Signs of the Times

This blog post was inspired by a set of images taken by our daughter Kristyn on neighborhood walks in Lebanon, Oregon, this spring. During the height of the pandemic, she documented a spontaneous blooming of signs posted in windows and plastered on walls. They are an ephemeral and unexpectedly moving visual commentary on these times.

We named our blog Sixty-Sixty, some sixty-four posts and six years ago now. And here we are in 2020, when we will both turn seventy. How terribly strange to be seventy, indeed. Especially now, in the midst of a pandemic and social upheaval.

We were both born in the aftermath of World War II. We missed the rationing and shortages. The disruption and dislocation of everyday life was over. We were, in fact, the hopeful product of its passing. We didn’t experience the anxiety, the privation, the constant worry over loved ones we couldn’t see, touch, hug, and kiss. Yet there were signs, if you knew where to look, of the war’s lasting effects.

There was our fathers’ reluctance to discuss their time during the war. There was the headlong rush of the “Greatest Generation” to accumulate the signs and signals of peace and prosperity: a perfect family, a new house in the suburbs, a television to dominate the living room, a new car to drive on Eisenhower’s new interstate highways. These were the symbols of a present and a future where fear had been banished, prosperity reigned, and families, at least white ones, would be safe. It couldn’t last. It didn’t.

Our childhood was punctuated by Sputnik and the Space Race. The Cold War. Civil Defense drills. Bomb shelters. Putting your head down, crouching under your school desk in 1962. Our adolescence was marked by Vietnam and its mounting death toll. Protest and riots. A letter from the Selective Service. The magnitude of one’s draft number. Four dead in Ohio. Smoke and tear gas. Che Guevara on a red flag. A grin and a flashed peace sign. Long hair and freak flags. So many signs of social unrest, symbols of protest, portents of an uncertain future.

The turmoil of Vietnam and its protests were soon followed by Watergate, impeachment articles, Nixon’s resignation, scandal, malfeasance, and corruption. The lurid headlines were signifiers of a new, not necessarily better, world—portents of our current predicament.  We remember the gasoline shortages of 1973 and 1979, putting the car in neutral and coasting the downslope to save fuel on a long, surreal trip from Ohio to Massachusetts and back. Shortages again, as during the war three decades before, harbingers of shortages to come, of masks, and Lysol, and trust.

In quick succession came the Reagan Years and the slow, sad dissolution of government; the “Silent Majority” and the first symbols of the Culture Wars. Chernobyl and its toxic cloud. Then the Gulf War, proclaiming the first live televised war, the tracers leaving colorful tracks behind Wolf Blitzer as they sped their way on to Baghdad. Then there was impeachment again, the birth of the internet, and an ensuing explosion of cyber signs and symbols, memes—new vehicles to carry the loaded semantics of an increasingly fractured society. Then the Twin Towers and 9/11. An unmistakable sign of the uncertain dawning of perilous times. Unprecedented, unparalleled, they said. Until the next unprecedented, unexpected apocalypse.

So now here we are again. This time locked up and closed down, the Great Enemy not so easily identified and rooted out. Not so easily engaged with rhetoric and smart bombs and propaganda. The foe, this time, is “invisible” they claim—although if enough of those who made a bad situation worse through incompetence and ignorance looked in the mirror, accomplices would certainly be visible enough. The anti-science, anti-vaccination crowd. The proponents of a government capable of being drowned in a bathtub instead of capable of smart planning, PPE stockpiling, contact tracing, and ample testing. And there is sufficient blame to go around, for those who promulgated the philosophies that brought us here, and those who let it happen.

What are the signs of these times? The memes, oh the memes. Russian bots and their provocative posts. The unpresidential tweets, the bizarre public coronavirus briefings, scrapped some 56 days ago, the coronavirus apparently no longer a lethal threat. Nothing to see here. Move on. The surreal rallies. The willful ignorance of so many men and women, both in power and not, on public display.

The headlines scan fitfully for some scarce portent of hope—of a treatment, of a vaccine, of some way, any possible way out. Bruises on the faces of front-line health workers. Seventy, eighty, and ninety-somethings, hiding in their homes, deemed expendable in defense of herd immunity and in support of the stock market. Zoom screens and empty streets. Until the streets weren’t empty anymore.

The coronavirus, disproportionately attacking the black community, converged with a long, fitful struggle for civil rights and black lives. A long genealogy of suffering culminated and collapsed into a singularity; it encompassed Rosa Parks and Selma. The Freedom Riders and Bloody Sunday. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Then, again, inevitably, another black man died. George Floyd joined his brothers and sisters, the latest, but not the last, of an unbroken and continuing string of deaths lashing our society to the consequences of enslavement. Echoes of Watts and Ferguson reverberated again in New York, Seattle, and a thousand other places large and small. Now, as in the 1960s, the vanguard of change was met with the usual suspects: tear gas, bullets and batons, beatings and boots. Denial.

But there are positive signs as well: the truth-speaking of men and women whose allegiance is to science and rational thought.  Legions of doctors, academics, and public health officials labor unrelentingly to alleviate or solve the coronavirus scourge. Their abiding interest is not short-term gain, power for the sake of power, but to serve the public to the best of their ability: an ideal to which, thankfully, some of our government officials and elected officers still aspire. An aspiration upon which many, too many, so-called public servants, have turned their backs.

There are thousands, those who are able, who have donned masks and gone out into a newly dangerous world, into perilous streets and public squares. They have risen in astounding numbers to pursue a greater good, braving virus and violence and reactionary hysteria to proclaim that Black Lives Matter—a potent sign that we earnestly yearn to be more than we lately have been. A sign of hope for democracy as the American military pushes back against pressure to become involved in domestic affairs, against pressure to send active duty troops to quell the legitimate protests of its own citizens.


And then there are the actual signs, the real life, cardboard and paper banners of hope. They crop up in windows, and in yards, on sidewalks and the sides of buildings. They say “thank you” to nurses and doctors and paramedics. They say we appreciate that you lay your life on the line for us: grocery workers and nurse’s aides and hospital janitors. They congratulate absent graduating classes and hard-worked teachers. They say, “we miss you” and exhort us to “stay safe” and look to an uncertain future with hope. But sometimes staying safe isn’t really an option. We need to say, in words and deeds, in stark black and white, that equality matters. That free speech and freedom of assembly matter. That Black Lives Matter.


We yearn to be beyond these strange, uncanny times. But we also yearn for what lies beyond to be different, a reflection of our better more noble selves. We hope that this experience, this utter shambles of a national response to both social and natural calamity, leaves a visible mark, a dramatic scar, a signal reminder that we were badly hurt but healed. That we are now stronger, wiser, more prepared for what comes next. A sign that we learned something true and are the wiser for it.

That is the real sign of the times we are looking for.

For Commendable Deeds

“…the less people have to do with history the better.”
(William Maxwell in Ancestors: A Family History, 1971)

As we post today’s blog, we are reminded of the truth of these sage words. Our post commemorates the deeds of ordinary people whose ordinary lives intersected with historical events. While they survived to tell their stories, many caught up in the circumstances of history are not so fortunate. As the coronavirus spreads across the world, we all have been swept up in the evolving history of this moment. We wish that you and your loved ones remain safe. 


Human beings have long engaged in the practices of remembrance. We record, commemorate, and memorialize as a way to bring to mind, to keep in mind, people and events that have, for reasons both great and small, both personal and historical, taken on a significance that we are loath to allow to dissipate and, eventually, to disappear.

It is difficult to push back against the relentless tide of human forgetting—remembrance is a constant struggle against attrition. Our memories are frail and our bodies too.  When I die, what I remember dies with me. When my parents, my siblings, my own offspring, grow old and die, what we once knew together passes with us. What was once important, laden with meaning, so very immediate that it made us laugh out loud or weep uncontrollably, is now so much less than it was, fading until it is nothing, less than nothing, as if it never were.

Unless, unless, we can somehow fight that tide and protect our memories from dissolving into the vast sea of the forgotten. As people and events recede in death and time, their salience, their connections to our contemporary concerns, become weaker and weaker. We use a vast array of tools to forestall that inevitable dissolution. We preserve and, most importantly, share our memories—casting them out onto the human waters in a more substantial form for others to apprehend and, we hope, appreciate. Thus, we paint paintings and snap photographs. We build great memorials, coin medals and preserve small mementos. We write epic poems and publish grand histories. We pass on family legends by word of mouth from one generation to another. These artifacts of memory, we hope, will prove more durable than we.

Joan’s family, as we’ve written before, was dedicated to employing the devices of remembrance. Her beloved grandfather Martin kept copious journals, although, sadly, many of them dating back to the late 19th century were tossed into the trash in a move from Gary, Indiana, to Minneapolis. Although its original Norwegian version is lost, the translated travelogue of an epic return to Norway in 1932 was recorded and lovingly preserved. Uncounted letters were written and a handful of them kept for posterity, now greatly prized. Baptismal and marriage certificates survived, now framed and displayed to commemorate the sacred ceremonies that once marked the secular progress of families. There were mementos of the old country—at least as many as could have survived the rigors of emigration—preserved and cherished with pride of place in our homes. Treasured artifacts of the immigrant’s life in America are on view or, like “Aunt Lena” the homesteader’s quilt, boxed, wrapped, or folded and put away, stored for our children to discover and, we hope, hold dear.

And the photographs. So many photographs. Joan’s Norwegian and Swedish families embraced this technology, seeing in it a way to recover what had been lost in the great sojourn to the West.  By documenting their new lives in America in copious detail, they preserved memories for a family not yet born but imagined in the mind’s eye and yearned for. Joan’s father, Donald, was the most prolific photographer of all—and Joan is still working through the thousands of snapshots that he took and painstakingly documented over her lifetime—where, and when, and who.

Both the Norwegian and Swedish sides of her family understood genealogy implicitly—or, rather, the importance of understanding who you are and where you came from.  Great-aunt Ruth and Grandma Helen Ahlberg would construct the first genealogies of Joan’s Swedish ancestors from Skåne and Värmland in the southwest of Sweden. Martin, Alice, and Ruth Cornelius would do the same for her Norwegian forebears from Nord-Trøndelag and Nordfjord. Joan, the genealogist apparent of both these Scandinavian clans, built upon these early family histories, using the legacy of letters and documents passed forward to her as a foundation for creating a massive genealogy database more at home in our digital world. But this database too is an artifact of memory, meant to be a steadfast bulwark against the attrition of memory.

When we build a genealogy, we detail names, dates, places. We try to determine who married whom and when. We record when someone was born and where they died. Sometimes we are fortunate to learn what an ancestor did for a living. For instance, one long ago grandfather was a farmer, another a fisherman. A distant grandmother was a seamstress and another a milk maid. Because human beings live during times of both peace and war, military service is often commemorated. We find soldiers and sailors dotting our family histories—their periods of service demarcated clearly in the more mundane courses of their lives. Here, especially, the more personal narrative arcs of a family intersect with and are interrupted by great historical events, civil wars, revolutions, invasions, campaigns of conquest.

If truth be told, about most of our ancestors we know very little. As is the way of it, most of the fine detail of an individual life is forgotten. If not for the parish priests and their records, the census takers, and grandparents with good memories, we might not even have the little information about birth, death, or marriage that survives for us to chronicle. Still, sometimes, we can discover more. Perhaps some long ago ancestors did something worth remembering. Maybe they distinguished themselves in military or civil affairs. Maybe they performed some great feat of strength, built a church with a high steeple, or were simply, selfless, courageous, and brave. We hope they were fine deeds, both meritorious and memorable.

And maybe someone saw fit to help us remember their deeds and painted a picture, or wrote a letter, or penned a poem. And, if they did, then those ancestors and their commendable deeds survive. They are not yet forgotten.

Introduction to the Translation

To Joan’s delight a little-known book published in 1938 entitled Bjärehalvön I forna tider by Emil J. Söderman contained a chapter entitled “En äkta Bjäreätt” chronicling the amazing exploits and experiences of two of her (many times) great-grandfathers and a great-uncle.

Joan’s fifth great-grandfather Ola/Olof Svensson Hallengren was born about 1744 in Halland, Sweden. Nothing is known of his early life, but we know that he was a carpenter by trade and worked for a time in the shipyards in Copenhagen. While in Denmark, a son Sven was born on March 10, 1781. Eventually Ola returned with his family to Sweden.  In 1788 Sweden entered into a war with Russia, and Ola left his quiet home in the Swedish countryside to fight in the 1790 Battle of Svensksund while serving on the warship Dygden.

Ola’s son Sven, Joan’s fourth great-grandfather, likewise became entangled in the affairs of Swedish history. As an orderly to Colonel Karl von Cardell, commander of Sweden’s Wendes Artillery Regiment, he witnessed and participated in the Battle of the Nations, also known as the Battle of Leipzig, a conflict that changed history forever with Napoleon’s defeat. After his wartime experience Sven returned to Kristianstad (in what is today Skåne in southern Sweden), where he lived many years until his death on March 8, 1862,  two days shy of his 81st birthday.

The story of one of Sven’s own sons, a fourth great-uncle to Joan named Bengt Petter Svensson was also narrated in Soderman’s book. His story, a much smaller slice of history, but gripping nevertheless, involved a shipwreck that occurred near Bengt’s home in Västra Karup.  Bengt, a brother to Joan’s third great-grandfather Nils Petter, was born July 31, 1818, on Axelstorp, after his father Sven settled in the Grevie parish of Kristianstad. Bengt risked his life to save others but fortunately went on to live a full life of 82 years, passing away on February 2, 1866, in Broddarp, Västra Karup, Skåne.

The tales of all three men are imparted below through Greg’s translation of Söderman’s original Swedish. These stories, while surely once known well, long ago passed from the collective memory of Joan’s family. And yet, the stories have been resurrected because someone saw fit to remember the commendable deeds of these ordinary, yet also extraordinary, men. We are shielded again from the great forgetting.

A True Bjäre Lineage [En äkta Bjäreätt]

From Bjärehalvön i Forna Tider by Emil J. Söderman.
Translated from the Swedish by Gregory M. Shreve, Ph.D.

As has been portrayed before in other literary and historical contexts, the Bjäre countryside of old nurtured a tough, persistent and courageous people. They have descendants who, when they must, bravely faced danger in all its various guises. The essay following below presents some stories, fragments from the lives of those Bjäre forebears. Their brave accomplishments, during both war and peace, depict the distinctive character of our Bjäre ancestors.

These tales go back to the days of Gustaf the Third, to the Napoleonic Era, and up to the time of Charles XV. The memories of those times have been preserved in one lineage, passed down from father to son to the latest descendant, the farmer Johannes Svensson of Slättaryd in Västra Karup.

Figure 1. The old shipyard at Bremerholm / Gammelholm. Perhaps this is where Ola Hallengren performed his great feat of strength.

Ola Hallengren, the subject of the first tale, was born in Halland but moved from there to Bjäre, where he settled in Västra Karup. From there he later went on to Denmark, where he worked as a ship’s carpenter, first at the shipyard in Copenhagen, then at the one in Helsingör. After several years he returned to the Bjäre countryside and established himself as a builder. He erected a number of buildings in the northern parishes. Hallengren was a large man, and he was as strong as he was big. At the time he was considered the strongest man in the district of Bjäre. In fact, it is told that during his time at the Copenhagen shipyard a journeyman there was so angry at an errand boy that he gave him a resounding box on the ear. The boy would have fallen into the water if Hallengren, who was nearby, hadn’t grabbed him.

“What are you doing?” Hallengren said to the fellows gathered around, “What do you mean by this?”

The man who had hit the boy became annoyed as a result and threatened Hallengren, “Maybe you want a box on the ear as well?”

To end the dispute, the shipyard workers agreed that the gathered men would test their strength against one another. They hoped the Swedish giant would be defeated in this contest of brawn. The men went to a location where the workers had assembled two iron weights, weighing ten lispund (about 18 1/2 pounds) each, for a total of 375 pounds.[1]  To find out who among them could lift the weights, they each tried, one after the other—but all failed to hoist them, excepting Hallengren’s original opponent. Finally, the Swede took his turn. He lifted, without apparent difficulty, a weight in each hand and then carried them back and forth.

Then, addressing the astonished shipyard comrades surrounding him, he said: “Now let a Dane do this.”

After this contest of strength, Hallengren enjoyed great respect in the Danish shipyards.

However, as mentioned above, Ola returned to Sweden from the shipyards. After the revolution of 1772, a few happy, peaceful years followed for our country.[2] But then, in 1788 during Gustaf III’s reign, that peace was disturbed when war broke out with Russia, both on land and at sea. Swedes fought with the greatest bravery—albeit not always with success.

During 1790 the war was mainly waged at sea. After a victory outside Fredrikshamn, Gustaf III withdrew his large fleet into the Bay of Vyborg. Due to the King’s carelessness in doing this, many Swedish ships were lost when, only after some great effort, the fleet finally managed to break its way through a blockade of Russian ships of the line outside the inlet to the Bay.[3]  A few days later, on July 9, the Russian fleet and the Swedish archipelago fleet[4] reinforced by a large Swedish regular navy fleet[5] came together at Svensksund, and the most glorious naval battle of our history was fought. The battle began at half-past nine in the morning and ended at ten in the evening. During this span of time the Swedish fleet, under the command of the King himself, won a breathtaking victory over a Russian fleet that had looked to be the certain victors at the beginning of the battle.

Figure 2. The battle of Svensksund, 1790, as depicted by Swedish painter Johan Tietrich Schoultz

Bjäre-born Ola Hallengren took part in this storied sea battle with great courage and utmost bravery. He was a seaman[6] aboard the warship Dygden (Virtue), with its great complement of cannons. In the dense smoke of the guns during the heat of the battle, the Dygden was separated from the rest of the fleet and found itself surrounded by six Russian ships. Soon a dreadful cannonade began. On the Swedish warship nine men stood at each cannon, raining death and destruction down on the surrounding Russian ships. One of the Russian ships had its rudder damaged and was helpless. On some the rigging was shot down and yet others were holed by cannon shot. However, the Dygden was also greatly damaged during the uneven battle. The masts were down and the entire rigging, with its tackle, ropes, and chains formed a great chaotic jumble on the blood-soaked decking. Hallengren, who crewed one of the cannons during the heated battle, was finally, as he related the story himself, among the last three men in his gun crew. The other six had fallen. In the end, he had to man the cannon himself and put his immense strength to use. After each reloading he had to put his broad shoulders against the cannon and push it back into firing position. Eventually, however, the Dygden was no more than a floating wreck, having received no less than seventy-eight shots to the waterline. But, finally, the battle was over, and the survivors had to use their last remaining strength to try to patch the many breaches. They used anything suitable they could manage to procure.  Sailors were even lowered down along the sides of the ship seated in leather bags, to assist in the work of keeping the ship afloat until the battle was over and help could arrive. Hallengren also related that when the smoke of the guns was finally somewhat dissipated, and the Dygden had successfully vanquished its enemies, they were then shot at by the Swedish flagship. On board the flagship they believed that the Dygden, which was not showing its flag, was a hostile enemy ship. Finally, a spar was hoisted erect on the deck displaying the Swedish flag, and soon the crew, which had fought with the greatest bravery, was taken into the care of its countrymen.

Figure 3. Linjeskeppet “Kronprins Gustav Adolf” was same type of ship as the“Dygden,” for which no close-up illustration survives. Jacob Hagg (1839 – 1932). Sjöhistoriska Museet

During Charles John XIV’s great war against Napoleon, the most decisive battles were fought at Grossbeeren, Dennewitz, and Leipzig. Swedish troops, including the Wendes Artillery Regiment under the command of Colonel Karl von Cardell, participated in the storming of the latter city, the final act of a huge wartime drama.

Cardell was born in Germany and served initially in the Prussian army, but then joined the Swedish military, where he earned great praise for his reorganization of the artillery,

Figure 4. Carl von Cardell, Wendes Artillery Regiment. Riksarkivet.

Colonel Cardell and his troops participated in the great battle at Leipzig between the 16th and 19th of October in 1813. His ordonnans or orderly[7] at this time was Sven Hallengren, son of the aforementioned Ola Hallengren. Sven told a story about the Colonel’s big brown horse getting stuck in a marsh outside of Leipzig; the Colonel wanted to swap horses with his orderly, who rode a smaller and lighter steed. He went on to say, concerning the storming of Leipzig, that when the Wende Artillery Regiment successfully let its cannons play against a pair of the city’s double iron gates, he went to his colonel and applied for permission to load the bronze cannons with a double charge. Cardel said that the orderly was allowed to do this, but only upon his own responsibility. An artilleryman, meanwhile, had managed to reach the gates, around which he drew a large circle. Then concentrated fire was directed towards this target, and after three terrible salvos, the gates collapsed with a great noise. The artillery then drove into the city through the opening in the wall; the firing cannons delivered shot after shot, sweeping through the streets filled with frightened people. “Driving through wounded Prussians, shattered wagons, and abandoned French cannons, they plunged into a real hell in the street. Here, they met up with some scattered Prussian soldiers. Smoke obscured everything. The gates and doors of the houses were closed, but from all the windows and apertures, and from the all the roofs, death rained down in a murderous hail of bullets. The French had barricaded themselves in the houses and were also standing in concentrated masses far up the street, which was littered with dead and wounded within a few moments.” In addition, Hallengren added: “From the houses a lot of boiling water was thrown on us when we passed. Because of the participation of the civilian population in the street battle, Cardell—at that time General—who, incidentally, during the Great Napoleonic War, was known not just for his skill as an artillery officer but also for his cruelty and ruthlessness, allowed his troops an hour’s looting in the town hall. Many of them became wealthy men in that time.” Hallengren also remarked how Napoleon, if he had been watching from one of the city’s towers and seen the entrance of the Swedish troops into the city, would have exclaimed: “I think it is raining Swedes from heaven, for I see nothing but blue troops everywhere.”

Sven Hallengren was thus able to witness Napoleon’s retreat with the shattered remnants of his army—a retreat which signified nothing less than the liberation of Europe.

Figure 5. Wende’s Artillery Regiment, Early 1800’s

Sven Hallengren’s son, Bengt P. Svensson, became a successful farmer in his ancestral home of Västra Karup, where he was born in 1818. Bengt also had an opportunity to demonstrate the same courage and resourcefulness as his brave father, albeit not on a bloody battlefield amongst a thousand dead.

On a stormy autumn night, a large English full rigger was stranded at “Själaviken” near the community of Påarp in Västra Karup. Huge breakers heaved their foamy white masses over the large ship, cracking the hull open at the seams. The unlucky crew, who at any moment thought the ship was going to break apart, had taken refuge in the rigging, to which they had lashed themselves as well as they could. Meanwhile, a crowd of people gathered on the beach—about 300 fishermen and sailors—to witness the raging of the storm and the violent onslaught of the breakers against the helpless ship. They were also witness to the shipwrecked crew’s anguish, as the sailors waved frantically from the rigging at the onlookers on the beach, begging to be saved from certain death.

Figure 6. Snipa. Gerhard Albe 1919.  Sjöhistoriska museet

A while later a Norwegian boat, a snipa,[8] arrived from Torekov, a nearby fishing village. Who would now want to risk their lives to try to save the shipwrecked crew, if it was at all possible? The assembled fishermen and sailors agreed: “Only those who are tired of living would try.” Finally, four courageous farmers— who were also fishermen and thus seafarers—Bengt P. Svensson, Ola Peter the Russian, Malm and Eneman, emerged from the crowd and declared themselves willing to attempt a rescue of those on board the wrecked ship. The snipa was then immediately brought down to the shore and launched well out into the white foam of the churning breakers. Three of them climbed right into the boat, one going to the helm and the other two to the oars, while Bengt P. Svensson went out as far as he could, standing in the water at the side of the boat and supporting it, after which he also boarded. With the greatest effort and under constant danger of capsizing, the four brave men in the boat managed to come alongside the damaged ship. Soon they were on board. They had first attached a rope anchored on land to their small boat, and using this they climbed into the rigging, where they managed to bring the frozen shipwrecked sailors down into the snipa. Using the same rope, they were able to bring the rescue boat back to the shore with greater surety. Soon the crew was all happily rescued.

The amazing rescue was recognized by the English crown, and the four bold rescuers also each received a Swedish silver medal worn on a blue ribbon with yellow stripes. On one side was the image of Karl XV, and on the other was the name of the respective rescuer and the words “For Commendable Deeds.”[9] The day the solemn medal ceremony took place in the Västra Karup church it was filled with people.  The church pastor at that time, Professor Eberstein, gave a lofty speech about the four in recognition of their courage and compassion.

Figure 7. För berömliga gärningar

Later, when a ship was stranded during a storm at “Röhälle” outside of Dagshög, an endangered crew was again saved, thanks to Bengt P. Svensson’s courage and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, shipwrecks were not all that uncommon in the olden days on the coast between Torekov and the community of Slättaryd—as well as in the deep waters and dangerous rocks west of Hallands Väderö.

Figure 8. Bengt P. Svensson and his wife Elna Hansdotter, date unknown


[1] Lispund, see also lispound. A unit of weight formerly used in the Baltic countries, varying between 17 and 19 pounds.

[2] This is a reference to The Swedish Revolution of 1772, also known as Gustav III’s Coup. See: Encyclopedia Brittanica. Gustav III.

[3] The “carelessness” referred to here has to do with the fact that when Gustaf III withdrew into Vyborg Bay (in the Gulf of Finland), he allowed the Russian Baltic Fleet under Admiral Vasili Chichagov to blockade the only two channels in and out of the Bay (June 8, 1790). The battle to escape the blockade has been termed “The Vyborg Gauntlet.” See: Wikipedia. Battle of Vyborg Bay.

[4] The archipelago fleet (skärgårdsflottan) or the Fleet of the Army (arméns flotta), was a branch of the Swedish armed forces between 1756 and 1823. The fleet protected the coasts of Sweden, largely surrounded by a natural barrier of archipelagoes. See: Wikipedia. Archipelago Fleet.

[5] The Swedish coastal fleet was reinforced after the escape from Vyborg Bay by 40 Swedish navy ships under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Olof Cronstedt.  See: Wikipedia. Battle of Svensksund.

[6] Literally a “boatman” or seaman. However, unlike modern seamen, most Swedish sailors of the time were enlisted via a specific Swedish recruitment system similar to the one used to provide Swedish infantry and cavalry soldiers: the rotering system. See: Hans Hogman. Military: Swedish Regiments—Navy.

[7] Sven Hallengren was Cardell’s ordonnans, which seems to be the Swedish equivalent to a “batman.” In the military a batman (also: orderly) is a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal assistant. The batman would also have seen to the officer’s pack horse, uniform and kit, as well as performed other duties such as delivering messages. See: Wikipedia. Batman (military).

[8] This was a snipa, a boat common in Norway and Sweden (In Norway see also: snekke, sjekte or kogg). “You often hear the name snipa on a boat, a name that is often mistaken on some boats. But the name is associated with the older open boats that were very slender in their lines and pointed in front and stern. These boats were light-rowed and really adapted for more protected water, but despite that we find many snipa used in the open sea. Like ÖlandssnipanGotlandssnipanSkånesnipan in southern Sweden. In the lakes we find Vänersnipan and Vättersnipan. The most “pointed” boats are found in Norway’s fjords and coasts, such as Oselvern and the Nordland boat, with an extremely slim boat hull for rowing and sailing.” See: Bertil Andersson. Boat Plans.

[9] This is a medal, still awarded today by the Swedish government, to recognize those who have engaged in courageous rescues. See: Wikipedia. För berömliga gärningar.

Read the Original Swedish Here: En äkta Bjäreätt

Figure 8. Bjärehalvön i Forna Tider by Emil J. Söderman

Boxes in the Attic

Boxes, boxes, so many boxes.

One of the corollaries of being in one’s sixties is a predilection for surveying one’s (often copious) belongings. The inventory of possessions—furniture, clothing, collectibles and antiques, memorabilia, papers, lots of papers, seems massive, daunting.

Our very first antique—the beginning of our material inventory—was purchased in the late 1960’s, before we were even married, from a trailer in Pittsburgh that masqueraded as an antique store, every nook and cranny filled, mostly with junk. There we discovered a 1920’s bridge lamp, with a marble base and a unique leaf-patterned shade for $5. We handed our cash over to the old storekeeper, fiercely guarding his cache of treasures. We still remember the enigmatic smile on his face—he thought he was “pulling one over on us,” getting $5 for a worthless old lamp. But it wasn’t—and isn’t—worthless, not to us.

We can walk through our house and remember, almost item by item, those few artifacts that date to our early years together—when everything we owned could fit into a one-bedroom apartment. That, it suffices to say, is no longer even remotely true.

Where did this looming mass of material possessions come from? Yes, we, Greg and Joan, are inveterate (incurable) collectors—and some of the inventory includes collections of porcelain, pottery, encaustic tiles, glass, and books. These we acquired deliberately, with knowledge of what and why we were collecting. Much of it is (and will be, we hope) documented—maybe for a museum or historical society to receive should our children’s interests diverge from ours.

This accumulation was intentional—but so much of what we have has simply come to us organically, in the inevitable cycle of family life. A grandparent moves; a set of lawyer’s cases, a desk, and a piano are offered—and gratefully accepted. A grandmother dies, and then a month later, a grandfather. Photographs, fishing rods, family bibles, and a myriad of objects imbued with sentiment and fond memory pass from one household to another.

Joan at her grandparents’ piano in 1958. Given to us in 1970. We’ve had it ever since.

As the years raced onward, inexorably, a parent, then two, then three, and unexpectedly a brother, succumb to age and disease. The contents of their lives, too, become our inheritance and responsibility. And we must decide—what to discard, what to keep?

These are hard questions. Especially when they arise at the same time we are faced with the endless details and duties that accompany funeral services and burial arrangements. How should the obituary read? What coffin should be selected? When and where do we hold the calling hours? Who will perform the service? What flower arrangements must be ordered? What stone and design for the memorial? We must phone relatives; choose our loved one’s clothing for burial; write notes thanking those who have sent their condolences. And, always, one must deal with the financial consequences of death. We won’t even begin to tackle that complex subject here.

Everything always seems to happen at once and sometimes on short notice. We need to quickly empty out the contents of our parents’ house and clear out brother Bob’s apartment. And so we furiously triage our loved one’s belongings. Discard the old newspapers and magazines, toss the old worn towels, give away the clothes in the closets and drawers. But so many other belongings are bound up with one’s own childhood and the memory of the home that came before this home, the life that came before this life. So, sometimes in the moment, numb with grief, one just boxes up the remaining contents, Soon there are many more boxes in our attic than there were before, waiting for us to sift through their contents, later, at a time when we are more emotionally ready and able.

Then, of course, if one also has children, they grow up and leave—but they don’t take everything with them when they go. They leave traces of their lives behind, with us. So, there are boxes of children’s drawings, hand-made Mother’s and Father’s Day cards, toys, picture books and school papers. It isn’t that these artifacts of childhood are valuable to the outside world; they are not. It is that they are precious to us, permeated with the emotion and memory of a time now twenty or more years past. These items, too, sit boxed and waiting in the attic for processing; and we ask, again, to keep, to discard?

So, here we are, at age sixty-six, surveying all these boxes, containers, albums, and trunks. We look at one another.

Joan declares adamantly, “I won’t leave all of this for my children to go through!”

So, we begin a determined campaign, an offensive, to move against this well-defended mountain of objects and papers and gain a foothold on its flanks. We will open each box, assess the contents, and begin to move objects out of the house into recycling centers, used bookstores, Goodwill shops and, as little as possible, landfills. (It is surprising how many things one has kept are broken and damaged.) Some we will try to give away to our two daughters and our son and their spouses—a quick picture posted to the intended recipient on Telegram—“you want this?” If the answer is “no,” then the item is banished, never to be seen again.

Going through the boxes and sorting the contents, deciding on their disposition, moving things out of the door—it is painful, but also liberating. There is a feeling of lightness, of a burden lifted. So much of this freight we simply carried around for years—boxes from our first apartments, first and second houses, simply migrated with us, unexamined. We repeatedly moved this weighty inventory around, and it got heavier and heavier with each passing year.

Yet, what we are doing isn’t the haphazard “downsizing” and wholesale tossing of a lifetime’s accumulation of artifacts into the void that you sometimes read about in magazines. “Experts” recommend to those of us in our “golden years” that we let go of these things quickly—they want to make it seem easy. Just last year the AARP compiled “20 Tips To Declutter Your House.” Some of their suggestions we accept—scan your important documents, back them up electronically, store and organize them. Others we reject—burn your parents’ love letters, make pillowcases out of your wedding dress, or sell Grandma’s china on eBay.

Throwing it all out is an abdication of responsibility and, in some cases, has tragic consequences. Many years ago well-meaning relatives cleared out Joan’s grandparents’ apartment and threw away her Grandfather Martin’s detailed diaries—the first diary was written in the late 19th century. Martin was a meticulous and literate observer of his times, and they, were, undoubtedly, true masterpieces of the diarist’s art. Joan has lamented their loss for over forty years.

So, there are real treasures in this trash. Old pictures of relatives, precious as gold to the genealogist in Joan—irreplaceable proof that her marvelous people, sturdy Norwegians and Swedes, lived and thrived. There are also family photograph albums, some very old, the kind where the photographs in black and white and sepia are held on the page by paper corners.

“I’d forgotten we had this!” Joan exclaims—looking through one album of old black and white photos. There she appears as a child, in monochrome, wearing an indisputably 1950’s baby bonnet. She’s in her father’s arms. Her mother stands near her with her siblings. It’s surprising to look at; it’s not so much that she is a child—but that her mother, her father, they look so young. It makes one stop and think, astounded.

The Nelson Family, Ruth, Joan (the baby), Don and brothers Robert and Richard. Summer of 1951.

Digging through the strata of our belongings, other artifacts emerge— a record of a trip Joan’s great grandparents took to Norway in 1932; a bundle of letters written home to his parents by Joan’s dad during the Second World War; letters we wrote during our year “behind the Iron Curtain,” saved for us by friends and relatives as a memoir of our difficult but life-changing months in East Germany between 1985 and 1986. And old love letters!

“God, was anyone ever as smitten as I was?” asks Greg.

There are more treasures to be uncovered. Much to her delight, Joan also discovers her parents’ old love letters, written during World War II after her dad was wounded in Sicily and stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sometimes we get derailed—stopping to read some random letter or shed a tear when we find a child’s drawing with the words “I love my Mommy and Daddy” scribbled on it. But mostly we push on, through these poignant distractions, determined to make headway, no matter how overwhelming it all seems.

There are diplomas, even old school notes—these latter not so interesting in and of themselves but for the doodles—some very elaborate and cryptic—that appear in the margins. Greg used to draw, and write poetry—he doesn’t so much now—but these old artistic attempts surface too, rising up from the layers of paper in a dusty, collapsing box. These youthful gems are separated out with all the other treasures we are rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) among this mass of stacked and scattered boxes.

Doodling during Biology class at Arizona State University, 1969. An artistic (?) treasure discovered in Greg’s old school notes.

But not everything is to be saved for posterity. Both Joan and Greg were professors. Our old student rosters, teaching handouts, tests, grade books—all these must go. We were also students and homeowners, so the old tuition bills, the old bank statements long since replaced by electronic records—so many marked with social security numbers—must be tossed. Our shredder gets the workout of its life.

We are, one could say, examining, assessing—maybe curating is the best word. Organizing, labeling, assessing the value—to the family at least—of items that represent the history of our clan. These items tell stories—revealing a parent’s career, earnest courtships, and countless deaths and births. They tell of tastes, likes and dislikes, of trips taken, of opportunities accepted and refused. When we throw all of these out without some thought we deprive ourselves, and our descendants, of some important part of their heritage. We are fortunate, to be sure, that we, Greg and Joan, have the time, and the room, to curate our lives—and the lives of our ancestors. We don’t have to move into a nursing home next month and sell our house. We are not yet faced with those contingencies that would force us to yield up our unique material history.

Love letters…confidential…open at own risk! Please read!

So, we get new boxes, sturdy and white, from Office Depot. They have room for labels. We assemble file folders, archival sleeves, and Sharpie pens. The sorted material goes into these boxes and descriptions are written on them—“Greg’s Unpublished Papers,” “Memorabilia—East Germany,” “Shreve Genealogy.” We purchase whimsical decorative storage boxes—boxes that resemble old books and boxes covered in maps of the world. Our postcards from East Germany go in one. Postcards sent to Greg’s maternal family in a World War II Austrian refugee camp have their special place in another. We tie old love letters in small bundles with twine and store them in boxes marked “Confidential.” Will this box pique someone’s curiosity when it is discovered after we are gone? Will its contents reveal who we were to that future reader?

Postcard to Mitzi Zerweiss (sister to Greg’s mother). Posted to the Ebelsberg resettlement camp (Hiller-Kaserne) near Linz Austria, 1942.

Now we know what’s in these new boxes; we know what’s important and what’s not. When the fancy strikes us, we can spend an hour or two perusing the treasure box of our choice. And, if we’ve curated well enough, weeded, and disposed well enough, then some family member who comes after us might recognize their value and care for them too. They might recognize our boxes and the artifacts they contain as a legacy. They might, through these items, because of these boxes, come to know us, their parents, their in-laws, maybe their grandparents, more deeply, more completely, than if we had simply made it all disappear into the past without a second thought.

Chaos and Krister Henriksson

Krister Henriksson in character as Kurt Wallander

In 2015 Joan and Greg had the opportunity to visit the Canary Islands, to attend a conference hosted by Ricardo, a good friend of ours, and professor at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This was not our first visit to the Islands; we had been there some two years earlier for another iteration of this same conference.

Having been there at all seems miraculous, much less twice. The Canary Islands is one of those places that we had both heard about growing up—far, far away and deeply exotic—a small set of dots in a broad expanse of Atlantic blue off the coast of northwestern Africa. As a boy Greg could locate them with a single finger on his old Replogle globe. Yet, quite improbably, here we were, in Las Palmas on a pleasant evening in January.

Ricardo and his spouse took us to dine at a small restaurant next to our hotel. As we sat down to look at our menus, Greg glanced at another customer sitting relaxed at a table, eating al fresco as the southern sun went down. He looked familiar, and for a minute Greg couldn’t place him. Then the realization dawned; it was Swedish actor Krister Henriksson. We had been watching him in the title role of Wallander (the Swedish version) on Netflix in the weeks just preceding our trip.

On the Calle Ferreras, January 2015

Unlike his rumpled, stubble-faced character, Krister was impeccably dressed and groomed, a sweater draped casually but perfectly over his shoulders (at least as we recall it now). A glass of wine on the table, he gazed serenely out over the blue Punta de Arrecife, a small slice of it visible down the narrow Calle Ferreras.

Some unruly part of us wanted to go over and talk to him, to tell him how much we enjoyed his work—and how well he seemed to inhabit Henning Mankel’s iconic character. But, he seemed content and quite enjoying his solitude, so we left him alone, as we’re sure he much preferred it. We only remarked to our friends that it was quite an improbable coincidence—to have traveled so many miles, to arrive at just the right time to sit in the same restaurant with him in, of all places, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

A view over the Punta de Arrecife

What strange butterflies in the Amazon rainforest precipitated the chain of decisions and actions that would eventually lead to three people taking their leisure in the same café—such an improbable nexus of time and place that it beggars the imagination? We like to imagine that Greg and Joan and Krister simply and quite randomly decided to go to the same place at the same time—but life is not that simple is it?

Some complex set of initial conditions had to be in place for each partner to arrive at this meeting—conditions that could lead to this outcome. This conjunction didn’t have to be, need never have occurred; but, yet, it did. Chaos theory tells us that life isn’t as random as it seems. It is just so complex, influenced by so many interacting variables, that it is, more often than not, simply profoundly uncertain and unpredictable in its outcomes.

We can’t speak for Krister at all, but for Greg and Joan to be on the Calle Ferreras one fine Tuesday evening in January was the result of a long and complex series of precedent decisions and events. Greg wouldn’t have been invited to Las Palmas if he hadn’t been a translation scholar, if he and Joan hadn’t met Ricardo some 14 years earlier in Granada, if Joan and Greg, with a toddler in tow, hadn’t taken the opportunity to live in East Germany for a year where Greg met and worked with an eminent translation scholar and colleague. If Greg hadn’t been dismayed by the state of his career in the fall of 1984, if Joan and Greg hadn’t met at a county hospital geriatrics ward, fallen in love, and married…

Our lives are products of chaos; that is, not to say they are random and senseless, although they may sometimes seem that way. Rather, our lives are emergent patterns that arise out of the complexity of living, of doing this rather than that, of going here rather than there, of marrying this one instead of that one, of making love tonight instead of tomorrow.

Our mind valiantly cobbles together some order out of chaos—memory strives to perceive patterns, to create a coherent narrative of our past experience. We lose this memory, slightly edit that one; we censor those we may wish not to remember; we elaborate those we do. We make the variable lurching path we took through life a bit more ordered and maybe more meaningful than it actually was—a way of exerting control over the uncontrollable—but also just a way of getting things to make some sense.

We are, to a very great extent, a construct of what patterns we make and retain of the actual chaos of living. Our memory is our resident biographer, and it often takes some creative license in assembling its story—the internal narrative we call self. Indeed, some of us tend to create great works of fiction, while others, of a more non-fictional persuasion, if you will, hew more closely to some objective rendering of the past.

As Joan and Greg remember Krister gazing serenely into the setting sun, they cannot help but think of Henning Mankel’s Wallander, at the end of his fictional life, succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. The precise, clever mind of Skåne’s greatest detective comes undone. A mind that once uncovered the minutest details of other peoples’ lives and misdemeanors to assemble a pattern of motive and means and opportunity, could no longer maintain the details of his own story—as the narrative woven by his own memory falters, dissipates, and concludes—as his sense of self disappears.

Krister Henriksson in the Swedish television series Wallander as Detective Inspector Kurt Wallander

That sad unraveling struck close to home. Joan lost a father to the disorder of Alzheimer’s disease. We say disorder and not chaos—chaos sits at the boundary of order and disorder; it is the substrate from which the patterns of cosmos, life, and mind emerge. But for Joan’s father there would never again be order—the spinning of pattern and meaning from the chaotic bits and pieces of living one’s life.

Instead, the entire carefully constructed edifice of her father’s life, the architecture of his extraordinarily organized memory, came apart, neuron by neuron; this memory and then that one broke away and disappeared. Like a dark star, his self collapsed, until at the very end he remembered only the smallest, densest core—his traumatic experience in the Sicilian Campaign of 1943—and then that too was gone, past the event horizon, irretrievable.

A memory from the life of Donald T. Nelson. One of many that slipped away.

So, by the time we, Joan and Greg, reach our sixty-sixth year, the year we write this blog, we’ve seen Krister Henriksson, against all probability, in an improbably exotic place. We want to attach some cosmic significance to this meeting—but realize, alas, there probably is none. Except that, perhaps, in pondering Krister Henriksson and his portrayal of the last days of the damaged Kurt Wallander we can find, amidst the chaos of life, expression for, appreciation for, the evanescence of memory and the fragility of self.


The Storied Past

Joan inherited a keen and abiding interest in the history of her (very) Scandinavian family from her parents and grandparents. She inherited documents, letters, photographs, and a variety of treasured heirlooms from both her Swedish paternal side and her Norwegian maternal side. Family histories done the old way, from personal accounts and letters, library research, and maybe a paid researcher from the old country, were passed down along both lines. These treasured manuscripts—links to an exotic, fascinating past, shaped Joan’s lifelong interest in her Swedish and Norwegian family roots.

But maybe it was the stories—most of all—that captivated her. To a young child, especially one as curious as Joan, stories of distant places and olden times bore a special fascination. Especially vivid in her active imagination was Norway.

From an early age her grandfather, Martin Cornelius, had regaled her with tales of that far-off country. He even used to read to her in Norwegian—because he simply wanted her to hear the distinct cadence and tone of his birth language. Grandpa Cornelius also revealed to her the truth about the discovery of the Americas—a truth that all right-thinking Scandinavian-Americans know.

Martin Cornelius (1886-1975)

Martin Cornelius (1886-1975)

He told her about distant Vikna, a group of islands in the north of Norway, where he was born. He told her about fishermen in the Lofoten islands, about shipwrecks, and about lives lost tragically at sea. He told her of his mother’s birthplace, Leka, a place that seemed unimaginably distant in both time and place to a young girl sitting fascinated at her grandfather’s knee. Leka was home to trolls and ogres—like the poor “Maid of Leka” (the Lekamøya) frozen in stone forever—although Joan’s family called her the “Leka Lady!” And it was home to a little girl, Svanhild, a relative of her grandfather, picked up, the famous story goes, by an eagle and deposited high up on a rocky crag. One can imagine the wonder in her eyes at hearing this tale—and seeing the evidence—because he even showed her a letter, all in Norwegian, from his second cousin Haldor Hansen with a picture of Svanhild inside!

Stories—whether folktales, myths, legends, or the more personal narratives of our forebears recounting their triumphs and tragedies—have a greater longevity than we imagine. In Scandinavia, the oral tradition, the passing down of stories by word of mouth, was an important means of preserving history—the record of one’s ancestors and the recounting of their deeds, both great and small. Many such narratives have survived in Norway, about kings and jarls and farmers and fishermen, to be captured eventually in writing and passed down again in the great poetic sagas, in books and magazines and, yes, even in blogs like this one.

Many stories have been preserved in Norway’s so-called “farm books,” the bygdebøker. Compiled over the last century, they contain not only the results of research into church records, land transactions, and wills, but the textual remnants of people’s lives, hints of tales not completely told, of mysteries yet to be uncovered—of a mysterious silver belt of tremendous value owned by a distant ancestor in Orheim—or about a murder on a lonely island in which one’s many times great grandfather might have been involved!

While researching her maternal grandfather’s genealogy, Joan and Greg found a reference to this distant grandfather in the first volume of the bygdebok for Bindal in Nordland, Norway. While translating the entry for Torger (or Torber as the bygdebok has it) Jonsen on the farm of Gimsen, Greg encountered this tantalizing tidbit of an entry (Bindal, Gård og slekt, Bind 1. H. Sylten. 1999. p. 178):

“Torber and neighbor Jørgen Sjursen got entangled in a murder in Melstein in 1692. They had been involved in sharing stolen goods that Anne Pedersdtr. and Sjur Paulsen of Melstein had appropriated from the men they murdered. For this they were sentenced to pay a fine of 6 lodd of silver.”

What was this story? Was Joan’s 7th great grandfather really involved in a murder? Had Joan, a descendant of staid Lutherans for centuries, finally discovered a criminal in her past?

Trying to solve this mystery, Greg, quite by happenstance, googled the name Melstein and thereby discovered a 300 year old story of dire deeds by moonlight, of unbridled human greed, and of dark violence.

The story told below is Greg’s translation of a wonderful blog post by Norwegian journalist Torstein Finnbak, detailing these long ago events on Melstein (see Many thanks to Torstein for reading over this translation and allowing us to publish it.

She’s running away, she’s running away!

By Torstein Finnbakk

[Translated from the Norwegian by Dr. Gregory M. Shreve]

Melstein 1692: Four men were brutally murdered. The heroine of the drama is a 14-year servant girl who ran away, risking her own life.

A February night in 1692 unfolded into an eerie drama on the small island of Melstein in Helgeland when four men were brutally murdered.

A boat crewed by four men decided to seek shelter at the farm owned by Sjul Paulsen and Anne Pedersdatter on the island of Melstein. It proved to be a fateful decision.

This article is based primarily on interviews recorded in 2013 with writer and folklorist Dag Skogheim (1928-2015). Dag himself was from Southern Kvaløya in Sømna, just a few kilometers from Melstein. He knew very well the story of the murders that transpired there. In the 1970s he collected several variations of the murder legend, including one told by his grandfather. He also wrote also a short story on the subject, which was later dramatized.


Dag Skogheim tells the story of Anne and Sjul. Photo: Arnt Ragnar Arntsen

Melstein or Steine as it is often called, is just a few kilometers from the western side of South Kvaløya in Bindalsfjorden, roughly midway between Sømna and Leka.

So, this is the history and legend of Anne and Sjul, a couple who robbed and murdered four men on Melstein in 1692.


In the book Farm and Family in Bindal, Melstein is referred to as “the most marginal farm in Bindal.” Melstein was a simple cotter’s holding, a husmannsplass. The mountainous island is only a kilometer long, offering the possibility of earning only a very scant livelihood. Those who lived there in the 1600s had very little livestock, outside of a few sheep and maybe a cow. These were truly destitute people, living mostly by fishing.

There are no sources—at least none known—that relate where Anne and Sjul originally came from. Church records indicate that Anne Pedersdatter and Sjul Paulsen were married in Solstad Church in 1682. Sjul was listed as a værmann (fisherman) and bruker (farm holder) in Melstein from 1682 to 1693. At the time of the murders the couple had lived on the island of Melstein for ten years and may have been about 30 to 40 years old. They were childless.

Whether they had previously committed any other murders or crimes has not been discovered; so one can only speculate. Melstein was an isolated place, but lay right along a shipping channel. Boats would sail by just a stone’s throw from the island.


House foundation on Melstein. Photo: Håvard Sylten, Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1

Anne and Sjul’s house was tucked into a cove at the northern end of Melstein, a location where, in later times, there were also other houses. The later inhabitants of Melstein were not related to Anne and Sjul. The cove had a small earthen bank behind it. Practically speaking, there really was no other place where one could have erected buildings.  The barn on the property must have been close to what was once a marsh. There are, in fact, stone slabs at a place where it was natural to build a barn, about 50-100 meters from the house.

Through documents, articles, and not least, Dag Skogheim’s interviews with people who have related the legend of the killings, the events that transpired on the island are well described.

There came a boat

A ten-oared boat is sailing south. Four men are on board, Karsten Jensen, Lars Størkersen, Størker Olsen and Lars Larsen. All of them are from Grønnøy in Meløy, further north in Helgeland.


Between Kvaløya and Leka is Melstein. The highest point on the island is 29 meters above sea level.

Presumably these men were on their way to Bergen, but some sources say they did not intend to sail further than Trondelag and the Meløy district to buy and sell goods. There is no place, really, to store great riches in a ten-oared boat, but there may have been, among other things, equipment, money, and some silver.


A ten-oared boat can be up to 50 feet in length. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

In South Helgeland seafarers can encounter difficulties with the weather. Probably there were winds off the shore as well as easterlies. On the fjord between Vennesund and Holm easterlies can be especially problematic. Landing on Melstein in such weather would have been quite difficult. The four beached the boat on the seaward side, the only place they could land given the east wind that was blowing—and then they came up onto the shore.


Map of Melstein from Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1. Anne and Sjul’s house was probably in Husvik, in the north of the island.

There they ran into Anne and Sjul along with their maid, or perhaps foster daughter, of 14 years, Anne Jonsdatter. The three inhabitants were greatly astonished by this late evening visit.

Dag: “I can also imagine that these men are a bit ostentatious. The four men came upon these destitute conditions; they see a house nearby, maybe just a hut walled in stones and sealed with peat. Then these four men appear, brusque and domineering, giving the inhabitants an immediate sense of inferiority.”

There is no space inside the hut. Anne and Sjul have no lodging to offer these visitors other than the barn, where there is hay they can lie down on. Without a doubt, they have also taken their pelts from the boat along with them.

There is nothing in court documents that indicate that these men protected themselves or kept watch. They fell asleep. They were tired, having maneuvered the longboat ashore against a hard easterly wind. It was difficult to moor the boat in the wind—they were at risk of life and limb. The four men probably didn’t discuss the landing much—they were tired, and there was still a long way to go to reach Leka. So they simply decided to go ashore on Melstein.


A stone wall between cropland and pasture on Melstein. Picture Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1. Photo: Håvard Sylten 

Kill them!

Their boorish behavior and belongings soon revealed that the visitors had not come empty-handed to the farm. They have with them many valuable things. Anne and Sjul have probably speculated, imagining what these four possessed. Some of the men have perhaps bragged too much, or foolishly displayed their belongings. Anne and Sjul began, perhaps, to fantasize and become more and more tempted. If they could take what the men had, they figured, maybe it would secure their future. Here, now, it seemed there were riches that they could take and use.

They must have thought, “How can we get these riches? — Yes, we can kill them!”


A 1993 production of the Nordland Theatre and National Theatre, The Drama of Ane and Sjul in Steine based on the novel by Dag Skogheim Photo: The newspaper Ytringen.

Dag: “I do not think that these two discussed the murders to any great length. I believe that, given their social position, they really didn’t reflect on any culpability, any consequences. They saw only this: riches were here now, here on Melstein.”

“Anne and Sjul each have their own axe with them when they go out of the house on their way to the barn. I think that there were two adults, two strong people. They will attempt to kill four men. You have to be flexible and relaxed—loose-limbed—when you kill someone with an axe. This is true especially when the conditions under which this terrible work had to be done are as complex as they must have been in this small barn. It was bright enough; but there was only moonlight, nothing else.”

“The barn had scarcely a real door, rather just a wooden bar, and when they opened it up, it was certainly bright enough inside.”

“The four victims must have placed themselves in such a way that it was relatively easy to go from one to the other cutting them down in turn. The records of the trial don’t reveal if they used the sharp edge or the blunt poll of the axe. But the four must have slept with sufficient distance between them—so it was possible to take them unawares, man for man. During the trial it emerged that both Anne and Sjul had cut the victims with their axes.”

A scream in the moonlight

In Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1 Havard Sylten says:

“They didn’t really land a good first blow on the last man; he reared up on his elbows and let out a scream before the killing blow landed. Foster daughter Anne Jonsdatter woke up at the screaming. She got up and rushed out. In the moonlight she could see that Anne and Sjul had dragged a man wearing a black shirt out of the barn and on up the mountain. After a while they came back and pulled out another man dressed in black—and did the same thing with him. The remaining two were dragged out over the rocks and thrown into the sea. When Anne and Sjul had finished with them all, they just went in and lay down.”


Melstein with Leka in the background, taken from Hurtigruta. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

Two men were tossed into the sea. Two men were sunk in a boggy marsh on the island.

The next day Anne and Sjul were breaking open casks they had taken from the boat’s hold when the foster daughter discovered blood on the grass in the field. When she asked the couple about it, they threatened her life.

 Visitors from Gimsen

A few weeks afterwards, neighbors Torger Jonsen and Jørgen Sjursen visited from the island of Gimsen. Sjul told them that he had found a boat and some debris by the seashore. The two men agreed to keep this find hidden from any others and divide up the spoils. They helped Sjul chop the ten-oared longboat into pieces, and then these two neighbors took the ship’s sails home with them to Gimsen.

Dag: “This is how it happened. The conditions were right for the murders. It was light enough, and the men were asleep. Then, when the frenzy of the killing grew, and they were nearly finished: the girl. We know she is 14 years old. We don’t know where she came from. During the trial she stated that she pretended she was asleep. But she had heard Anne and Sjul talking together. Then while the murders were being perpetrated, she heard screaming.”


Aerial view of Melstein. Source:


Dag Skogheim relates the legend as he heard it from his paternal grandfather:

“Out on Melstein there were once lived three people: Anne and Sjul in Steine, and a servant girl. Strangers came to the island. They brought a lot with them—so Anne and Sjul agreed that they would kill them and hide the bodies. But they didn’t know that the maid had seen and heard them. Eventually they figured out that she knew something she shouldn’t know. So they decided to kill her too. They decided to do this during the grain harvest in September. During this time in autumn you went inland to get what you needed for the winter. This was a good time to take her somewhere while collecting wood and lure her to her death. But when they had arrived at Rangådalen and got ready to return home, the girl said that she forgotten her neckerchief at her mother’s. Sjul had to wait for her while she ran uphill to fetch it. But then she broke into a run, rushing to get away towards Gutvik farm. Sjul grabbed his axe, and ran off after her. She ran until she saw the Gutvik farm, and then she shouted. Those working there stopped to look, and Sjul had almost caught up to her. When she came up to the first farm, he threw his axe at her, but he missed, and it lodged in a wall.”

Skogheim reflects: “I think the girl must have been quite astute. She understood that because of what she heard, her life was in great danger. She successfully pretended she didn’t know anything. She managed constantly to play someone ignorant.”

And, of course, she also had no one to tell this story to. Skogheim believed that no one had any errands requiring them to visit Melstein. The few who could possibly have landed at Melstein during the spring and summer might have been occasional fishermen who went ashore temporarily to eat the food they had brought with them. But, most likely, this was not a place people had any reason to go to.

The tense situation with the girl continued throughout the spring and summer. There must have been things they had stolen that she saw, but she couldn’t talk about them. After the murder there must have been many occasions where she had seen things they had taken from the boat that couldn’t be hidden.

“And the girl couldn’t escape—she simply could not escape. Maybe she considered suicide, jumping into the sea and drowning herself, but she didn’t do it. But I think that they must have become suspicious of her, so much so that they must have talked amongst themselves about it. Maybe there was a slip of the tongue, and she heard them discussing her. They must have known that she was the only one who could betray them.”

Another grandfather tells it…

My maternal grandfather always told it this way:

“It must have been that they had to go inland to fetch wood. They needed other goods too, but had to find someone who had them. If you are on Melstein, where can you find these things? Yes, they had to be found in the Gutvik country where there are krongel pines and birch. It was September, and they were bringing in the corn then. They probably had to force the girl, up to the very end, to join in the work. The boat was to be filled up. The wood had to be harvested and pruned, and the wood cut into lengths and carried down to the boat. Someone had to stand by boat, while the others pulled the wood up into it. It could have happened that Sjul is down by boat when the girl begins to run off south toward Gutvik.”

“So begins this nightmare, which for me is even more intense than the actual murder scene. Sjul must have understood right off that she’s running away. She’s running away! She’s running to Gutvik to tell people what she knows! Now, he doesn’t have any choice, boat or no boat, he has to go after the girl. And he knows he must beat her to death. That’s when Sjul of Steine takes up his axe and starts to run after her. She ran until she could see Gutvik, where people were out harvesting the grain, and she called out.”

“Those people heard someone shout and they stopped working. As the two came up to the first farm, he was so close behind her that he threw his axe, but it missed and stuck into a wall.”

This, I think, is a legend variant where they make it very dramatic. And grandfather always ended it this way:

“Then the lensmann, the sheriff, came to Melstein. He sat down with Sjul at the table—and said to him: you don’t have a human heart at all!”


Dusk over Melstein. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

 The sheriff finds out

It is certain that the sheriff in Leka went out to Melstein to investigate early on, very soon after objects began to appear that had come from the ship’s hold. Anne and Sjul had tried to sell them. The sheriff went there that first time but had to come back empty-handed, without proof. At home in Grønnøy, where the missing men were from, people start getting worried about the boat that had never come home. There was a lot of relatively dense boat traffic along the shipping channel, and rumors started up about the longboat crew that had vanished without a trace. Records mention, particularly, that the father of one of the missing men had initiated an inquiry into the fate of the crew.

Dag: “Then the girl enters into this dramatic story. She talks about what happened out there on the island. Now, as far as the sheriff is concerned, the circumstantial evidence is now so strong that he goes back out to Melstein to bring the couple in for questioning.”

So it’s finished now. In court the foster daughter relates all of the sinister events. Sjul confesses. Anne never does. The two neighbors who shared the plunder, apparently in the belief that it had just washed up on the shore in the boat, are only sentenced to fines.

The breaking wheel

Both Anne and Sjul were sentenced to suffer the ultimate penalty, the breaking wheel. The two of them were to be killed and dismembered in Trondheim.


Breaking wheels 

But both died in prison before the sentence was ever executed. However, the bodies were still treated according to the final judgment. The Trondheim Assembly Book of Judgments says that they were broken on the wheel and that on the 14th of August 1694 there was a request that the city rakker (night men) remove the bodies and bury them in Galgebierg, since they could not be buried in consecrated ground. Galgebierg was at that time a place in Trondheim lying just outside the city walls, at the foot of the Steinberget Ila.


Trondheim Assembly Book of Judgments

Whatever happened to the foster daughter, Anne Jonsdatter? It doesn’t say.

A poem about the murders by Sigrid Wågan is on page 59 of the book Hverdadsdikt (not translated).

 Ha du haurt om hain Sjul i Steine
ha du haurt at dæ seies før saint,
at hain drap dæ som kom på lainne,
både storkar og faranes faint.

Hain bod utpå Melstein åelinæ,
bære hain me kjærring å taus,

dem tok imot folk utme leie,
som i skavere plagast å fraus.

 Sigrid Wågan

Sources: Arnt Ragnar Arntsen and Torstein Finnbakk: Interview with Dag Skogheim, Levanger 2013. Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1, page 165. Sømna Bygdebok, Volume 2, page 80. It happened in Melstein 1692, article by Arnt O. Åsvang in Yearbook Helgeland 1973. Gunnar Solum: Adventure Coast: From Å to Træna, page 58.


The Good Doctor


Dr, Andrew Novick Photo

Dr. Andrew Novick

On October 10 Greg had a strange and singular experience. All of a sudden, after doing nothing more difficult and remarkable than getting out of the bathtub, Greg began to experience severe double vision—dysplopia for those inclined to medical terminology. He was seeing two perfect images side-by-side, images that would easily resolve into one if he just closed one of his eyes.

Greg had so-called “binocular double vision,” which often appears as a symptom of a number of serious conditions ranging from brain tumors and aneurysms to multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis. This, quite understandably, triggered urgent phone calls, a flurry of medical office visits, and an emergency MRI of the brain and brain stem. It was certainly a series of strange and discomfiting days.

But, it was the MRI that really brought the memories rushing back—dredged up from sixteen years ago—memories of other strange days and other anxious visits to hospitals—and memories of a most extraordinary doctor. This wasn’t the first time that Greg had to lay, still and quiet, mind racing with morbid scenarios, inside a clanking, claustrophobic tube. It wasn’t the first time that Greg (and Joan) would have to wait for results—both trying their best to balance precariously on a knife edge of fear—listening for a single phone call that could bring with it greatest joy (you’re cancer-free!) or deepest sorrow (I’m sorry, we found a shadow, a lump).

Every time Greg has to have a CAT scan or MRI, the experience is tinged with dread. Every whine of the tube, every mechanical clank of the whirling magnets is an awful counterpoint to his racing thoughts. Am I already dying as I lay here, arms flat to my sides, in awful semblance of a corpse? Am I just killing time until I get the bad news? Or will this machine, a marvel of medical science, tell me I have years to go before I must close my eyes for good? Lying supine in these machines brings one’s thoughts very close to the possibility of death, the metal and plastic tube a premonition of a tomb.

As it turns out, Greg would be fine. Death was not imminent. The machine delivered the much desired good news. There was no tumor, no cancer, just a simple “insufficiency” of blood to the sixth cranial nerve. Cause unknown—nothing to see here—move on. In six weeks it will be as if nothing had ever happened. But it did happen; and we were afraid, again, after all these years, of all those bad things that can befall a long-married couple.

This was all dwelling on our minds when, just a few weeks later, on an otherwise routine November morning, while filling out a medical form necessary for seeing a specialist about Greg’s double vision, Joan googled the name of the doctor who had removed Greg’s kidney after a diagnosis of cancer.  Sadly, her innocent search uncovered the dark news that Greg’s surgeon, Dr. Andrew Novick, a world-renowned urologist at the Cleveland Clinic, had, unbeknownst to us, passed away, some eight years previously.

Deeply saddened by the unexpected news, we found our thoughts turning back to one of the darkest times in our life together. Fortunately for us, Greg’s brush with renal carcinoma had a happy ending—and we know all too well this is not the case for everyone. What we knew, for a certainty, was that sixteen years ago this extraordinary man, this most excellent physician, had saved Greg’s life.

In the summer of 1999 after a long and excruciating night in pain, Greg discovered a massive amount of blood in his urine—there is nothing like a toilet bowl full of scarlet to inspire immediate terror. An urgent visit to the doctor resulted in a “probable” kidney stone diagnosis.  Greg was advised to watch for the stone to pass—but when no stone appeared, our then family physician, Dr. James Waugh of Kent, Ohio, following medical protocol, ordered an intravenous pyelogram.  We both remember with utter clarity the call that came from him just the next day. Greg wasn’t home. Joan, unaware of what the test results were to show, gave the doctor’s office Greg’s cell number. Although something, perhaps a faint tremor of emotion in Dr. Waugh’s voice, told her that the news wasn’t good, she had to patiently wait to hear from Greg himself:  “They found a shadow on my kidney.”

Appointments followed. Greg, we need to discuss treatment options. Greg, we need to schedule a CAT scan. Greg, the CAT scan shows a 10cm tumor. Greg—it’s renal carcinoma. Greg, you need surgery. Greg, I think you should go to the Cleveland Clinic. Greg, I think you should meet with Dr. Andrew Novick. Greg, he’s the best there is.

There are many things about that time in our lives to blog about: depression; sleepless nights; regrets. All the deeds left undone and words left unsaid. Above all one could write about how one day life is, well, normal, quite unremarkable. You wake up in the morning, get coffee, send the kids off to school, put in a day’s work. And then suddenly, a two-minute phone call changes your world—irrevocably. In the hours and days that followed, we were both consumed by an almost overwhelming fear of what might lie ahead of us.

But that dark time really isn’t the only subject of today’s blog. It is also about a man named Andrew Novick and our brief but life-affirming connection.  By 1999 Dr. Novick had already been Chairman of the Department of Urology for fourteen years. During his tenure in the Department he led the urology program to the top of the national rankings (according to an annual survey conducted by the U.S. News & World Report). He had authored hundreds of research publications and held visiting professorships at academic centers around the world. Greg’s best chance of survival, we decided, would be to get treatment from the best.

The many trips we made to the Cleveland Clinic for testing that summer of 1999 are now mostly a murky blur to us, but the day we met with Dr. Novick—that day is crystal clear. It could have happened yesterday. His handshake was warm and genuine; his voice was confident and soothing. He explained the entire surgical procedure Greg would endure and what we could expect. Due to the size of the tumor, he said it was possible that the cancer had spread to Greg’s spleen and that the spleen might also have to be removed. As he spoke about the upcoming surgery, tears welled up in Joan’s eyes.  Dr. Novick gently took her hand and reassured her, “Don’t worry; we’ll get him back to health.” That moment and those words were a turning point for Joan.  Dr. Novick was not the kind of man to give false hope. If he felt confident of success, so did she.

When he had finished talking with us in his office, Dr. Novick suggested we go out to the main office and check the surgery schedule. August 9th was the first available date.

“Our first date was on August 9th,” remarked Joan.

“That was the day I met my wife,” Dr. Novick added.

We three decided that this was a good omen.

The day of the surgery, Greg had to be at the Cleveland Clinic at 7 am to be prepped for his radical nephrectomy at 9 am. It wasn’t until after 4:00 pm that Dr. Novick called Joan on the waiting-room phone with the news that the surgery had been successful. He felt confident that all the cancer had been removed. The tumor was self-contained, encapsulated on the kidney; “it was just sitting there,” he said. It hadn’t spread to the spleen. Greg had every hope of living many more years. And here we both still are, sixteen years later. Yet, sadly, Dr. Novick himself is not.

It is no small accomplishment to have the expertise and skill to perform a surgery like the one that saved Greg’s life. It takes years of study, hard work, and dedication. Such uncanny expertise mixed with personal warmth and extreme compassion; only one word comes to mind, extraordinary. What Dr. Novick did for us was no mean thing. It wasn’t just the surgery and the gift of his sure and capable hands; he also gave us a spark of hope, the courage to move forward into the darkness of an uncertain future. As it turns out, we could have many more years together.   Greg would be able to see his children grow and thrive.  For all these things we are deeply grateful.

In the years that followed we saw Dr. Novick just a few more times when Greg needed to go to the Clinic for his six-month check-ups. There were more CAT scans, all clanking and whirling, and more anxious waiting for results. After a while Greg’s cancer checkups and his CAT scans were done less frequently and more locally; we ceased making trips up to the Cleveland Clinic. Then, after a while, no more CAT scans were called for at all. Greg was cancer-free. We never saw Dr. Novick again after that.

During the nine years that followed the surgery, Dr. Novick helped create one of the most prestigious medical facilities in the world, the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. His urology program would continue to be ranked among the top two in the country. He championed the partial nephrectomy, a procedure which removes only diseased tissue and saves as much healthy tissue as possible. Always the innovator, Dr. Novick also pioneered a technique that used ice baths to spare kidney function. In recognition of his many accomplishments, he received the Ramon Guiteras Award, the American Urological Association’s highest honor, in May 2008.

On October 19, 2008, just two weeks before the Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute was to open its doors to its first patients, Dr. Andrew Novick passed away from complications of lymphoma. He was only 60 years old. It is impossible to determine how many lives he had already saved, how many more lives he could have saved—would have saved— had he lived. It is all so unspeakably sad and unfair—as life itself often is.

With his strong, capable hands Dr. Novick healed Greg—lifted him up as he lay dying. With his warm, compassionate voice, he gave Joan courage and hope when she needed it most desperately.

But he could not, in the end—all his skill and knowledge not withstanding—heal himself. His own cancer he could not cast out. We survived, and he did not.

Dr. Novick, Andrew, had touched us so closely; a relationship at once both unimaginably intimate and so clinically distant.  Yet, we did not even know that he was gone—had been gone for eight years already. Something seems very wrong about that. There is a debt owed, but it is one that can never be repaid except in remembrance and gratitude. For the man who was there, the man who reached out his hand to help and heal: farewell good doctor, farewell.

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Plain Dealer

Constant and Faithful Companion



Twenty-six years ago this month a sixteen-year-old gray tabby cat named Sasha lay down on our bedspread and, content with the companionship of her lifelong friend and confidante Joan, closed her eyes and purred, consented to death, and left us behind.

We’ve owned cats most of our married life. But one cat has to be the first cat. The kitten you have when you are young, live in rented apartments, and are perpetually short of money. One day in 1973, during our second year of marriage, Greg asked Joan out of the blue, “Do you want a kitten?” Prone (sometimes) to quick decisions, Greg had decided the young household of two needed a feline companion. Joan, although with no previous experience of cats, was, as per usual, game to try this idea out. So, off we went, prospective cat-owners, to inspect a litter of rambunctious kittens whose newly-arrived presence in this world had been discovered and announced by a graduate school friend of ours.

The kittens, as all kittens are, were intrinsically adorable. They readily and easily plucked those emotional chords that their domestication of our species has instilled in some of us. One of them, following some ancient feline instinct, recognized her one-and-only, her true and constant companion. She boldly climbed up on Joan’s lap, fell asleep, and the contract was consummated then and there. Joan, always a good judge of character, knew this was the one.

We were told this kitten was a male. Of course, as first-time cat owners, we had no idea how to sex kittens. So Sasha (the diminutive of the Russian boy’s name Alexander) lived as a male for the few days it took us to take her to a vet for her first checkup. By then, of course, we (and she) were used to the name, and it stayed with her for the rest of her life.

Sasha was petite, a diminutive cat just as her name implied. She was mild and loving, with an even personality; neither of us remembers ever being bitten or scratched. She loved to have Joan hold her and talk to her. At night she slept with us in our bed, nestled usually on the pillow by her closest friend, whose long dark hair was a source of constant fascination and comfort.

Of course, she was a predator when the occasion demanded, evolutionary heiress to sabre-tooth tigers and cousin to lions. Joan still remembers the live cockroach (from one of our first university slum apartments) brought to her as a gift and dropped on her leg as she lay in bed half-asleep. And there was, of course, always the odd moth or mouse or dim-witted insect.  We remember a time when Sasha leaped high into the air to catch a housefly. With the fly still buzzing in her mouth, Sasha swallowed her prey with great satisfaction. We were duly impressed.

A few years before she died, Sasha allowed a homeless young orange tabby we were to name Goldberry (yes, Greg is a diehard Lord of the Rings fan) to move into the house. Tiny little Sasha, many years the new cat’s senior, established some house rules quickly.  She took a small chunk out of her housemate’s ear, and allowed the intrusion. Maybe she was anointing a replacement, mindful that her wayward human charges should not be without a cat to keep and protect them.

Sasha lived with us in our first Ohio apartments, in Bexley, Columbus, and East Liverpool. She moved with us into our first real house in Pittsburgh, and then later to our home in Burton, Geauga County, Ohio. Sasha, with her large green eyes, witnessed our first real jobs, our first real tragedy, and the births of our first and second children. She was with us when we were young and just starting out and stayed with us, faithful and fond, until we were homeowners and parents—grown-up people with respectable jobs.

We’ve had cats since then.  Goldberry, the favorite of our middle daughter, stayed with us for sixteen years as well. Ariel, our curmudgeonly caretaker after Goldberry passed, came in 1999, the year Greg had cancer and we feared for his life. A stray already five years old, Ariel was adopted as a token of his recovery and survival. Muffin, a beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat, was adopted and named by our middle daughter Kristyn (now, and maybe not by chance, a felinologist). Muffin ended up staying with us twelve years—until just a year ago last August when she, like Sasha, went away too soon and unexpectedly.

These faithful, constant friends were occupants of our hearts, and our children’s hearts. They provided, without particular condition or complaint, loving companionship and head butts; purring and soft fur; a languid little body in a cold bed in winter; a sleek silhouette in a window; a warm and comforting presence on a lonely lap. Now these things are gone, and we are alone. After almost 43 years of marriage it still seems strange to be without a feline companion or two. Now it hurts almost too much to love them and then let them go. Their lives compared to ours are too short by far. Sometimes in the night we think we can still hear them jump onto the bed and settle in next to us, keeping us company, constant and faithful, still.

Empty Nest

The Shreve family as it was, a long time ago.

The Shreve family, as it was about 1991-1992, at Grandpa and Grandma Nelson’s home in Pittsburgh.

Our first daughter, Jessica, had a fierce independent streak (as, in fact, do all of our children). She struck out on her own pretty early, renting her own apartment and working while going to school. Our middle daughter, Kristyn, followed a few years after, also wanting to live in her own apartment. Her younger brother, Justin, went with her. They lived together in their first apartment on the lower floor of an older home on Harris Street in Kent (Justin’s first cat, Harris, commemorates their first stop after leaving home).

After that, there was a succession of Kent and Stow, Ohio apartments for all of our children. They will always remember their first forays into independent living: Lake Street (an attic garret murderously hot in the summer), Park Street (with the odd layout and marauding squirrels in the walls and ceiling), West Main (with the drunken frat boys) and Ravenswood (with Noah’s flood in the parking lot during downpours). During the course of the last decade, they all left home and never returned for more than a few temporary weeks at a time.

Yet they were all nearby, close to home, just a short drive away or a quick walk around the block. They would stop by whenever they wanted to, opening the back door with their keys and shouting “Mom, Dad, where are you?” There were raids on our food pantry, expeditions to borrow this, that, and every other thing one could think of. Sometimes, there were impromptu earnest discussions in our family room about future plans and current problems, romantic, educational, and financial.

They were out of the house, but they were still here. Close by and within reach. They were independent, but still (sometimes) needing our advice, our experience, or, simply, our skills with cooking, plumbing and sundry repairs. And, of course, Mom and Dad, are the most indispensable resource of all when packing up and moving.

Kristyn, the middle child, was the first to move away from Kent, where she had lived since she was two. A couple of years ago she moved to Oxford, Ohio to attend graduate school at Miami University (Miami of Ohio to you Floridians!). We bought a modest A-frame on 3 acres near there as a summer house, and she and long-time partner Anthony lived there in the midst of the trees and leaves for a couple of years. They were four and a half hours away, but still, on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day or on our birthdays she would appear, a welcome smiling surprise, home for the special occasion. The best gift a Mom or Dad could desire. Her siblings were appropriately mum about her visit, which, most likely, they had helped her plan.

Greg understood all along that there would come a day when the family would change again, perhaps dramatically. Greg had left home for college in 1968 (moving to Arizona from Pittsburgh), and after a single summer home in Pittsburgh in 1969, never lived at home again. As an Army brat who lived in 21 places in 18 years, he understood well the impermanence of house and home. Joan, on the other hand, had lived in the same home for 15 years and left it permanently only when we got married. It was her concept of home we built upon and created for our children in our stately Colonial Revival on Prospect Street in Kent. It was her sense of stability and permanence that made that spacious house a home. Our children knew that. They know that.

A few weeks ago, on the 8th of August, we loaded a POD with the accumulated belongings that three twenty-somethings had accumulated during their apartment years (more than they thought, for sure). Then on August 10, Kristyn, Tony and Justin, the New Oregonians, loaded their cars with what remained, and gathered some good friends for a road trip. They drove away across country, taking the Northern route to the West, to their new homes in Oregon. Kristyn was to accept a doctoral fellowship at Oregon State University and Justin, well, as a software engineer who works from home, he went with her because he could. Because he was born with a wanderlust and could now finally indulge it.

When they drove off that Sunday morning, for Albany and Lebanon, we knew that something had changed, irrevocably, finally. The nuclear family, Joan, Greg, Jessica, Kristyn, and Justin, was no more. For a few years we were a wobbly little solar system with its center on Prospect Street. They were satellites, planets revolving around us, first near, then a bit further away. But, now, two of them have escaped the orbit entirely and gone off to (what seems to us) the Uttermost West. Only Jessica, the oldest, now also finally in her own home with her husband Patrick and no longer in apartments, remains nearby. Still, even she has recognized that when her siblings left for the Pacific Northwest something fundamental had shifted.

They, none of them, will ever come home again. Yes, there will still be visits, holidays home. Special occasions spent, all five of us together in a house well-remembered and well-loved. But this is our house now. Not their house. They have their own homes, with lawns to tend, flowers to grow, woodwork to mend, and blank walls to decorate with the trappings and mementos of their own lives. Their future opens up within another set of walls and under other roofs. They’ve left our embrace and flown the nest, up high and away, away, and away.

When I’m Sixty-Four

When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?

Greg turned 64 this past weekend: a significant milestone, especially for a child of the 60’s. The immediate association we sixty-somethings always make with this epic birthday is When I’m Sixty-Four from the Beatles’ 1967 Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

When we first heard this song (we weren’t together yet and would not meet for another two years), we probably thought that being 64, being that old, seemed as far away as the distant moon. Although, we should have known, with the moon landing only two short years away in 1969, that even the unimaginably distant can, with the inexorable passage of time, become very close: maybe much closer than we would ever want it to be.

Could we imagine then, in 1967, at the age of 17, who we would turn out to be, what we would witness, what we would celebrate, what we would simply survive? The future opens up before a 17-year-old like an endless and mostly empty highway running to a distant horizon where spectacles and miracles await, just out of sight and sound, to be discovered. At the age of 17, with his yellow Camaro and its racing stripes, Greg was ready to barrel full-tilt down the asphalt and look over the edge of the horizon, into the limitless future.

But now, at 64, many years from then, we’re peering a bit fearfully over the edge that was once so far away. The inevitable final horizon, looming darkly but indistinctly ahead, isn’t as inviting as the one we had imagined 47 years ago. We want to put on the brakes, let up on the gas, slow it all down. The endless days, the slowly turning seasons of our youth, rush by faster and faster now, with a disturbing momentum we are helpless to arrest and all too keenly aware of—the so-called wisdom of age we suppose.

At 17 the future waits eagerly for us, full of all manner of things that haven’t happened yet. Everything blooms with potential. Just leaving the cocoon of home and school, we haven’t had our first real jobs, haven’t gotten married—or wanted to; we haven’t bought houses, had our children, and met all of our once and future friends. We haven’t decided on and pursued our vocations and avocations. Everything is yet to be. Life fairly burgeons, bursting, like the swollen bud of a flower opening to the sun, the rain and the kiss of a butterfly. At 17 it is all springtime and the waning of the year seems far, far away; as the song says, many years from now.

But now, here, at the age of 64, careers are over or winding down. Houses have been bought and sold. Children have been born, have grown up, and are going, going, gone away. One dear boy crossed the final horizon before we will. Our friends, our peers, fellow children of the Sixties are beginning to fall away from cancer, heart attacks, and the sundry other visitations of old age, entropy and accident. There seems to be so much to fear, to rail against; the temptation is to turn our faces away from the future that we once leaned forward to embrace.

Yet, yet, at 64, with silvering hair and all the blemishes old age inflicts upon the face and body, there is a birthday gift, a consolation bottle of wine, a valentine. Over the years a lot was gained and much was lost, but we still have one another. We will have been married, Greg and Joan, for 42 of those 64 years; we met over 45 years ago. Those 45 years together, that is what those 64 years has brought us. The time together, the shared experience, the complex depth of the knowing that such intimate togetherness brings…it outweighs and outlasts the lamentations of our advancing age. And we know, finally, the answer to the question

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

The answer is yes.

Culinary Misconceptions

Doris Neubert’s wonderful recipe for Quarktorte ohne Boden und Bohnen!

Doris Neubert’s wonderful recipe for Quarktorte ohne Boden und Bohnen!

In the 1980’s we spent a year (from 1985-1986) living abroad in a most unusual place, “behind the Iron Curtain” in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Most Americans referred to the country at that time as “East Germany,” but the Germans living there preferred their country be called the “German Democratic Republic.” In 1985 when we traveled there with our two-year old daughter, it was still the era of the Cold War, and Germany was still divided into two very different countries. As the result of a series of career decisions and (frankly) happenstance, Greg had the opportunity to teach as an exchange professor for Karl Marx Universität in Leipzig—a famous historic university once known, and now known again, as the University of Leipzig.

Our year abroad “behind the Curtain” will certainly be the subject of further posts, because it was at once a most difficult, but also quite a significant year for us. It turned out to be (although we didn’t know it at the time) a turning point in Greg’s professional life. But more on that later. Even under difficult circumstances, we made friends in that small socialist country, some of them would become not only long-term colleagues, but life-long friends. We learned a great deal during our time there. We learned some important things about ourselves, about the inestimable value of freedom and privacy, and about the pervasive, invasive nature of totalitarian states.

However, today’s blog post isn’t about these big, important issues. It’s about misconceptions—little things, little mistakes of thinking we make. We all have misconceptions about those who live in other countries and practice other ways of life. We Americans have them about foreigners, and those in foreign countries have them about us. But when you actually live in a foreign country for as long as we did, your pre-conceived notions about that culture, it customs, even its cooking, are challenged and, if you listen and learn, your notions change. Generalizations, misconceptions, and stereotypes dissolve and disappear once you actually meet and get to know those “foreign” people and places.

Misconceptions abound about many things but, and now we get to the meat of this post, they especially surround the topic of food. Hence our blog title, “Culinary Misconceptions.” Before living in the GDR, when Joan thought of German food, she, like many other Americans, mainly thought of beer, bratwurst, and sauerkraut. These were to her, of course, the main staples of German diet. Most of her knowledge of German food dated back to the 1970’s when we would frequent some old German restaurant haunts when we lived in the Columbus, Ohio area: the Leipzig Haus on East Livingston Avenue in Bexley, Ohio and Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in German Village. Greg, who had German relatives and had spent several of his childhood years living in Germany as an Army brat, didn’t grow up with these same stereotypes.

While it is certainly true that Germans drink a lot of beer and are justifiably proud of their immense array of brews, it isn’t the only thing they drink. Indeed in the GDR we were usually offered wine or bottled water first when enjoying a dinner at someone’s home. As to Bratwurst, well little did Joan know—but soon found out after her first visit to a Metzgerei (butcher shop)—that the humble Bratwurst is only one of a myriad of Wursts (sausages) found in Germany. There was Blutwurst, Bockwurst, Weisswurst, Knackwurst, and Leberwurst, just to name some small few of the ones we ate and enjoyed (with a staggering variety of mustards!). Most regions had their own special varieties of Wurst. In Lower Saxony there was Bregenwurst and Thüringia had its own unique large Rostbratwurst with distinctive spices like marjoram and garlic. When we visited Nürnberg we enjoyed the smaller finger-sized Nürnberger sausages that have become world-renowned.

When eating out or eating at someone’s home, we also sampled many delicious non-sausage dishes: Sauerbraten, Rouladen, Kasseler Schinken, and Schnitzel. One of Joan’s favorite dishes was Jaeger Eintopf, a kind of stew made from beef, onions, potatoes, and mushrooms. If memory serves us right, sauerkraut was never served once when we dined at someone’s home.

Before we lived in Germany, Joan’s idea of a German dessert was strudel and German chocolate cake (also something we recall being served at Schmidt’s restaurant in German Village). German chocolate cake? It was nonexistent throughout Germany. Turns out it didn’t originate anywhere in Deutschland. The recipe for German chocolate cake (a favorite of Joan’s brother, by the way prepared for him by his wife every year on his birthday) actually is derived from Samuel German, who in 1852 developed a bar of sweet baking chocolate while working for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. In 1957 a recipe using a “German’s chocolate bar” appeared in a Dallas, Texas newspaper, and the rest is history. Many Germans, in fact, would probably dislike German chocolate cake. Several have told us that they dislike most American cakes because they are too sweet for their tastes.

German desserts also turned out to be so much more than strudel: Lebkuchen, Stollen, Obstkuchen (an only slightly sweet thin cake topped with fruit). Indeed any early morning visit to a Bäckerei (bakery) would reveal a wide array of torts, pastries and other sweets. One of Joan’s favorites was a dessert made by her friend Doris called “Quarktorte ohne Boden.” It resembled cheesecake but was baked with “quark,” a kind of curd cheese. “Ohne Boden” which literally translates as “without a floor” meant that the dessert was prepared with no bottom or crust.

Before leaving Germany Joan made sure to ask Doris for the recipe, but mistakenly asked for “Quarktorte ohne Bohnen” (which translates as Quarktorte without beans)! When our German friends started laughing, Joan, quick to catch her mistake, insisted that the recipe was “auch ohne Bohnen” (also without beans)!

So, indeed German cuisine was, and is, about much more than beer, brats, sausages, and strudel. But Americans aren’t the only ones to have misconceptions about another culture’s food. Before and after the Wall fell, through our experiences living in the GDR and meeting people, as well as traveling in and visiting Greg’s relatives in what was then called West Germany, we learned, too, that Germans had many misconceptions about our American food as well.

Some Germans think our beer or wine to be of inferior quality. When we visited a local winery in the Rheinland of (then) West Germany, the owner told us they shipped their “inferior” wines to the United States for consumption. The implication perhaps was that Americans (as every German knows) wouldn’t know the difference between a good wine and a bottle of vinegar. While we certainly enjoyed very good beers and wines in Germany before and after the Wall came down, you can, indeed, get very good beer and wine in the States. A burgeoning American viniculture and the growth of American craft breweries have transformed our alcoholic beverage landscape. And we can testify that while we lived in the GDR, we did purchase some VERY low quality wines in the supermarkets! Although, truth be told, there were days where we were glad to be consuming even those inferior vintages!

Some Germans also have a low opinion of American food. We encountered this when one of our GDR friends came to visit us in Ohio. Although during those Cold War years, East Germans were not allowed to travel “to the West,” exceptions were made. If you were a pensioner, you could freely travel outside the country. If you were a member of the Communist Party and had professional reasons, you could also receive permission to travel. One of our friends, who was allowed come to Ohio for academic purposes, visited us after we returned from the GDR when we lived in the small Ohio town of Burton in Geauga County.

For the first dinner our German friend had with us, Joan had prepared stuffed manicotti shells, a salad, and had baked homemade bread. We had never encountered Germans who baked their own bread the year we lived in the GDR so it could be understandable that seeing an American do this was a bit surprising for her. She had expected, instead, the typical soft, spongy American white bread (think Wonder bread) that was a staple in the homes of those of us who were children in the 1950’s and 1960’s—indeed it is still a household fixture in many homes although, hallelujah, Americans finally seem to have discovered good bread along with good beer. This kind of bread is still sold in American supermarkets, of course, but is no longer the only or most popular choice available to consumers. We both personally have not eaten that kind of bread for many years! Germans have wonderful bakeries, even in the smallest villages, with a variety of marvelous breads that we still remember fondly. Our theory is that the Germans we knew didn’t need to bake their own loaves to get delicious tasting bread.

When our GDR visitor tasted the manicotti shells, she asked if they had come from a box that we had purchased. She had heard that Americans prepared their foods from boxes of pre-made foods; Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper is an example of exactly what she was thinking. While, true, the shells had not been home-made, Joan had hand-stuffed the shells and prepared the sauce and stuffing for the manicotti. We have since read that it is a common misconception for Europeans to think Americans not only eat mostly fast food but also prepare their dinners at home from boxed pre-prepared meals.

Sometimes, misconceptions are based on customs that have been slightly “warped in the translation.” One of our GDR friends, for example, thought Americans ate their cheese with ketchup. We had been invited one night to some dear friends’ apartment in the GDR for dinner (where are you now Knut and Angela?). As appetizers we were served toothpick-speared chunks of cheese topped with ketchup. While sampling the cheese, Joan mentioned that this was a German custom she had never heard of. Our friend, surprised, laughed and replied that it was not a German custom but had thought it an American custom. His father had told him that Americans ate their cheese topped with ketchup. After some discussion we decided that his father had probably heard that Americans liked to eat French fries with ketchup—this, obviously not a misconception but a pure and unvarnished truth. We eat lots of things, maybe too many things, with ketchup.

The thing about all misconceptions is that there is a kernel of truth behind them. You can find bratwurst, beer, sauerkraut, and (very good) strudel in Germany. There are poor quality American beers and wines. There are Americans who frequent fast food restaurants and routinely prepare Hamburger Helper type meals. Americans have been known to put ketchup on all kinds of things: steak, macaroni and cheese, eggs (just do a Google Image search if you have the stomach for the results). But it is always a mistake to generalize about another culture’s food or eating habits. Cultural culinary traditions are rich and diverse; immersion in a culture is without a doubt the best way to learn about them.

There are, of course, other misconceptions we encountered that Germans had about Americans. But these will be food for another day’s blog!