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.

 

Mormor

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

 

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“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.

 

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

 

Sea, beach, sky

Not far from my Sicilian ancestral home

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?

 

 

This Life Is in Your Hands

ThisLifeIsInYourHands

“Food for Mama was equal to love, and, though she might withhold it when fasting, she usually meted it out to Papa and me straight from her heart. The preparing, cooking, and storing of food made up the pulse of her days. I’d wake in the mornings to the sound of Mama grinding grain. Clamped to the kitchen counter, that steel mill from Hatch’s was her magic tool, transforming inedible whole grains into vital ingredients as she stood beside it, hair pulled back, working the crank. The groats went in a funnel in the top, to be ground by opposing metal wheels attached to the crank, and depending on the setting, meal or flour streamed or puffed from the spout into a bowl.” This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

Melissa Coleman’s parents were key figures in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, disciples and neighbors of Helen and Scott Nearing, who were activists and advocates of simple living. Scott Nearing wrote the classic Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World in 1954.

Coleman’s memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands, is about her childhood years with her two younger sisters on the Maine farmland her parents, Sue and Eliot Coleman, bought from the Nearings. It’s an ode to people in love with the land and a certain way of life; it’s also an elegy for a family and a time forever lost: when Melissa was seven, tragedy struck and her family splintered.

As I read the memoir, it dawned on me that I recognized the name Eliot Coleman, and that, in fact, I have one of his books, Four-Season Harvest, which I bought when I became interested in year-round gardening. From the standpoint of American history, This Life Is in Your Hands is a fascinating look at the back-to-the-land movement. Regarded suspiciously as radical hippies by many in mainstream America, the Colemans and others like them pioneered an important movement flourishing on new fronts today.

Eliot Coleman criticized the ravages wrought by industrialized farming. He advocated small-scale, biological farming, which emphasizes high quality soil that eliminates the need for pesticides, and a return to ancient farming practices. When Melissa Coleman was a young child, Eliot went on research forays to Europe, where he observed French farmers cultivating gardens all year round. He began to import their age-old farming wisdom to America and has been influential in the organic farming movement ever since.

There is much to admire in This Life Is in Your Hands as a memoir, and there are limitations, too. Melissa Coleman’s writing is uneven, and her storytelling skills fall short in some readers eyes. But at her best she is exquisitely poetic about daily life on their plot of land.

“The cookstove was our most important possession, without which we would either starve or freeze to death. To my young imagination it looked like a black animal with four stout legs under a square body, a flat top with lids that opened to the fire, and one long tail of a chimney that curved through the wall to puff smoke outside. It had three mouths, a small one to make little fires for cooking, a bigger one for overnight fires, and the biggest of all for the oven, with white enamel around a temperature dial ranging from “cool” to “very hot” and the brand name, “Kalamazoo.” When the bread was done, Mama opened the oven door and the loaves came out golden brown and steaming, to be placed on the counter to cool.”

Of course, Melissa must also tell how this edenic existence fell apart. The lifestyle entailed constant, backbreaking work, and the Colemans did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. The children were allowed to run free on the farm, and the constant work meant they weren’t attended to closely, which contributed to a tragedy: the accidental death of Melissa’s sister.

Coleman’s portrayal of her parents, Sue and Eliot, is mostly compassionate, but confusing, to me. From the beginning it’s drummed into us that Sue didn’t have the inner confidence and drive of her husband, Eliot. We’re told he was extraordinary, while Sue is depicted as lacking, and some of this judgement seems unfair to Sue. Understandably, Melissa suffered greatly when Sue fell apart and abandoned her role as a mother after the tragedy. But for a long time their farm and family flourished thanks to Sue’s efforts, not just Eliot’s. She gardened, cooked, cleaned, preserved food, hauled water, and gave birth to two of her children at home–one of those times she was home alone.

Sue suffered from bouts of depression and postpartum depression, but she was caring for three young children while adhering to superhuman lifestyle standards and married to an impossibly driven man. At one point, before the tragedy, Eliot procured a rental car and told Sue to leave with the children, that the marriage was over. It’s not clear to me why this was warranted–Sue’s worst sin seems to be what some might call neediness–unless Melissa left information out to protect her mother. I found Eliot’s actions harsh. The situation hints at sexism and unrecognized mental illness. Despite the sexual revolution and women’s lib, there were plenty of sexist marriages in the 1960s and 1970s. Like any young mother in her situation, Sue needed more support, although as readers, we may not know the whole story.

The Nearings apparently remained somewhat aloof after the tragedy. Helen Nearing, in fact, had not been pleased when Sue became pregnant the first time, telling her she should have waited because it was unrealistic to take on both motherhood and the farm.

The author’s conclusions about the meaning and fallout from her family’s grand experiment and tragedy struck me as pat. But telling the whole, accurate truth in these fraught family stories, from the point of view of the child and then as an adult with hindsight, is difficult. Memoir has pitfalls, but I think this one is an important and intriguing story on many levels.

Eliot and his third wife, Barbara Damrosch, currently own and operate Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, on the site of the original farm Melissa wrote about in her memoir. Today, many small organic farmers are flourishing in central Maine, some owned by apprentices who worked for the Nearings and the Colemans.

“Our staple was a yeast-free flatbread called a chapati, which Mama learned to make from David Hatch, who learned in India. Mama let me help mix the flour from the grain mill with water and salt to make a pliable dough, then kneaded it to bring out the gluten and let it set for an hour before making round gold balls of dough that she flattened with a rolling pin into thin, but not too thin, pancakes. She prepared the cookstove ahead so there was a bed of red hot coals in the firebox, and heated a greaseless twelve-by-sixteen-inch cast-iron skillet to sear both sides of the chapati and trap the steam inside. The chapati was then placed on a bent clothes hanger over hot coals inside the firebox, where it would blow up into a steamy balloon. Once it was removed from the flame, the air in the middle was released and the balloon flattened to form a perfect tortilla-like vehicle, warm or cold, for whatever you chose to put on or inside it.”

Here is a short video about Helen and Scott Nearing; Eliot Coleman appears in the opening:

http://external.bangordailynews.com/projects/2014/04/goodlife/?chapter=root&utm_source=bangordailynews&utm_campaign=refer

Have you read This Life Is in Your Hands or other books about sustainable living?

 

The Shepherd’s Life

The Shepherd's Life.jpg

 

Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

“…modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.”   The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

I was so taken with James Rebanks’ recent column in The New York Times, “An English Sheep Farmer’s View of Rural America,” that I requested his memoir, “The Shepherd’s Life,” from the library.

On a recent trip to the United States to promote his book, Rebanks toured Kentucky and saw the economic devastation and dying towns in rural America, caused in part by industrial scale agriculture that has put small farms out of business. In fact, Rebanks was here the week that Trump won the election.

He and his family are sheep farmers in England’s Lake District; they lead a centuries-old way of life. Rebanks is blunt in rejecting the American model of industrialized agriculture. He believes it has wreaked havoc on families, our health, and the environment.

His memoir is a fascinating, day-by-day account of what it means to be a shepherd and adhere mostly to the old ways in a modern world. He takes us through a full year of tending to 900 sheep with his close-knit family and community.

Woven into this shepherding story is a history of Lake District shepherds and a recounting of Rebanks’ coming of age and adult life path. Determined to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and become a shepherd, Rebanks ended up taking a brief detour to attend Oxford. Then, he recommitted to sheep farming. He went from being an uneducated local boy to a college-educated adult, relatively at ease moving back and forth between these two worlds, but still firmly committed to the old ways.

His views on the tensions between these two worlds makes for provocative reading. As a young boy, his teachers preached that staying on the farm was a dead end, and urged local kids to leave and make something of themselves. As I skimmed through reviews on Goodreads, I saw that some readers didn’t care for Rebanks’ tone, which can be highly critical of the world of so-called progress and intellectuals. But he does have important points to make about the value of his nearly forgotten lifestyle and the happiness and fulfillment it can garner.

He points out that shepherds possess knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years, though they may never crack open a book.

“The great flocks of sheep are the accumulation of countless achievements at these shows and sales over many years, each year’s successes or failures layering up like chapters in an epic ancient poem. The story of these flocks is known and made in the retelling by everyone else. Men, who will tell you they are stupid and not very bright, can recall encyclopaedic amounts of information about the pedigrees of these sheep. Sheep are not just bought: they are judged, and stored away in memories, pieces of jigsaw of breeding that will come good or go bad over time. Our standing, our status, and our worth as men and women is decided to a large extent by our ability to turn out our sheep in their prime, and as great examples of the breed.”

And….

“They are sheep that show the effort several generations of shepherds have put into them. Each autumn for centuries someone has added to their quality with the addition of new tups from other noted flocks. There is a depth of good blood in them. They are big strong ewes, with lots of bone, good thick bodies, and bold white heads and legs. They return from that fell each autumn with a fine crop of lambs that are a match for most other flocks in the Lake District.”

I especially enjoyed reading The Shepherd’s Life on the heels of finishing Wendell Berry’s Our Only World, which I’ll write about next week. The two books go hand in hand, with similar themes and messages. Wendell Berry (who has been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau) has been a life-long farmer in rural Kentucky. On his visit, Rebanks saw the economic devastation there that Berry has written much about.

Here is another excerpt from The Shepherd’s Life that I like:

“I have met and talked with hundreds of farmers, stood in their fields and their homes, talked to them about how they see the world and why they do what they do. I have seen the tourism market shift over the last ten years with greater value attached to the culture of places. I see people growing sick of plastic phoniness and wanting to experience places and people that do different things, believe in different things, and eat different things. I see how bored we have grown of ourselves in the modern western world and how people can fight back and shape their futures using their history as an advantage, not an obligation. All of this has made me believe more strongly, not less, in our farming way of life and why it matters in the Lake District.”

My favorite section of The Shepherd’s Life is about the spring, when the lambs are born– hundreds of them in the space of a few weeks. The shepherds and their families must work nearly 24/7 scouting their acreage for ewes and lambs that might be in trouble due to difficult births or inclement weather. Families must be ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. It’s a matter of economic survival and an act of devotion. I was entirely caught up in the dramatic tension of these chaotic and miraculous spring days, as told by James Rebanks.

Some new “nature” words I learned:

Fell: An old English word for hill or mountain. A high, wild mountain slope or stretch of pasture.

Heft: to become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture. In The Shepherd’s Life, it refers to both the sheep and the shepherd.

If you like unusual memoirs and lyrical nature writing (although the editing of this book could have been improved), The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderful read.

Here is James Rebanks on the shepherd’s life:

 

Have you read Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life or any of Wendell Berry’s work? Or do you have a favorite memoir with a similar theme to recommend?

Tribe

Bigmanstool

Big Man’s Stool from the middle Sepic River region of Papua New Guinea. This was a wedding gift to us many years ago from my husband’s uncle, an expert on Melanesian art.

 

Tribe“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

It’s time for that to end.”

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

I was fascinated by David Brooks’ recent column in The New York Times, “The Great Affluence Fallacy,” in which he says that, back in the day, many Americans joined Native American tribes, either voluntarily or because they were captured. Often, whites who were allowed to return to their original culture chose to stay with Native Americans.

This rarely happened the other way around: Native Americans never willingly chose white society.

David Brooks read about this phenomenon in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, (Junger is the author of The Perfect Storm and War) which inspired me to read this short, well written extended essay on the plight of the lonely, autonomous individual in modern American culture.

I highly recommend Tribe if you feel that we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way in our relentless pursuit of autonomy and self-actualization, and if you feel we’re in need of a course correction. At about 130 pages, it is a quick but memorable read.

Here are a couple more quotes that spoke to me:

“A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” – Sharon Abramowitz

Family Reunion

Speaking of tribes, connection, and meaning, this summer I went to a family reunion held every three years or so by my husband’s large extended family of Irish descent. It’s always a great time, and through the years I’ve enjoyed watching four generations gather from the east and west coasts and many places in between. At the reunion we had a memorial tribute to my husband’s uncle, Peter, who recently passed away.

As a young man, Peter emigrated to Australia, started out in advertising and, beginning in the 1960s, spent three decades traveling deep into the interior of New Guinea and collecting tribal art. Eventually, Peter became one of the world’s foremost experts on Melanesian art.

Reading through Peter’s autobiographical material on display at the reunion, I found this:

“…he would spend months at a time traveling in remote areas, living amongst the people and studying their culture and traditional art….he would spend weeks traveling to small, obscure villages…No place was too far. There were trips to the most remote regions of Milne Bay, the Dampier and Vitiaz straits, off the beaten track in the Highlands, even an eleven month trip which delivered a major Kula canoe from Kitava Island to the South Australian Museum.”

Peter’s catalog descriptions make for fascinating reading. I love the vivid, succinct descriptions and the precise words. It’s almost like poetry. Here is one:

IMG_3634A Wood Mask, Kandrian Sub-District, Wosom Village, the oval white face with an hollowed mouth showing teeth and tongue, hollowed eyes, pierced ears, and the high forehead with three cylindrical shafts issuing feathers, strands of shells and pig teeth hanging from the ear lobes, painted with white, black and red pigments. Height 63 cm. (24 3/4 in.) 

This type of dance mask, called ‘Waku,’ was used in circumcision festivities.”

It strikes me that Peter’s fascination with Aboriginal art and life may have been inspired, in part, because he admired their community values and human bonds that ran deep…which is what Sebastian Junger writes about in Tribe. Peter must have resonated with their deep connection to nature, too.

So much knowledge and wisdom can be lost with the passing of intrepid individuals such as Peter. Fortunately, much of his knowledge and many of his experiences have been preserved in books and photographs, which we were able to see at the family reunion. As time goes on, the grandchildren and great grandchildren will be left with some sense of Peter’s remarkable life.

For him, no place was too far.

 

TribeWelcome.jpeg

One of the old photos Peter left behind. I have no way of knowing what tribe this is or which village. Can you imagine pulling up in your canoe at some remote river location and receiving such a warm welcome? Or, maybe it was posed…either way, everyone looks happy.

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Snake.jpeg

Dance 1

IMG_3636

Art by Sammy Clarmon of the Lockhard River Art Gang, in Gatherings II: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art from Queensland, Australia. This is one of the Keeaira Press books designed by Great Uncle Peter. These esoteric, small press books about tribal culture are invaluable; they preserve glimpses of a past way of life and a unique body of wisdom for future generations.

Are there fascinating figures in your family history? Do you agree with Sebastian Junger that modern society makes people feel unnecessary?

 

 

 

Off the Beaten Path: De Potter’s Grand Tour

 

De Potter's Grand Tour

“She is fascinated but not dismayed to discover that she has forgotten so much.

Is she really the same woman who celebrated Easter 1889 in Athens and walked up to the Acropolis with her husband?

Who spent a ‘most interesting day viewing the cisterns of Carthage’ with Victor and Armand in 1896?

Who once wrote on her anniversary in 1900, in an apartment on 97 rue de la Pompe in Paris, ‘In afternoon we went to Exp. and up the Trocadéro tower, then to Élysée Palace Hotel, saw King Leopold come in. In evening at dinner we ordered St. Honoré and champagne. M. Guerrier got up and improvised a poem and there was much gaiety and good humor. Armand gave me a gold watch charm’?”  De Potter’s Grand Tour,  Joanna Scott

This much, we know: In 1905, Joanna Scott’s great grandfather disappeared while on board a ship off the coast of Greece. A collector of ancient Egyptian art (some of it is at the Brooklyn Museum) and a world tour guide, he was at his wit’s end, hounded by creditors and litigators.

The question is: Did he commit suicide? Was he pushed overboard? Or, did he fake his own death and assume a new identity, leaving behind his beloved wife, Aimée, and his son?

How would you like to inherit that family mystery?

Joanna Scott did, in the form of Armand’s letters, postcards, photos, and documents, and the multi-volume journal of his wife, Aimée. This treasure trove had been sitting in a steamer trunk in Scott’s mother’s storage unit for years, until one day they unearthed it while searching for a diploma.

Intrigued, Scott threw herself into research and began writing a nonfiction account of Armand de Potter’s life. Ultimately, that proved too confining: Scott discovered that the mysterious and elusive Armand wasn’t who he said he was, and no one knew, not even his wife. So Scott switched to fiction, which gave her more freedom to suppose and imagine.

I read this novel ages ago and never got around to posting about it, but the book has stayed with me all this time. It’s not for everyone–Joanna Scott is a celebrated writer, but this particular novel didn’t garner the best of reviews.

 

To Travel.jpeg

A photo of Armand de Potter, the author’s great grandfather, walking away from the camera. He was, indeed, a mysterious figure.

 

I, on the other hand, loved it. I loved the larger-than-life way Armand and Aimée lived traveling all over the world leading their educational tours. Armand was an autodidact who pretended to be descended from Belgian royalty and more educated than he was. Nonetheless, as Scott portrays him, he was a scholar and a lover of the world with a passion for sharing that love with the people who signed up for his tours.

“To travel is to live,” Armand de Potter wrote in one of the documents Scott found in the steamer trunk.

His tour company went to these places: Algeria, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Gibralter, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, Romania, Scotland, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, various locations in the US, and Yemen.

Some time in the late 1800s, Armand also wrote this prescient and hopeful passage: “The incalculable benefits of foreign travel can only be half told by our children….They will be appreciated by their sons and daughters, at a time when travel will have made the world very small and the human race what it is destined to be–one great fraternity.”

If you’re an armchair traveler, if you love history, and if you want an unusual story, I think you might like De Potter’s Grand Tour.

I enjoy Joanna Scott’s novels a great deal. One of my all-time favorites is Liberation, which takes place in Sicily, one of my favorite places in the world, during World War II. Scott is a much loved Professor of English here at the University of Rochester.

Speaking of family history, I’m off to a family reunion next week, where we’ll be reading a book loosely connected with a couple of the more colorful family members. I’ll tell you about it when I return.

I’ll leave you with what Armand de Potter had to say about good books (I would also add “women” of course):

“In the most beautiful books, great men speak with us, they give their most precious thoughts, and pour their soul into ours. Let us thank God for the creation of books. They are the voices of those that are far and of those that are dead; they make us heirs of the intellectual life of the past ages. Books furnish to all those who will use them with sincerity the society, the spiritual presences of the best and the greatest men.”

 

 

 

When Memoir and History Collide

67 Shots

“…Kent State on that early afternoon of May 4 is where all the raging waters of the 1960s, bad and good, evil and sublime, flowed together for one brief, horrible moment.”

“…the Guardsmen turned back toward the parking lot, went down on one knee or crouched, and raised their M1s to their shoulders.”     –     Howard Means, 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence

Excavating a Life

May 4, 2016 is the 46th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State in Ohio, where four students were killed and nine injured by the National Guard during campus protests of US involvement in the Vietnam War.

I was fifteen at the time and lived about 40 minutes away from the Kent State campus. That tragic day has a part to play in the memoir I’m writing, but at first I didn’t realize it. In early memoir drafts, I mentioned May 4 only briefly. In my view it was someone else’s story, and I was having a hard time remembering how I felt about this tragedy that happened so long ago. 

But the more I wrote, the more Kent State haunted me. I began to realize May 4 had been a turning point in my political consciousness. It’s probably more accurate to say that Kent State was the birth of my political consciousness. 

I began to think about the role of the tumultuous 1960s in the life of my family. I had two younger brothers, and I didn’t realize back then how much my father worried about them being drafted. Years later, he told me he’d happily have given them some cash and urged them off to Canada. A World War II veteran with a Purple Heart and an active member of AMVETS, my dad kept his anti-war opinions to himself because he’d have been viewed as unpatriotic by most of his friends.

My father was badly wounded during World War II, and in retrospect I think he may have had a form of PTSD. In the days after May 4, it was common to hear angry locals say the National Guard should have shot all of the student protesters. I don’t recall talking with my father about Kent, but he must have been horrified by the military takeover of the campus and the fact that students had been killed.

As for me, up until May 4, 1970, I’d been just an interested onlooker while the 1960s played out on the nightly news. I had my hands full maneuvering my teen years with a mentally ill mother, and I hadn’t given much thought to social causes. But suddenly the older brothers and sisters of my friends were hitchhiking home, refugees from Kent State, Ohio State, and other local colleges that had been shut down amid protests, tear gassing, and riots. I recall plenty of arguing about who did what to whom and who was at fault.

To me, it seemed clear: the National Guard had bullets, and the students didn’t.

For decades, people have been trying to piece together the sequence of events that led to the Kent State tragedy on May 4, with only partial success. No one directly or indirectly involved has the big picture, and it’s unlikely anyone ever will. My Spanish teacher took a leave for a couple of months to serve on the federal grand jury that investigated the shootings. Later, she told us that she remained baffled. No one admitted to giving the order to fire on the students, and no one was held accountable.

67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence by Howard Means was published in April, and I bought the book as soon as it was available. It’s a fascinating read that has given me a much clearer picture of the fraught atmosphere in my part of the world and in the nation in 1970. This historical context will be invaluable as I continue to work on my memoir.

I think Means has done a good job of even-handedly summarizing what is known about May 4, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath. His book is a page-turner, packed with many first-person accounts from all sides: student onlookers, student protesters, Guardsmen, Kent faculty and administration, and many others.

Now I understand that there was no focused planning by the students protesting the war in the days before May 4 and on that fateful afternoon. In fact, the hard-core protesters were only a small group among many thousands of students who were curious onlookers or simply passing by on their way to class. Nor did the Kent State administration, the office of Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, or the National Guard have a rational plan for diffusing the situation.

Instead, as Means clearly depicts, there was only monumental incompetence and mismanagement on the part of just about everyone.

Ultimately, Means takes the view that the students had a right to peacefully assemble and protest, and this right was violated by a vast over-reaction that turned deadly when the military became involved.

Means makes clear that the students weren’t blameless. A small group of them burned down the ROTC building on the Friday evening before the Monday shootings, and a crowd of drunk students vandalized businesses in downtown Kent, badly frightening the residents. (ROTC buildings on many a campus across the nation were destroyed.) Just before the shootings, the hard-core war protesters were throwing rocks and bricks at the Guardsmen. But Means says that videotapes show these students weren’t close enough to the Guardsmen to seriously hurt them, and in the end only one Guardsman was taken to the hospital, for hyperventilation.

Here are a few excerpts that I found enlightening but disturbing. I hadn’t realized the depth of the hostility between Kent State and the larger community back then:

“’The town hated the students, and the town hated the faculty,’ recalled Lew Fried, who joined the English faculty in the fall of 1969 and would remain at Kent State for the rest of his career. ‘This was a very conservative, right-wing-to-reactionary town. I was told that after the shootings, when students were being forced to leave campus, the majority of the town, which had grown fat on student-generated income, refused to sell them food, refused to sell them gas.'”

And this:

“Janice Marie Wascko was sitting with her roommates on the front lawn of their house in downtown Kent that evening when a patrolling police cruiser noticed antiwar slogans chalked on the sidewalk and a low retaining wall. The cruiser, she said, had no license plates. Badge numbers were taped over. ‘They had a sawed-off shotgun and pulled it on us. And they got out of the cruiser and stood there, pulled the guns on us, and said, ‘Wipe it up, scum,’ and made us get down on our hands and knees and wipe it off, the slogans off the wall and the sidewalk. [They were] saying, ‘We should have killed you all,’ and laughing at us. A short time later…they caught somebody down by what is Pufferbelly’s [restaurant] now and beat the crap out of him against a wall.’”

I’ve been selective in the excerpts I’ve included, based on my own stance and bias. I want to emphasize that Means provides a more balanced, nuanced view in 67 Shots.

Here are additional points from the book that I found noteworthy:

  • Over 1300 National Guardsmen, 17 helicopters, and 250 half tracks, full tracks and armored personnel carriers, including three mortar launchers, were sent to the Kent State campus. On Saturday and Sunday before the shootings, helicopters hovered 24/7 over the campus and town, lighting the sky with searchlights throughout the night. This greatly fueled paranoia, suspicion, and fear among the students and townspeople.
  • After initial media stories mistakenly reported that National Guard soldiers had been killed, some residents of Kent were armed and ready in the streets and on rooftops for the hordes of students they feared were about to raid their town. Rumors circulated that student radicals had poisoned the water supply with LSD.
  • The vast majority of Kent State students were interested onlookers, not war protestors, but some became instantly radicalized by the overwhelming military presence. Most students and faculty assumed that the National Guardsmen’s M1 rifles were not loaded. Many of the Guardsmen were young, inexperienced, and poorly led – local boys who were the same age as the students.
  • President Nixon was frustrated when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his COINTELPRO program of spying on war protestors, black activists, and women’s rights and lesbian/gay groups found no evidence of communist involvement in the protests at Kent and other universities. Some historians believe Kent State was the beginning of Nixon’s downfall – his obsession with spying eventually ended in the Watergate scandal.
  • Some say Kent State helped stopped the Vietnam War. Others believe the military response had a chilling effect on protests; in the 1970s social movements died out and people turned inward.

There’s lots more I could say about 67 Shots and its impact on my own story. I also worry about how ripe we are here in the US again for protests to become violent. But for now, I’ll leave you with this:

My dad often told stories about World War II, which I now realize he censored quite heavily. One day when our sons, Andrew and Matt, were just old enough to appreciate that their grandfather had once been a young man with interesting experiences, we’d been talking about the war in Iraq. My father reminisced about being drafted in World War II and boarding the train with his cousin, bound for basic training, and how the extended family saw them off. He talked about the Battle of Metz, where he was wounded and many were killed.

“I think about the war every single day of my life.” Turning to Andrew and Matt, my father said, “War is a terrible thing. Just because someone tells you to do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

The song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young captures the tenor of the times. There is a video with Kent State photos and an “Ohio” soundtrack uploaded by Mars Daniels on YouTube you might want to check out. Daniels claims fair use, but I have my doubts about copyright legality, so I’m not linking to it directly.

Note: Ten days after the Kent State shootings, two African American students were killed and many were wounded by police and state troopers at Jackson State College in Mississippi. The students were protesting racial intimidation as well as the killings at Kent State. The tragedy at Jackson State received little media coverage, whereas the deaths of white students at Kent was all over the news.

If you lived through the 1960s, are there events that resonate for you on a personal level? If you’re younger, do your parents have memories of that time that they find especially meaningful? If you write memoir, have you used historical sources to shed light on your own formative experiences?

 

 

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