Monday, August 5, 2013

Family History

I'm in my childhood home for a few days, walking among the memories, the familiar paintings and photographs and objects laden with personal and family history. I'm here, perhaps, for the last time. My mother has decided it's time to move into a smaller space, into one of those independent living communities that's paired with a nursing home. We'll be looking at some of the options today.

Last night my mother shared some family history. I've heard pieces of it before, but as I lay in bed last night those pieces fell together in a new way, forming a story that dovetailed with a mood defined by my awareness of both history and impermanence.

Artur Løren was good with horses. There was money in that, enough to keep a family of four small children afloat in turn-of-the-century Christiania. It also took him out of the tiny apartment, out of the clamor, and into some of the most dramatically beautiful countryside in the world.

To be in the open air for days on end with other men, wrangling horses across southern Norway, breathing in the mountain air and the scent of the nearby ocean...there were few things that made him feel more alive. He could relax, tell a crude joke without having to endure his wife Gerda's disapproving scowl. Instead there'd be laughter, and the bottle of brennevin--hard liquor--that was passed his way.

Oh, he loved his family. He'd loved Gerda enough to fall in love in the way that young men do, afire with passion, with the longing to melt into her--a fire that burned all the wilder because her faith would allow no culmination until their wedding night. And the children. They were beautiful. He would feel that burst of pleasure when little Magnhild was in his arms, her blazing blue eyes looking up into his own.

But sometimes you just had to get away. And there was money to be made, and the yearning for what lay over the next hill, and the snort of a soft muzzle near your ear. The horses had to be taken from Christiania--the once and future Oslo--to Bergen. Who knows why.

Artur was my great-grandfather. When he reached Bergen with the horses and his traveling companions, "Amerikabåten"--the trans-Atlantic ship bound for the New World--was in the harbor and getting ready to sail. Drunk on the heady mountain air and wanderlust and too much liquor, Artur responded with a reckless laugh when one of his companions suggested they just get on the boat and sail away. And he made the most absurd, impulsive, and devastating choice of his life.

The regret must have hit soon after the boat pulled away from shore. Surely it overwhelmed him during the long, monotonous days and nights on the ship. He didn't speak a word of English. He had no family in America, no community to turn to, no idea what he'd do. And I'm sure that he also longed for Gerda's arms, for the hugs of his children. Despite a young man's foolish impulse, he loved his family.

He sent Gerda a single letter shortly after arriving in America, confessing what he'd done and promising her that he would return as soon as he could, on the next possible ship. My mother tells me there are copies of that letter somewhere.

Artur's disappearance made a hard life harder for Gerda and her children. Their apartment was barely more than a room. She would clean trains at night to bring in money, leaving the children alone because there was no one else to look after them. She'd tell the neighbors to listen for crying in the night. It was better, all things told, than leaving the children alone by day.

I'm certain that at first, when that single letter arrived, Gerda waited with impatience and anticipation for Artur to follow soon after. Who knows how long that expectant waiting took to fade, to become nothing more than a mild adrenal surge when a knock came at the door or when she head a voice with a familiar timbre drifting up from the street. I'm sure the thought of it, of his sudden return, never left her completely.

It was a hard life. But Gerda was a woman of faith who found joy in hospitality and community, in caring for those she loved and sharing what little she had. When her children grew and had families of their own, she didn't think twice about having them all over, crowded into that single tiny room, every Wednesday night. If anyone needed a place to sleep, a spot and some beddings would be found. Hospitality was not contingent on having a guest room or a spacious dining room or an overflowing pantry. She shared what she had, and it made her richer.

Nobody knows what became of Artur, although the speculation is that he died shortly after he sent that single letter. Many years later his daughter, my grandmother Magnhild, would emigrate to the United States with her family (including my twenty-something mother). The daughter of the man who'd left his wife and children in a moment of impulsive wanderlust would herself travel to America. She'd follow her husband, my grandfather Alf--an evangelical preacher with wanderlust of his own--as he pursued his dreams of helping to lead Christian revivals up and down the California coast.

If there were traces of Artur Løren's further journeys on the far side of the Atlantic, neither she nor anyone else ever found them.

Last night my mother told me about the very last time she saw Gerda, her grandmother. It happened a few years before her emigration to America with her parents and siblings. When my mother came to visit Gerda that final time, the old woman's suitcase--or rather a small chest--was packed for a journey. Gerda even showed my mother everything she'd packed: the clothes and other necessities, maybe a keepsake or two. Surely a Bible.

"I'm going at last!" she said. "I'm going to be with my Artur!"

She hadn't bought a berth on a boat or a seat on a plane. She'd just gotten it in her head, perhaps in a moment of dementia, that it was time to go, to be with her Artur. Maybe in her mind she was back in time, back in those early days after Artur disappeared. Maybe in her addled imaginings a second letter had come, telling her to come and join him across the sea. And in the manner of dreams there was nothing strange about her grown granddaughter being there too, to share in her excitement about going to join the husband who'd sailed away.

She died a few weeks later. She never went to America, but she took that final journey even so, across a sea more unknown, and to stranger shores. And maybe Artur was, after all, waiting there to greet her.

I like to think that after taking in the sight of her long-lost love, maybe reaching up to touch his beloved face in wonder, she smacked him upside the head and said something like "What the hell were you thinking?"


  1. A good story and well told, Eric. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. I am sure they will meet again. And that there will be laughter. And if there is reason for it there will be forgiveness.

  3. Beautiful story! Thank you for sharing it.