Monday, December 16, 2013

Long lost Swedish relatives

Where do I begin? There is so much I want to say. Get ready for a couple of really long posts. All of my life my mom has talked about the old country and how we still have relatives in Sweden with a farm that has been in the family since the mid-1800's. She has carried on Swedish Christmas traditions and taught us the tiny bit of Swedish that her mother taught her. Somehow it was always very magical, almost mythical, to me and I had vague, far-away dreams of someday going there and meeting them. When we decided to go to Scandinavia, I took out our family history book and looked for a way to contact them. I found my answer in the first pages of the email address for my distant cousin Bertil. I composed an email and fired it off into the abyss. I received a notification that this address was no longer valid. Disappointed, I dug deeper with Google and eventually found a match in Stockholm that looked like it could be him. I gathered my thoughts and picked up the phone. A foreign voice answered and after asking if he spoke English, I introduced myself and how I came to know of him. He was surprised and excited to hear from a long lost relative on the phone. We exchanged email addresses and made plans from there. He put me in touch with Beret who owns the family farm in Västbyn, but lives in nearby Östersund. Beret made big plans for us and arranged meetings with relatives over the course of a weekend. And this is how we found ourselves in northern Sweden.

Words cannot express my gratitude to my new found Swedish family. Upon learning that a strange relative was coming to visit from the US, they opened up their hearts and homes to my family and I. The amount of kindness and generosity that they shared with us was so overwhelming and touching. Bertil's sister (my second-cousin, once-removed), Anita, invited us to stay in her home and when we arrived Friday evening in Östersund, she borrowed her ex-husband's car to greet us with hugs at the train station and bring us to her home where we would spend the next four nights. In her cozy apartment we worked on dinner together as we began to get to know each other. We sat down around the kitchen table and shared the first of many meals together, moose tacos, Swedish style. Late in the evening, her daughter Maria took the time to walk over to meet us even though she had just finished a long work week. We were so happy she did.

The next morning, after Jason made egg pancakes, Beret, showed up at the door with grand plans for the day! We piled into her car and headed towards the family farm where my great-grandmother Märit was born and raised. Along the way she showed me the house where my great-grandfather Eric was born and grew up. She showed us the school he attended, the store where they shopped and the mill where they ground their flour. She showed us the Good Templar house that my great-great-grandfather Anders built and then the family farm in the village of Västbyn. I can't really describe what it feels like to return to where my family comes from other than that it was deeply meaningful and magical to drive up under gently falling snow to the family farm. It looks the same as it did in all the old photos I had seen. It was a lot to take in. At the farm, Beret's sister Bodil was waiting for us. She had lunch and warm glögg waiting for us. Beret showed us through the farmhouse where she and Bodil were born and raised. The farm had remained unchanged from the 1850s until her parents renovated in 1958, adding running water, indoor bathrooms, a modern kitchen and electricity. Beret remembers lugging buckets of water into the house and going out into the cold to use the outhouse. After wandering through the farm house that has been home to four generations of my family, we sat down at the table for more conversation, sipped glögg, ate lunch, ginger cookies and homemade saffron rolls. The light began to fade so we bundled up and headed out into the snow for the outdoor tour before sunset at 2:30. Beret showed us the summer home where the family spent summers and had their baking stove. She showed us a small cabin they had moved onto the land that she calls her museum, where she keeps antiques and treasures she has found from around the farm. We saw an old hand-scythe with the initials MAD which was either my great-grandmother's or her sister's. We saw old chairs that have been there since the farm was bought in the mid 1850's. While we were outside Bodil was busy in the kitchen, preparing a wonderful dinner. When we got back, delicious smells greeted us from the kitchen and Bodil handed us big wool socks knitted by her grandma to put on our cold feet. As we waited for dinner, Beret and Bodil pulled out old family documents. They showed us the original document for the purchase of the farm and documents that laid out how the new generation planned to take care of the old generation including how many pounds of potatoes, flour and provisions they would buy each year to make sure that their parents were comfortable. We looked at old photos. The boys made a fire and Aaron snuggled with the gnome, Tomté, who lives in barns to make sure that animals are treated correctly, otherwise causing mischief. Finally we sat down to the meal Bodil had prepared. We ate the most amazing moose stew from meat her husband had hunted topped with lingonberries she had picked and frozen, boiled potatoes from her own garden, Swedish meatballs and homemade organic beer that Beret's husband Torsten had brewed. The food was delicious and the conversation lively. When Beret asked if I knew any Swedish I repeated a Swedish nursery rhyme that my mom had taught all my siblings and I, and I had taught my own boys. Beret and Bodil's eyes lit up! This game is something my family in Sweden still plays with their babies. It was such a cool discovery to find that this nursery rhyme, split by half a world, a language barrier and three generations, was finally reunited here at the farm. The fire and evening wound down, and we headed back to Beret's house where we met her daughter, Kristina, and her husband, Torsten. She showed us a Swedish TV show where U.S. descendants of Swedish emigrants compete to be reunited with their families. It was remarkable how similar the stories were to ours and how important these stories are to the Swedish people. After a long day, Beret returned us to Anita's and we all collapsed into bed around midnight.

Click here for photos.

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