Monday, May 24, 2010


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 Copenhagen). 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: America. 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 Bergen and – a name I heard last week in Norway – “Skjalit.” (To our children, Beret and Anna, I say, “You dodged a bullet, there!”)

“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 Norway 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 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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the vicarious visit to the homeland, Richard. Though mine are from Sweden it would be pretty much the same story should I go back. I do have the urge and curiosity. So, maybe.

My Great Great Grandfather Sven Anderson came over in 1850, along with his brother and nephew. Both of those went back soon--- conditions. He married a girl, Kristina Larson, who came over on the same boat and who he found later in Minnesota. Her entire family had died on the voyage. But she kept on.

I imagine the farm over there was similar, though your pic looks REALLY rough. I wonder, fairly often actually, what it was that made them venture into the unknown. I know a famine went all the way up there and the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe may have been part of it. But what were the local conditions? What was the talk around the table? What was the reaction when the decision was made or did they disappear in the dead of night? I'd give anything for the answers. Yeah, why are we interested?

Bill Gable

Richard Jorgensen said...

Bill: Thanks for the comment. Your family story is full of drama. And your questions are my questions. My incomplete understanding is that the main thing driving emigration was the law limiting inheritance to the older son, and the opening of comparatively large farm tracts in America, but I'm sure those issues you mention must have played a part. Two things I have not yet so far learned (regarding my wife's or my famly) are: Did any return? and did anyone die enroute?

I hope you can make the trip.

Dick Jorgensen

Teresa Ennis said...

Very nice pictures and interesting "story" that goes with it. Thank you for sharing your travels with all of us.

Diane Hagen said...

I really enjoyed your pictures and comments. John and I both have ancestors who came from Norway and we have visited some of our relatives there.

One of my greatgrandfathers emigrated to America on his 18th birthday. I often think about how his mother might have felt seeing her son leave and knowing that she would probebly never see him again. (I remind myself of this when I start feeling sad that our grandchildren live so far away.) It sounds like Carol's relative left a mother behind too.

I met him as a small child when he was an old man. We had a family reunion in Minnesota and I was told to tell grandpa Ole that it was time to come inside.He said that he planned to sleep in his car because, as he explained, the pine trees reminded him of Norway".