Saturday, October 10, 2009

On why I’m going to Minnesota

When I was about six or seven years old (or something – I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but I do know it was before I spoke any English), we were visiting my grandparents at Toten. This one summer morning (probably sunny, and we’d had strawberries for breakfast – or at least this is how most of my memories of Toten seem to go. It is one of the loveliest places on Earth, I can assure you) the phone rang. It was my grandparents’ neighbours (and relatives – but then again, most of the neighbours are relatives) wondering if we wanted a visit from some Americans.

These neighbours/relatives are the owners of the farm my grandmother grew up on (she was the youngest of twelve, while the owners of the farm were descendants of her second to oldest brother. Traditionally the oldest son inherited the farm, but in this case the oldest died unmarried). While my grandmother’s nephew still maintains the farm in full capacity, he and his wife have also for quite some time made a considerable part of their living as hosts for American tourists coming to Norway to “find their roots”. It’s a popular activity – going out to the beautiful countryside, spending the day at a farm, being served traditional Norwegian food in this lovely rural setting. On this occasion, however, a couple of the tourists had a very specific reason to come to this particular part of the country.

Darlene and her mother, Avis, had come to Toten all the way from Minnesota. They were trying to locate the relatives of Avis’ mother, who emigrated from Norway in the early 20th century, along with about 750 000 other Norwegians who left to seek “the promised land” in the west. Avis’ mother never went back to Norway, but it had always been a dream of Avis’ to see her mother’s native country. She had not previously been able to go herself, but her son, John, had been there some twenty years earlier while he was in the US army. When he was sent to Germany – I’m guessing this must have been some time in the late 1960s or the 1970s – he was instructed by his mother that if there was one thing he absolutely must do while in Europe, it was to go to Norway to visit relatives.

Dutifully, John and a friend left Germany on one of their leaves and went to Norway. I tried asking my mother who told me the story how they got there, but she could not remember. Last time she told the story I could have sworn she mentioned a rusty old car they had bought somewhere, which only lasted the exact time it took them to travel from Germany to Toten. However, this seems to be either a result of my overactive imagination or her overactive exaggerations. Either way, they got to Toten, with the single purpose of finding relatives. I might have given the impression that all the people there are related. It’s not entirely far from the truth, but it isn’t exactly correct either (exaggerations run in the family). After some detours, however, they eventually met my grandparents.

Let me tell you about my grandmother. She was such a special person. Not only was she the warmest, most caring and friendly person there ever was, she also was the family humorist, the quirky one (one of the first times my mother took my father home to meet her parents, my grandmother managed to lure her son-in-law-to-be into a trap that earned him a gallon of water down his pants. Did I mention she had an evil side?). It pains me to this day that I was only ten when she died, and that we got such a short time together.

Long story short(er), my grandmother took the two boys around the area. She even went with them as their “interpreter”, even though she had never learnt a word English in her life. My ability to speak body language (which I refined while living in Japan), surely comes from her.

When they finally went to Norway decades later, Darlene and Avis were trying to retrace John’s footsteps. Darlene knew that they had to go to a place called Toten, and they asked one of their guides how to leave their current tour group and get there. The guide, amazingly enough, happened to have a sister in law living in Toten, and even more amazing, this sister-in-law and her husband were running a farm where they accepted tourists for events. Darlene and Avis were sent with one of the tourist buses there.

You will already have guessed what happened – the farm was none other than my grandmother’s birthplace.

Avis’ dream finally came true – she got to see the country her mother was born in. They managed (with a little luck) to track down the people her brother had never forgot for taking him in. And Darlene became a truly wonderful friend of mine – even though we trough the first years of our penpalship only could communicate through proxy. As I gradually learned to read and write (and speak) English, I could write the letters myself. I’ve tried to keep up, but I must admit that Darlene is a far better penpal than I am. I don’t think she has ever missed my birthday.

Therefore, I am truly looking forward to going to Minnesota to visit them. Avis passed away years ago, but I will get a chance to meet both Darlene and John (I’ll make sure to ask him for his version of the story).


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, I love stories like these that come full circle. Happy endings! Thanks for sharing this and the gorgeous photos.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Joris said...

Yes, I AM so looking forward to John's version of the story ;))

I certainly loved this side! :)

Watery Tart said...

Excellent, Mari! I love the serendipity of life... finding exactly who you were supposed to. Probably not the time to mention I think we are related through my Swedish strand, eh? But we already have our small world connection (Bergen), so there.

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