One of my great pleasures about living in the Pacific Northwest is the past time of paddling in my kayak. It’s an activity that I took up many years ago now after moving to this area upon the encouragement of a friend.
When you live in the Puget Sound and Samish Sea area, you are surrounded by water. I can’t imagine not taking advantage of the recreational opportunities to be enjoy the natural beauty of being on the water. As I don’t own a sail or motor boat, kayaking is the way I do it.
For me, paddling provides time away from the distractions on land. There are no cell phones, no computers, no televisions, nothing to draw your attention from the task at hand, which is how it should be whenever you’re out there on the water. Not paying attention to the currents, the wind, the waves and the weather can run you into trouble faster than you realize.
I often carry a camera in my boat with me, usually one of my point and shoots so that I don’t risk damaging my single-lens reflex digital cameras. I’ve never invested in a watertight case for my SLRs, something that is on my equipment ‘wish list.’ Usually, I tuck my little compact camera safely inside my life vest (never go out without one) where I can yank it quickly out if I see something I want to try to capture.
One of the tricks of shooting on the water, especially in a kayak, is how to stay in place, bobbing up and down, in order to get the shot. It’s not easy. That’s particularly true if you’re trying to photograph wildlife on the shore. Without a super long lens, I must quietly slip up close to whatever it is I want to photograph until I think I’m in a good range. Trust me, this is not the way the National Geographic shooters do it but it works for me most of the time. I’ve become pretty adept at handling my paddles.
I like going out just before sunset. The water is generally smoother then, the light not so glaring and the colors can be stunning. Early morning is a good time too, especially if there are nice clouds.
Even though I tend to paddle in the same waters here in my area, I never lack material to photograph. The water, the shore, the sky seldom look the same. One day there’s a seal, the next there’s not. Some summers the oyster catchers are there with a new brood, sometimes they’re scare. Sometimes that sunset you anticipate never materializes, sometimes it’s so saturate in color that you’d swear someone has “photoshopped” it onto the sky.
And never, never do I go out alone. That’s just asking for problems, no matter how expert a kayaker you are. A paddle partner also gives me someone else to photograph against the vast, open scene. My paddle partners have become quite accustomed to serving as models for my photographic expeditions.
Only two of the many photographs I’ve made while paddling appear in the show at Stone’s Throw Brewery, up through April. I’ve shared with you here a few of the others. Seeing these images in print, however, offers quite a different experience than viewing them here on-line so I hope that if you’re in the area you’ll stop by and have a look.
We’re in the final days of Black History Month here in the U.S. I don’t want it to end without writing about a new destination I visited earlier this month while in New Orleans.
The last day of my annual retreat to New Orleans was spent visiting one of the many plantations open to tourists and school groups on what is known as River Road, the two-lane highway that winds north along the Mississippi on the opposite bank from the Crescent City. As the National Park Service says: “Although other states have their own River Roads, perhaps none is more evocative or famous than Louisiana’s. Here, the very name inspires a vision of white pillared houses standing amid lush gardens and trees dripping with Spanish moss.”
While that is true, River Road also represents a much darker, less charming story of our country’s history that is seldom told during the tours of these showy homes and that is the story of those who actually built these splendid structures, who worked the fields that stretched behind and who lived an existence of enslavement fearing that any day they could be sold off to another “master” and forced to leave their family. Except at one of these historic plantations, the story of slavery is its entire focus.
Opened in 2014, the Whitney Plantation is one of the newer properties for public and educational tours. During the many years that I have been going to New Orleans for a winter break, I have visited nearly all, if not all, the other plantation properties. They have been interesting, to be sure, and wonderful places to photograph. Last year, I went out the Destrehan Plantation, located just 22 miles west of downtown New Orleans. I took my son, who had never visited a plantation, there this year.
Destrehan makes a point of talking and including some individual stories of the enslaved in its tours, unlike other plantations. To be honest, I had never heard about the Slave Revolt of 1811 until I visited Destrehan. It certainly wasn’t in any of the history books I had read in school. I wrote a piece for this blog about Destrehan last year. The plantation is one I’d highly recommend to you.
The Whitney, however, is solely dedicated to preserving the memory and history of the enslaved. The stories you’ll hear on your tour are not storybook sweet nor romanticized. Life for those who were chained and brought to this country like cattle, or less, in the filthy holds of ships, was never romantic. The Whitney seeks to basically tell it like it truly was, as accurately as possible, without sparing words for the way these hard-working, brutalized and largely disrespected people were treated by those who considered them as nothing but property found on their list of valuable belongings.
As Cheryl, my guide for the tour who lives and grew up in the area, said: “For me, this is not history, it’s personal.” She quite likely had ancestors who were slaves, if not on the Whitney, somewhere else. Her words and descriptions of what slave life was like were full of emotional fact. And as she herself said: “Sometimes hard to hear or read.” Like the fact that no slave escaped the punishment of the slave driver’s rawhide whip. Even pregnant slaves who “misbehaved” were forced to lie face down, with he ground below dug out to accommodate their swollen belly, to receive their lashings.
The visit starts in the Whitney’s small museum while waiting for your tour time which start hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There you’ll read a little history about their journey from the Ivory to Gulf Coast, view the timeline of slavery throughout history worldwide and gain a little perspective as to how slavery in the U.S. contributed to this country’s disgraceful history.
Outside, on the plantation grounds, you’re first stop is at the picturesque Antioch Baptist Church, for many years the only African-American church in the area. The church was donated and moved to The Whitney from another location on the east bank.
Inside you’ll find beautiful, life-size clay sculptures of the children of the Whitney, created by artist Woodrow Nash. Their individual stories and pictures are found on the laminated lanyards given to you when you begin the tour for you take home as a memento of the visit here.
There’s also a stop at The Wall of Honor and Field of Angels where those lived and died in slavery are remembered. The original 22 cabins once that once housed the 61 slaves of the Haydel plantation, as it was then known, were torn down in the late 1970s. The ones that stand on the property today were moved there from other plantations.
The “Big House” is one of the earliest and finest examples Creole style plantation homes in Louisiana and is one of the best preserved. Somewhat more modest than others found on River Road, it is, however, architecturally and historically significant. It provides visitors with a glimpse of how the plantation owner’s family enjoyed the comforts of life while those they depended upon to provide it lived in simple, crowded wooden quarters within view of the back gallery.
The centerpiece on the property is the rusty-brown box-car shaped slave jail placed directly in line with the Big House. More like a cage, the ‘jail’ originally stood elsewhere and held slaves waiting to go on the auction block. Step inside and you feel a chill of those who once were shackled and confined here.
Walking around the Whitney was one of the most moving and educational experiences I’ve had in my years of going to the area. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s headed there. And if you’re not, take a few minutes to read more about The Whitney and its efforts to provide an honest historical perspective of slavery in the U.S. South. It’s sure to be a story that sticks with you.
When you were a kid did you ever bundle up when the big snow hit, run outside and build a snowman, or a snow house or fort? I did. I don’t recall receiving the kind of heavy snows that hit much of the U.S. this week during my years growing up in the Midwest, but there were plenty of winter days that enough of the cold, white snow blanketed the ground to build a couple of small walls in my aunt’s big vacant lot. We lobbed packed snowballs back and forth at each other by popping up and ducking behind these freezing fortresses until we were so cold and wet that a truce was called and we retreated indoors to warm up with steaming cups of hot chocolate with sticky sweet marshmallows floating on top.
Our childhood’s frozen fortresses were fun but nowhere as fancy as the elaborate Ice Castle I visited last winter in Midway, Utah. I was in Midway attending a film festival conference when, during one of the evening’s gatherings, everyone was invited to see the Ice Castle at the Homestead Resort where we were staying. It was late, and cold, and I was tired from sitting in meetings all day. But those who had been at the conference before told me that I must go out and see the castle.
Having no idea what exactly to expect, I grabbed my camera and carefully made my way down the snowy path behind the resort until I came to a lighted entrance. Even as I stepped past the attendants at the arched entry, I didn’t anticipate what was coming. I walked through an illuminated blue tunnel of icy stalactites looming high above me that revealed at the end to a spectacular, snowy open cavern surrounded by 20 to 35-foot high and 10-foot thick walls of ice. Sitting in the center was a towering singular free-form sculpture lit like a big birthday cake with light that changed color every few minutes.
Off on the sides and built into the walls were tunnels through which other conference attendees were carefully crawling or walking as they took in the beauty of the icy formation that encased them. At the far end stood the slickest slipper slide I’d ever seen down which sliders sped on their tushes like two human toboggans. The dark silhouettes of bulky-clad visitors wandered the shimmering structure, disappearing in and out of the walls, convening in the center to look like eerie explorers in a strange frigid landscape.
The Ice Castle is a man-made creation designed by a crew of artists who put it together by growing individual icicles and attaching them to one another until they are absorbed into the larger structure. Brent Christensen created the first ice castle creation for his daughter in his front yard of Alpine, Utah. Converting his hobby into a company, he founded the $2 million business, Ice Castles. His first public installation was constructed in Midway in 2011 at the Zermatt Resort. It was so popular that he expanded to include his four partners. Today, their company builds ice castles in six locations in the U.S. and Canada and attracts more than a million visitors. A crew of 50 now do what Brent once did alone.
More than just a wintry wonder, the Ice Castles are the setting for outdoor winter concerts, weddings, family outings and conference attractions, like the one I attended. Of course, the success and the ability of the ice artists to come up with these castles is weather-dependent. They start in the fall spraying water through a system of sprinklers onto metal racks that grow the icicles harvested by Christensen’s team and attached to scaffolding that eventually becomes totally covered by ice and develops into unpredictable shapes.
Yes, walking through a tunnel with thousands of pounds of ice hanging down above you is a bit disconcerting though Ice Castles assures you it’s safe because of the way it is constructed. The longer you stay, however, the more you’re overcome by the sheer magic of the icy-blue beauty of the castle. Trepidation is taken over the fascination for how the castle is created and how something so simple as water can transform itself into such an enchanting experience. Although helped in the process by human touch, Christensen’s ice castles provide yet another reminder of nature’s amazing majesty, even when temperatures are well below freezing.
I hadn’t planned to write a post today but then I remembered that the Northwest Washington Fair opens today in the little town of Lynden, just 15 miles north of Bellingham. It’s a great little fair, not so big that you can’t get to all the things you want to see, do or eat in an afternoon or evening’s time, not so small that there’s not enough for everyone in the family.
I wrote once before about the fair (Fair Enough) in 2013. I have fond memories of taking my three sons there when they were young. In fact, we went to the fair even before we moved to Bellingham, as visitors from Los Angeles up for a summer vacation.
I didn’t make it to last summer’s fair but plan to be there this year with a friend with whom I’ve gone before. When I went two summers ago, it was with my cousin from Los Angeles and my niece from Kansas in town for a wedding. The fair just happened to coincide with the wedding dates so the three of us took an evening and headed up for some fair fun.
The fair draws people from all over the North Puget Sound area, Lower Mainland B.C. in Canada and far-flung visitors, such as my family, here for vacation, family visits or events. Just the drive from Bellingham to Lynden sets the tone as I take a back road through the rolling farmland set against the majestic Mount Baker to the east. In the air are the rich, earthy smells wafting from the farms so that 20-some minutes later when you pull into the parking lot at the Lynden fairgrounds, you’re already in “fair mode.”
I like to go in the early evening and stay into the night to see the shift from the day crowd to the evening fairgoers, a lot of whom become young, high-school age couples as the night starts to set in and the multi-colored lights of the carnival begin to shine.
In the large barns too, where the livestock exhibits of cows, horses, goats, sheep and pigs are installed, the activity changes as the animals finish up their dinner then start to settle in for the night. Groups of young 4-H’ers sit on their camp chairs after feeding their entries to talk, laugh, share stories and answer questions from curious viewers. I especially love the horse barn where the mighty Percheron and Belgian equines tower over the humans strolling through. It’s humbling just to stand next to, but not too close, to these hefty beasts.
Then there’s the goats, another favorite stop for me. I love watching these mostly friendly little kids clamoring over one another, crowding out each other to check out the people trying to pet them or tussling over a leftover tidbit of food. I’m easily entertained by their playful interaction.
Don’t forget the food, things you really shouldn’t eat but always do at the fair: gi-normous ice cream “moo-wiches” from the dairy women’s booth, corndogs smothered in relish and mustard sold by the Boy Scouts, meat that’s been slowly cooked over an open-pit from a local BBQ-cook or corn on the cob lathered in butter from the Young Life church group,
And poffertjes! As the town of Lynden was settled by Dutch pioneers, much of that heritage is still found there not only in their places of worship and traditions (they have an annual Christmas parade with Sinterklaus) but in the food. Poffertjes is a delicious Dutch dessert that’s a puffy pancake sweetened with powder sugar. Fairgoers can sample one of these tasty treats but expect to wait in line as the bakery booth queue is always one of the longest at the fair.
I’ve not even mentioned all the crafts exhibits, or the small animals or the small stages of entertainment by largely local performers. Whew! There’s so much to do. But if you plan your time well, you can usually manage to take it all in before wearily, but happily and well-fed, heading back to the car for the short ride home. I’ll be there this year, my camera in hand because it’s one of my favorite places to photograph So if you go, look for me. If you can’t make it this year, I hope you’ll set aside a trip to go another time because it truly is one of our country’s best summer traditions.
While sorting through some old photos yesterday, I came across a group of faded black and white 3×3 snapshots. They were photos I didn’t recall seeing before. I decided that they must had belonged to my aunt Imogene. I’m not certain how I ended up with them but they were tucked into an envelope with other, unrelated family photos.
Except for one, their reverse sides were blank. But on that one, in my aunt Imogene’s handwriting was the note: 1953 Vacation going to Bandon, Or., pictures taken at Colo. Springs Colo. That was it.
I looked more closely. I recognized my aunts Lavetta, Oleta and her husband, Joe, Imogene and her husband, Jim, and my uncle Austin. In 1953, they would have been in their 30s and late 20s. Uncle Austin might have just been back from the Korean War, as was my Uncle Joe who had already served in World War II. I am not certain that my aunt Lavetta was married yet. Were they traveling out to attend my aunt Phyllis’ wedding in Bandon, I wondered? Bandon was where my Grandma had moved after leaving Missouri where all her children were born and grew up.
How special to look back at the aunts and uncles I knew and loved. They were so young, so unaware of what was yet to come in life, having so much fun in these photos. The photos of them picnicking especially drew me in. They sat together lunching, I’d guess, at a tablecloth-covered picnic table, drinking bottles of Coca-Cola and eating fried chicken. If they were travelling, the chicken was probably cold. A bottle of ketchup stood square in the middle of table. Did they have french fries too? I would have guessed that had potato salad but ketchup didn’t fit.
I love looking at my aunts dressed in their short-sleeved cotton camp shirts tucked neatly into Capri pants. And I studied the shoes that they had kicked off to relax on a blanket that had been tossed on the grass after the picnic. They seemed in no hurry to get to their Oregon destination in these pictures.
They took time to go up the funicular at the Royal Gorge, or so it appears from one of the photos. It looks as if they stopped at the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, a 35,000-acre preserve in South Dakota where the photo of their backsides was made as they stood reading the preserve’s marker. Maybe that’s where the photo of the two married couples on the trip standing in an otherwise nondescript country was taken.
I studied the photos, trying to glean a story about their trip from them. As I did, I thought of my mother who, after retiring, spent a good portion of her time putting our family’s photos into albums and labelling many of them. It made me think why it is we take photos such as these on our various travels and what they bring and tell us when, years afterwards, we go back to look and remember those sojourns. In this case, I had only the photos from which to construct a story. How I would have liked to have asked them questions about that trip had I known about it before finding these visual memories.
My aunt’s photos made me think of my own travel photos and why I take photographs when I travel. Will my photos one day be discovered for someone else to enjoy, to relive the moment I did, to wonder how I felt, where I was going, what I did? More than just a testament that ‘I was there’, photographs like these found on a rainy Saturday can take you back in time, can cause you to revisit the day, to remember the people you love, the places they went and the fun they shared.
Two years ago I wrote about the Evergreen Plantation which I had recently visited during a trip to New Orleans and which had been the location for several films, including the Academy Award winning “12 Years A Slave.” Now with last night’s Oscar ceremony and Black History month winding down, I thought I’d feature another Louisiana plantation that also has been the setting for motion pictures, including “12 Years A Slave.”
But what’s really important about this plantation, is not its film roles but the role it played in history and continues to play today in educating its visitors about the history of the South and, particularly, Black history.
The Destrehan Plantation sits a mere 30 minutes north of New Orleans yet it was one of the few plantations in the New Orleans’ area that I had not visited during the nearly 20 years that I have been going there. On this trip, however, I decided it would be a good place to take my cousin and his friend from Sweden who were visiting us in New Orleans. It would be a treat for me too.
Now that I’ve been, I can tell you that it’s one of the more worthwhile and informative plantations to visit. Architecturally, it doesn’t have the “Gone With the Wind” grandeur of Oak Alley, which many tourists associate with plantations, and its slave quarters aren’t as extensive as those found at Evergreen, but it is rich in ways that other area plantations aren’t. And yet, it barely survived having fallen into disrepair and the hands of vandals who took everything that could not be carried away.
The plantation was rescued from its demise in 1971 when a local group of preservation-minded citizens who had formed the River Road Society was granted a deed to the house and four acres of its property by the then owners, the American Oil Company. The group set out to restore the house, which has cost more than $2 million. Another $500,000 is being spent for the purchase and development of 14 more acres of plantation land, to include six bed and breakfast cottages expected to be ready in 2018.
Docents at Destrehan dress in period costume to lead visitors through the house sharing with them information about the plantation, the people who lived there, including those who were enslaved, and a history of the pre-Civil era. Our guide, Beverly, clearly enjoyed her role and answered many questions.
Construction on the French colonial style home was started in 1787 by Robin deLogny and completed in 1790. But the plantation takes its name from Jean Noel Destrehan, who married deLogny’s daughter, Celeste, and bought the property after her father’s death in 1792. Destrehan was also appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to the legislative council responsible for organizing and creating the laws for the new state of Louisiana. The appointment signed by Jefferson and Secretary of Sate James Madison is on display at the plantation although photographs of it are not permitted.
The plantation remained in the Destrehan family until 1910 when it was sold to the Destrehan Manufacturing Company and then to Amoco which operated an oil refinery and a company town on the property until 1958.
During the tour, visitors learn about the family who lived in the house. They are also told about those who actually built the house–the enslaved which numbered more than 200 before the Civil War. The names of some of those appear on the registry posted on one of two slave cabins that sit near the entrance. The names of other slaves are placed throughout the house where they would have worked. One of those was Marguerite, a cook and laundress, whose story is told by the historical interpreters.
In the education center, originally an overseer’s cabin, are exhibits about the Slave Revolt of 1811. The revolt, which nearly succeeded, was one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history. Contrary to the letters from the planters, “which are the basis for most accounts of the revolt,” according to historian Daniel Rasmussen, “the slave army posed an existential threat to white control over the city of New Orleans.” Three trials of those accused as instigators were conducted at Destrehan. Many found guilty were executed, others were sent back to their plantations for a life of hard toil. The story is as dramatic as any movie script but until recently, little was heard about it in American history classes. To its credit, Destrehan has made every effort to bring this part of its history to the forefront.
Plantation life was often portrayed through that of the owners but little attention was focused on the ones they enslaved. Destrehan, it seems, is attempting to correct that.
I only remember seeing my Dad cry twice. Once was at the funeral of my Mother, to whom he was married 65 years. The other was when he stood with my son and I at the American cemetery at Anzio, Italy.
When my Dad was 80-years-old, I took him, along my oldest son, Matthew, then 14-years-old, and my cousin, Claudette, on a trip to Italy. It was the first time my Dad had returned to Italy since there as a young, 22-year-old American GI. That trip was no pleasure visit and came right at the height of the Italian campaign of World War II.
My Dad’s first stop was in Sicily when the 5th Army and his 45th Division invaded that large island. Next came Salerno and Paestum. Soldiers climbed down the sides of the ships carrying the troops into the landing craft that would ferry them to the beaches just south of Salerno. Regarded as the D-Day invasion of Italy, my Dad once recalled how scary it was to climb down the rope nets into the boats bobbing below. He never talked about how terrified he must have been bouncing across the water, knowing what was to come once the gate of the landing craft dropped, exposing him and his men to heavy enemy fire from on shore. The Allies lost 2,009 soldiers at Salerno, another 7,050 were wounded and 3,501 missing. He would make one more landing after Salerno, at the invasion of Southern France. I can’t imagine how he did it.
During his trip back to Italy, the one thing my Dad wanted to do was to visit the “American cemetery.” After stopping at cemeteries in Salerno and Monte Cassino, we learned that the American fallen were buried at Anzio. We added Anzio to the itinerary.
We rented a car and drove from Rome to Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, near the beachhead where the Battle of Anzio took place. There are 7,800 buried here, another 3,100 names are listed on the Wall of the Missing. On the way in, we stopped at the office where a caretaker on duty gave us a pamphlet and told my Dad where he could find the grave of a friend’s uncle who had been killed when parachuting into the battle.
Together, we walked through the rows and rows of white markers. My Dad stood silently and shook his head. “I’ve never understood,” he said, “why I came home and they didn’t.” Tears rolled down his cheek. He turned away and walked off, my son followed. They paused, long enough for me to capture a photo, in one of the rows while my Dad tried to regain his composure.
Veteran’s Day in this country is November 11. This year, it is preceded by Election Day on November 8. My Dad’s birthday is November 21. My Dad passed away two years ago. If he were still alive, I am sure he would be disgusted by the campaigns being waged this election. But he would vote. He would vote not only because he deeply believed it was his patriotic duty, just as serving his country in World War II was, but also for all those who didn’t return from the War as he did.
No matter your political persuasions, I hope you’ll vote this Election Day. If not for yourself, for my Dad and all those who gave their lives like those buried at Anzio, who we honor on Veteran’s Day for they are the true ‘silent majority.’
Read more about my Dad’s service record here, written by my brother Brad, and create a page for your own service member. I’ve also written about my Dad’s military service in previous blog postings. You can click on the following links to read those in case you missed them: http://bit.ly/2edw57z and http://bit.ly/2eCZyGu.
A company called Light is introducing a new compact camera that uses new technology. They enlisted some photographers to mention it in their blogs and to write about one of their favorite locations to shoot or a unique spot in their city. I was one of those contacted for Light’s #VantagePoint project.
A request like this isn’t easy for me because I have so many favorite spots and so many favorite images that I’ve created over the years. But I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk to you about one of my favorite local subjects (besides the people I photograph). And that is Bellingham’s old City Hall building, now part of the Whatcom County Museum of Art.
It’s an iconic building in town and safe to say probably the most photographed in Bellingham. Completed in 1892, it served as the town’s official city hall until 1939 when new offices were built and the museum moved in.
The noble red-brick and Chuckanut sandstone structure was designed by local architect Alfred Lee in the Second Empire style of Victorian architecture. According to the City’s website, is “currently one of this style’s most exquisite example in the Pacific Northwest. This building epitomizes the general characteristics of this French inspired style, which are tall, bold and purposely three-dimensional. Some of the design elements are also an eclectic mixture of the Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival style.” It includes a high mansard roof, classical columns on either side of the main entrance, and a prominent, central bell tower, all of which draw the photographer’s eye.
I have photographed the building, or elements of it, from a variety of spots, angles, times of day and year. It has been the setting for many of my senior portrait sessions and the choice of seniors who want their portrait to reflect something uniquely Bellingham. And I’ve used a variety of cameras over the years from my Mamiya RB67 and Nikon F5 film cameras, to my digital Nikon D700s to (yes,) my cell phone cameras. It all depends upon what I may happen to have with me or what I’m using at the moment. The images included in this post were taken on all of these various cameras.
The building now houses part of the museum’s collection and its spacious Rotunda Room is frequently the site for concerts, including the Bellingham Festival of Music‘s popular free lunch-time chamber concerts. I even photographed one of those this past summer.
When you visit Bellingham, which I hope you’ll do one day, be sure to stop by the old City Hall. It’s likely to be as memorable for you as it has been for many photographers and visitors before you.
I’ve not seen or tried out the new Light camera but according to the company’s website, the camera, Light L16, is sold out until 2017. You can check it out yourself.
Birthday surprises usually come in the form of parties or gifts. I’ve received both. But last year for my birthday, I was surprised to learn about a new relative. And fortunately, it came as a welcomed surprise.
The news arrived not with someone standing on my door, but in the form of a large mailing envelope sent from Sweden. I immediately recognized the return address as that of Bo, cousin to my aunt Marie who was married to my father’s brother, Dale. I’ve known Bo nearly my entire life. His family and my own have become like extended family. I spend time with them whenever I go to Sweden, as I did earlier this summer.
When I opened the envelope from Bo, I expected to find a birthday card, but was surprised to find much more. Inside was a letter that read: “As you are very like Pippi Longstocking in many ways there is some connection to her in you I must say…As the author Astrid Lindgren who wrote the book is a kind of relative to your mother.” Along with the letter was a family tree linking my mother to the Swedish author as a fourth cousin. My mother’s fourth cousin?
What a discovery! Astrid Lindgren is one of Sweden’s most treasured authors. Her books about the freckled-faced, pig-tailed girl, Pippi Longstocking, has become a children’s classic throughout the world. Her books have been translated into 70 languages and made into several films and television series. There is even an Astrid Lindgren’s World, a children’s theme park and a popular family destination located outside Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby.
Lindgren herself was honored last year when her picture was placed on the 20 Swedish kronor, replacing that of another beloved Swedish children’s writer, Selma Lagerlöf. Bo had enclosed one of the freshly printed bills inside my letter. In addition, Lindgren and the characters from her books became the subject of a set of shiny silver commemorative coins. One of these, along with the folder with spots for the other coins, I also found in Bo’s package. I want to collect the entire set.
Having learned about my Lindgren connection, I of course made it a priority on my recent trip, to visit Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby where she was born, where she is buried and where Pippi’s adventures are set. It was a part of my trip to which I was most looking forward.
I drove into Vimmerby mid-afternoon on a Saturday. It was only a 48 minute drive inland from Vastervik, where my husband and I had disembarked from the Gotland ferry. The shops in Vimmerby’s town square had closed at two o’clock. I would not buy any Pippi Longstocking souvenirs to carry home. We strolled into the charming square, empty except for a handful of visitors like ourselves.
At one end of the square sat the old, mustard-colored Town Hall and opposite is a lovely hotel with patio tables on the porch. In the center of the square, near the hotel, are several small play structures taken from Lindgren’s books: a sailing ship,a cottage, Kindergarten-sized children were crawling in and out and climbing up and down in delight.
On the other side of the square, nearer the Town Hall, is a life-size sculpture of my famous cousin sitting at desk with a typewriter. It felt a little odd to meet my newly found relative in this way, but was quite an honor at the same time.
I next sought out her resting place in the neatly kept, hilltop cemetery. Thanks to some local residents, I found her gravestone, alongside that of her parents and sister. It was a simple stone for such a celebrated figure, quite humble and unassuming. I wondered if it reflected her personality in life.
As we walked back through the streets of Vimmerby we noted the spots where Pippi and her sidekick, Tommy, had their adventures. Then we headed out to the Lindgren family home, where Astrid was born and lived as a child. The little house is located on a farm known as Näs in Vimmerby. It stands exactly as it was when Astrid grew up there, having been restored by Lindgren herself. Tours of the house are available almost daily except when closed for the winter from mid-December until March. Unfortunately, we arrived after hours. Had someone been around I might have told them that I was a ‘cousin’ from the U.S., in hopes that they would take pity on me and allow me inside.
Also on the property, owned by the city of Vimmerby, stands a modern glass-walled exhibition hall where her life and achievements are displayed. But again, we were too late and unable to go in. I was disappointed but until only a year ago, I didn’t even know that the woman remembered here was even remotely related to me. Now that I do, I will return the next trip to see both the house and the museum.
Back in Stockholm, three long, large banners hung down from the city’s concert hall. On two of the red banners were the words: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award with the name and image of the winning author—Meg Rosoff—printed on the center banner. The award is presented annually to presented to authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and reading promoters to honor her memory and promote interest in children’s and young adult literature. It is the largest such literature award in the world.
Lindgren’s apartment in Stockholm where she lived for 61 years, is also open for tours but reservations must be made in advance. Even though we were unable to secure reservations, Bo accompanied me to apartment. The apartment itself looks out over a large park, Vasa Park, bustling with children. Lindgren would be pleased, I’m sure, to hear their gleeful shrieks and young laughter outside her window.
Next time I visit Sweden, I will return to these places for an inside tour. For now, however, I have the commemorative coins Bo sent to me and the 20 kronor bills that I collected and carried home to share with my family. How many people can say that their cousin appears on their national money? What a birthday surprise that was!
Relatively few Americans can trace their family’s history, even though the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. Even fewer know exactly the place where their ancestors lived before leaving for this country. And, I’ll wager, even fewer have ever been to visit that spot. I’m one of the fortunate who have.
Even within my own family, only three of us (so far) on my mother’s side, have made the journey “home;” myself, my mother and my aunt Hazel. And we know our family from my great-grandfather’s side who remain in the ‘old country’ although we were lucky to find them.
Until 1970, we had no idea that my mother’s family still had relatives living in Sweden. We only learned this after considerable sleuthing by Bo (see last week’s blog post), who helped us track down my mother’s Swedish family history. We knew from Bo who located the records of embarkation stored in Växjo, Smaland at the Utvandranus Hus (House of Emigrants) that my great-grandfather, Johannes Frederick, had come from Anga on the Swedish island of Gotland. There he had been a ‘crofter’ or someone who had worked the land for the farm owner.
With this information, Bo set out to find the family on Gotland. He eventually found the farm in Anga where my great-grandfather had lived through a death registry at the ‘county’ archives in Visby. There was listed someone with my family name who had had a brother living in the U.S. He then turned to a record book with the names of those who had owned farms in the area. This led him to the farm in Anga. But finding the rest of the family wasn’t as easy.
Somewhere along the way, my great-grandfather’s brother’s family (following?) had changed their last name. The reasons for this, so the story goes, is either because they were embarrassed by a family member who had been a Lutheran priest in Dalhem, Gotland, and who was known to imbibe a bit too much of the communion wine or, depending upon who you believe, a family member, Johannes Frederick’s brother perhaps, got into a little trouble with the law (possibly during the prohibition era in the United States). We’re a little hazy on the details. But the end result was that Johannes Frederick’s brother changed his last name. It wasn’t until Bo discovered this that he located the other side of my family still living right there in Gotland!
My mother and her cousin, Dorothy, who was, at the time, researching the family history were ‘thrilled’ that Bo had found our relatives. As my mother wrote to Bo in 1970: “We realize that we are fortunate in having you do our research as I don’t think anyone else would have been able to find them. I have a sister living in Arizona who is planning a trip to Sweden next year so she is more than happy to receive all the information as she will, no doubt, visit them.”
As it turned out, my aunt Hazel, to whom my mother referred, wasn’t able to go on the trip in 1971 with her cousin Dorothy. So it was Dorothy who was the first to meet her cousin, Bengt, and his son, Sivert. Hazel finally met the family 1991 when she and I went together on our first visit to Sweden. (Click the link here for that story.)
Meeting the family in Gotland was something I’ll never forget. Sivert and Bengt greeted us at the airport, then we drove us to his father’s home where we met his wife. My aunt sat next to Bengt on the sofa, who sat next to Sivert who was translating as Bengt spoke limited English as neither of us spoke any Swedish at the time. (I have since learned the language.) Chills shot up back as Bengt began to speak. I couldn’t believe it. I recognized that voice. I had heard it before even though I had never met Bengt. Bengt’s tone was the same as that of my own grandfather, who had died when I was only three but who had lived the last days of his life with my parents. His voice had obviously stuck with me and now, more than 30 years later, was giving rise to a memory long forgotten.
Since that first meeting, I have returned to Gotland three times. I have visited the farm where my great grandfather lived and worked before leaving for the U.S. and met the farmer and his wife who now own it. My parents too travelled there in 1993 and also drove from Visby, where my cousin Sivert lives, to Anga. One of my three sons has also visited Gotland with me and stood beside the cottage where my great grandfather had lived. Most recently, my husband accompanied me on a trip there. Going to Gotland feels like going home. I guess, in a way, because it is.
My cousin and I have become, well, cousins. We keep in touch. We know each other’s families (he has visited the U.S. twice), exchange Christmas cards, shared the loss when both our parents, Hazel, cousin Dorothy and other members of our family died just as we will share the happiness when his daughter, Natalie, soon marries. As Sivert says, we both want our sons and daughter to know one another; to know that they have family who, although separate by a great distance, aren’t really that far apart at all.