A Primordial Christmas, Written in December 2000

Note: While this is seven years old, it’s one of my favorite family columns that I’ve written and I wanted to give it life again this Christmas season. I hope you don’t mind.

Last week I realized my father’s eyes are not simply blue, but a water lily Monet blue. They are a cold Arctic sky blue.

I don’t know what made me look. It was a few nights before Christmas and I was curled up on the couch, my head resting on his shoulder, and I saw the affects of time on his skin – the patches of brown on his hands, the pale pink of his forehead and the few more creases in his cheeks. And the moment opened my mind to other details and I wondered if maybe, as scientists map our genes, they’ll find one that holds thoughts and memories passed on from one generation to the next.

It’s the only explanation for my Midwest family’s consanguineous connection to mountains and oceans or my love of lutefisk and lefse and cold, bitter nights and darkness, and my fascination with all-night sun. The knowledge of the waking and survival and the habits of the generations before me can’t entirely be known through facts and proof. Some of it must be sensed.

I knew little more than my maternal grandmother was born and raised on the Lofoten Islands, 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. When she was a young girl, her family left the centuries-old tradition of fishing in Norway for farming in Minnesota. It was a move which left them all with regret and pervasive sadness. It caused some of them to make reckless and life-altering decisions, compounding the despondency in my grandmother. The only time she seemed happy was when she talked about Norway.

Recently, someone found a few pages of my great-grandmother Sandra’s journal. For the first time my great-grandmother was more than a shunned wife with young children and my ancestors were more than the chance compilation of genetic material that got me here. They had names and they had purpose and through her words, and this is hard to describe, I got a better sense of the familiarity of their, or should I say “our” home.

I had a great-great-great-great-grandmother named Hanna who was married to Hans and they had several children – one named Anne who bore Hansine who bore Sandra who bore Katinka who bore my mother, Ardith.

Anne married Gulbran Knudtson and they were serfs for a community called Grunstad. Some of their children lived, some died, but in Sandra’s journal they were happy and content.

My great-great-great grandfather’s name was Anders Jakopsen and he was a fisherman on the island of Borge. He died during a winter storm and left his wife Abigal with five children and very little money, so she gave up her children and sought a job. My great-great-grandfather was raised by the local grocer.

Is it our intuition, our sense of past adversity, that helps my family endure hardship with our heads high or to do what it takes to make ends meet? And is it any wonder that so many of us are drawn to the cold waters of the north Atlantic or to the lakes and streams for fish? As a young girl my favorite books were about the wild ponies of Chincoteague and the children of Lapland. I finally saw the ocean when I was 24, at midnight on a beach north of Boston. I’d never smelled ocean air, but I recognized it and felt it to be something beyond my life experience. While we are all naturally drawn to water for survival, there are those of us who are also drawn to it for asylum.

This Christmas my dad brought lutefisk from Minnesota and Mom (bless her heart) soaked it, baked it and served it with only a few comments about the smell. It has to be familiarity passed on through the generations that would explain why my father and I love to eat a cod which is first soaked in lye for weeks and then in hydrogen peroxide for days creating a gelled substance that could be sucked through a straw if it weren’t bad manners.

My Houston-raised husband of another descent inherited a different taste because after one bite of lutefisk he about passed out. He politely swallowed it, but gave the rest to the dog.

My children are another thread in this ancestral fabric and with them I can look forward as well as back. This Christmas I listened to my children recount memories of my parents to my parents – the silly songs they sang with Grandpa, the nights Grandma put them to bed and tucked them in like mummies. We sang a few of those old songs while the others around the table sat on the outside looking in. There are some things that are just ours, that exist only in our genes.

During Christmas dinner, Dad and Mom speculated that I inherited my love of writing from my great-grandmother. That may be true. But after reading her journal what I’m sure we share is a love of detail and the tendency to daydream. As I write this I am distracted by the falling snow and am fascinated by it even now, even after 37 winters, just as I know Sandra was distracted by the ocean and brought her memories with her to the States and hid them in her dreams to be passed on to another generation.

“In 1872 on the 18th of September, I saw daylight for the first time, on the outside coastline of Lofoten, against the huge Arctic Ocean where my cradle stood…. Yes, in all truth, there was a rich opportunity to listen to the song of the ocean, which many times would rock you to sleep. But, there were other times when the towering waves would break with all their force against the shore and there was no time to sleep, because your dear ones were out on the stormy sea. There were many tears shed for the ones (who) never came home, but such was a fisherman’s lot in life.

“All in all, the sea gave of its riches to the people and therefore they loved the sea as it was. And when we go back on our memory we will remember…the sea (when it) looked like a mirror, and the beautiful summer nights with light and sun.” – from the journal of Sandra Peterson.

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