Monday, August 24, 2009

The Farewell


Arvid, Wally, Jeff, and Matt Swanson (1991)

My grandfather is standing by a lake on a cloudy day. His face is turned to the camera, but his arm is reaching out ahead and he’s pointing toward the shore in the distance. “Look,” he seems to be saying. “There it is. Just over there.”

What is he pointing at? There are spruce pines and birch trees edging the water. The place could be anywhere in northern Minnesota. But it’s not. Arvid is standing on the shore of Stora Le, near N√∂ssemark, in the province of Dalsland, Sweden.

Where my parents were born and lived, he writes in a postcard, “the lake my father always talked about.”

His hair is white. He is seventy-three years old. He has come to a land he calls the old country, but he’s never seen it before. He speaks Swedish with archaic turns of phrase from a century past. His grandparents are buried here. His own parents died in America long ago. This is the place they left.

On his sojourn to Sweden in 1969, my grandfather met a first cousin he had never known. The cousin’s name was Sven and he was ninety years old. Sven told Arvid that he remembered the day my great-grandparents, Johannes and Maria Svensson, left N√∂ssemark. It was 1891. Sven was just a boy.

Sven said there was a farewell at the lakeshore--a gathering of family and friends. Johannes gave a speech, in which he said that he had seen many young people get “America fever” and leave their parents behind. Johannes feared that someday his own children would leave him, too. He didn’t want to stay and become a sad old man in Sweden. He decided that he would take his young family and go to America. There he would start a new life, replant the family tree.

Johannes and Maria said goodbye to their loved ones. They boarded a steamer to begin their long journey. The steamer headed out across the water. And they never looked back.

There is a hopefulness but a cruel logic in the speech by Johannes: In a choice between the old and the young, we choose the young; for our children’s sake, we leave our parents behind.

Four years later, in 1895, Maria’s mother died in Sweden. That same year, my grandfather was born in a white clapboard farmhouse in Minnesota. Johannes planted an oak sapling in the yard.

Now I stare at the picture of Arvid pointing at the lake in Sweden and I wonder what he was thinking. Maybe that was the very day Sven told him the story of the farewell. He must have thought of Johannes; his father had been gone twenty-one years by then. He must have remembered his lovely mother, Maria, who died when Arvid was sixteen.

This is where they were born. Where they fell in love. Where they left their own parents and sailed away, just like Sven said.

But maybe Arvid recalled a different day, another gray morning in 1917, when he hugged Johannes and his stepmother, boarded a train bound for an army depot in Des Moines, Iowa, and left to fight in the Great War. Johannes was a graying man in midlife by then; he was going deaf. I imagine him waving, straining to hear his son's last goodbye, then watching Arvid’s boyish face disappear in the window as the train pulls away. More than a hundred thousand American soldiers would die.

And maybe Arvid remembered a time much later, in 1961, when his own son, Wally, left Minneapolis to follow his call as a missionary doctor in the jungle of Ecuador. Standing there in Sweden in the land of his father, Arvid hadn’t seen my father in years.

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On the day Arvid died, I was vacationing on the North Carolina coast, walking along the beach alone in the afternoon. As I headed back to the cottage, I noticed Pam hurrying towards me in the far distance. When she got close enough, I saw her face and knew she was coming to tell me bad news.

“It’s your grandpa,” she said. “He died today.”

I flew out to Minneapolis the next afternoon. At the funeral, I saw my dad, my brother Tod, and sister Lisa. Dad and Tod both gave eulogies. Dad spoke of his family’s Christian heritage. Tod recalled the years he had lived with Grandpa and Grandma while he was a student at the University of Minnesota. He spoke of the comfort of Arvid’s silent companionship, when the two of them would do something together and there was a shared understanding and affection and neither felt any need to speak. He remembered the quirky objects that Arvid collected, and his sense of humor.

“One day Grandpa showed me an antique opium pipe that he had found in a pawn shop,” Tod told the assembled crowd at First Covenant Church. “It was a thing of beauty. Then Grandpa’s eyes twinkled and he said, ‘Too bad my wife won’t let me smoke.’”

The funeral was on a Saturday. On Sunday, Dad and Tod and Lisa and I rented a car and drove north in search of Arvid’s boyhood home--the white farmhouse where Dad, too, had spent many summers as a child visiting his grandparents.

We couldn’t find the place at first. After driving around in the cornfields for awhile, we happened upon on small white church by a lake. The Sunday morning worship service had just ended and people were milling about. We parked and Dad got out and approached an ancient man who was inching along with a cane.

“Excuse me,” Dad said to the cadaverous-looking elder. “Would you happen to know where the old Swensons’ farm is? Could you tell us how to get there?”

“Swenson . . .” The man pondered the name for a moment. “Wasn’t he the fellow who was hard of hearing?” Johannes had been dead for more than forty years.

“That was him,” Dad said. “He was my grandfather. He used to carry around a megaphone when he got older, so people could shout into his good ear.”

“Ya, sure,” the man said. “Let me draw you a map.” He rested his church bulletin on the back of his Bible and sketched in the margin--two farm roads, an intersection, and an ‘X’. “That’s it right there. Swenson's.”

We found the house and it was just as Dad remembered it. But now there were children’s toys scattered in the front yard. We knocked on the door and a young woman appeared. Dad introduced himself and explained why we had come. “This was my grandparents’ house,” he said. “My dad was born here.”

The young woman invited us in. She showed us around. We climbed the stairs and Dad pointed out the place where he had slept when he came to stay in the summers.

We walked outside and stood in the shade of a massive oak tree. “I can’t believe how big that tree is now,” Dad marveled. I tried to reach my arms around the trunk. Dad reached around the other side and our hands almost met in the middle.

* * *

The phone rang and it was my son Matt calling from Ecuador. It seemed like a long time since we’d heard from him. “Where are you now?” I asked.

“I’m at Grandpa Wally's house,” he said. “Today Grandpa showed me around the hospital where he worked all those years. And now I’m looking at his old photo albums. I saw some pictures of you when you were my age.”

A few days later Matt came home. Then he packed up his stuff to leave again, to start college at Arizona State. I drove him and Pam to the airport early last Wednesday morning. On the way in the car, Matt joked, “Well, you’re finally doing it. You’re finally getting rid of me and sending me off to the other side of the country.”

At the airport, I hugged my son and told him I loved him. “I love you too, Dad,” he said. Then he and Pam disappeared through the security gate. I stood there for a minute and recalled the summer I left my parents in Ecuador to start my own college adventure in California, a sort of modern reprise of my great-grandfather’s coming to America.

In five generations of fathers and sons, our family’s odyssey had spanned parts of three centuries, three continents, two world wars, the story of the immigrants who came to America and the missionaries who left. And now it was my son’s time to leave, to turn his face and stride off into whatever world may come.

As I write this, I’m alone in our big house and looking forward to Pam’s return from Arizona tonight. I glance at my watch. By now she’ll be leaving campus and heading to the airport. I’m interrupted by the message tone on my Blackberry. There’s a text from Matt: “Just said goodbye and we’re sad.”


Johannes Svensson (ca. 1900) and great-grandson Jeff Swanson (2004)

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Arvid Swanson (ca. 1909) and great-grandson Matt Swanson (2009)

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Matt and Jeff Swanson (2009)

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Acknowledgement and postscript: For family historical material, including Sven's account of "the farewell" in Nossemark, and the photographs of the Svensson house circa 1894 and of Arvid as a young man, I am indebted to the Swanson Family Book (2005), edited by Linda Gronvall, Mary Gardeen, et al. DNA works in wonderful ways; when I look at the pictures of my grandfather and my son at about the same age, or the one of my great-grandfather Johannes whom I am said to resemble, what comes to mind is: "YOU again!"