“During the Great Depression, the federal government created new agricultural settlements in a number of states, including Alaska. Farmers who had run out of other options applied for the chance to start over in one of these government-sponsored colonies. In 1935, over two hundred families were accepted for the Matanuska Colony.”
“She might as well have said, you know you’re going to make an offer. How can you not?A unique house. Acreage for your horse. Exquisite views. A ready-made vegetable garden. A separate plot for potatoes and a raspberry patch in a swale north of the house. Chuck and I glanced at each other with a look that said ‘this is it.’ We didn’t consider there might have been reasons that the place hadn’t sold during a year on the market…
In May 1983 we moved into the house that had been built forty-eight years earlier for the Matanuska Colony. Chuck was returning to the community where he’d grown up. I was yet another person in a long procession of migrants to Alaska.” – Katie Eberhart,Cabin 135: A Memoir of Alaska
Annie Dillard advises writers to “give voice to your own astonishment.” Katie Eberhart does just that in her memoir of Alaska, Cabin 135.
Katie was in the final stages of revising her memoir and negotiating a publishing contract with the University of Alaska Press. Cabin 135 was published in December, 2020, part of the Alaska Literary Series. It was gratifying to watch Katie find a publishing home with editors who understood her vision and wanted her book to be part of their distinguished series. A few months ago, I listened to Peggy Shumaker, editor of the series, interview Katie at a virtual reading hosted by Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska. Their rich discussion captured the expansive nature of Katie’s story.
I’ve read Katie’s memoir twice and, with a third reading, I’m sure I’ll continue to glean new meanings and insights. This is a book I can’t fully grasp on a first reading; Katie has a singular, uncommon sensibility, and she explores her fascinations in a nontraditional narrative. Instead of a linear story, you will find in Cabin 135 a text divided into thematic sections such as Time, Cabin, Earth, Terrain, Greenhouse, Migration, Sky, Denali, and Archaeology.
Done well, as in Katie’s memoir, this type of narrative has momentum and captures the cumulative, unsentimental emotional power of a life thoughtfully lived. I suppose my reaction is partly personal: Katie and I are about the same age, we raised two sons at about the same time, we have in our histories relationships with older, complicated, quirky houses, and we value nature and place – although for Katie, these passions arose earlier in life, and have been more intentionally explored.
In Cabin 135, you won’t see much of Katie’s husband or sons and their daily lives. But her family is there in the background; I heard the echo of little pajama’d feet bounding down the cabin’s stairs, which reminded me of domestic scenes with our own boys.
Instead of the dramas of family life, Katie focuses on time, history, imagination, geography and memory – on what we remember and why we remember it. Her story is centered largely on the parcel of Alaska frontier she called home for thirty years, and on her travels, as well. An idea I’ve encountered often in my recent study of eco-psychology is that we are moved by a place – its landscape, flora, and fauna – because it mirrors the landscape of our souls. Katie captures something of this reciprocity in her memoir.
I’m intrigued with Katie’s writing process and how much can be communicated by juxtaposing seemingly disparate ideas. Her narrative pulls me along: where will she go next, I wonder, and what connections will she make? I think, as a reader, if you are receptive to this kind of reading adventure, you will quickly become comfortable and fully committed to going along for the ride.
In the memoir’s epilogue, Katie writes about her process:
“I write interactively, one revision after another. Each version exists, however briefly, as a quasi-meditation…
Writing provided a framework to explore place as both a literary construct and abstraction….The overlap between multitudinous narratives plus motivations, lucky breaks, and weird confluences proved fascinating, but the stories in this book represent only one possible route across a dimensional terrain that’s spatial, biological, societal, temporal, and laced with ideas – and where a small log-built house occupies a certain plot of land. As is the case with any memoir, much has been left out – omitted, ignored, or forgotten.”
A couple of ideas I want to highlight here: that each draft is a kind of quasi-meditation. I have never thought of the writing process in this way, but Katie’s insight helps me better appreciate the richness of our quirky, individual writing paths; our creative instincts, given free reign, possess a kind of logic and aesthetic sense that may surprise us.
And, secondly, across your own life span, which dramas, scenes, and moments stand out? We choose from an infinite number of moments to tell our stories. And yet we each have within us a multitude of stories.
“I wonder about the future of Cabin 135 and its surroundings. I imagine the house and the well. Or perhaps the town will overtake the house, and there will be city water, not a well. In a hundred years, the raspberry patch will be something else. Or the raspberry patch will still be a raspberry patch, but the raspberries will be different. I hope the startling flavor of the raspberries never changes.
Each summer, no matter where I am, when I bite into the first raspberry, memories flood my mind of city gardens and country gardens – my mother’s garden, my grandfather’s, and mine, but also generations of gardens. Indeed, even centuries of gardens. Gardens that no one remembers, well-tended or gone wild, and that hint at what comes next.”
Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer’s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful. – Barry Lopez
About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez
Here is my third and final reposting of my Barry Lopez Books Can Save a Life writings, in honor of his passing on December 25, 2020:
She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.
She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.
Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”
Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.
Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out – artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.
I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.” An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln. Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.
Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.
Over and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.
Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,” in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.
I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?
If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our best interests to see that no one among us is silenced.
So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.
“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”
Last year I encountered two new-to-me writers who bowled me over.
I would say that one of them, Margaret Renkl, is a kindred spirit; she cares deeply about family, the natural world, and the fate of our earth. I never fail to read her opinion pieces in The New York Times.
I’d like to press her memoir into the hands of every reader I know. Late Migrations is a meditation in short, interlocking essays about family, love, loss and backyard nature, destined to become a classic.
It won the 2020 Reed Environmental Writing Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and was named a 2020 Notable Book by the American Library Association.
You couldn’t find a better book at a time like this. It’s written in short, exquisite essays of a page or two, so you can read it in small bits if you’d like.
There is grief – for lost family and a wounded natural world – but mostly her writing is a celebration of the natural cycles of life and death, and the wildlife accessible outside our windows and in our backyards.
In lieu of saying more, here is a 9-minute video trailer featuring Renkl, who calls her memoir “a love letter to my family and to the natural world.” The video is like a mini-retreat. Enjoy!
Have you read Late Migrations? Or another memoir about family and nature that is comparable?
Next on Books Can Save a Life: The other writer who bowled me over – just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read.
That’s what I did this weekend in this quirky little town we moved to the year before last. I indulged in bookish revelry with other like-minded book-lovers, in the first ever book festival to be held in Sisters, Oregon, thanks to hard-working volunteers, generous sponsors, and Paulina Springs Books.
Outside, the weather was bone-chilling and windy, with rain bordering on sleet. Inside, there were stacks of brand new books to choose from, a bake sale, writers reading aloud their latest work, and meandering lines where you could get your book autographed and have a long chat with the author.
Over forty writers came to Sisters, representing a mix of genres: historical fiction, romance, mystery, nature, memoir, literary fiction and nonfiction, poetry, food writing, children’s and young adult literature, and more.
Housed in the local middle school and at Paulina Springs Books, the festival was special because the venues were intimate and the writers so entirely approachable.
Here are three writers and a sampling of memoir, history, and poetry:
Gwartney held us spellbound reading a passage about the day 20-year-old Debra shopped for a wedding dress (for a marriage that sounded doomed), and the November, 1847 day the Cayuse tribes killed missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, her husband, and eleven others.
You might wonder what the Whitman massacre and Debra’s wedding plans have in common. Gwartney reflected on how she had always been fascinated by Narcissa Whitman; somehow, this historical figure spoke to Debra’s own identity, and those of her mother and grandmother and other female relatives, who had long lived in the West. It took seven years of research and draft writing for Debra to discover the connective tissue between her own life and Narcissa’s, resulting in this fine book that combines memoir with an important part of American Western history.
I appreciated Debra’s honesty about her extended writing process and how patient she was in letting her story incubate. I Am A Stranger Here Myselfis especially timely in light of how our culture is re-examining racism, indigenous culture, sexism, and the role of women in America.
Here is an excerpt:
“Something about Narcissa Whitman drew me in when I saw the book on my grandmother’s shelf this time. She was the first Caucasian woman (so say the history books) to cross the Rocky Mountains, the first white woman to give birth to a white baby on the frontier (same history books). A missionary killed by the people she aimed to convert – her death, some say, changing the course of the settling of the West….
….She was shaping up to be my ideal nemesis in the way she believed the land was hers to take, in her insistence that she alone held the one and only path to God. Putting an end to an entire culture was justified in Narcissa’s mind as long as it was done in the name of Progress and Providence. I would let myself despise her for that squirt of narrow-mindedness and her proclivity to judge, even while managing to ignore my own such propensities. So what if she was trapped in others’ expectations – her mother’s, and later her husband’s, and also her time’s and her church’s? I wouldn’t forgive her for building a good part of her cage.” – I Am a Stranger Here Myself, by Debra Gwartney
The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies,by Megan Griswold
“And now it’s after one a.m. and I get a phone call from Tim. He tells me he is in jail.
….I have just picked him up….We had started driving south on I-5 to get his car. After he’d directed me to keep driving past the route home, I’d asked, ‘I thought it all happened right before our turnoff. Why are we heading way down here?’
Megan’s life life was never the same after the unfolding of a personal debacle in her marriage. To cope, Megan, a true New Age child of the West Coast, experimented with and/or recalled her history with these and other remedies:
EST Children’s Training
Camping with the Chilean Military
International Wilderness Training Course
Classical Five Element Licentiate (Acupuncture School)
Vipassana Meditation Retreat (I’ve done this!)
A Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)
Drinking Hoasca with the União do Vegetal
Megan’s voice in The Book of Help is comic, over-the-top, vulnerable, and honest. She doesn’t hold back, at all. I think you’ll either love her writing, or you’ll put the book down after the first chapter or two – she’s not for everyone.
I stuck it out and became quite taken by her story.
The following excerpt is near the memoir’s conclusion. Megan’s mother is losing her memory and approaching the end of her life; Megan is calmer, more mature, and has attained a measure of peace. I love this particular passage because it evokes a favorite Mary Oliver poem:
“I close each night by reading Mary Oliver. Mom’s favorite poet. Because of her memory, she won’t remember that I read “Wild Geese” last night or the night before that or the night before that. But I have. And I will read this poem again tomorrow. We will read of the geese and their skyward return. Of all the landscapes we must move through to reach home.
I board the plane. As it takes off, we lift out of Seattle’s gray cloud bank and hover far above the city’s clouds, now flooded in sunshine. I can’t really explain it, but amid the sunshine, I feel somehow turned toward life in a way I don’t remember ever feeling. None of what happened here is good news, but I feel touched by the fleeting nature of what I hold dear. I just want to eat up everything I can while I am still here. I want to eat big meals, run long distances, and have a really good laugh. I act on the urge to ring up people I haven’t spoken to in ages. Life is calling to me stronger than ever. Like wild geese.”
Wild Honey, Tough Salt, by Kim Stafford
Oregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford, knows how to gather kindred spirits together to celebrate poetry and life, and he has a devoted following in Sisters.
Kim read to us from his new collection, Wild Honey, Tough Salt. I found “Citizen of Dark Times,” especially resonant given all that has been in the news lately. (Garrison Keillor read this poem on The Writer’s Almanac recently – follow the link in my previous sentence and scroll to the second half of the recording.)
Given these dark times, we can “live as if in the early days of a better nation,” Stafford advised.
He suggested we write about daily happenings. Stafford’s writing practice makes him more optimistic, because “something is growing.” A writing practice is restorative, he says. “The spirit of what you want will come to you.”
Write a draft with promise. Then, your second genius will come as you revise.
A few days after the Sisters Festival of Books, this brand new poem appeared on Kim’s Facebook page:
Sisters Book Festival
Writer, rise from your writing desk,
and step forth from your solitary cell.
Reader, rise from your reading chair,
to throng in grand reunion.
It’s really a festival of shining eyes,
a story fire we gather round.
It’s a voice as pure as a mountain spring,
a stanza landmark we reckon by.
How is this magic done? Page by page,
we season summer into fall, and
word by word we bud
winter into spring.
Books winnow trouble into truth,
and distill sorrow into song. So come,
friends, and be a village lost
in bookish revelry.
I think the Sisters Festival of Books has made a fine beginning.
Here are some images from a central Oregon autumn:
In May, after researching my mother’s family ancestry in Sweden, I went to Sicily with my husband for a family wedding, to ancient Carini where my father was born.
Sweden and the gracious Swedes were new to me. Going to Carini was like coming home.
One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made was to travel to Sicily with our boys to reconnect with my father’s family in Carini. Over the years, we went back when we could – a couple of times with my father, and once with extended family. We watched my cousin Giuseppe grow up, along with several of his cousins.
Last spring we were thrilled to receive Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding invitation in the mail. Since the wedding was to be shortly after my Sweden trip, I decided to make it an extended journey.
Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding reception was within view of Segesta, built around 420 BC and one of the best preserved Doric temple in all of Europe. Overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare, the temple is a mystery, because it appears to have been abandoned before it was completed. And although the Greeks claim it was built by an Athenian architect, during that time period the area was likely inhabited by people indigenous to Sicily, and not the Greeks, though they were elsewhere on the island.
(Some scholars believe that parts of the epic Greek poem the Odyssey are set in Sicily – that Odysseus encountered Cyclops off the eastern coast, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina.)
At any rate, I was thrilled to see the temple of Segesta once again; our first time in Sicily, in 2001, Giuseppe’s family took us there on a sightseeing trip. At the reception, the sun setting behind the illuminated temple gave an air of timelessness to the festivities. I could imagine the spirits of the ancients looking down on us as we celebrated with Giuseppe and Eloisa, and their friends and families.
This is what I read when I was in Sicily:
Our airbnb was in the old city of Carini. It had a small, shuttered balcony that opened to the noisy, busy, colorful street, almost like another room. We made friends with the neighbors across the strada and chatted with them from our balcony in the evening. Here, a mamma and her figlio, with the neighborhood dogs chiming in:
We’ve been lucky to have been able to travel to see extended family and our ancestral lands. I feel as though I have a second home far away and a fuller, more complete identity, anchored in a specific time and place in history. I hope we’ve given that to our sons, too, and that the younger generations – in Italy and Sweden – will someday come to visit their cousins in America.
“Take a moment and look at your life from the perspective of being an ancestor. You are with those who came before you and those yet to be born looking back at your descendants as they live their lives moving forward in time. Imagine that you can see your entire lineage from the first born to the last in your line. Imagine yourself as an ancestor, one of the thousands whose love expresses itself and is embodied now in your descendants. Who we are at this moment in time is a result of the countless generations that have come before and a response to the generations that will follow….. – Sandra Easter,Jung and the Ancestors
“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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!”
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.
“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
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.
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 is being asked from us in the present in relationship to the past and unfolding future?” – Sandra Easter in Jung, etc…
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.
“….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.
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.
“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.)
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?
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 knowledgeable 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.
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.
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.”
This is where Louise took us:
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.
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.
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.
More family history discoveries to come on my next post, about Morfar (Grandpa).
What I was reading, etc, etc:
I read The Royal Physician’s Visitby 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.”
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.
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
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
Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:
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.
“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.”
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.