A Visit

My cousins Turid (left) and Nils Christian (below) with me and my grandfather's sister Kat at my great-grandfather's summerhouse on Nesodden in 1949, when I was two.
My father’s father arrived in New York to stay in 1904. He’d lived and worked there earlier with his brother Nils, I surmised, reviewing records from Ellis Island. My cousin Astrid once speculated that the death of two siblings and a woman’s rejection sent him abroad for good. I joined his much-delayed return to Norway in 1949, when I was two. (My father was sent to live there for a year when he was eight, which was why he was always so close to the family.)

My great-grandfather, after whom both my grandfather and my father were named, was a publisher and insurance man whose pull-down maps swept northern Europe, lifting him and his family into the prosperous upper-middle class. My grandmother, who my grandfather met in New York, was from Stavanger. A cousin from that side is still alive, my sister told me—the last of my father’s generation. On his father’s side, the death of my cousin Elsie—the matriarch of that part of my family—marked the end. 

The ferry from Oslo to Nesoddtangen.
When I learned that she'd died at the age of 94, I decided to visit Nesodden, a “commune” and peninsula reached by ferry from Oslo, to attend her funeral and see my cousins. 

The house in Nesodden that I've visited episodically since I was six.
I stayed with my cousin Bente and her husband, Helge, who live in the house that Elsie and her husband Øistein built in 1951, using rammed earth—a novel technique at the time. When Bente and Helge took it over, it was in bad repair, and Helge has rebuilt it from stem to stern. It borders a riding academy and the house of another cousin, Margaretha, that takes up what was originally a single piece of land—large enough that there’s no sense that two houses now share it. 

The view from my bedroom around 11 p.m.
Although it wasn’t quite the summer solstice, it was still light at 10:30 p.m., and then light again by 4:00 a.m., I observed, snapped awake by jet lag the first few days. It turned out that I’d arrived on Whitsun, a national holiday that spilled into 17 May, Norway’s national day—a four-day break extended yet another day by Elsie’s rites. So my hosts and I had some time together. 

Drøbak harbor.
We went to Drøbak, a town that borders a narrow part of the Oslofjord where an officer bravely launched a cannon and torpedo attack on an invading German battleship, sinking it and delaying the invasion long enough for King Håkon and his family to flee to Britain. 

The island in the Oslofjord where Bente and Helge keep their sailboat.
We also went to a small island, partly covered with lilacs, where Bente and Helge keep their sailboat. 
The 17 May parade in Nesodden.
On 17 May, we watched the local parade and musical events, joining others from the family at Nesodden at a party in Bente’s garden. I met Bente’s daughter Henriette and her family first while they all marched together in the parade, but before that I'd waved to her from the woods near her house.

My great-grandfather's summerhouse.
The summerhouse in the 1890s, at the time of my great-grandparents' silver wedding anniversary.
The day before, Helge and I went for a walk with their dog. I mentioned the summerhouse of my great-grandfather and Helge first took me along the road to see it and then later into the woods to find the still-extant allée of linden trees that leads up to it from the back. I have childhood memories of this house, where members of my grandfather’s generation still summered when I was two and six. I must have cut through the woods to get there then, since it’s the shortest way from Bente and Helge’s house. Emerging from the allée, I saw Bente's daughter talking with a neighbor. Her house, built a few years ago, is on land that once belonged to my great-grandfather. Helge explained that all of it was originally owned by the church, and that the area is the oldest settled part of Nesodden.

The allée of linden trees leading to it.
Elsie’s funeral was on 18 May, at the Nesodden Church where the dead of this part of the family are buried. In the course of her long life, Elsie lost three sons and a grandson. Bente lost her husband Erik, the second of the sons to die, and their son Stian, whose death in a car crash after a year spent in America eerily repeated that of Nils Christian, the oldest son. Nils Christian spent his year in America with my family. He died in the same month as President Kennedy—10 November 1963. He still sometimes appears in my dreams, always 17 years old. The second son, Margaretha’s husband Georg, died when he was 50 of the same heart ailment that killed his younger brother. Only the youngest son, Sigurd, lives on. (He kindly showed me the 1890s summerhouse photo above.) This complicated and sad story culminates in one small area of the church’s cemetery where they're all buried. The infant daughter of Georg’s son Espen is buried nearby, and Elsie will join her and them.

At Elsie's funeral service.
I used to stay with Elsie and Øistein when they still lived in their house. During one visit, I woke up in the middle of the night with a clear sense that their dead son Erik had been with me, leaving a message for his father. The next morning, I told Øistein about it and gave him the message. He told me I was the third person to report such an encounter, and that the message—about Erik’s daughter—coincided with what he himself was thinking. Later, I walked over the cemetery to look at the graves and realized that I'd acquired a temporary clairvoyance from the encounter. In this state, I saw that Nils Christian was off to other things, but that Erik was present because of his daughter. There's something to be said, I felt, for having the dead with us, part of the community.

Some of Elsie's grandchildren and great-grandchildren at the wake.
I couldn’t follow the talks people gave at the funeral and the wake, but the tone of services for the aged dead is similar whereever there’s cultural affinity. The presiding priest, whose brother had a connection to Elsie dating back to World War II, beamed at me: “Ah, the American cousin!” At the wake, a woman came over, saying that she remembered me from a party at my great-grandfather’s summerhouse when I was six. “There were Americans and everyone was speaking English.” Apparently, it made an impression—this was 63 years ago! 

The funeral order of service.
When it came time to take Elsie to the waiting hearse (to be cremated before burial), the women of her grandchildren’s generation carried her coffin. I liked that gesture.


  1. What a wonderful, moving story of your family. The elegiac tone and photos remind me is Sebald's work. Thanks for sharing. pcl


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