The Forest House
I just finished reading The Forest House, Joelle Fraser’s memoir about divorce and living alone in a remote village in northern California’s Diamond Mountains.
Like me, Joelle is of Swedish descent. She writes of her great-grandmother, Emma, who had to leave her six daughters with foster families and neighbors in Sweden when she emigrated to America in 1919 after a family tragedy. Emma saved the money to send for her children and was eventually reunited with five of them.
Joelle has a hard time after her divorce, especially living only part-time with her young son, and scraping by on a tiny income. She wonders what her great-grandmother might teach her about weathering nearly unbearable troubles. Joelle wants to tap in to “the knowledge of our ancestors that still exists within us…It’s the instinctive way we respond to a sudden change in fortune, or to the many variations of loss.”
She quotes Wendell Berry, who writes of “the profound and mysterious knowledge that is inherited, handed down in memories and names and gestures and feelings, and in tones and inflections of voice.”
This reminds me of Lone Frank’s book, My Beautiful Genome, and her fascination with the genetic “coding” we inherit from our ancestors.
We’re getting ready for an extended family reunion, so I’ve been thinking about ancestry as I look forward to seeing several generations of my husband’s family. To celebrate and explore their Irish heritage, we’re going to be reading Colum McCann’s new novel, Transatlantic. More about that in my next post.
Family letters from Sweden
In the meantime, here are excerpts from letters sent to my grandmother from Sweden. Recently, my cousin and I had a few of them translated.
July 31, 1938
Dear Hulda and Family,
I would like to tell you all that Dad is gone from us forever. I have a heavy heart and am tired…his heart was in poor shape, so he died of a heart attack. He went so fast. We should all be prepared every hour that the Lord may wish to call us from here.
Dad was so good; we hope he is resting in the arms of the Savior. He went with me both to the Church and partook of the Communion. We hope that the good Lord’s mercy is so encompassing that he will accept all of us as his children.
We have our health. They have started to harvest rye so I am sitting here alone, writing….
Warm greetings from all of us to all of you from,
Skrea, February 19, 1969
Dear Sister Hulda,
Oskar is so well now that he could leave [the hospital] and he is riding around on his bicycle during the day. He is well off since he has a pension of more than 500 Crowns a month and has electric light and heating; the temperature is always 20 degrees C inside since heating is automatic…..
Annie is quick as she has always been. I…remember when she was going to school in Bölse and had a blue velvet cap which I thought was so beautiful. Hulda, maybe you also had that velvet hat…..
The kindest regards,
Stockholm, November 5, 1971
Dear Sister Hulda,
We sisters are wondering how you are doing following Ivar’s death…..
Considering the circumstances, Oskar is doing pretty well; you may know that his left leg was amputated last spring; he had a gangrene in it, so that was the only solution. He walks, takes strolls with the help of two goats…
You will probably celebrate Christmas at one of your children’s. We shall be with Inez, Bengt, and their four children on Christmas Eve. Gunilla, Lars and little Karin live in Luleå, but they are coming here during the Christmas holiday…
Signa and Carl
Dikesgård, December 1
Thank you for the letter and the Christmas greetings. How are you there so far away? Everyone asks Oskar if you are well and hale.
Here in Sweden it is raining only and the wind is blowing, but perhaps by Christmas it will be crisper….
I have my one leg, so I got an artificial one so I can walk a bit and I can drive a small car. I can no longer bike, it is hard, one has to do what one can. Soon it will be Christmas again; time goes by so quickly. I go home and sit in [illegible] to pass the time. I can read whatever I can put my hands on and pass the time.
With kind greetings and wishing you merry Christmas.
MEMOIRS WITH ANCESTRY MOTIFS
The Forest House, by Joelle Fraser
My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank
Ava’s Man, by Rick Bragg
The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father, by Mary Gordon
If you can add to this list, please do so in the comments. And if you’ve read one of these books, let us know what you think about it.