My trip with Caryl and her cousins to visit their ancestral Nesbo farm in the mountains of Norway last week was very much a pilgrimage for me, too – partly because my own heritage is Norwegian, and partly because for decades I have felt myself to be fully (and graciously) integrated into the Nasby clan.
The ruggedness of the farm’s setting – evoking scenes of back-breaking pre-industrial labor (not to mention the fact that only the eldest son inherited even that) – and seeing the harbor from which Caryl's Great Great Grandfather Assor caught the boat to America in 1870 caused me to reflect on the fact that every human being on earth is an emigrant, a refugee, or a wanderer; that those who are “settled” may be thought of as being settled only for the time being; and that longing for the old country is a fleeting thing until, with the passage of time, it becomes an object of historical curiosity and nostalgia. (I realize that for some there is no nostalgia, no curiosity, no interest in the old country. If I were to write a "part two" to this post, it would be to explore what it is that makes the difference.)
With all the interest in traveling to the place of one’s roots, it is perhaps ironic that the only generation to experience true homesickness for the homeland was the first one (like Beret, in “Giants in the Earth,” who curls up pitifully inside her steamer trunk) – the generation least likely to be able to go home. (And will we ever know how that homesickness must have ached at times – even in such a promising new land?) Then, with a wistfulness like that of the writer of Exodus, who says, “There arose in
Egypt a king
who knew not Joseph,” we might say, “There arose in America
a generation that knew not .” Norway
Wistful, perhaps, but it is, of course, just how it should be. Children are not the ones who look back. My idyllic boyhood in
South Dakota was fully
American (it wasn’t even Norwegian-American), even though there was only one
generation between me and Trondhjem (and ). As many have observed, our parents’ generation (or the first American-born) didn’t have the luxury of
nostalgia – they were too busy building the very thing they were becoming: Copenhagen . They
succeeded so well that those of us in our generation and the next feel like we’ve been here
forever, and so when we take the long look back, as we can, it is with a genealogical
nostalgia for the old country that is based in fascination with a land and time
receding into a story-book mist, gratitude for the doughty courage of the pioneers who became our grandparents, and an affectionate desire to meet our Scandinavian cousins of today. We
don’t “wanna-be” Norwegian, but we acknowledge and celebrate that it’s in our
American blood. So we are the generation who, in our wide-eyed discovery
of our Nordic identity, have named our children Marit and America Bergen
and – a name I heard last week in – “Skjalit.” (To our
children, Beret and Anna, I say, “You dodged a bullet, there!”) Norway
“Cousin” is the right word for this fond feeling of family affection across an ocean and across the years. And nostalgia is the right word, too: A positive but always unfulfilled yearning. Like any child who asks his parents to tell him “about the olden days,” we want to know how they lived, where they lived, how they did it. And we’re not just historically curious; we want to know it in our bones. We think we might discover something about ourselves by shouting “Who were you?!” into the past. And that’s where we hit a wall – solid as that black rock cliff that looms behind Nesbo Farm. All the traipsing around the “home place,” all the head-bowing moments at gravestones with dates like “1794” on them, all the conversations with our modern-day Norwegian cousins will not penetrate that wall. “Who were you?”
So we need artists, poets, writers. O.E. Rolvaag’s “Giants in the Earth” tells our family story better than all the rummaging I might do through old scrapbooks and trunks. Knut Hamsun’s “Growth of the Soil” and the film “Pelle the Conqueror” depict the life the emigrants left behind. The plays of Ibsen challenge the very conventions of homey domestic myths we may hold about our ancestors. The extraordinary Danish film, “Babette’s Feast,” set at precisely the time of the great Scandinavian migration, is a wry and touching rendering of the encounter between the strict piety of our grandparents and the pleasures of the emerging world.
What a beautiful and enticing place
is. I found myself more than once speaking back in time to those who had left
their farms and headed off for the harbor and beyond: “What if you had stayed?
What if you had stayed…?” But of course the “what if” is that my Norwegian
mother would not have met my Danish father. In Norway . America
Photo: New and old buildings on Nesbo farm, near Osterbo, above the fjords of Aurland, Norway. In America, "Nesbo" became "Nasby," my wife's family name. My forebears on my mother's side emigrated from Trondhjem, Norway; my father's from Denmark.
More photos of our trip to Norway may be seen here.
More photos of our trip to Norway may be seen here.