22 January 2012


My great-grandma, Anna Teoline, once substituted grape wine for grape juice in my mother's drinking glass. This was before my mother was even my mother, before (I think) she was even my dad's wife. I've heard the story a thousand times: my mom kicks back her beverage, then leans forward with eyes burning while my dad and Grandma Anna just laugh and laugh and laugh.

I went on a Chinese checkers kick during elementary school. Everyone told me that Grandma Anna was the world's best Chinese checkers player, that she'd let you win every now and then so you'd keep playing with her.

This grandma that I never met--I always thought she was amazing.

In North Dakota, it's not uncommon to have the fire and ice of Norway mingled in your blood. We host the world's largest Scandinavian festival (which, to my surprise, always draws Bill Cosby and large numbers of legit Scandinavians), we eat lefse and krumkake and lutefisk at Christmas, we say "uff-da" in honor of the forefathers who moved onto the prairie and were told that only English will be allowed from here on out.

There's this ever-growing itch I have to see Norway, even though I know I'll get there and realize: I'm not one of you. I am not Norwegian to the core, not even blond. I'm Norwegian-American, raised in the New World on old Scandinavian values. The Norwegian in me is the Norwegian of a century ago, of floor-length practical dresses and plowing fields by hand.

And yet, I want to see it, the land of Anna Teoline and Carl, of Elisabet and Sakarias and Christina, of Peter, Paulyne, Jens, Aase, Anders. I want to step into the Romanian land where my great-grandma Louise grew up, the girl who ended up in a place in America with six months of winter, missing the fruit trees from her old front yard. I want to see Germany the way Gustave saw it; I want to know the Sweden of Oscar and Franz.

I live so, so close to all the places I come from but have never, will never, really belong to. Because I am an American no matter how many percentages you break it into. It always sounds more exotic to belong to anywhere else, especially when you see the Americans pushing their way through the metro station, loud and fanny-packed. You think, "These are my people?" and you are silently thankful when someone mistakes you for Dutch.

But there's a beauty that I'm starting to see, too. Because "I am American" means that someone I do belong to was brave enough to leave what they belonged to and start over completely, to give up everything in order to give their children anything. It is a dance between the Old World and the New one, three months at sea and signatures at Ellis Island. It is great-aunt Lena and her coffee cup full of "Norwegian black blood plasma." It is Anne taking up a homestead in Montana as a single woman. It is Aase giving birth in a covered wagon. It is houses tripping across the borderlines between Russia and the shifting eastern European boundaries. It Anna Teoline from Lyngdal filling my mother's cup with grape wine and waiting in silence as she takes the first gulp.


dancin' said...

I'm glad I heard about Anna Teoline from Lyngdal. Sounds like your dad has some impishness in him too. ~dancin'

sharbear said...

He certainly does. I don't know if it was the Germans or the Norwegians who gave him that. :)