Toten is the place where my mom grew up and where my grandfather still lives. It’s in the deep inland of Norway (if anything as “skinny” as my country can be called deep), very rural and something of a childhood paradise of mine. I don’t know what it is, but I breathe freer there (actually I do know what that is: less pollution), the sky is more blue, the sun is brighter, the people friendlier. I love walking along the fields, taking pictures or finding flowers (or taking pictures of flowers I find). I enjoy these walks alone, or with family. Maybe best of all with my grandfather.
He doesn’t walk very fast, but his pace suits mine when I bring my camera. When we walk along the fields, he’ll tell me stuff like ”This is oat” or “They have a new type of potatoes here this year”. Sometimes he will point at a house and tell me something about the people living there, or even better, about the people that used to live there. I love it when he starts explaining about old times (as a kid I used to beg my grandparents to tell me about “old times” – my interest for history isn’t a new one). He has a lot of stories, many of which I’ve heard before. He doesn’t remember which stories he has and hasn’t told me, but I never let him know if he tells an old one over again. I still love listening to him. Every now and then he tells something that I’ve never heard before, things that to him only are part of his life and not spectacular in any way. But to me, it’s part of my history, and increasingly I feel how it’s also a part of my identity.
Last time I visited him (this Easter*), I found something of a treasure. We’ve had family members doing research about our family history before. For instance, we have a book describing my great great (I’m not sure just how many greats it’s supposed to be) grandfathers life. It’s a fascinating story; my favourite being an anecdote about him walking across the country (yes, I know, skinny country, but not that skinny… He still had to walk for days) to get a bride. Lucky for me and the other generations that followed, he found one, and they settled at Toten.
Another find, now in my possession, is a diary of another great-great-something grandfather (I think that might be just one great as it’s not that far back in time. His chronicles start around the turn of the 19th to 20th century). He wrote about the cruise ships coming into the fjords where he lived, in the western and probably most beautiful part of the country. Already back then they had a considerable amount of tourists there; one of the most prominent being the German Emperor Wilhelm II. My ancestor counted all the ships and listed them in his diary. Then he compared one year to another, and calculated how many he could expect the next year. He would also write about the weather, accidents (he loved to list how many people had died the previous year from one accident or another), crops and animals. “This year we have 17 goats”; “Five people died in a landslide this year, but the crops are good”.
But I digress…
The treasure I found this time was another record of family history. I found papers tracing my family back to the 14th century. This has, apparently, been in the family for many years, but somehow, no one thought it important enough to mention it to me (I was born after this research was completed). Imagine my excitement when I found out that we actually know the names of my ancestors that far back. My brain immediately started working out plotlines for stories about Torgeir Gislesen, Gisle Herleiksen and Herleik Gislesen (they were all called stuff like that...). Family history has always fascinated me, and some day I hope to write a fictional story about a real person such as a great, great grandmother or father. Maybe I’ll even write about the guy counting the cruise ships.
Another fascinating aspect of these family records is the high number of emigrants. From the mid-18th century and on, a considerable percentage of the family is listed as emigrated to America. I can’t help but wonder what they were thinking (and I mean that in the nicest possible way…). Imagine leaving everything behind, moving to the other side of the world, a world that must have seemed a lot bigger then than it does today. Admittedly, many didn’t have much to leave behind, but still – family, friends, your home. Leaving for something you don’t know at all, a place you only know from descriptions (though, descriptions such as “the promised land” did of course constitute huge pull-factors), knowing that you’ll probably never come back. Even in our globalized world, that would never have been an option for me. I admire their bravery, in a way, but I also shake my head at them. I guess I’m too good off to understand.
One of the documents attached to the family history accounts, was a 50 pages long description of the life of one of the families that left. They are pretty distant relatives of mine, but it was still fascinating to read about their life as settlers. They lived both in South (?) Dakota, Minnesota and Montana; moving around with the possibility to gain more land and better conditions. This was a family with a mother, a father, a grandmother and ten children – or rather, they started their journey with ten children. One of the little girls died at the ship across the Atlantic. The account starts in the 1880 or so, and it ends after World War Two. This family experienced so much of the American history I’ve learned about, but it never felt as real as when reading about it through the eyes of real people, people I’m related to even. The process of immigration and settling; building a life around the farm; experiencing the hardships of losing a family member in World War One; the Great Depression and World War Two.
*It’s been a few years since I wrote the majority of this little piece. In the meantime my grandfather has become older, not just in years; but also physically – and most noticeably – his mind is not what it used to be. It is not just a matter of not remembering which stories he already told anymore. Sadly this has disabled him from living in his own home, and we can no longer take our little walks along the fields.
When I make the mandatory birthday telephone call today, I will be a little sad over everything that’s lost. I still try to cherish what is left, though. And I will always keep the memories.
Happy birthday, Bestefar!