Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On my grandfather's 87th birthday

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!


welcome to my world of poetry said...

I lived with my maternal grandfather and the stories handed down were wonderful, unforunately I didn't know my pateranl grand parents very well as died when I was three, however I did a family tree eight yrs ago and last week 2 cousins on my dad's side got in touch and we're metting next week so I can add to the family tree.
Such a shame your grtand father canm't still go for his walks
but the memories he has must be priceless.


Rayna M. Iyer said...

Wow, you can actually trace your family back that far!!! And quite an eventful family too, as you tell it.

Both sides of my family, the furthest back I can go is the middle of the 19th century, and there is nothing interesting there either.

Happy Birthday, Mari's grandfather.

Liz said...

That is quite a treasure you have there. It's great that they thought to write it down, and that it survived all these years.

Sending birthday wishes to your grandfather!

The Golden Eagle said...

That's some history! It's amazing that you can actually trace your family back so far.

Happy Birthday to your grandfather! :)

Mason Canyon said...

You definitely have found a treasure of family history in the paperwork, but especially in the stories that your grandfather has told you. Enjoy what time you have with him, it goes way too fast. Happy Birthday to your grandfather.


Thoughts in Progress

Boonie S said...

Beautifully written post. Thanks.

All the best, Boonie

nonamedufus said...

You've got some great memories there with Bestefar and not many people are able to trace their roots back as far as you have. What a terrific find.

Falen (Sarah Ahiers) said...

that diary sounds awesome. I love that he lists how many people died by accident along with the crops.

Cruella Collett said...

Yvonne - family history is interesting, isn't it? You're lucky to have been able to hears yours from your grandmother. Good luck in figuring out the rest from your cousins :)

Natasha - I don't think it's a particularly eventful family history, actually, but with time any history becomes eventful since everyday happenings become historical events. It's one of the reasons history fascinates, me, actually.

Liz - thank you :) I called my grandfather earlier today, and we had a nice little chat.

TGE - the further back you come on that family tree, some of the links are admittedly sketchy. As a historian I am forced to question some of the findings. As a member of this family, however, I'm allowed to muse over what this has to say for my identity. And as a writer... Endless possibilities!

Mason - you're right. I mean to visit him more often, but it is difficult when I'm so busy. I hope to spend some time with him this Christmas at least :)

Boonie - thank you :)

Cruella Collett said...

Nonamedufus - I am very glad that I have these memories. My Bestemor, his wife, was such a special person, but she passed away when I was only nine years old. Thus I don't have as many memories with her. I try to cherish those I have, though.

Sarah - yeah, that part of the diary cracks me up. Sometimes I wonder if he is ironic or if he really had such a practical view of life. People die. Crops are good or bad. That's all.

Jules said...

Oh I feel your heart. Exactly how I feel about my 91-year old grandmother.

With us they will live on :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Arlee Bird said...

You have some great resources to draw upon. I hope you are writing about your experiences and the stories you hear. So often when we are younger we disregard what the older generations have to say and by the time we are interested they are gone. You are fortunate.

Tossing It Out

Hart Johnson said...

Mari-what a wonderful resource and I hope you DO write about it. I had a talk not long ago with Cold as Heaven and he gave me a little insight into the emigration--poverty was the most notable reason--in the mid 1800s, before the importance of oil, Norway was one of the poorest countries and people were starving. I'm guessing families that were too big for the land they had had members volunteer to go (my own included, as you know).

That last bit made me tear up--so sad for people to lose that mental stuff. I hope he is at least content.

Jennie Bailey said...

I was super close to my maternal grandfather! Loved that man! I always love finding old things - pictures, diaries, newspapers. What treasures you have found! And I do agree - what WERE your relatives thinking coming to America? I'd rather be in Norway!

Cruella Collett said...

Jules - make sure you cherish the time you have with her :)

Lee - I try to remember how important it is to take care of the time I have. I'm sorry to admit I don't always succeed.

Tami - I'm aware that the conditions were bleak (before the welfare state, I feel the need to add), but I still have problems understanding. How could they be so sure they would have a better life where they left for?

Cruella Collett said...

Jennie - tee hee, see that's what I tried NOT to say. I'm not saying it's better here than there. But it's the idea of packing everything you own (which wasn't much, granted) and just leave. I just can't wrap my mind around it.

You're lucky to have had such a good relationship with your grandfather :)

Hannah Kincade said...

Aww that's awesome. My grandpa had Alziemher's when I was old enough to start asking questions and hearing stories so I never got too much of that. That's great stuff.

I do remember him freaking me and my sisters out with his missing finger that he lost in 'Nam. I still giggle when I think about it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Just keep writing down his stories as you remember them. I wish I had any account of the things my grandmother experienced, as she used to tell great stories.

Kelly said...

What a treasure you have... not just in the historical records, but in your family!

Beautiful post.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Thanks for the visit and comment.

Percy Byshee Shelley was married to Mary Shelley nee wolstonecraft, they had one son Percy junior, Percy senior was the poet but died when Percy junior was small.
Mum and son came back to to England wheren Percy became a Baron on his grandfathers death, he bought much land in the area I live including the land the house I live was built. He also bout a Manor which recent was renovated to a medical centre called Shelley Manor.


Holly Ruggiero said...

What neat treasures you have found. Your grandpa is a treasure too.:)

RaShelle said...

I love that! History is one of my fav too. In fact my NaNo username is historian40. Are you doing NaNo? Anyway, what a fun way to spend some time. And how exciting to find that treasure!!!
Plus, is that his name? Bestefar??? What a great name. =D

Cruella Collett said...

Hannah - haha, that is a funny memory. I bet he would have had some great stories to tell, and some awful ones, seeing as he was a Vietnam vet.

Alex - I should absolutely do that, yes

Kelly - thank you :)

Yvonne - wow, that's interesting! It wasn't entirely far-fetched to claim that you live on Frankenstein land then ;)

Holly - thank you :)

RaShelle - I'm not doing NaNo this year, as I already have too much on my plate. But next year!
And Bestefar is the Norwegian word for grandfather :)

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