In August it was time for another pilgrimage. I wasn’t going to someplace exotic or foreign or legendary. I was going to my ancestral homeland, Minnesota. Not a usual place of pilgrimage for most people but, for my family, it is one of the most important places on earth.
Early in the morning I picked up my mom and headed to the Knoxville airport. We boarded a tiny plane and then changed in Dallas to another tiny plane to the even smaller airport in Fargo, North Dakota. No big planes, parking garages or long TSA lines. I was the only one at the rental car counter and the brown Civic was parked a few hundred feet away. After seeing farm equipment proudly displayed in the main terminal I wasn’t surprised to see that the grounds of the airport were vast cornfields.
We passed sunflower fields, rolling hills, lakes and small towns, all so familiar as we head home. This is my mother’s 81st summer in this land and she is so glad to be where her memories are so vivid and happy. This summer is different, vast changes in our family from last year mean we have to deal with loss mixed in with the comforts of the familiar.
My father isn’t at the table outside the farmhouse waving to us as we drive up. The farm house is now empty and stripped of our family treasures. The barn and granary are gone, now replaced with a modern metal building. The gardens are overgrown and the place lifeless. Our precious picturesque farm that was in the family for 117 years now belongs to stranger that doesn’t have the same cherished memories but sees only old buildings. It is a painful reminder of greed and betrayal.
My Aunt Sally still lives there in a little cottage by the lake that belonged to my great-grandmother Ella. The cottage has been added on to many times and now holds many of the artifacts gleaned from the farmhouse. I spent one blissful afternoon alternately sleeping and reading in a cozy little bedroom while in the background I could hear family talking and laughing over coffee on the back porch. It made me feel like a little girl again snuggled in the attic of the farmhouse.
The weather was hot the first few days so I cooled off in the lake, bobbing around in the shallow water, squishing the sand and seaweed between my toes. In the early mornings we gathered for coffee and coffeecake and tried to make sense out of our senseless losses, trying to come to terms with our lost land. One evening after dusk we went to the shore and lit Japanese paper lanterns to take our hopes and wishes and memories out over the lake. Another chillier evening we took a boat ride around the lake and admired the loons placidly bobbing in our wake and were treated to a low flyover by the resident bald eagle.
Everyday my family and I did something that was part of our cherished memories, shopped at the old department store, ate pizza and fresh corn on the cob, had breakfast in a town so small that the restaurant is also the grocery, hardware store, bait shop and laundromat. We went a few miles down the road to Vergas (population 388) to watch the Looney Day parade, complete with endless beauty queens, fire trucks and boy scout troupes from the surrounding area. Vergas’ claim to fame is a giant Loon statue in the local park. I ate deep-fried Oreos and Uffda tacos (what you get when Scandinavians make Mexican food). I reveled in the innocence of small-town American life and the gentleness of the local people.
Along with the happy memories of life by the lake and endless chatter with my cousins and aunts and the clean, crisp air off the lake, my sister and I had a task. We came to bury my father’s ashes in the family cemetery. We picked out the headstone and my mother also chose a new headstone for my great-great grandparents Clara and Oscar. They moved from Sweden in the 1880’s, bringing their young family from the heart of Stockholm to make a new life on a lake in Minnesota. In this tiny cemetery, nestled in a hayfield off a dirt road, 25 ancestors are at peace, the lineage that the living hold dear to our hearts. Every year we go to this familiar place and talk about each one. Their courage and fortitude to make a new life in far away land gave us all a new future. Once on the whispering wind I heard them say to me “I don’t know why you come, we aren’t here.”
Since the cemetery is small, isolated and privately owned, we were allowed to do our own burial. My sister dug the square grave for the wooden box of ashes and tidied the other graves. Early on Sunday morning my mother said a few words and I read a few prayers. My sister and I together placed the ashes in the ground and each family member added a flower to show their love. My aunt has renamed the rowboat in my father’s honor, a fitting memorial since he rowed every summer morning until he was 90.
Life is simple and joyful when we are on the lake. Coffee and conversation, cool breeze and lapping waves are the elixirs that sooth my soul and link me to my ancestors, the ones that changed their destiny and therefore changed mine.
My Aunt Ellen gave me an aerial photo of our beautiful farm as it was. The waving green fields and trees surround the charming old home and barn. When I look at that picture now hanging in my kitchen I feel the healing that I need to recover from such a great loss. Minnesota will never be the same for my family, but we have strengthened our bonds and commitment to each other in the sadness and know we are finding new ways to be together. Our ancestors are as close as our breath and forever part of our DNA.
In just a few months we will all gather in Tennessee on my farm to celebrate Christmas. Our cousins who live in Sweden are coming and once again we will have endless conversations and laughter. The farm is different but the love is the same.