Thursday, June 18, 2015

365 True Things: 82/Graves (6/18/15)

Monterey angel
Today on the drive from Alvdal to Folldal, we asked Heidi if she minded stopping at a little chapel that was right on the way. Our ulterior motive was a geocache, but she said she didn’t mind at all: she could use a cigarette break. And as it turned out, she was also happy to visit her grandparents’ grave, in that same small but uncrowded churchyard. We didn’t find the cache, but we enjoyed hearing a little about her mother’s parents—neither of whom Heidi knew (her grandmother died at age forty, apparently of complications at a late stage of pregnancy; her grandfather died when Heidi was just two).

As we continued on our way, after a few minutes Heidi pointed to the left and said, “That’s where my mother grew up.” It was a subsistence dairy farm in those days, and today it looked very neat and very green from the late-spring grasses and leaves just bursting out (she called the tiny leaf clusters on the beeches “mouse ears”).

Folldal kirkegård
Later, after we’d run some errands, we went into Folldal town to pick up a bunch of deep red roses to take to Heidi’s father, Magne’s grave. He died last year, and as she tidied up the pansies and primroses that nestled against a wooden cross that will eventually, once the earth has settled, be replaced by a headstone, she talked about his funeral, how the people were lined up between the grave monuments as far as the church itself, and how moving that show of respect was.

Another tradition in the small towns of Norway is for local residents to fly their flag at half staff, again out of respect. I've driven through a town where this practice was being observed, and it's strikingly moving—even when I had no idea who was being so honored. Magne's friends and neighbors followed this custom as well. I could just imagine all the fluttering red-white-blue crosses, bunting of sorrow.

Next to Magne's grave we noticed another headstone decorated with reindeer lichen, a specialty of this area that gives it a beautiful otherworldly look. Then we saw the names: Martin and Erika Kjønsberg. "Are those your father's parents?" I asked. Shortly before, at the Grimsbu community hall where on Saturday we will be celebrating Heidi's daughter's wedding, Heidi had shown us photos from the 1930s of the community schoolteacher—Magne's father—and his couple dozen students, who included Magne himself and his two brothers. His gravestone stated that Martin, identified as Lærer (Teacher), died in 1942, when he was just short of forty as well. Kidney failure.

Six (or seven?) children raised by widowed parents during hard times in a physically challenging place with its long, hard winters. It helps explain a bit about Heidi's parents, both of whom are upright, solid, and deeply committed to community.

It was lovely to see the graves of Heidi's forebears, to get a little more of her story in this beautiful place.

Visiting these graves reminded me of a trip I took through Minnesota seven years ago, when I decided to stop in the town my mother lived in as a girl and see if I could find her parents' grave. I had visited it some twenty years earlier with my mother, but I didn't remember it at all. I asked at a gas station where the local cemetery was. The fellow named two names, and I didn't have a clue. "Hilly or relatively flat?" he tried. I thought I remembered hills. He gave me directions, and off I went.

I still didn't recognize the place, and I certainly didn't remember where my grandparents were buried. I drove the loop once and was about to leave in defeat when I thought, "Nah, let's give it one more try." As I rounded a curve that led back toward the exit, something—a headstone, an angle of view, a shadow—nudged me. I parked, got out, and headed toward an edge of the burial ground, overlooking a hillside that dipped into a wooded vale. Sure enough, there they were: John J Skinner—also a schoolteacher, and eventually superintendent of schools in a southern Minnesota town—and Annie H Skinner. Annie was the only grand-parent I ever knew—a little like Heidi knowing only her father's mother.

Also set in the ground were two small stones marking the resting place of infant boys who had died: the reason (as I've explained elsewhere) my mother came to be adopted into the Skinner family when the couple thought they were unable to have their own children. (They were wrong, but by the time my aunt Mary Ann came along, my mother was well ensconced in her new home.)

I was struck by their quiet remove from the bustle of other graves in this cemetery. My family does tend to be outsiders, so it seemed entirely appropriate. And my grandparents' eternal view out over the forest is exquisite.

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