Min Otroliga Svenska Resa: Flätade Berättelser

AKA My Incredible Swedish Journey: Braided Stories

Portion of the prized, hand-crafted family tree I received upon my departure from Allt för Sverige

Flat on my monitor appear the births and deaths and naturalization papers and census lists and offspring of relatives who now live only as statistical data, empty of joy as the genealogies in the Old Testament. I’ve spent two hours this morning clicking on the names of ancestors imported into my virtual family tree.

Of all the individuals I have matched and posted today, none tells me of sinners or saints. None hitches me to the stardust they have become. None reveals the soul, the couplings and hard labor, the loves and losses, the sleepless nights, dreams of softness , the sweet tooth, the reasons for staying or leaving, the words that couldn’t be said, the unintended harm, the hunger for just one decent meal before spring.

Vasterplana church cemetery, Alfred and Britta’s tombstone (my farmor’s farfar and farmor)

I keep waiting for their voices. Silence gestures with a blithe shrug that my guesses are as good as anyone’s. I put Alfred and Britta in a scene. Imagine the night after their son, with a bad case of America Fever, has departed. What words make it out of their mouths as they lie in the dark with his absence. Unsettled hands reach toward each other. Hard coughing masks Alfred’s pain. Squeezed eyes stunt Britta’s prophecies. She cowers under Alfred’s shoulder. They’ve failed the boy. He’ll be taken by work or war or evils. She’ll never see him again. She knows it in her bones.

the casket of Alfred and Britta’s son, killed in quarry accident at age 38 in Minnesota

Trust what you know, Silence prods me. Write beyond the names and places, times and seasons, distances and seas. The soul stuff is in the next breath you take. Find the center and write from there.

Another name lifts from the branches. Can I find my way into Caroline’s skin? What was it — when was it — that she finally knew she had to escape the life that had nabbed her, held her in its clutches — the births, the husband, the drinking, the damage. Did she hack at the branch of her family tree and rip herself from it without care to the size of the scar? Had she dreamed it first, in the middle of the night when Nils lay in a stupor beside her? When she had put the children to bed with whispers of turnip on their breath? Had she asked her father for just one more bushel to last the winter? “Don’t tell the others,” she might have begged. Was her father reckless with her wish or had her mother intervened or had the church taken charge?

How did it happen that the fare for passage across the sea had been collected somehow and not only for her, but for her three children? What drove the charity? Had Nils undone his reputation beyond the walls of his own kitchen, his own bed? Had Caroline been counseled? Encouraged to punish a no-good man and save her children? As the anchor lifted for America, what of herself did she leave behind?

I conjure the couple who lived through summers of light, celebrations of harvest, the deep winter. Dare I crush the story, its hushed gaps and passions, with the mortar and pestle of my imagination and bring the aromas, the stench to life?

Swedish birth record of Eva, my mother’s mother

More than a century after my great-grandparents’ rash parting, I wrestle with the mystery, carrying the twists of inheritance, the genetics of desire, as potent in my path as theirs.

What happened before Caroline’s escape, the risk of an ocean voyage, the new land, the new name, the new man. And the early grave. Caroline, my great-grandmother, was buried at 38 in a place called Wisconsin, a dead infant at her side. And what of Nils, who never remarried, who outlived his bride by decades but whose children never saw him again?

What does one set of losses weigh balanced against another? I must ask them, the Caroline and Nils that swell in my gut, inhabit my sighs, mirror my escapes and my failings. It’s time to reach across time and raise the dead in me.

published Oct 3, 1916 in the Kenosha evening newspaper

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