A journey up the family tree

"A journey up the family tree" Continued...

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

After a kayak journey with Nilsson, I fly north, where relatives pick me up in the northern city of Luleå to meet other relatives, play a game of basketball, and enjoy tea. Then, we drive an hour north to the small town of Påläng (population: about 400), just south of the Arctic Circle where my great-grandparents were born and where most of my Swedish family lives. The relatives joke that I'm related to half the town, and I feel like a celebrity because everyone knows I'm the great-grandson of Sven and Emmy, the two who left.

Between Stockholm, Luleå, and Påläng I visit nearly 60 relatives. We communicate using "Swenglish." A journey up the family tree, I find, is both analytical and experiential. Some afternoons, I find myself sitting with relatives drinking tea and paging through old photograph books, making notes on family tree charts and recounting stories. I discover my family had several members who worked in the steel industry, which bridges my connection to them and to Nilsson.

With a brief road trip to Finland, visits to other small towns in Norbotten (North Sweden), and trips across the smooth water in the Gulf of Bothnia to small tree-topped islands in the Archipelago, we eat and eat and eat, meals alternating between salmon, reindeer, moose, and berries, all washed down with Swedish coffee. It's important to eat everything (a) so as not to offend any hosts and (b) because it is so good.

Word spreads that I like books and the local berries. Relatives stop by where I'm staying to leave fresh lingonberries, to say hello, and to drop off books about the region.

The visit gives me a window into the psychology, lifestyle, and perspective of my late great-grandparents, Sven and Emmy, who lived in Minnesota much as they had in Sweden, on a small farm in a Swedish-style house where they farmed, fished, cooked on a wood stove, wove rugs, and knitted wool mittens and scarves with reindeer patterns. They spoke with heavy Swedish accents and were full of kindness and good humor. Sven (known to us as "Morfar" for the Swedish "mother's father") passed away when I was in high school. Emmy (known as "Mormor" or "mother's mother") died when I was in college.

Like many of the other 1.2 million Swedes who left their homeland from 1850 to 1930 to escape hunger and poverty, Sven decided to leave for better opportunities. Swedish immigrants produced about 12 million descendants in North America-a group larger than the current population of Sweden (9 million). Although few of those offspring speak Swedish, apparently thousands like me return each year to research family history, meet relatives, and visit ancestors' homesteads.

During my time in Påläng, I ask several older relatives what they remember about Sven and Emmy's first visit back to Sweden in 1949, two decades after they left for America. Voices go silent and tears well in their mostly piercing blue eyes before they recall the joy of reunited mothers, siblings, and cousins.

Relatives show me a scaled model of the village (one of the locals made it) as it looked in 1930, a few years after Sven and Emmy left. They take me to the original homesteads to experience salmon fishing the way Sven did when he was a young man.

While my great-grandfather was a country boy from the outskirts of Påläng (pronounced "Poh-lang"), my great-grandmother grew up in the center of town in a farmhouse and grounds known as Inigården, which is still there. I learn that the older generations of my relatives held to the idea of "living off the land" as lumberjacks, farmers, and fisherman.

Many of their children and grandchildren, meanwhile, have gone to universities, moved to cities, and work as IT professionals, business people, or economists. The trip makes me appreciate the generational change and sacrifices made by the great-grandparents and grandparents.

My great-grandparents were active in their Baptist church in Quamba, Minn., and left a legacy of faith throughout our family. During the trip, I notice that my great-grandmother's side of the family seems to be closer to one another and to have stayed in better contact over the years. This side of the family is active in the Mission Covenant Church. One aunt spent years as a missionary in Africa and showed me photos.

Recently Sweden's Scandic hotel group put New Testaments back in guest rooms after Swedes boycotted the popular chain for removing Bibles. Even though only 3 percent of the population goes to church each week and the state-sponsored Lutheran church is minimally attended, evangelical groups are finding Sweden is not as secular as many think. The decline of state-run "monopoly" churches like the Lutheran Church in Sweden has created an opening for more entrepreneurial approaches by religious organizations and missions.


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