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.

Skeletons in the Closet…Ground…and Sea

The coastline of northern Norway rises jagged from the sea in sheer
granite cliffs. Small villages cling to the only arable land, a few
acres of soil at the base of these mountains between the rocks and
waters of the sea. At this time of year, the residents rejoice in an
abundance of wildflowers and a vivid green that one associates with a
place like Ireland, a place where it rains…a lot. My new-found
cousin tells us there is only one rule of weather here in Bodø, it
changes constantly.

Indeed. Though this is the time above the Arctic Circle when the sun
never sets, I would not really call it the land of the midnight sun.
More like midnight twilight. Or perhaps even more accurately, “land
of the midnight late afternoon on a typical spring day in Seattle.”
Except it is not really that wet! In any case, between the rain, that
comes and goes suddenly throughout the day, and the constant sunlight,
the plants go nuts, growing with abandon. How often these good people
must mow their lawns….

For the last two days my new-found cousin, Knut, has been driving us
around the area. We have been meeting people and learning all about my
family in Norway. I have a geneology that goes back to the mid-1600s
now thanks to the help of a kind man here in town who has a passion
for such research. During the course of our discussion of my family
history, I discovered why I could not find great-great-great-grandma,
True Svendsdatter. They got her name wrong because it was very
unusual. In fact, she was not from this area but from a valley near
Lillehammer.

Ah…and I also discovered that one of our immigrants to America, the
matriarch of the family was…. Hmmm. Not sure how Grandma would
feel about that skeleton in the closet being shown the light of day.
I am certain she never knew the truth. I will have to think on the
ethics of this one for a while. (Coincidentally, I found out in
Sweden that one of my family names there, when translated into
English, means something like “one who betrays secrets.” Sounds like
a name for a writer.)

Speaking of skeletons…. Today we visited the graveyard in Bodø. We
were not sure exctly which of these good people in the old graves are
my forebearers, but no doubt I am related to many there. I took a
“group photo” of the “relatives” in the older section. 🙂 What was
utterly amazing to me was visiting the church itself, Bodin Kirke,
built around 1240. Here all of my relatives from the area were
baptised, confirmed, married, and buried … unless their bodies could
not be recovered, that is. Here the grandparents of my grandma were
married. Here they went to their parish priest to ask him to certify
their good character in a document that they brought to America with
them — a document written only days before they left Norway for a new
land. They kneeled at that railing around that original altar to take
communion that last time in the family church before saying goodbye to
everyone and everything they had ever known.

This afternoon we enjoyed a delicious meal of open-faced sandwiches
(smoked salmon and cheese and all sorts of toppings) and homemade
waffles with freshly picked cloud berries. Of course coffee and tea as
well. This is a “must” in Scandinavia. Before lunch we had visited
the next community over from where Knut lives, and I saw the farm
where my family had owned a plot of land. Of course, we saw a number
of other great sites, too, such as a house dating from that original
period (with key left in the door since the owner was not going to be
around to let us in!) I found it enormously helpful for my research
to see this place in person. Ah, and fresh cloud berries are to die
for!!

After lunch I also heard today some more amazing stories. The most
dramatic involves a party of about two dozen mourners who took a boat
from their little community down to town to bury someone in the
churchyard. On the way back, they stopped at one side of the harbor
to drop off a person or two, and then they shoved off. Just then a
strong storm swept down off the mountains from the east and their boat
was wrecked. All eighteen men and a handful of women perished. A man
named Hans who was walking on the shore heard them screaming and
thought it was a sea troll, so he ran into his house to hide under the
covers. (“A draugen is a headless fisherman who foretells drowning
with a haunting wail” or so says Lonely Planet Guide to Norway on page
49.) When he found out the next day that so many from his tiny hamlet
had drowned in the night, he went mad and ever after walked around
crying. They recovered some of the bodies at “dead men cove.” Some
they never found. Another time I shall tell you about visiting the
maelstrom where we also saw dangerous waters and heard the roar of the
water acting in unsual ways. But another time….

As I sit here now, I can hear the howling easterly wind sweeping down
from the mountains bringing rain. No kidding. A storm came up
quickly in the last hour. It is light outside still, though past
midnight, but the storm keeps the light low. My friend has gone to
bed, and I must do the same. Tomorrow we return to my oldest relative
in the area, who requested a second visit. I made a list of questions
for her to consider before we arrive and the grandson of Knut has
translated my list for her even though Knut seaks English beatifully
(as have almost all of those we have met in Sweden and Norway), This
grandson has been taking college classes in English and wants to study
the subject further. He speaks very well and is a good translator for
our elderly relative. He will come tomorrow on our visit as well, I
am told.

For now, off to bed. Eye patch to block the light. Deep breathing to
relax. Boring book to calm the mind after filling it with exciting
tales all day. I am itching to write but cannot do more than write
every once in a while here when I can get internet access. For now,
though, I am off to bed to dream of cloud berries and dramatic vistas.

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.

Supper at the Shelter

Same old rutted, dirt parking lot. Same loitering, scruffy men and women lingering on the sidewalk. Same feeling of wariness that leads me to lock my purse inside the trunk rather than bring it inside. But something had changed.

Last Thursday I returned to duty, as it were, helping to serve supper at a local homeless shelter. A few years back, after making the acquaintance of the shelter’s director ( now long gone), I decided to try to get my church involved. Folks got interested right away — not many, mind you — but enough to staff one dinner a month. I served for a few months before managing to convince another person to take over as liaison and coordinator. After abut a year, I stopped serving there.

If was always difficult for me to go but also gave me a good feeling. I came away counting my blessings. It’s such a cliché, I know, but I always felt that way. But I also felt disappointed in my shyness. I always hid in the back of the kitchen, volunteering to scoop the hot main dish onto the plates; even though this was the hottest job, it was the furtherest away from the people coming through the line. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how to BE around these unfortunate folks.

I knew from the director many of their stories (with no names attached because of privacy, of course, but I got the idea). Many of those we were serving were men and women who were working but underemployed. Most lived at the shelter because they couldn’t afford housing in New England. Some lived elsewhere but couldn’t make ends meet and came to the shelter for food. The open door policy for the kitchen made such possible. Some of the folks there were handicapped or elderly. One ancient guy — George — looked and acted remarkably like George Burns and was an incorrigable flirt! Some of those who lived at the shelter were very young — in fact, they were only 18 years old and fresh out of foster care but unable to make it on their own. These I found particularly disturbing — to think that as soon as they were of age, the system dumps them on the street as if they are now fully capable of handling whatever life throws at them. Some of the 18 year olds in the shelter were not even finished with high school yet!

Anyway, I went back this month after a long hiatus. While the clients seemed pretty much the same, I had changed. I arrived a little late and thus had no choice but to work the counter — the position with the most contact with the people coming in for a meal. I didn’t mind a bit. In fact, I was glad. And furthermore, I started chatting with people. I looked them in the eye and made small talk, even asked one guy to give me a report later on the dessert he had chosen. A lone, multi-tiered parfait-ish looking thing had been sitting on the tray for a few minutes, but there were no takers. He grabbed it and I commented on him being the brave one. After supper, he came back up and said it was a delicious chocolate mouse and raspberry concoction. What a smile on his face. And I felt so natural and at ease the whole time I was there.

I was so surprised to see George there as well — and amazed that he still remembered me. He asked, “Where ya been doll?” Oh, working, I replied. I could have answered in so many other ways, I suppose. Too busy to be bothered helping y’all. Too chicken to keep putting myself out there. Too overwhelmed with the duties of being a working other. Too focused on helping other people who also needed me. So many answers. So I just said, working. He smiled and said, “Glad to have you back!” Good to be back, I replied with a cheery and honest smile.

What changed? I’m not sure. I do know that when I came back from Peru, my first instinct was to go back to the shelter and start serving again. Why? Again, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just a matter of my realization that I’m not cut out to go to a developing country to serve, so I’d better do what I can in my own neck of the woods. Maybe it’s just the fact that I spent some time with the poorest of the poor in Peru and so I feel more comfortable interacting with these good folks now, less afraid. Maybe it’s just that I’ve learned from several sources lately how important it is that we treat people as if they exist. A guest preacher at my church earlier this month mentioned a study that showed how people who feel invisible experience negative health effects. She said that even a simple interaction that acknowledges a human being’s presence — a smile, a greeting, a compliment — can alter the chemicals coursing through one’s veins.

Whatever the reason for my sea change, I left the shelter feeling grateful — yes, I expected that — but also happy about my own actions for once and hopeful that I can make a difference, however small, in the lives of those in need. I’m learning and growing!

Hope Springs Eternal: Spring of Eternal Hope

To me, Easter is hope. Hope that loved ones live on in some way after we lose them. Hope that Spring will follow Winter. Hope that we are not doomed — love makes a difference.

I used to think of hope as a relatively naive emotion, a blind and Pollyanna-ish sentiment ill-founded in reality. At least I thought such on gloomy days when I had spent a little too much time reading the newspaper or listening to NPR. I went through a period last spring when I was studying global warming and felt as if we were all doomed — no way out, bleak future at best.

Since then, however, I have come to think of hope in another way, starting with a recognition of dire circumstances and emerging as a commitment to live as if we can make a difference Maybe all we can do will not be enough, but we do not ultimately know this for sure. Hope is looking the world’s and our own pain and problems in the face and daring to move forward anyway. Thus hope wears the look not of a fresh-faced cherub but of a wrinkled old woman who still insists on “puttin’ up peaches” for the winter.

Grandma’s mother was such a woman. On the day she died, she canned peaches all morning.

As a New Englander now, I must trust that Spring will come … eventually. I had occasion to assure a newcomer to our country of this fact yesterday. The couple whose wedding I attended in Peru joined my family and me for Easter yesterday. (He works here and brought his new wife to the US shortly after they were married in Lima.) What a time to arrive in America! January in this part of the country is frigid and bleak. When I told this woman that soon she would see an explosion of green everywhere, that New England is positively lush in springtime, to hang on and she will see a feast for the eyes — she looked dubious. It’s hard to imagine such a scene when one looks out the window at this moment.

I, myself, have been anxiously scanning the conservation land behind our house for the first signs of spring: budding skunk cabbage in the creek bed. Nothing yet. But I well remember how within a week of seeing those bright green leaves emerge, all the lawns will turn green and then the leaf and flower buds will appear on the trees. And we will have months of verdant foliage, ending in a blaze of bright hues months later in the fall.

Our new friend must take this on faith.

We all must.

Happy Spring, folks. The calendar says last Thursday spring arrived. I don’t believe everything I read, but I am determined to hope. Maybe this year I’ll even take up canning.

Herding Turkeys, Poultry SpeedBump, and Foul Traffic

After dropping off my son and his classmate at school today, I suddenly came upon a traffic jam on a back road. Morning traffic in New England is notoriously bad, but this particular spot puzzled me. It was well before the IRS complex and nowhere near Raytheon. What was the hold-up?

Earlier, when I was driving north on Interstate 495, I saw the poor suckers creeping along in the southbound lanes for miles. I just caught the tail end of a traffic report on the new radio station I listen to when the news on NPR is unsuitable for ten year olds in the backseat — accident at the intersection of 495 and the 3, cars backed up for several miles. I breezed by, heading the other direction but noted how long the slow down continued. On the way back from school, I thought, I definitely will not take the freeway.

So…there I was a half hour later, driving on a back road through the gray and brown landscape (most of our snow melted this weekend when torrential rains from the south stomped into New England). Then we came to a dead stop.

On my side of the two-lane road, there were only maybe a dozen cars stopped ahead, and I could see flashing lights in front of that. Oh, my, another accident, I thought. The folks in the other lane were not moving at all, but my predecessors kept slipping forward and escaping from the jam, so I rolled forward every few minutes. Finally, with only six cars before me, I saw the nature of the hold up. A turkey.

Not just any turkey, mind you, but the biggest turkey I have ever, ever, ever seen in my life. This gal was as big as a Saint Bernard!! Well, maybe not that big, but it really was huge. And the animal control guy was walking along patiently behind the thing with a loose, three-feet diameter net, trying to get close enough to toss it on the bird and thus remove it from rush hour traffic.

The turkey wove in and out of the immobile cars. The uniformed officer tailed him on foot, zig-zagging in a steady and persistent fashion. Since the turkey was moving in our direction, folks in our line were one by one being released from captivity. The poor commuters in the other lane were moving forward at a turkey’s pace … which is not all that fast.

In a split second I had a decision to make. As soon as I saw what was happening, it occurred to me that someone should help the animal control guy to herd the turkey into a tight spot so she could be captured. I thought to myself, I am your gal, mister! And I began to pull over.

Then it hit me. This guy doesn’t want some lay person interfering and maybe getting run over by errant cars or worse, freaking out the turkey. My offer of help would not be appreciated … or accepted. So I straightened the car out and watched the show instead. It was quite a sight to observe this magnificent creature and her ability to stop us all in our tracks.

Two random facts spring to mind now that I am here writing about this insignificant little event. First, I am reminded of how Grandma, when she lived in Opheim, Montana, used to herd the family’s turkeys. She would sit outdoors with them and play a concertina (kinda like a little accordion) to pass the time. She said they had no grain to feed them, so the poultry ate the locusts who had devoured the remnants of their withered crops.

Second, I recall a speed-bump in a little village in Peru. We wondered why there was such a thing on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. For the chickens, said a villager. Ah. So they don’t get run over when crossing the road. In America we just send out an animal control officer in a big van with a net to stop morning traffic. While Benjamin Franklin did not succeed in his campaign to name the turkey our national bird, one would almost think it were so by all the hulabaloo!

As for the turkey, I left her in the dust. It seemed to me that the animal control officer had met his match, but then again, as I was driving away, I heard another siren behind me in the distance. Perhaps another officer was on his way to assist in the rescue operation.

Too bad Grandma wasn’t there. She’d have done the job in a jiffy.