions of people. They are welcome. Let us live up to that promise.

A Whirlwind Trip Across England: On the Trail of the Immigrants

We arrived in Newcastle, in the northeast of England, on Monday morning and disembarked from our ship, The Queen of Scandinavia.  What we didn’t know was that we were not actually in Newcastle and had to catch one of the DFDS Seaways buses to the city.  Having waited until the majority of people left the boat to get off because our backpacks were so heavy to carry as we just stood around in line, we missed the bus.  Not knowing there was such a thing as this bus, we had not realized how waiting our turn would mean a costly cab ride.  Ah, and then there’s the fact that we had acquired no English money yet and the bureau de change was closed in the boat terminal!  So we walked with our heavy packs to a mall down the road and got some cash.  Then we stopped in at a hotel and asked the receptionist to call us a cab.  Turns out we had a very interesting taxi ride into the city with an entertaining cabbie who pointed out all the best drinking spots in the neighborhood on the way to the train station.  Great guy, very friendly.  Even gave us a break on the cost of the trip.

Discovered that trains do not run as often out of Newcastle as the internet had indicated, but only had to wait an hour and a half.  Ah, well.  Ate a picnic lunch of some leftover bread and cheese and apples from Norway and bought some nice little chocabits, our word for anything sweet, in this case freshly baked cookies. Took the train to York and transfered to a train to Hull. Only one minute to spare but the train was waiting for our delayed train from Newcastle, and it was literally sitting right beside our train when it arrived.  Nice!

Once in Hull I was quite struck with the similarities with my own city of Lowell, Massachusetts.  Both cities have a reputation as a bit on the rough side, a lot of immigrants and poverty, industrial, but rich history.  I found Hull to be an interesting city with quite a lot to offer.  Would have been able to fill our time if we had been able to stay longer, but this was a short visit.

The exciting part:  Met an old fisherman, Bill (according to his tattoo), who talked with me a good quarter of an hour about tides and fishing and boats and all that.  Pointed out a fantastic statue on another pier that I made sure to see the next morning.  Amazing guy — real salt of the earth.  Only understood every fifth word, though!  Harder to understand the peopl in these parts of England than in Scandinavia!  He said if we were “loaded with cash” we could go to the Minerva Pub right at the end of the street at the water’s edge.  I had read of this place since it is almost 200 years old and would surely have been seen by my ancestors.

We weren’t rolling in dough, but I did want to go to the place.  Turns out it was quite reasonable.  We had a lengthy talk with the cook who kept getting in trouble because he was talking to us iunstead of cooking. Told us about how the place is haunted.  Showed us all the spots where supernatural things have happened.  Sadly, the pub is set to be closed in the fall.  I can hardly believe it, but they can’t break even, let alone make a profit.  We ordered the only thing on the menu that the chef said he cooks fresh: fish and chips.  My, oh, my!  Fresh indeed.  Lovely.  Had a half pint of cider to wash it down, too.  Got the tour of the place and took a thousand pictures of all the photos and drawings on the walls.  That place is a museum!

Unfortunately, we also found out that our hotel was in a bad part of town.  We had already checked in and noticed some of the telltale signs on our walk downtown, but we figured we’d just take a cab home instead of walking it at night.  It wasn’t that bad!  But the folks at the Minerva were so shocked. To me, though, I thought, “I’ve seen much worse.”  Turns out our B & B is a sort of rooming house for working class folks and a place where people can get breakfast.  Good, solid citizens, just trying to make a living.  I was glad we did not get scared away by the reaction of the pub staff. This, too, is Hull.

Well, anyway, before we left in the morning, I ran down to the statue that Bill the fisherman mentioned and was glad to have done it.  There were several plaques with immigrant information and the statue was wonderful — looked like my Swedish ancestors, a family of four with children just the right ages.  Ran, literally, back to the station to catch the train to Liverpool, via Manchester.

What we didn’t realize was that we had booked seats with built in entertainment: Wendy and Carol, two Hull women going on a shopping extravaganza in Leeds, cracked us up with their recounting of various shenanigans and their boisterous stories.  When they departed, they left a gap we could feel.  We had a quiet journey the rest of the way.

Once in Liverpool we were surprised once again by the kindness of strangers. A man approached us just outside the train station and excused himself and said, “I couldn’t help but overhear that you are going to the International Hostel.  I work near there but it’s a bit tricky to find.  If you’d like, I can show you the way?” We gladly accepted, though we both eyed the stranger with a little suspicion.  When he asked if he could help carry our bags, we both declined and kept feeling wary.  But it soon became clear as we walked through crowded streets where each block the road changed names that this bloke was truly just doing us a good turn.  Along the way, he told us all about where we should go when we were in the city.  Lovely!  Our own personal tour guide.

By the late afternoon when we had checked into our room, there was little time to do any research, so we visited the Tate Liverpool, a fantastic modern art museum.  Had a delicious meal at an Indian restaurant (always have had super good Indian food when I’ve visited the UK). This morning I spent a few hours at the archives at the Maritime Museum and discovered that the dates I had for my ancestors’ departure from the UK were wrong.  In fact, they spent only about 24 hours in the country!  Also, I learned that they stopped in Queenstown, Ireland, ony the way to New York.  Who knew?  Glad I spent the time tracking down those last details.  At least for the Norwegians.  The Swedes’ journey beyond Hull remains a mystery for now, but I have a better idea of how to pick up their trail later.

Having completed that research, we hopped on the famous Mersey Ferry and then high-tailed it to the Adelphi Hotel for afternoon tea, having been told that they serve until 4 o’clock.  NOT true.  And the odd thing was that the people there had absolutely no idea of an alternative place.  Starbucks said one.  McDonalds or KFC said another.  As if!!  So we began to walk back to our hotel area, hoping to find something.  Now almost four and absolutely starving, having skipped lunch, we were getting desperate and cranky.

Stopped to take a photo of a strange sign across the street and when I turned around a sign behind me caught my eye: “Afternoon Tea.”  Bingo!  Ah, but that place is too above and beyond expectations to include at the end of this very long post.  I am going to post a proper review once I return home so I can give it it’s proper due!  Needless to say, we stuffed ourselves, walked around a bit, packed back at our hotel, and then stuffed ourselves again at a dinner place that the tea guy recommended.  What a perfect end to an incredibly fruitful and fun adventure.

Tomorrow we’re for home.  I’m ready to return to my life at home and my family.  Also, a bit of sadness for the end of such an incredible journey. At dinner tonight we drank a toast, to the immigrants, for their courage and for giving us such a lovely excuse to take this journey, two friends exploring together the past and the present.

Cheers!

Trondheim, Bergen, and the Open Sea

Sorry that I’ve been off-line for a while, folks.  Odd that it’s been harder to get internet in Scandinavia than in Peru….  Anyway, here’s a recap on the last part of the Scandinavian portion of my trip.  Tomorrow I’ll post on the UK part.

TRONDHEIM:  Discovered a few key things of use there for my book.

(1) Lovely woman at the folk museum called her father on her cell phone to ask him about Trondheim in 1879, the year my Norwegian relatives left.  Her dad is a historian.  Found out the railroad had come there in the early 1870s but had not gone north to Bodø yet.  So my ancestors’ week in Trondheim would probably be the first time they had seen a train. Also, the city was just starting to industrialize then, with a few machine shops popping up.  They made iron stoves, among other things.

(2)  Lovely tour guides at the cathedral helped me put the pieces together that the ancestors would have been there during the time when they had just started restoring the ruined nave of the church.  I saw drawings of what it looked like then — much diminished from the grandeur of today.  That visit to the cathedral, the holiest sanctuary of Norway, made me start thinking about what my relatives would have done in Trondheim while waiting for that boat…. Ah, pray and attend church, I think.  They were very religious.  The tourguide ladies sent us to another old church that they thought my relatives also might have visited.  Yup.  Looked like their church in Bodø but only bigger and a little more ornate.

(3) Also discovered that they would have stayed at a boarding house down on the canals.  Interesting because there are also canals in Göteborg, where my Swedish relatives started their journey to America.  Canals, I know.  My own town is full of them.  Anyway, got a good view of that area.  Short stay in Trondheim, less than twenty-fours hours.  But fruitful research.

We also visited a decorative arts museum and an old fort that had been taken over when the Germans occupied the city in WWII.  I’ll write more about WWII stuff in a post after I return home.  It was very interesting how this kept cropping up….

BERGEN:  Flew to Bergen as the train would have to go all the way to Oslo and then Bergen. A short, uneventful flight.  I did not expect to discover anything of note in this city.  It was merely a stopping point, or more accurately, an embarkation point for our sea journey.  But, as has happened repeatedly on this trip, I gained in understanding.  Perhaps the most interesting thing was just to see this part of the coast and to realize that the immigrants hugged the coastline all the way south before crossing the North Sea.  Bergen was a major port at that time.  While their ship did not stop there, they were traveling in waters frequented by many ships.

By the way, it rained in Bergen.  Anyone at all familiar with the place will not be surprised.  It is like saying, “It was Bergen in Bergen.”  Charming city but we mucked about with our heavy backpacks in the rain for far too long to say we enjoyed Bergen fully.  Had a terrific meal at an Italian restaurant set off the tourist road one block.  Not a soul in there when we first arrived, but we were starving.  We sat down and had dinner while listening to loud Michael Jackson music. Waiter chose the music: “I LOVE Michael Jackson! He’s a great singer!!”  Surreal.

BOAT:  Boarded the Queen of Scandinavia the next morning at 8 a.m. and found our cabin.  La dee dah!  When I booked, I decided to go for the room with a window because I was worried about being sea sick.  Didn’t realize that Commodore Cabin essentially means first class.  Oh, my, aren’t we special?!  It was a lovely room (for a boat, that is) and I learned to thank my lucky stars for that window once we hit the open sea.  Before that, however, I made an appointment to interview one of the crew about travel from Scandinavia to England.  Kim from Denmark was super helpful (except for his comments that seasickness is purely psychological and HE never gets sick). What I learned from him that is useful:

(1) There is a very dangerous and rough patch of sea between the north coast of Denmark and south coast of Norway.  Our Swedes must have had a rough time traveling through there on their way to England, about a day out of the port of Göteborg.  Also, they sailed at the worst time, in October, after the start of storm season.  This explains why great-great grandma Lotta was so very seasick.  I knew that from my grandma’s story, but I didn’t know they had very good reason to be ill.

(2) Norwegian steamers would have followed the coastline even if they did not go into port.  One can totally see this after traveling by boat there.  A huge difference between the sheltered coastline with its many islands and deep and easily navigated fjords and the open North Sea where the wind sweeps down from the north and huge waves can make sea travel treacherous.

(3) The coast of England just appears out of nowhere, and it is relatively flat with a few hills with churches or ruined castles and a few lighthouses dotting the coast.  A strange contrast to the rugged fjords of the north.

When we hit the North Sea it was almost supper time.  Ugh. Within an hour I decided to take the little motion sickness tablet they give out free at the information center.  I went to bed and let it take effect. My friend had no problem with seasickness at all — thank goodness!  When I awoke from my nap, I felt better.  Decided to go to dinner as planned.  Ah, but I hadn’t counted on how the sight of odd sea-related food sitting out in a buffet would make me feel, plus the difficulty of getting to the buffet and back my seat with a loaded plate.  Oh, and the woman at the table right next to us who vomited on the table, poor dear. I ate a digestive bisquit and a few bites of lovely salmon, with my head turned to look out the window at the horizon.  Finally started feeling clamy and made a run for our lovely cabin where I applied a skin patch for seasickness and went to bed for good.  Awoke in the morning feeling much better.  I kept my equanimity overall.  Bed is sometimes best.  Even ate breakfast that morning.  But was heartily glad to get off the boat soon after that.

Good thing that I took that trip, too.  I discovered soon after boarding that the route is being discontinued in September.  This was my only chance to trace the ancestors.  Whew!  What a lucky duck I am!!

And now to bed. I shall write about the UK tomorrow (more interesting stuff)…unless I can’t get the internet connection to work again.  Took an hour this time before I managed to make it work, and I’m not sure how I did it.  Ah, well, homeward bound soon.  Missing the family. Will be good to be home.

Goodbye to Landegode, Goodbye to Norway

Our last day in the far north of Norway, my cousin arranged for us to take a boat ride out to the island of Landegode. From every village on the coast for miles, this is THE major landmark, and even more importantly for fishermen trying to head back to shore, Landegode has been a crucial navigational aid. It is also a place almost deserted these days, with few people living there. But my traveling companion and myself were amazed to discover that many people in town have never been there.

The island is very important to me and my Norwegian cousin because that is the place where our mutual ancestor lived. It was an incredible ride out to this island that rises straight out of the sea in jagged spikes. We stopped a little ways from Landegode to throw a line off the side of the boat, no bait, just a flashing lure and some empty hooks. After a few minutes of my tugging on the line up and down to fool the fish, we reeled in two lovely pollock, which we ate for lunch upon our return.

The water is crystal clear, and we enjoyed an unusually calm ride out to sea. By the time we turned toward shore again, however, a cold wind picked up and the clouds moved in to obscure the peaks of Landegode. The island’s name translates into good-land. Yes, what land exists on the shore in tiny patches is good, I suppose. But more so, it is a land to inspire awe. My cousin says that when he goes fishing on a beautiful day like it was when we started, he doesn’t care if he does not catch a thing. It is enough just to view the rugged land and calm, blue sea.

The elderly relative we visited twice during my trip, Kristianna, told us: “…beloved Landegode, most beautiful thing I know.” She lived with the sight of that good land for seventy years before moving to a nursing home. Above her head on the wall hung a painting of Landegode in winter.

And so we have left the far north now, and today visited Trondheim. Tomorrow we fly to Bergen, moving south in great leaps. The next day we board a ship to take us over the North Sea to England. We are tracing the immigrants as best we can.

No internet, I expect until we arrive in the UK in a few days. Meanwhile, I leave you with my hope that all is well and you are living in a good land, a land that you call beloved.

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.’

Last Night in Sweden…Eating, Drinking, and Making Merry

At dinner tonight, at yet another cousin’s house, we ate Swedish smörgasbord, complete with herring with mustard sauce, herring with tomato sauce, and regular pickled herring with spices, and, of course, Swedish meatballs, potatoes, ‘house cheese,’ and crackers.  I tried everything.  Very proud of that.  Not the herring type.  But surprised myself with liking the regular herring pretty well. Oh.  And then there was also the Swedish aquavit (shnapps).

The son of our hosts told me that they sing when they drink this particular drink.  I thought he was joking, but it’s true.  When someone lifts his or her glass to drink, everyone must drink, but before anyone can sip, all must sing in unison a song.  My friend, W., and I were sitting with glasses in hand listening to the first boisterous song.  Then everyone drank, and so we drank a little.  We put the glasses down and everyone suddenly sprang back into song. We jumped with surprise! Then everyone howled with laughter.  That was the beginning of the end of any remaining barrier between us.  The ice was broken.  We were real with each other.

Relatives came and went, weaving in and out of our lives throughout the last few days. As we said goodbye to each person in the end, though, it got harder and harder for me.  When I planned this trip, how could I have thought this would be enough time in this place? I just found these people.  How could I now turn around and leave?  Further, if it’s this hard now, for me, how much more terrible for Oscar and his family to leave forever for America….

When the last two cousins brought us back to the hotel late tonight, they told us they would see us in the morning, even though we leave early for Göteborg, and the train station is right next to the hotel, so we could walk the three steps to the platform alone.  🙂  No, they said, we will not say goodbye now.  I was relieved beyond words.  I am not ready to part either. How I’ll manage it tomorrow I don’t know.

Then again, already we are planning our next meeting, me and my twenty-two Swedish cousins.  What will come first: my return (with my son and husband or an American relative) to these ‘new’ cousins, OR a visit from them to my home, where I have invited them?  Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure, now that we have found each other, we will not be lost to one another again.

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.

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.

Roadtrip to Grandma’s home state of Minnesota: Part 2 in my continuing Grand Tour series

I was out of town for a few days and have missed bloggin. Sorry about that! Picking up where I last left off in my reflections on our summer road trip…

We arrived in Minnesota at my husband’s aunt’s house on the afternoon of the 4th of July. After the intense driving for three days to get there, it was a relief for my son to run around in a bona fide yard. He kept zooming through the grass and halting only to ask for instructions on his next feat. “Tell me what to do next, Mommy!” And I would make up some ridiculous sequence that included zig-zagging from this tree to that with jumping jacks every five steps, dribbling the soccer ball while patting his head, walking like a chicken, etc.

The next morning we moved on to Alexandria, where my grandmother’s paternal grandparents settled. We stayed with Grandma’s first cousin, John, and his wife Dee. What wonderful folks–so helpful! They had arranged for a visit to the local Historical Society, called various people who now lived on “our” land to make sure we could visit, and arranged a little family reunion, inviting cousins from around the area to come and meet us.

I had rather assumed that I would find little of use for the book on this part of the trip, mostly because we are talking about a very long time ago when the great-great-grandparents, JA and Lotta, settled there (1885). But I was surprised to discover a great deal while there. Like the fact that JA and Lotta had given up farming on Lake Victoria in 1898 and had decided to try their hand at logging in another community further north called Spruce Hill. They abandoned that attempt in 1900, when it became clear that the town was not going to thrive. The railroad had been persuaded to build a station in a neighboring town, so the Spruce Hill saw mill lost it’s chance for easy transportation of lumber. JA and Lotta gave up and returned to “Alec,” this time farming on the eastern shore of Lake Burgen. I had always though Grandma’s Dad grew up at Lake Burgen, but he never lived there. It was Lake Victoria rather.

When John and Dee took us out to Lake Burgen, I felt the strangest connection to the place. I had been there before on my last trip to MN in 1995, when I chauffered Grandma around the area. We had come out for Aunt Evelyn’s 90th birthday celebration. Anyway, this time, I saw the place in a new light. Such a beautiful beach, with the point still named after our family. Water lilies floated along part of the shoreline, the water was a brilliant blue and clear as glass, and the sky that day was a stunning turquoise with a few white, puffy clouds dotted here and there.

My son went nuts as soon as we walked down to the point. Frogs a plenty. Water. Sand and dirt. And big fish lazily swimming along the shoreline, almost so close you could grab em. My son is nine years old. And he is a nature fanatic. He zipped along the shore, carrying an irrepresible grin. And then it got even better. The teenage daughter of the current residents came out with a fishing pole and some bait. My son’s eyes flashed as he caught my eye. I nodded.

Thirty minutes later, after repeated losses of assorted minnows (“Those fish are so sneaky, Mommy, stealing our bait!”) he caught his first fish ever, a good size sunfish. Yes, he tossed it back in. For the rest of the trip it was fishing this and fishing that. “Ya know how dinosaurs were my big thing from 4 to 8 years old? Well, fishing is going to be my thing from 9 to … uh … 70!”

Grandma’s maternal grandparents came from Norway, above the Arctic Circle (more on that in another entry). They were fishermen, catching cod off the Lofoten Islands. I guess it’s in my son’s blood, eh! In any case, Lake Burgen fed my great-great-grandparents’ family during many lean years. Grandma’s cousin, Mildred, who made a recording for posterity (Lord, bless her!) talks about the frequent fish-fries they held at the lake. The men used nets and caught scads of fish. Mildred complained about having to help clean them (UGH) and then they would fry up a couple dozen fish to feed the guests who were picnicking on the lawn/beach.

Back at John and Dee’s were two suitcases full of old photos, one of which showed Grandma’s father, Oscar, and all of his siblings in a boat on Lake Burgen. Oddly enough, Aunt Gerda was the one holding the oars and not any of her three brothers. I suspect she was a feisty one! I heard that she had wanted to marry a Norwegian and was prohibited. She was married off to a local Swede instead. At least that’s how the story goes!

Since my return home, I’ve been able to put a few more pieces together in the puzzle of that side of the family. I’ve finally placed who Aunt Sofie is (JA’s sister, who emigrated from Sweden a year after JA brought his family to America). Figuring out this part is important because I have, through Gerda’s granddaughter, made contact with actual Swedish relatives. They were eager to find out whatever happened to Sofie, so I’m glad to be able to give them some info. I’m really hoping that I will get a chance to visit the “Old Country” next summer. Still some gaps to fill in the first chapter.

We managed to pack quite a few activities into our stay in Alec, inlcuding a visit to a local museum where a real Viking runestone is kept. Oh, and “Big Ole” a giant statue of a Viking. Plus we saw the house and land at Lake Victoria (not so clear a lake but alos lovely people living on “our” land). The only problem was that my visit had uncovered so much that I was a bit spoiled, with too high of expectations for the other locales to come….

What the book is about…

My grandmother’s family story is the story of American history, at least the part of our country’s history that is generally printed in public school textbooks (and, yes, I realize that there is a lot left out in such cases!) Nevertheless, her family lived through many of the hallmark events of the last 150 years, and luckily, my grandmother had a terrific memory and was, as she described herself, “a pretty nosey kid,” observing what others did and said and tucking away those memories for later use.

Her story begins in Norway and Sweden, where the first characters in the book, her great-grandparents and grandparents, were born. I marvel that she could relate stories of life in the “old country” in the mid-nineteenth century! The Norwegian relatives (her mother’s side of the family) immigrated to the US in 1879, with the entire extended family leaving their small village north of the Arctic Circle. This group eventually settled in Beltrami, Minnesota, where they homesteaded and where my grandma’s mother, Emma, was born. My grandma’s Swedish relatives immigrated to America in 1880, but that was a smaller group: my grandma’s father, Oscar (6 years old), his sister Gerda, and their parents, John and Charlotta. They settled in Alexandria, Minnesota, about 150 miles from Beltrami.

It wasn’t until 1897 that the stories of these two families became intertwined. Oscar’s aunt, who lived in Beltrami, asked Oscar to come help her farm after the sudden death of her husband. While in the neighborhood, Oscar met Emma, but it was many years before they married. In the intervening time, he was called into military service to fight in the Spanish-American war. Before seeing action, he caught Typhoid in the training camp in Georgia and almost died. Once home and after a long recovery, he and Emma married in June of 1903 and within a couple of months headed west to Mullan, Idaho, to try mining. While pay for silver and lead miners was good, the work was very dangerous, and the town was a seedbed of lawlessness and immorality – no place to raise children (their first child was born while they were living there). After a devastating house fire in which they lost everything, they decided to return to Minnesota to farm.

In spring of 1907, Oscar filed a claim on some land in Pennington County in northern Minnesota. By the time the family moved into the house that Oscar built, they had three children. Eight more were to come. My grandma was the middle child, born in 1914, baptized on the 4th of July, wrapped in an American flag. Through hard work and persistence, Oscar and Emma created a beautiful little farm. Though money was always tight, they enjoyed the nicest farmhouse in the area, and Oscar achieved a good standing in the community, serving as County Commissioner (even though his formal education had ended at grade eight) and as the local School Board Chairman. Unfortunately, Oscar had taken out loans to improve his land, and with the agricultural slump of 1928 and the crash in ’29, he and his family lost everything.

Friends sent a good report of farming in northern Montana, and Oscar decided to move the family west in 1930 to give it a go there. But as with the calamity that cost them their farm, timing was bad, and they moved into the area just as the Dust Bowl began. After two years of struggle, they gave up and headed further west to Rio Linda, California, where Emma’s sister lived. With the promise that although there was little chance of making heaps of money in the “golden land,” at least there was food, Oscar and Emma made the journey west, following the newly opened route 2 skirting the southern edge of Glacier National Park. The Depression certainly did hit California, but there was, as they had been told, food there and better opportunities to make a living. In Montana, my grandmother had literally been starving to death because she kept giving her allotted morsels to her younger siblings. Her parents had sent her away to a family in North Dakota to work for her board, in fear that she would succumb to tuberculosis and die as her friend had in 1931. When Grandma heard the following year that her family was heading west, she rejoined them.

In California, she finished high school and worked at many jobs, including a pencil factory and a peach processing plant. She met and married my grandfather in 1934, and they had one child, my mother, in 1936. Her father died in 1947 of heart complications caused by his earlier bout of typhoid, and her mother died in 1966. The morning she died she was putting up peaches, working industriously. She had a peaceful, painless end. And so ends Grandma’s book, with Emma’s death.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story! But I thought that if anyone wanted to know what grandma’s book is about, this would at least give you an overview. I do not plan to post any of the book. I do, however, plan to discuss the writing and research process. I’ve been working on this project for quite some time and have hit a few snags before as well as had some success. But I’m out of practice. I have not written a word since Grandma died over a year ago. However, this summer I retraced her family’s migration, visiting all of the family sites and going to historical societies and archives. What a whirlwind trip: 10,000 miles, twenty-two states, and over 2,000 photos and hours of recordings! I will post about this trip soon.