What I found in Sweden, Part 3

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“Ray of Sunlight” by Norwegian artist Erik Werenskiold, Gothenburg Museum of Art. The landscape in this painting reminds me of the little forest behind Backens Skola, where my grandfather and his sister, Josefina, went to school. I hope my grandfather had a good friend there as this boy does in the painting.

 

…And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance

grew the Iceberg too.

– Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain

 

Morfar – Life, death and the Titanic

Every individual born to the Dagara [an African ethnic group] is mentored and supported into maturing into an adult who fulfills their purpose. From the moment a person is born, others within the community had a responsibility to assist that person in delivering their gift to the world. Everyone in the community is responsible for and has an integral role in insuring that each person’s genius is awakened, nurtured, and mentored. If this is not done, the person as well as their genius dies. If any individual’s gift is not delivered it then falls to that person’s descendants to do so.”   –  Sandra Easter, Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web

 

I had goosebumps three times on our trip to research family history in Sweden: when our cousin, Jan, showed us the Bible my great, great, great grandfather gave to Älekulla Church; when Louise led us to my grandmother’s house on the North Sea; and when my son and I were invited to Gunvor and Irene’s home in Fritsla to see what we could find out about my grandfather’s family. This is the story of our time in lovely Fritsla, the ancestral town that embraced Andrew and me.

Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson, my grandfather, was born in Fritsla in 1892 and lived there the first few years of his life. Of my four grandparents, I knew the least about him. Grandpa (or Morfar, as we called him when we were children) had been a loner, a hard worker but a solitary man who liked his drink. By the time I knew him, he rarely spoke. Morfar had no family back in Sweden with whom he kept in touch, unlike my grandmother, who exchanged letters with her Swedish siblings over the years. When I began my trip to Sweden, I knew only that Morfar had apparently been orphaned in a flu epidemic and sent to live with his maternal aunt and uncle in another Swedish town, Orby, at a young age.

I had mixed feelings as Andrew and I approached Fritsla, a small, quiet town nestled in the countryside. My Swedish friend, Amelie, whom I’d met on the plane, and her father, Pär, had done some research about my grandfather’s family, and they emailed biographical information to me when I was in Stockholm. I’d learned my grandfather’s childhood had been filled with more grief and loss than I’d expected.

They had discovered that Morfar’s family lived in an area of Fritsla known as Aratorp, where my great grandfather, Håkan Nilsson, had been a farm hand. Using Google Maps, Andrew and I headed to that area first. We couldn’t find a specific house or farm, but there was a street with the word Aratorp in it, and we followed that until it became a dirt road ending in meadows and woods. Perhaps my grandfather had been born on a farm or in a tenant home that had once stood nearby.

 

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We couldn’t find the specific place in Fritsla where my grandfather lived – but this is the general area.

 

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Fritsla, where my grandfather was born, is a lovely rural town with well-kept, classic Swedish farmhouses.

 

Next, we went to Fritsla Church near the center of town, where Morfar had probably been baptized. It was closed, so we walked around the cemetery, reading the old Swedish names on the headstones. If one or both of my grandfather’s parents had died in Fritsla, they were probably buried here.

 

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On our first visit to Fritsla Church, it was closed.

 

By this time, it was noon. Andrew and I decided to stop at the café in the village for lunch, and that is when we got our lucky break.

Centralkafét is an old-fashioned café attached to a gorgeous little floral shop, Fritsla Blomsteraffär. While Andrew and I picked out what we wanted from the sandwiches and salads in the plate glass display case, I mentioned that my grandfather had been born in Fritsla, and we were researching family history.

After we finished eating, our waitress, Camilla, introduced herself, as did Ulrika, the baker and florist. They wanted to know more about my grandfather. Before we knew it, they’d called the church, and they’d called someone else.

“The church is open for cleaning this afternoon,” Camilla said. “You can go in and see it.”

“And you should meet Gunvor,” Ulrika added. “She’s our local history expert. She said you can head over now if you’d like.”

 

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We wandered into Centralkafét, attached to a floral shop in Fritsla. Here, we met Camilla and Ulrika, who connected us with Irene and Gunvor.

 

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In Centralkafét. A Google translation: “Lovely hometown, we love you, we who in Sweden build and bridge.”

 

Gunvor’s home turned out to be one of the quaint older homes Andrew and I had admired while driving around. She and her daughter, Irene, were gracious and welcoming, and I felt an immediate connection. Gunvor, especially, had the strong, patrician bearing and the lilting Nordic accent I remembered from the ladies who attended our Swedish Lutheran church when I was growing up near Cleveland, Ohio.

Gunvor soon realized we needed a true expert’s help and so she called Jan-Åke Stensson, the local genealogist who, believe it or not, came right over with his laptop and his extensive knowledge of Swedish ancestral records. Gunvor, Irene, Jan-Åke, Andrew, and I sat at the kitchen table and talked for a couple of hours.

Jan-Åke told us about Swedish history – how a quarter to a third of the Swedish population immigrated to America. My grandfather, though, had not been part of this great migration, according to Jan-Åke. He left Sweden later, during a time of greater prosperity. (Given my grandfather’s situation – as you’ll see below – I understand why he wanted a fresh start in America.) Jan-Åke also explained Sweden’s confusing surname conventions before 1900, which makes doing Swedish ancestral research challenging.  We talked about the many Swedes of my grandfather’s time who owned no land of their own, but were farm hands and tenant farmers.

We learned about Irene and Gunvor’s relatives, too, and how the great exodus from Sweden split their family tree. Irene told us her grandfather (or possibly her great grandfather – I don’t recall) had an enormous number of siblings – well over a dozen. Every single one of them – except for her (great) grandfather – came to America. Because of this, a loneliness haunted him all of his life. I’d never really thought about the personal losses incurred by those who stayed behind. As Irene told us this story, I had a sense of a culture splitting in half, and the psychic cost on both sides. Sitting next to my son, I was moved by the idea that, over a hundred years later, we were reconnecting with our lost culture and ancestry.

Before we departed, Irene gave us a tour of her mother’s gardens and their rustic outdoor dining room. I wanted very much to linger and deepen our new friendships – I told myself I’d return one day. Andrew and I prolonged our Fritsla stay a bit by returning to the café for fika (Swedish dessert and coffee) and to tell Camilla and Ulrika about our visit with Gunvor and Irene.

 

I had a sense of a culture splitting in half, and the psychic cost on both sides.

 

A week or so later, Jan-Åke sent me the biographical information below, confirmed independently by Amelie and her father, as well as by my cousin, Jan.

When we’d visited Älekulla with Cousin Jan, where my grandfather’s ancestors went back several generations, I’d sensed a deep connection to the land, church, and community.

But my grandfather’s family, headed by his father, Häkan Nilsson, was buffeted by illness, uprootedness, and, likely, poverty. My great grandfather, Häkan, moved from job to job to job (mostly as a tenant farmer and a farm hand) and from town to town, trying to support the family.

I hadn’t known that my grandfather had so many siblings. Morfar was the youngest of seven children – and by the time he was nine years old, all of his brothers and sisters and both of his parents would be dead.

Eight years before Morfar was born, Häkan and his wife, Edela (or Edla) Brita Lardsdotter, lost a son, Karl, at age 7 months, when they were living in the town of Orby.

They moved to Fritsla in February of 1892 with at least five of their six children, and my grandfather was born on June 5.

Morfar’s oldest brother – Häkan and Edela’s  firstborn, Johannes – died at age 19 in Orby (cause unknown) when Morfar was two years old. I do not know if Johannes was emotionally close to my grandfather, or if they barely knew each other.

When my grandfather was four years old, his father, Häkan, died of tuberculosis, on June 14, 1896 in Fritsla – a few months after he had started a new job as a farm hand, and a week after my grandfather’s birthday. Eleven days after Häkan died, my grandfather’s brother, Linus, died of tuberculosis at the age of sixteen. Three weeks after that, on July 16, my grandfather’s sister, Anna Eleanora, died of tuberculosis at the age of eighteen. (As I write this, it is the 123rd anniversary of her death.)

Three years later, my grandfather moved to Orby with his two sisters, Hilda and Josefina, and his widowed mother, Edela. His mother died of an unknown cause six months later on April 9, 1900. Perhaps she died in the flu epidemic my grandfather spoke of.

Morfar, now 8, and Josefina, 11, were sent to live with their maternal aunt and her husband, Lotta and Johan August Svensson. Morfar’s sister, Hilda, age 15, was sent to be a maid for a local tenant farmer, where she died of an unknown cause a little over a year later.

According to local historical records, Morfar’s uncle, August, was well liked by the neighborhood children, and he once helped save a girl who was drowning in a bog. He had only one arm, and had been a railway builder and night guard at the local power plant. When Morfar and his sister, Josefina lived with him, he was a tenant farmer, owning no land, with children of his own to raise. Who knows what my grandfather’s uncle was really like, because Morfar had always said his uncle was mean.

On May 11, 1902, Josefina died at age 13 of an unknown cause, and my grandfather lost his last living family member. Pär and Amelie found this quote by the pastor in the local history records: “The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!” (“Flickans båda föräldrar äro döda, och själv är hon utfattig!”) 

My grandfather turned nine a few weeks later.

 

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We returned a second time that afternoon to Fritsla Church and it was open. I found it to be much more austere than the church in Älekulla, which had extensive, almost primitive religious murals and paintings. Many of these old churches have been rebuilt, remodeled, and/or extensively restored, and so have changed in appearance over the centuries.

 

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My great grandfather, Håkan Nilsson, and my grandfather’s brother and sister, Linus and Anna Eleanora, were probably buried in this cemetery within weeks of each other after dying of tuberculosis.

 

“The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!”

 

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Backens Skola, where my grandfather and his sister, Josefina, went to school, now a museum. My son and I were given a private tour by Adam, one of the museum’s caretakers.

 

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My grandfather and his mother and siblings moved to Orby, Sweden after TB took three in the family. He was confirmed at Orby Church on March 6, 1907, long after his mother died.

 

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When he was fifteen, Grandpa went to work as a farm hand on this property in Kinna, Sweden. He was here for four years, then went to work on a farm in Orby a few months before he left for America.

 

Morfar left Sweden forever on April 4, 1912 when he was nineteen, bound for America. He’d always said he was supposed to sail on the Titanic, but he was delayed, possibly by a strike in England. He sailed on the Mauretania instead, a few days behind the Titanic, probably third class. His ticket would have cost about $17.

I’m still checking dates, but the Mauretania left Liverpool, England on April 10, bound for New York a few days behind the Titanic. The Mauretania happened to be carrying the Titanic’s cargo manifest. It was docked in Queensland, Ireland when word came that the Titanic was sinking. First-class passengers held a vigil for the Titanic’s victims and raised $500 for the families. Second-class passengers held their own vigil.

I wonder if word came down to the third-class passengers in steerage about the Titanic. If somehow it did, I can only imagine what Morfar must have thought. Maybe he’d always had survivor’s guilt for being the only one in his family still alive. Perhaps he’d always expected the other shoe to drop – that, inevitably, he’d lose his life, too.

In 1997 or 1998 near Cleveland, Ohio, some of Morfar’s many great grandchildren gathered in their pajamas in front of the TV to watch The Titanic. While Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio hoped desperately for a lifeboat in those icy waters, I can now imagine another scene – a nineteen-year-old Swedish boy, somewhere below deck on another boat far away. Maybe, upon finding out about the Titanic, Morfar looked upon his having sailed on the Mauretania instead as a sign, a gigantic, long-awaited affirmation from the universe. Yes, he was supposed to live. A whole new life awaited him in America.

 

JungAncestors“Each individual life matters. From the perspective of the ancestors, each descendent is the whole reason they have existed at all. We are each individual ‘historic fragments’ whose lives are interwoven into the lives of our ancestors reaching back to the beginning of creating. Knowing where one comes from in the broadest and deepest sense informs who one is and the direction of one’s life. Within these connections, as one finds oneself in the crowd of ancestral spirits, the meaning of our suffering is revealed in ways that assist us in embracing our fate and embodying and fulfilling our destiny. Simply said – the ancestors, as part of our larger community, support and guide us in living the life we were born to live. This work connects us in ever widening circles to our origins, has the potential to reconnect us with the soul of the world and ultimately leads us back to ourselves and our individual, unique and necessary life.” – Jung and the Ancestors

 

***

 

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Me (in 1956 or so) napping on Grandma’s lap during one of our visits to Grandpa when he was in the hospital for what my mother later told me was tuberculosis. I wonder if the TB had been latent for years, perhaps contracted in Sweden when members of his family had it. Seems a coincidence he would contract the disease so many years later in America. He was cured of the TB with antibiotics, as far as I know. He lived another 15 years or so and passed away from other causes.

 

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Children were not allowed to visit patients. I thought I remembered seeing Grandpa wave to us when we went to see him. He is the figure in the upper left window. Considering how young I am in the other photo, perhaps this is a false memory, and I’m recalling these photos. Memory can be a shadowy, indistinct realm.

 

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In Fritsla Church

 

Darlingside recently came to central Oregon and they are wonderful. Some of their lyrics inspired me to imagine what Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson might have been thinking as he left Sweden forever, made his way by train to England, and boarded the Mauretania for America. Are there stories in your own family history you are perhaps meant to unearth?

 

 

Many thanks to Amelie Sandin, Pär Sandin, Jan-Åke Stensson, Jan Andersson, Camilla Haglund, Ulrika Söderhagen, Gunvor Johansson, Irene Svensson, Adam Nyman, and all the kind Swedes we met. The few hours we spent together were too short. Thank you to Sandra Adamson Easter for writing Jung and the Ancestors, a treasure I’m still unpacking.

 

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Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson

 

Next up, in my final post about exploring our ancestry, I’ll write about our trip to Sicily (my father’s ancestral land), my cousin’s Sicilian wedding, and what my son and I gained from our family heritage search in Sweden.

What I found in Sweden, Part 2

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My great, great great grandfather donated his Bible (published in 1810) to Älekulla Church in Sweden.

 

“Where do I come from?”  –  Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web by Sandra Easter

“What is being asked from us in the present in relationship to the past and unfolding future?” – Sandra Easter in Jung, etc…

Morfar

Things were not going so well.

As I boarded the plane in Madrid for the last leg of our flight to Sweden, the handle on my brand new luggage broke. Inside, the bins on both sides of the aisle over my seat were filled with first aid equipment. The nearby bins were full, too. When I asked the steward where I should put my luggage, he snapped, “Do you want me to make the plane bigger? I can’t make the plane bigger just for you!”

What happened next, Carl Jung might call a synchronicity.

I left my suitcase in the aisle and squeezed into my window seat in the last row of the plane, next to a beautiful young Swedish woman, Amelie. As if the universe were making sure I paid attention, Amelie’s face bore a striking resemblance to my former college roommate and close friend, Kathy, who has Norwegian ancestry. Except that Amelie’s hair was ice blonde instead of dark, and her eyes, instead of brown, were brilliant blue.

While another, calmer, steward found a place for my suitcase, I talked with Amelie, who is a physician and a mom. I told her I was visiting Sweden for the first time, in part to research my family history. Mormor, my maternal grandmother, was from near Falkenberg on the Swedish west coast; Morfar, my grandfather, had been born in the rural, inland town of Fritsla. After sightseeing with a friend in Stockholm, I’d be heading to Falkenberg and Fritsla with my son.

“I grew up in Fritsla,” Amelie said. “In fact, my father has been researching the history of our family and the town.”

We couldn’t believe the coincidence.

I told Amelie that I knew very little about my grandfather, who had been an orphan. Apparently, he’d been raised by an aunt and uncle after he lost a parent and a sibling in a flu epidemic. My Swedish grandmother, Mormor, had often corresponded with family back in Sweden but, as far as I knew, Morfar hadn’t communicated with anyone in Sweden after he came to America.

By the time I knew him, Morfar was a solitary man who rarely spoke. He’d sit in his living room chair and gaze out the window for hours, then disappear when no one was looking, which upset Mormor, who would then go and fetch him from the corner bar.

I had always wanted to learn more about my Swedish roots, especially because growing up I’d felt distant from both of my parents’ extended families. My mother’s schizophrenia made her isolated and uncommunicative. She didn’t go to Sweden when my aunts traveled there in the early 1990s to meet their aunts and uncles and cousins, nor did she enjoy having visitors in our home. When relatives came to see us, they didn’t linger; the relationships my brothers and I had with them were markedly curtailed. These restrictions frayed our kinship, diminished well-being, and made keener my lifelong desire to connect with our larger family.

Trauma is a risk factor for serious mental illnesses. It’s theorized that the effects of trauma might be passed down through generations via genes that become “tagged,” or marked, in some way. So my mother’s troubled history made me extra curious to learn more about my grandfather’s life, since I knew his childhood had been difficult.

Even if the gene tagging theory isn’t correct, I believe the trauma and fallout are passed down in other ways. The further I got on my Swedish odyssey, the more it struck me how little many of us know about our ancestors, how missing they are from our lives, and how incomplete that makes us. What a loss.

***

“I had the feeling that I was a historical fragment, an excerpt for which the preceding and succeeding text was missing. My life seemed to have been snipped out of a long chain of events, and many questions remained unanswered.” – Carl Jung, as quoted in Jung, etc by Sandra Easter

***

Talking with Amelie kept my mind off of the turbulence, the swirling dark clouds, and the sleet outside the airplane window. She told me about her work at a medical clinic in Stockholm. She’s a reader, too, and we talked about Swedish and American literature. She showed me pictures of her beautiful children, and I showed her old family photos on my smartphone. Amelie offered to see if her father could find out anything about my grandfather and his family.

As the plane approached Stockholm, it broke through the thick layers of gray-white clouds. I saw Sweden for the first time: lush, rolling hills; sparkling lakes the color of Amelie’s eyes; dense forests; and land cultivated in orderly rows, dotted with red farmhouses and outbuildings.

During my week in Stockholm, I received an amazing surprise via email from Amelie and her father: a detailed, multi-page history of my grandfather and his family, complete with photos and documentation, culled from Swedish sources and translated into English.

This information would prove invaluable to understanding my grandfather’s childhood, and provide us with an itinerary of locations to visit in Fritsla. But first, we stopped in Älekulla to meet my cousin Jan and to see the land where my grandfather’s grandfather had lived.

 

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We met cousin Jan at Älekulla Church, which dates back to the 1200s. My Morfar’s ancestors attended this church as far back as the 1700s, perhaps before that. Their bones must be buried in this cemetery, although the grave markers would be long gone.

 

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Much of the beautifully preserved ceiling art in Älekulla Church depicts the seven days of creation. Jan has a deep knowledge of the church’s history and the sacred art and objects there.

 

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I had a feeling of timelessness as we walked through the church. Some of the symbols and styles of the art and sacred objects had a primitive, almost pagan style.

 

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“My greatest treasure….” Bible inscription written by Nils Häkansson, my great, great, great grandfather. Jan translated it for us – what a moment, and what a gift!

 

“….Originating in what Jung refers to as the ‘mighty deposit of ancestral experience,’ each individual life originates in and is woven into this infinite ancestral story, this ‘original web of life.’ The fine thread of our fate, woven into ‘all the events of time,’ is connected to the lives of our ancestors and our descendants. Each of us is a unique response to all that has come before and all that will come after.” – Jung,etc.

 

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My son, photographing “hell,” which Jan said was typically depicted at the back of Swedish churches. Heaven was located at the front.

 

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Art at the back of Älekulla Church (Photo by Jan Andersson)

 

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Cousin Jan’s home through the trees. He lives next door to one of several farms where my ancestors lived. Jan took us to visit these farms – the owners are his neighbors and we were able to actually set foot on their grounds. Most of the original farmhouses have been replaced by newer ones, although most of these are now old.

 

I’m sure that life wasn’t easy for my grandfather’s farming ancestors in Älekulla. But I sensed they were bolstered by a strong faith, a deep connection to family, the land and their community, and a shared history going back generations.

As I would learn in part from Amelie and her father’s report, these blessings were not nearly as present in the lives of my great grandfather and my grandfather. More about that in my next post.

My son and I discovered that researching our roots is also about the journey itself, and the extraordinary people you meet along the way. Many thanks to Amelie Sandin, Pär Sandin, Jan Andersson, Jan-Åke Stensson, Irene Svensson, and Gunvor, who restored to my son and me many of the beautiful fragments of our family history. I hope we can return one day to learn more and to see these kind, generous people once again.

 

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Our airbnb, a Swedish stuga in Kinna, near my grandfather’s birthplace

 

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Primrose and reindeer lichen

 

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Lake Öresjon, across the road from our stuga

 

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A garden near our stuga. The gardener told me the large compost pile contains plants and seaweed from the lake.

 

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“Each one of us as a ‘historical fragment’ within a longer story, comes into this world with a particular ‘pattern’ that is, according to Jung, a response and answer to what is unresolved, unredeemed, and unanswered. The pattern of our particular life, our genius and gifts, become evident and are developed as we listen and respond to the ‘lament of the dead’ with love. Every person, every gift is an important part of the integrity and well-being of the interconnected web of kinship. Engaging in a more conscious dialogue with the ancestors, each of us can more consciously and fully live the life that is ours alone to live. Doing so contributes to the well-being of all our kin. I would suggest that in addition to our lives being a response to what is waiting for resolution, redemption, or an answer, each of our lives is also in service to our descendants.” – Susan Easter in Jung, etc. (Boldface is mine.)

 

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During the months and weeks I prepared for my trip to Sweden, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg made great strides drawing attention to climate issues. In March, she was nominated for the 2019 Nobel peace prize. Her work speaks to those who believe that we live in service of our descendants. We’re at a turning point in civilization. Those of us who are alive now have an especially crucial role to play. We must step up, don’t you think?

 

What I found in Sweden, Part 1

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This is the Kattegatt, a sea off the coast of western Sweden, sometimes considered a bay of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Many kinds of seabirds nest here. Photo by A. Hallinan.

 

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I’d just have to trespass. It seemed no one was home, and I’d come so far.

Some 4,949 miles, according to Google Maps, from central Oregon to Långås, Sweden – hoping to find at least one of the three farmhouses Mormor (Swedish for maternal grandmother) had lived in before coming to Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen in 1914.

My son, Andrew, and I were standing in front of one of her former homes, a classic red Swedish farmhouse that matched the photo I’d kept buried with other family papers in a box for years. We were here thanks to my incredibly kind and knowledgable Swedish fifth cousin, Jan, whom we’d connected with after my nephew and I had DNA tests.

After Jan wrote to us, I sent him family photos and some facts about my maternal Swedish grandparents. A few days after I arrived in Sweden, Jan sent me the GPS coordinates for one of Mormor’s childhood homes. And here we were – in stunningly beautiful Halland county, flat and lush green, on Sweden’s west coast.

A few housing developments dotted the landscape, but mostly this was still wide open agricultural land with old, old farmhouses like my grandmother’s, and squat, black windmills built long before my grandmother’s time, with modern wind turbines close by as well.

It was late afternoon, mid May, but the sun was still high, this being Sweden with its long days. I stepped into the yard while Andrew stayed behind the property line taking pictures.

I walked around the grounds, marveling at the obvious care with which the old exterior architectural details had been preserved.

 

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A hidden retreat next to an old stone wall in the backyard

 

I took my time, communing with this ancestral home and the spirits of those who’d lived there once upon a time, marveling that Mormor had left 105 years ago, never to return. Did her hands touch this old doorknob? Maybe she had the key for this old lock. Where would the garden have been that she must have helped tend?

 

 

What would Mormor think of her granddaughter and great grandson making a pilgrimage to this place? I wanted to leave the owners a note – we still had time to return the next morning before the next leg of our trip – but for once in my life I had no pen or pencil.

Jan had also given me the name and approximate location of another house where he said my grandmother had been born.  I had no photo for this house, or any other information besides what Jan had given me. Andrew and I decided to drive there, next. I didn’t think we could top what we’d just seen – but I was wrong.

 

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They did not seem pleased to see us when we arrived at our second location, where one of the old houses bore the name of the farm where Jan said my grandmother had been born.

 

At this second location, a cluster of farmhouses, Andrew and I stood debating. Which of the houses would have been my grandmother’s birthplace? I thought it must be the house with the old sign – Lönestig gård – the name Jan had given me – but Andrew thought it might be one of the houses across the road. As we approached those homes, I debated whether I should knock on one of the doors.

Just then, a woman came across the meadow, walking five magnificent dogs – two fluffy, snow-white Pyrenees and three sheep dogs. She studied us – we were obviously strangers in these parts. I introduced myself and Andrew.

“We’re from the United States,” I said. On a hunch, I decided to show her another old photo I’d had for years, of yet a third farmhouse my grandmother had lived in, directly on the sea. I’d always loved the photo’s romantic aura, with seabirds, rocks and water.

“We’re looking for this farm,” I said, taking out my smartphone and pulling up the photo. “It was where my grandmother – my mormor – lived.”

Louise gazed at the photo for a moment. “I know this house,” she said. “I’ll take you there.”

 

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My photo of Mormor’s farmhouse on the sea that I’ve had for years

 

This is where Louise took us:

 

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The farmhouse, found.

 

We stayed for a couple of hours, talking, talking, talking with the current owners. We met Lars, who lives in one portion of the house with his wife, and Lennart, who resides in what was once the boathouse.  The farmhouse is directly on the sea – we walked way, way out on the rocks. Lars told us many species of seabirds nest in this protected area. It was still bright daylight even though it was nearly 8 pm; it felt as though the universe was making the day longer just for us, to give us more time to linger.

Lennart invited us into his portion of the house. He dug out a regional history book in Swedish, and there we found a photo of my great grandparents. Lennart gave me the book as a gift.

 

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Lars lives in the main house. Louise, on the right, led my son and me to Mormor’s house. You can see the house on the horizon. The shadow belongs to my son.

 

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You can walk to the sea directly from Mormor’s house.

 

After our visit with Lennart and Lars and the old farmhouse, Louise invited us to her home nearby, where she raises prize-winning sheepdogs. When I stepped into her old classic Swedish farmhouse I was astonished; it was like walking into one of the Carl Larsson prints I’d hung in my upstate New York home for decades.

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Detail from Louise’s kakelugn, an old masonry heater or stove. (A. Hallinan)

Louise has an old, Swedish floor-to-ceiling stove that heats the entire house, and a spacious Swedish kitchen and dining room with a wall of windows to let in as much light as possible on dark winter days.

And best, best of all, a few days later Louise connected me with two of my closest Swedish relatives!! I haven’t seen them yet – that’s for the next trip.

In everyone we met on our sojourn, I sensed a strong, deep love for this corner of Scandinavia and it’s beautiful natural world.

Countless thanks to Jan, Louise, Lars, Lennart, and all our new Swedish friends who helped my son and me dive deeper into our family history.

*****

 

Below is a book about how knowing little about our ancestors may not be the best thing, and how learning about them can heal us. I’ll let you know when I finish reading what I think and how its insights might impact my family history research. So far, a couple of chapters in, I’m fascinated.

 

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More family history discoveries to come on my next post, about Morfar (Grandpa).

 

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My son and I stayed in Falkenberg a few blocks from the sea.

 

What I was reading, etc, etc:

I read The Royal Physician’s Visit by Per Olov Enquist as I travelled, a fictionalized account of the mentally ill Danish King Christian VII, his young wife Caroline Mathilde, and the king’s physician (Johann Struensee) who tried to enact Enlightenment reforms that were not appreciated by the people. Later in my trip, I bought The Wandering Pine, an autobiographical novel I haven’t read yet.

 

 

Below are scenes from Waldemarsudde in Stockholm, the former home of Prins Eugens, now a gorgeous museum. My friend, Darlene, and I lingered a long time in this beautiful place. The day we visited there was an exhibit about an art colony in Grez, France, where many late 19th century and early 20th century Swedish artists went to paint. The lower left photo is part of a Carl Larsson painting of his wife, Karin (who was also an artist), and their child, entitled “Lilla Suzanne” (Little Susanne). The lower right painting is by William Blair Bruce, “Plein-Air Studio.”

 

 

 

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The Kattegatt. This photo, and the first sea scene in this post, are views from Mormor’s farm. (A. Hallinan)

 

Next on Books Can Save a Life:

What I found in Sweden, Part 2

Enchanting Sicily, and a wedding

In Sweden, what will I find?

Swedish farm

Will I find them? I have photos, but no addresses, of the two Swedish farms where my grandmother lived at the turn of the century. My mormor, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, etc.

 

I am in Sweden for the first time, exploring Stockholm with a friend, preparing for a journey west to research family ancestry with my son.

I’d like to find at least one, if not both, of the farms near Falkenberg and the North Sea where my grandmother (mormor) lived. I have photos, but no addresses.

I’d like to find out more about my mysterious grandfather (morfar), who was said to have been orphaned in a flu epidemic and who sailed for America a few days behind the Titanic, having missed that ill-fated ship because of a rail strike in England.

For the most part, seeing extended Swedish family will have to wait until another trip to Sweden, although we do have plans to meet up with a distant cousin. Many years ago when I was living in New York City, two Swedish cousins came to sightsee and I had a great time showing them around. They have both since passed away. My aunts visited Sweden a few decades ago and saw many cousins, but there is a new generation now whose addresses I don’t have.

We’ll see what I find this time around.

 

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Morfar and Mormor: Ivar Emmanuel Håkansson and Hulda Viktoria Johansson

 

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My maternal great grandparents – stora farföräldrar – on their 50th wedding anniversary

 

DoctorGlas

“How is it to be done? I have known a long while now. Chance has so arranged matters that the solution is as good as given: my potassium cyanide pills which I once made up without a thought to anyone but myself, must be brought into service.”  Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg

I brought with me the classic Swedish novel Doctor Glas, a brooding, psychological period piece that foreshadows modern-day themes of euthanasia and abortion. Margaret Atwood wrote the foreword to the paperback edition I have.

It has been intriguing to find turn-of-the-century landmarks, such as restaurants and museums, mentioned in the novel as we pass by them sightseeing around Stockholm.

And there is the unusual, early morning light of the 4 am Swedish spring sunrise – Atwood mentions eerie evening light below.

“Doctor Glass is deeply unsettling, in the way certain dreams are – or, no coincidence, certain films by Bergman….the eerie blue northern nights of midsummer combined with an unexplained anxiety, the nameless Kirkegaardean dread that strikes Glas at the most ordinary of moments….It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.”   – Margaret Atwood

 

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A city garden allotment in Eriksdalslunden, Stockholm on the Årstaviken inlet/canal. Imagine living in a beautiful, spacious pre-war apartment in Stockholm and having your very own garden hideaway several city blocks away. You can be placed on a waiting list for one of these coveted allotments, but you will wait 30 years!

 

In Stockholm, I found my way to a city park, which gave way to an enchanting neighborhood of garden allotments along the water, with a public, tree-lined hiking path. I saw the following passage in Swedish on a plaque. I used Google Translate to decipher it. Because that tool is imperfect, I took liberties and edited the passage, so it’s not a literal translation:

“From the cottages on the slopes above the Eriksdalslunden, with its aspen and small flowering gardens, look down to the water and the dark wilderness of coniferous forests across thew way; it’s as if you’ve been transported to Sweden’s Norrland (Northland). – Architect Osvald Almqvist, 1930s

 

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This garden allotment (kolonilottor) reminds me of a Carl Larsson painting.

 

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Allotment spring flowers (blommor)

 

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Parked along the Eriksdaslunden path

 

Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:

 

 

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View from my airbnb in Skanstull, Stockholm, on Sunday morning, 6 am.

 

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The quaint old elevator in our airbnb. Or I can walk two floors up on a winding staircase.

 

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Good, strong Swedish coffee in a konditori, with cardamom and cinnamon buns, budapests, and princesses (these are the names of various desserts).  No such thing as decaf here.

 

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I’ve been carrying around (and not so much reading) the poetry of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Here, his poem about espresso:

The black coffee they serve outdoors/among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations/filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

It’s carried out from the gloomy kitchen/and looks into the sun without blinking.

In the daylight a dot of beneficent black/that quickly flows into a pale customer.

It’s like the drops of black profoundness/sometimes gathered up by the soul,

giving a salutary push: Go!/Inspiration to open your eyes.

 

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Tomas Tranströmer 1931 – 2015. His grave is in the Katarina Church cemetery in Stockholm. Many prominent Swedes are buried there, including actor Michael Nyqvist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame.

 

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Katarina Church, Stockholm

 

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Stockholm light at 4 am.

 

 

Inheritance

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“Now the details are so clear to me, as if contained in a time capsule: the Hudson River in the darkness; the lights strung across the George Washington Bridge; the even timbre of my mother’s voice; the high plane of her cheekbone. Her long-fingered hands clasped in her lap. Institute. World-famous. Philadelphia.” Inheritance, Dani Shapiro

A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Over the next month or two, I’ll be looking at memoir through the lens of inheritance – genetic, ancestral, cultural, and otherwise. This, as I send off my DNA to be analyzed and journey to my two ancestral homes: Sweden, for the first time; and Sicily, where we’ve traveled as a family on several occasions while raising our sons.

I’m not sure what I’ll find in Sweden – more about that in upcoming posts. As for Sicily, I look forward to seeing my extended family again and their stunningly beautiful landscape, their small city on the sea which has been their ancestral home for centuries, and their warm, embracing culture.

I wanted to begin with Dani Shapiro’s jaw-dropping Inheritance because it is a “big,” important memoir, masterfully executed by a seasoned memoirist and novelist, about an increasingly common situation: more people are having their DNA analyzed, and some are getting huge surprises. Others are having long-held suspicions about maternity or paternity confirmed.

In Dani’s case, she learned that her father, whom she adored, was not her biological father. Which meant that her half sister was not her sister. Her beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were not her blood relations, either. Their rich, storied Jewish history and culture were not hers. (Or were they? Do true blood ties matter? Or can nurture make up the difference? Dani explores this.)

Some of Dani’s memories are especially resonant and ironic in hindsight:

At a writer’s retreat, when she was young, aspiring, and still unknown, a famous poet, observing her fair-skinned features, commented: “There’s no way you are Jewish. No way.”

At a backyard barbecue in their close-knit, Jewish neighborhood, a friend and Holocaust survivor said to a baffled, eight-year-old Dani: ““We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”

After a photographic portrait session, three-year-old Dani was selected by Kodak for the Grand Central Station Colorama photo: the iconic, blonde, All-American (non-Jewish) child in front of the Christmas tree waiting eagerly for Santa.

But I found the following memory most haunting of all: it speaks of Dani’s staggering loneliness and bewilderment as an only child who had always had an innate, deeply felt sense she didn’t belong in her own family. Years after it happened, a neighbor recalled how one day Dani ran across the street to her house, frightened and crying. A home security alarm had gone off, and Dani’s babysitter had been apparently indifferent or unconcerned. The neighbor said she later called Dani’s mother, fed up with Dani’s endless string of babysitters and what she saw as parental neglect. I should say here that Dani had a challenging, contentious relationship with her mother who was, to say the least, a difficult woman.

Inheritance is an important memoir for many reasons; among other things, it raises moral and ethical questions that we, as a society, need to confront. I’ve written before about Jaron Lanier’s call for a more humanitarian focus as our culture becomes shaped and influenced in unforeseen ways by advances in technology. As genetic identities become easily obtainable, we’d do well to ask:

At what point does the quest to have children, at all costs, become morally questionable?  (There is something deeply ironic about the profession chosen by Dani’s biological father, whose identity she goes on to discover.)

Is it not the basic human right of every individual to know his or her genetic identity? Is it ever right for that genetic identity to be legally or otherwise withheld?

Dani comes to think of her discovery as a form of trauma:

“Later, I will become a student of trauma. I will read deeply on the subject as a way of understanding the two opposite poles of my own history: the trauma my parents must have experienced in order to have made a decision so painful that it was buried at the moment it was made, and the trauma of my discovery of that decision more than half a century later.

It is the nature of trauma that, when left untreated, it deepens over time. I had experienced trauma over the years and had developed ways of dealing with it. I meditated each morning. I had a decades-long yoga practice. I had suffered other traumas – my parents’ car accident, Jacob’s childhood illness – and had come out the other side, eventually. What I didn’t understand was that as terrible as these were, they were singular incidents….

But this – the discovery that I wasn’t who I had believed myself to be all my life, that my parents had on some level, no matter how subtle, made the choice to keep the truth of my identity from me – this was no singular incident. It wasn’t something outside myself, to be held to the light and examined, and finally understood. It was inseparable from myself. It was myself.

Their trauma became mine – had always been mine. It was my inheritance, my lot.”

Dani Shapiro now has a podcast series, “Family Secrets.”

Memoir, as a genre, is coming into its own, partly because we are finally realizing how silence and secrets can deepen trauma, with impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our larger culture.

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:

  • The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold. There is something uniquely American and West Coast about this hilarious and deeply honest memoir by a fabulous writer. I’ll be looking at her familial and cultural “inheritance.”
  • My personal stake in memoir, my own writing of memoir, and what aspects of inheritance I’ll be searching for when I travel to Europe.

 

Villa window

Coming up: What I’ll be searching for in Sweden and Sicily

 

Sea, beach, sky

Not far from my Sicilian ancestral home

Educated

Educated

 

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.” Educated, by Tara Westover

 

Educated is, truly, an astounding memoir.

Tara Westover grew up on a remote mountain in Idaho, the youngest daughter in an extreme Mormon survivalist family cut off from mainstream society. She and her siblings, born at home, had no birth certificates, so in the eyes of the US government they did not exist.

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.”

Tara and her siblings did not attend public school because public education was a government plot to lure children away from God. Tara wasn’t home schooled, either: When they weren’t stockpiling food and amassing an arsenal, Tara’s father salvaged metal in his junkyard while Tara’s mother, an uncertified midwife, practiced healing and herbalism as an alternative to established medical care.  The family avoided professional medical care altogether, no matter how serious their injuries – and some of them were catastrophic. For one thing, Tara’s older brother was violent, and she often bore the brunt of his terrifying outbursts.

Tara’s family lived according to the dictates of her paranoid father as they prepared for the Days of Abomination. (In addition to religious fanaticism, there is, of course, mental illness at work here.) Someday, the Feds would come for them as they had for the family at Ruby Ridge. The Westovers had to be ready to defend themselves.

(I had to refresh my memory as to what Ruby Ridge was about, hence my link in case you want a refresher, too.) Some historians and sociologists believe overkill by law enforcement at Ruby Ridge led to the beginning of the militia movement in the US and a growing belief in conspiracy theories.

Tara needed to escape from her family, and college was a way to do that, but could she be accepted anywhere when she’d been denied an education? At sixteen, Tara taught herself just enough grammar, math, and science to pass the ACT. Off she went to Brigham Young University where, for the first time, she learned about slavery, the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, and other major events in US and world history.

Ten years after entering Brigham Young, with enormous effort and persistence, Tara completed a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge University in England. Along the way, she constructed a new “self,” almost from scratch. A reckoning with her family was inevitable.

“The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.”

Here, she writes about her relationship with her mother:

“I knew what unspoken pact I would be making as I walked through the door. I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms, the same terms they had offered me three years before; that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.

My mother’s message amounted to an ultimatum: I could see her and my father, or I would never see her again. She has never recanted.”

The quality of Tara’s writing and her psychological insights are enough to recommend this memoir, but there is much more to her complex story. In separating from her family, Tara, the budding historian, explored the conflict between obligation to family and culture and the need to individuate. This layer of Tara’s journey is fascinating. In her memoir, she charted her own breaking away while, in her thesis, she explored four intellectual movements from the 19th century – including Mormonism – and how they “struggled with the question of family obligation.”

“My dissertation gave a different shape to history, one that was neither Mormon nor anti-Mormon, neither spiritual nor profane. It didn’t treat Mormonism as the objective of human history, but neither did it discount the contribution Mormonism had made in grappling with the questions of the age. Instead, it treated the Mormon ideology as a chapter in the larger human story. In my account, history did not set Mormons apart from the rest of the human family; it bound them to it.”

I’m quoting a lot of text here, but I want to show you how Tara writes of her maturing as an intellectual and how she found her calling as a scholar:

“I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, ‘Who writes history?’ on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.”

And this:

“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement–since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected–a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught.” 

Memoir is about the personal and specific and how transformation manifests in a life. If done well, the story becomes both universal and familiar to the reader. Tara writes eloquently about a key moment in her journey of change. Who hasn’t recognized the split between our younger self and the older, wiser person we’ve become?

“Until that moment she [my sixteen-year-old self] had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed – how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance – I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside, and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house.

That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. 

I call it an education.”

 

Have you read Education by Tara Westover? What do you think? Which memoirs have you read that you feel are extraordinary?

 

The memoir I didn’t want to write about

YouDon'tHavetoSay“My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss.

And loss.”  

 – Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

I was all set to write about Sherman Alexie’s newly published memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, when I found out he has joined the ranks of those accused in the #MeToo movement.

I’d read a short while ago that children’s and young adult book publishing is the latest industry rocked by scandal, as women in publishing have come forward to tell of sexual assault and harassment by book editors, publishers, agents, and lauded authors who wield tremendous power in the literary world. Authors such as Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in abject poverty on a reservation and who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for his best-selling novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

I was especially interested in this because I began my career in New York City, back in the day, in educational publishing for children and young adults. I experienced uncomfortable moments with a few men in the course of my work, but nothing like what has been recounted by women in the news recently. Now, looking back, what strikes me most is the pervasive gender inequality in the industry and how clueless I was about the serious sexual harassment and assault taking place in the workplace. (Granted, I worked in educational publishing, which was less glamorous and high stakes.) Women who experienced this were pressured into silence and isolation.

Men held nearly all of the power in book publishing – they were the ones who rose to become executive publishers and celebrated authors – while women, especially those in entry-level positions, were paid salaries difficult to get by on in New York. I don’t recall discussing this much with my female publishing friends and colleagues, except to complain about the low salaries. It was just the way things were.

So here’s a conundrum: In his memoir, Sherman Alexie writes about the rape culture on reservations. Combining prose and poetry, he writes beautifully and comically about his ambivalent relationship with his difficult, flawed, and heroic mother, Lillian, who was born of a rape and who was raped herself and subsequently gave birth to his half-sister, who later died in a house fire.

He writes of the Native American women in his personal life with ambivalence – he and his siblings were loved, protected (sometimes) and psychologically harmed by Lillian. But he writes of Native American women as a group with great empathy because of what they have endured on the reservation and in American culture. Sherman Alexie, in interviews, public appearances, and writing classes, mentors and encourages young writers, particularly Native American writers and women, to step up and take their rightful place in the world.

Yet now Sherman Alexie stands accused of inappropriate sexual overtures. He stands accused of appearing to encourage and value the writing of many a young woman, including Native American women, and of ultimately using his celebrity as a ruse to try and have sex with them. In addition to sexual harassment or abuse, he may be responsible for silencing, or at least shaking the confidence of, talented women writers. He has denied some of the allegations, while acknowledging that he has hurt people with his behavior.

On learning of this, my view of Sherman Alexie as a memoirist and as a human being has of course changed, and my thoughts about his work are complicated in ways I haven’t sorted out.

I would like to see Alexie’s career as a mentor and teacher curtailed, but I don’t think this means Alexie’s memoir should not be read.  Just as we shouldn’t remove from circulation the movies of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, or cleanse our museums of Picasso’s paintings, or let the work of J.D. Salinger go out of print.

Maybe we need to critically view their work in a different light if we are to have any hope of making sense of this mess.

Here’s an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s memoir:

“If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people – of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers, and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And, finally, that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people.

My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment.”

Maybe part of the solution is to work toward a culture of greater compassion. To not turn away or remain silent if a person or a group is being harmed. Because they, in turn, may harm others.

“In 1938, five years after construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam, a wild salmon made its way to the face of that monolith and could not pass. That was the last wild salmon that attempted to find a way around, over, or through the dam into the upper Columbia and Spokane rivers. That was the last wild salmon that remembered.

The Interior Salish, my people, had worshipped the wild salmon since our beginnings. That sacred fish had been our primary source of physical and spiritual sustenance for thousands of years.

My mother and father were members of the first generation of Interior Salish people who lived entirely without wild salmon.

My mother and father, without wild salmon, were spiritual orphans.”

Can you separate the work from the artist or writer? Or are the two intertwined and to be viewed as such? Have you read Sherman Alexie’s memoir or any of his many novels and poems?

 

 

Winter Solstice, 2017

Nestle

“Nestle, as we later named her, was a baby sparrow that had been kicked out of the nest because of a deformity of one of her legs…She found refuge in a house of humans totally ignorant of her special needs. There were so many reasons she should not have survived and yet she did.” – Kathleen J. Maloney, artist. This stunning Christmas card, printed from a woodblock creation by Kathy, was waiting for me in Portland when we completed our cross country travels.

 

In search of a new home, my husband and I sold our house of many years in Rochester, New York and on October 14 began a road trip that took us south to St. Petersburg, Florida, west to California, then north to Portland, Oregon.

 

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Washington DC, Union Station

 

We arrived in Portland on Thanksgiving eve but, sadly, a week and a half later, someone in our extended family passed away, and so we flew back east for the funeral and family time. On the return trip west, we took a three-day Amtrak train along the north coast, the only coast we hadn’t yet explored. We spent hours looking out our sleeper car window and sitting in the observation car as we passed through landscapes new to us: North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington.

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Martinsville, W. Virginia

We traveled over 10,000 miles by car and train, covered 30 states, visited four national parks (actually, five, but it was dark when our train passed through Montana’s Glacier National Park), plus the place where artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked, Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in New Mexico. We saw Savannah, St. Petersburg, Mobile, New Orleans, Tucson, Sedona, and San Francisco where our son lives, in addition to several smaller cities, and we had a fun afternoon layover in Chicago.

The first stop on our long journey was one of the best: Audubon, New Jersey, where we visited with my good friend and college roommate of many years ago, Kathy – an accomplished artist – and her husband, Steve. They entertained us with the beautiful story of Nestle, a wounded baby sparrow they adopted this past summer and nursed back to health and life. I wrote about it in my post, Sparrow, Art, Life.

Kathy gave us a tour of the creative spaces in their home, including her studio and basement workshop, where Steve makes custom frames for her art work. I loved talking about creativity and the creative life with her – a few hours of conversation was for me a powerful dose of inspiration.

I was thrilled when, thanks to auspicious timing, a stunning Christmas card printed from the wood block art of Nestle that Kathy made was waiting for us at journey’s end.

Kathy’s work is so connected to nature, and so has my writing been of late. During our travels, we saw wild beauty but, at times, also an unbridled pillaging of the earth that reveals an ugly inhumanity toward people and communities as well. This has been so since humans have walked the earth, but now we are almost out of time if we are to avoid climate change disaster and inhabit the earth in a new way. The situation is much graver because people in positions of power are working against this very thing.

 

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Chicago landscape

 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Now that we have raised our children, my husband and I are planning our next great endeavor, which we hope will be closely tied to nature and changing the status quo.

More about that in future posts. In the meantime, here are snippets from Kathy and Steve’s story of welcoming Nestle into their family and launching her into life. As Kathy said, never before had they experienced such a bond with a different species.

“Baby birds eat every 20 minutes or so and we took turns feeding her water-soaked dry cat food. We even gave her water through a tiny medicine dropper, which apparently was one of our many mistakes, and yet she didn’t drown.”

 

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“Just as amazing as her physical development was the level of trust she showed in us. We were, after all, her surrogate family. Steve even was able to give her a sparrow massage ever so gently along her back and we watched her relax into the palm of his hand and close her eyes. At night, she would nestle into the crook of his arm and just sit, totally at ease.”

 

“We carried the cage outside and placed it in the meditation garden under the bird feeders. After several days we realized she just wanted to be outside and we opened the cage so she could join her fellow sparrows. Eventually she flew off but returned at the end of the day and spent the night back in the safety of her cage in the house.”

“The most amazing thing began to happen during that last week. As we carried the cage outside in the mornings she would begin to flap her wings excitedly. We realized she was aware that she was going outside to join the backyard birds!”

“If she heard our voices, she would come close, even landing on my arm at one point. Then, one night she didn’t come back to the garden at dusk and all we could do was hope she would be safe. The last time I saw her that week one-on-one she was two feet away perched on top of the wooden fence in my herb garden. As always, I told her to ‘be safe, little one’ and then she flew off.”

 

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Kathy and Steve’s gardens in late fall, where occasionally they are still treated to a glimpse of Nestle.

 

“The gift that she brought to us that hot summer night was the gift of hope and the realization that we are all more closely related to one another on this sometimes crazy, always amazing planet.”

What a wonderful story, and I’m so glad Kathy and Steve shared it.

The Open Gate

If you are still looking for a special, one-of-a-kind holiday gift, or if you would like a truly unique book of poems for the new year, I highly recommend Emily Hancock’s just-published volume, The Open Gate. I “met” Emily online when we took a class from poet and writer Kim Stafford. Her poems are exquisite and nature infused. The volume was typeset and printed by Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia. The covers were created and printed at St. Brigid Press, which Emily owns and operates.

The editor of Appalachian Journal says of Emily’s poems:

Emily Hancock’s poetry is as inviting as this book’s title: The Open Gate swings wide and asks us to “step through” and see the world through her remarkable eyes. Her poems are full of birdsongs and shifting light through trees in the Blue Ridge. They show us what we didn’t see right in front of us. Her poems are meditative and hopeful—and dazzling.”

You can order The Open Gate at this link. Scroll down at the link to watch Emily give a short talk and reading from her collection of poems.

Next: I’ll tell you where we have decided to make our home and what the focus of Books Can Save a Life will be in the coming months. On this brief, dark solstice day, I wish all of you, my faithful and delightful readers and friends, happy holidays aglow with the spirit of the season, and all good things in the new year!

 

MarshallFields

Marshall Field’s, Chicago

 

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Journey’s end: Portland Union Station

 

 

Birds Art Life

“They were constantly chirping, and what they were saying, or what I heard them say, was: Stand up. Look around. Be in the world.”


BirdsArtLife

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“For me, birding and writing did not feel interchangeable. Birding was the opposite of writing, a welcome and necessary flight from the awkward daily consciousness of making art. It allowed me to exist in a simple continuity, amid a river of birds and people and hours. The stubborn anxiety that filled the rest of my life was calmed for as long as I was standing in the river.”

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“As long as I can remember I have been drawn to people who have side loves. Maybe because no single job or category has ever worked for me, I am particularly interested in artists who find inspiration alongside their creative practice. It could be a zest for car mechanics or iron welding (Bob Dylan) or for beekeeping (Sylvia Plath). I love the idea that something completely unexpected can be a person’s wellspring or dark inner cavern, that our artistic lives can be so powerfully shaped and lavishly cross-pollinated by what we do in our so-called spare time.”    Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

I just love this little memoir. Writer Kyo Maclear, a novelist, essayist, and children’s book author, was feeling overwhelmed by the illness of her father, caring for her two young boys, keeping up her writing, and all of life’s other demands. She decided to begin a side practice, something to relax her and refresh her writing and creative spirit.

For a year, she accompanied an avid birder who is also a musician and performer in birding adventures around Toronto and wrote about it, along the way finding truths about life and art.

Many artists and writers are dabblers or become accomplished in a side practice that cross pollinates their art and their life. Vladimir Nabokov was a world renowned butterfly expert. Virginia Woolf gardened.

I’m not sure I have a side practice. Certainly nature feeds my writing and inspires me, and I’m experimenting with learning how to paint watercolors because painting is nonverbal, a relief from hours of being in my own head when I write.

For Kyo, birding was a delightful hobby and new passion because it was relatively easy to do. Despite living in an urban environment, Kyo and her birding companion were intrigued and entertained by the wide range of birds they found along the lake front and in streams, parks, vacant lots, parking lots, backyards, and right outside their picture windows.

Each chapter in Birds Art Life is devoted to a month and a theme: Love, Cages, Smallness, Waiting, Knowledge, Faltering, Lulls, Roaming, Regrets, Questions, and Endings.

A few chapter subtitles will give you an idea of Kyo’s thematic reflections:

Smallness: On the satisfactions of small birds and small art and the audacity of aiming tiny in an age of big ambitions

Lulls: On peaceful lulls and terrifying lulls and the general difficulty of being alone and unbusy

In one chapter, Kyo broadens her scope to reflect on climate change and how, day to day, urbanites and suburbanites don’t notice the human-caused environmental disruption and species depletion happening just outside their view.

Many birders have a spark bird, a particular species of bird that ignites their interest and launches them into birding. Likewise, many devoted readers have a spark book, a book they read in childhood that became a portal to a life of passionate reading.

Do you have a spark book? What comes to mind for me is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. 

This is a hugely satisfying memoir and meditation on life and art that will replenish your spirit. I highly recommend it.

“This is what birds do when they join a swirl of other birds, I thought. They don’t proclaim their individuality or try to make a splash. They dissolve into the group. I wondered if this merging felt so relaxing because it was an antidote to the artist ego, built on an endless need to individuate, to be your own you. In place of exhausting self-assertion, the relief of disappearing into the crowd.”

Do you have a side practice that complements your primary work? Do you have a spark book, or a spark bird, or something specific that sparked your passion in another hobby or practice?

 

He said to honor ourselves

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Somewhere near Lake of the Coheeries, a place that can have cruel winters but is nevertheless enchanting. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

New Year’s weekend I retrieved from the closet the boxes of letters I’d saved from my younger days, back when people took up pen and paper to communicate. I thought it was about time to sort, organize, and purge.

I’m not sure why I saved these missives, but I’m glad I did, especially now that I write memoir. Picking up an old letter and hearing the voice of a friend from long ago can take me back in an instant and call up a stream of long-lost memories. After decades, I still recognize a friend’s distinctive handwriting.

You may be familiar with the mega bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, which advises readers to keep only those items that “spark joy.”

Well, that’s great advice when it comes to saving or not saving old letters. I found many letters that sparked joy, so I ended up saving more than I discarded, but that’s OK.

I’d like to share excerpts from one of those letters with you. I’m quite sure the author wouldn’t mind.

The letter is from my first manager at Eastman Kodak. Ronn hired me into his department of instructional designers and media producers when I moved upstate, after 7 years in New York City and then grad school.

I was having a tough time getting acclimated to Rochester after the big city. It’s a family town, and I was single and lonely. I’ll give it a year, I thought.

I was lucky, though, to meet Ronn, a brilliant and eccentric outlier, and to get the interesting Kodak job that I did. To me, instructional design was ho-hum, but as one of the department’s media producers, I worked with photographers, videographers, graphic designers, and other creative people. It was stressful, sometimes consuming, but fun, too. I remember visiting the photo lab one day at Kodak’s State Street headquarters, where one of the gigantic Colorama photos that always graced a wall of Grand Central Terminal was being assembled.

At the time, Kodak was the home of world class photographers and innovators who brought the science and art of imaging to the world. Rochester had reaped the benefits of the altruistic genius, George Eastman, and as I began to discover the riches here, I felt more at home. Rochester had art films, dance, world renowned schools of music and photography, and medical research. This was before cities marketed themselves, and Rochester had always been quiet about its cultural and technical riches and quality of life. If it tended to be overlooked, that was just fine with the people who lived here.

My old copy of Ronn’s letter was a photocopied good-bye and thank you to our department. After I’d been at Kodak about a year, Ronn took early retirement. I believe he was in his late forties or early fifties at the time. He was one of the thousands upon thousands of employees who would take early retirement or be laid off over the next decades as Kodak had to dismantle itself.

I would go on to have two other managers at Kodak, both male. All three of them made a point of paying me well. Kodak definitely had its flaws, but in the 1980s it was a progressive leader in employee development and training and equitable treatment of women. In my view, my years at Kodak would turn out to be the only time I was fairly compensated, except for when I was a consultant and could set my own rates. Although I’ve had other satisfying jobs, they did not pay well for a variety of reasons: they were more creative than technical; some were traditionally women’s occupations; I got further behind when I became a mother;  and we’ve had decades of stagnant or declining wages. I mention this in light of what Ronn had to say to us in his letter.

Ronn had never been a corporate type. He could get away with wearing jeans among the suits because everyone loved him. He’d been restless, and was eager to make a change so he could have more time to write, paddle his canoe, read, and go fly fishing, among other things.

When I hear Steve Jobs’ famous words, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” I think of Ronn. He wasn’t hungry in the ambitious, Silicon Valley sense of the word. He was hungry for life, and he was never afraid to open himself up to others, even if some might see him as sentimental or naive.

winterstale2Before he left, Ronn made a point of spending some time with each of us. He wanted to introduce me to the founder of one of Rochester’s ad agencies, so we drove there one afternoon. On the way, we talked about Mark Helprin’s remarkable novel “Winter’s Tale,” and how it had affected our lives. I told him I’d been astonished to encounter one of my very own dreams among the pages of that novel, and we speculated on the meaning of dreams in our lives.

I remember Ronn speaking to us at his going away party, holding next to him the tall, graceful canoe paddle carved from hardwood that we’d gotten him as a farewell gift.

Later he sent us the letter which I ended up saving. He’d gone off to Vermont and had been consulting, reading fiction and poetry “like a bandit,” and paddling among the waterfalls, ponds, lakes, rivers and granite cliffs of Western Quebec and the Adirondacks.

He wrote:

markhelprin_winterstale“Please take care of yourselves (and I don’t mean that as a pseudo-parent statement.) Remember to honor yourselves. I know what it’s like to be a developer or producer. The crap can be overwhelming. And not all clients can recognize your talents.

Know that I think of all of you. (I truly mean that.) In fact, in a strange way I think that I see each of you more clearly than when I saw you every day. To be very old fashioned, I think that I see each of you as individual souls – which is very nice.”

If it sounds like I was a little bit in love with Ronn, I was, though I don’t think I realized it at the time.

There are some wonderful people in the world, aren’t there?

Do you save old letters?  Which remarkable people have you crossed paths with in your life?

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Another view, by M. Hallinan

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I met my husband here, and so I stayed. (He is a paddler, too, by the way.)

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A village near Lake of the Coheeries

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