Not long ago, an old photo led my mother, my cousin, my sister and me on a reverse pilgrimage of the trek my maternal great-grandparents and their five children made when they sailed from Norway...
It was Bjørg’s birthday, a snowy February day. Flanked by her smiling teacher and schoolmates, she held a new doll in her arms.
For many years, the black-and-white photo I’d found in 1976 in my grandmother’s carved camphor chest remained a mystery a picture of a solemn young girl in a plaid dress with a bow in her hair. I knew nothing more than the information jotted on the border of the photo:
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“Bjørg’s birthday. Schoolmates and teacher,” a photo most likely taken in the 1940s.
Not long ago, though, the photo led my mother, my cousin, my sister and me on a reverse pilgrimage of the trek my maternal great-grandparents and their five children made when they sailed from Norway to settle in Skamokawa, Wahkiakum County. It led us to the house in Norway where my great-grandfather grew up, to the farm that had been in the family for centuries, to the cousins who still lived there, to a country that welcomed us like lost daughters and to Bjørg and her doll.
In my family, I am the keeper of the stories, the one who sat for hours listening to our maternal grandmother, Pearl.
Though her late husband was Norwegian, Pearl was not, and yet kept that part of our heritage alive, by maintaining links to “the old country” through food and stories, she learned from Bergithe, her mother-in-law, who lived with them in the early part of her marriage.
When Pearl died in 1976, the link died with her. And the photo remained a mystery. Many years later, I turned to the Internet to solve the riddle.
Internet was key
I searched various spellings of my maternal grandparents’ name, Grungstad, and quickly theorized that the original spelling was Grongstad, the name of a cluster of farms in central Norway near the town of Grong. Suddenly, an Internet site unfolded that contained the names of my parents and even the addresses where we grew up, and the embarrassing but enduring family myth claiming that my father is “a certain descendent” of Abraham Lincoln.
It was compiled by the Grong Kommune (city) library in part from letters my grandmother had written to her in-laws.
I found also a Web site by a young Norwegian with the same last name and I wrote to him, asking if he was related to Brede Grongstad, the last relative I knew to have lived in Norway.
Within days, the father of the young Web site owner wrote me that Brede Grongstad had been a farmer in Høylandet, not far from Grong, but he had died in 1972. His son Jakob still lived there and had a niece an eight-hour-drive away in Bodø, on the west coast, north of the Arctic Circle.
He passed on the e-mail address for Brit Mari Bratberg, my fourth cousin, Brede’s granddaughter. Thanks to the Internet and the Norwegian local governments’ efforts to preserve heritage, our family connection was re-established within days.
I sent photos, the one of Bjørg included.
“It doesn’t look like my mother,” Brit Mari wrote back in one of what would become many e-mails as we got to know each other. Then, one year ago this month, she invited us to her wedding.
And so, this autumn, there we were. Early fall rain streaming down the windows of the train as we traveled through green valleys, rolling hills and silver fjords of Norway. We traveled most of the day north from Oslo to the university city of Trondheim and then several hours westward to Grong where our family was to meet us.
But how would we know them? Would anyone speak English? What would we do if no one showed up?
As the train slid into the station in the early evening, the area was forlorn, chilly, wet and desolate.
But then Brit Mari’s father, Sivert Bratberg, and Jakob Raum, Brede’s son, stepped out from the station, looking as unsure as we were. Neither spoke much English. We spoke no Norwegian.
All of us struggled with language and luggage and a car hatchback that wouldn’t open. Suddenly, the radio played a song with the refrain “I didn’t think it would be like this,” and the first awkwardness disappeared with laughter.
Even in the rain, the country was beautiful, much like Western Washington. Sivert stopped the car along the road and pointed to a traditional long white farmhouse and red barn in a green valley fringed with forests.
Everything was Grongstad, from the directional sign on the road, pointing to the farm, to the falls Grongstad Fossen, not far from the village of Høylandet to the lake near the farm, called Grongstad Lake.
“This is my place,” Sivert said with pride, the farm, Vestgarden (or west farm), where he and Bjørg raised their two children, Brit Mari, 35, and Ivar, 37. It had been in the family since the 1700s.
In typical Norwegian fashion the farmhouse was actually three separate homes connected by common interior doors, making it possible for several generations to live together. Sivert and Bjørg live in one end and Ivar, who now runs the farm, lives at the other. The middle house is left for guests.
In a pine-paneled kitchen of Bjørg’s house, Bård cooked moose stew. An English setter galloped through the house, stopping to lick little Jakob, Brit Mari and Bård’s blond toddler. He had been learning English and looked up at me and in perfect English said, “Hi honey, I’m home!”
His great Uncle Jakob, settling into an ornate pine rocker in the living room, told me in halting English, that he had photos of me. I was puzzled. Then he added, “You will see.”
There are 1,500 acres in all, making theirs one of the largest farms in the area. Great-grandfather Elias was the second-born son and didn’t inherit the farm, it going to his older brother Jakob, my great-great uncle and Ivar and Brit Mari’s great-grandfather. Like many other Norwegians of similar fate, my great-grandfather and his family, and his brother Ben, went to America about 1880.
After spending early afternoon wandering through the church cemetery, Jakob took us to the farmhouse, made coffee and served us currant cake. Next, he showed us photos he had inherited from his father, Brede. There were photos of my mother, a cousin and one of me as a toddler pictures that were almost as mysterious to him as the photo of Bjørg with the doll was to me.
Belated birthday bash
Jakob had turned 70 years old several months before our arrival but he had saved his birthday party until we were there. That night we went to the community center to celebrate, where it seemed most of the village had turned out for a smorgasbord with salmon, moose, potatoes, salads and a dozen delectable cakes. “Hello, I am your cousin,” was a refrain I heard again and again as I met more and more relatives.
“Good dog!” we replied, an approximate pronunciation for “god dag,” or “good day,” the only Norwegian words we knew.
Unlike in the United States, it has been common in Norway, at least in past generations, for families to remain in the same small town where they were born and raised. One reason is that the fjords and mountains made travel difficult. Families were so isolated that many areas even very small villages like Høylandet developed their own dialects which have existed for centuries.
There also are bunad, or national costumes, unique to geographical regions. The North Trondelag district in central Norway, of which Høylandet is part, is known for embroidered red or blue vests and skirts (or pants for men). The women wear silver earrings and broaches, matching caps and purses. Norwegians wear their bunad on May 17, National Day, and at formal events.
A day of celebration
As the day of Brit Mari and Bård’s wedding neared, we traveled north to Bodø.
It was a sunny September day, the bells pealed and we filed into Bodin Kirke, a pretty white church surrounded by a meadow.
The ceremony was over within an hour, but the festivities were just beginning. Women who had worn their native costumes for the wedding changed into evening wear afterward and the party re-convened at a shooting club in the country.
As is the tradition, a toastmaster began with toasts to the newlyweds and led songs between each course. There was wine, smoked mutton and a song. Wine, salmon and a song. Wine, salad and a song. Each had been written by someone in the wedding party and set to the tune of familiar Norwegian folk songs.
Sivert’s song praised Brit Mari, and Bård’s mother’s song praised him. The wedding couple praised each other and their young son.
Like many couples in Norway, Brit Mari and Bård had a child while they were living as samboer, cohabitants, a common arrangement in Norway.
The celebration went on past 1:30 a.m., and included the final meal: Reindeer in a sour-cream sauce, vegetables and more cakes. Everyone ate heartily once again.
“No one at home will believe it,” said my 79-year-old mother, Irene. Not only had she just danced for the first time in 60 years but “it’s after midnight and I’m still up and eating reindeer.”
Days later, Jakob and Ivar drove us even farther north in search of my great-grandmother’s birthplace in Tysfjord, an area that’s home to many Samis, Norway’s indigenous people.
We stopped at the Sami Cultural Center in Drag and asked if they had information about Bergithe Benjamindatter (Benjamin’s daughter) born in 1840. Someone summoned Peter Mikkelsen, a local Sami researcher, from a nearby restaurant where he was at lunch. He said he would look up her name and call if he found anything.
We were not more than 20 miles down the road when he called Ivar’s cellphone. “You have more relatives,” Ivar told me. “Up north in Storvik.”
Peter later e-mailed files of family information, tracing the generations back to the 1300s huge networks of fisherman, farmers and reindeer herders.
“You’ll have to come back,” Ivar said. “We can go north and find them.”
“I will,” I promised.
One of the last nights before leaving, Bjørg brought out a doll she had kept for so many years.
Although she, like her daughter, Brit Mari, didn’t recognize herself in the old photo, and had no memory of that day just after the end of Nazi occupation of Norway when the power plant at Grongstad Fossen had been blown up she thought to find the doll and look at the photo again.
“We identified her by the doll, Brit Mari said. Mystery solved.
On our final day at the farm, my sister, Peggy, and I walked the roads through pastures into old-growth forests and talked of all those generations before us how they loved the land that could be both nurturing and harsh; and how they stood knee-deep in grass on the hillside just like us, in the shifting golden light of afternoon.
And I think, too, of all the seasons to come and how a photograph I took of Brit Mari’s toddler Jakob, all pink cheeks and dancing eyes, will someday rest in an album in a trunk for another generation to perhaps pick up and wonder.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org