They had been gathering around my bed as I slept fitfully, the ancestors. First, the ones closest to mind since my visit to the resting place of Nias – and Anna – and Martinus. I did not know it, but when I stood there with my aged hand resting on top of their marker, with the large name engraved in the red granite, I had called them forth.
Not only these three, but all who came before and after them.
I had called my great-grandparents by name that day: Nias, the school teacher and farmer and his wife, Anna, seven months pregnant with my grandfather, their little daughter in tow when they arrived in southeastern Minnesota from Norway in the summer of 1873.
They would have four more children, three of whom I would see briefly on several occasions in my young childhood. Brief but memorable. They were family. Somehow I knew that that was important and I should pay attention and remember.
On a perfect, sunny, warm Monday in June, I recently traveled the hour and a half to Spring Grove, taking back roads so I could see the geography of the area. Beautiful, rolling hills that make tilling the land a challenge, nonetheless create an artistry of curving lines with pale green shoots growing their way into corn that will be harvested in the fall. Lacy white and purple wildflowers dotted the ditches and I was returning after two years to the spot where I had first spent time with these ancestors.
This time was different. And why not? No experience ever quite repeats itself. This time I didn’t have to search for their place. The four inch high letters, GLASOE, are visible from the narrow road that encircles the area. I could feel the warmth around my heart.
I have plenty of pictures from two years ago so I didn’t need to repeat them: the corn in the background wasn’t fully grown this time, but everyone was still in their place. All the Norwegian names, friends of my family, rest with them. I needed only to spend some time remembering and giving thanks.
The time came for me to go to town to visit the Lutheran Church where Nias had had the honor of being the klokker of the congregation, leading the hymn singing and opening and closing with prayer each week. (Did I get my singing voice from him?) I turned to go, but in only a few steps, I felt called back. I had to return, for what I didn’t know.
That is when I laid my hand on the imposingly large marker and waited. I didn’t have long to wait. The image of Nias and Anna was alive, and I was swept up in such a deep gratitude for how they had lived and loved that I burst into tears and began to recite all the details that I knew about them. Giving thanks for the home in which my grandfather was so powerfully raised; the strong and loving home that their son, my father, built with my equally strong and loving mother, and the life with which I have been so fortunately blessed.
In the three days after, I was not able to shake the memory of this day. The sense of presence.
“Yet the future of every experience is its disappearance. This raises a fascinating question: Is there a place where our vanished days secretly gather? …I believe that there is a place where our vanished days secretly gather. The name of that place is memory.” -John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, “Transcience Makes a Ghost of Experience.”
Now I was being reminded that we are the sum of all our experiences. Good and bad. The sum of our choices, right or wrong.
What I now knew was that the sum includes the ancestors.
The choices that they made. Good and bad. Right and wrong.
When I returned home, I could not rest. I wanted to be able to write about it. But words would not come. I was frustrated beyond belief! How I got to sleep last night, I do not know. I only know that just after 3 am, I awoke with an unexpected sense of peace.
I did not see them, but it was as if all the ancestors – even those whose names I do not know, whose histories are long lost in the valleys of Norway and Sweden – were there with me in my little bedroom.
It was as if they were blessing me, smiling upon me, grateful for me, their long-lost daughter who finally called them into being. Their bodies would not have had enough room in that small place, but there was more than enough space for their spirit presence.
Their bones rest here or thousands of miles away. And yet, the gifts that they set in motion are still alive and well in an old woman who will join them some day. And in the meantime, the place of memory is sweet. The vanished days still have some power to bless.
The ancestors have said it is so.
Amazing grace. How sweet is the sound.