As I set foot off the plane, tears filled my eyes. I hadn’t expected this emotional rush simply landing at the airport. What was it? Jet lag? Fatigue? Finally arriving after months of planning? It may have been a touch of all these, but at that moment I sensed it went much deeper. Standing on the very edge of Norway, an overwhelming giddiness filled my throat.
The coming days would reveal source of these feelings as we roamed the majestic countryside. We celebrated “Syttende Mai” (the 17th of May) in Oslo and marveled at the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland. We traveled the treacherous mountain roads to Stalheim, amazed at the site of farms perched on mountainsides – perhaps the sort of tiny farms our people had come from. We saw homes with sod roofs and couldn’t believe our eyes when we actually saw a goat grazing upon one! We sailed the crystal clear fjords and filled our lungs with the crisp arctic air. We strolled the colorful fish market and the narrow streets of Bergen and gazed upon the rainbow-painted houses standing watch along the “Gateway to the Fjords” (many of my mother’s people on the Leraas side came from the countryside near Bergen). We listened to the captivating music of Edvard Grieg as we stood inside his summerhouse where he composed his finest work. We toured the Vemork Heavy Water Plant where we learned of the heroics of anti-Nazi resistance fighters. We wondered at the 1,000-year-old stave churches — the oldest wooden structures on earth. We visited a real glacier, and stood atop the Olympic ski jump in Lillehammer. We snapped each other’s pictures in front of landmarks such as a restaurant called Huset Solveig, and a music store called Musikk Huset, translated literally ‘music house’. We saw actual Viking ships, the likes of which carried the first Norwegians to the New World some 500 years before Columbus.
That lump in my throat, I came to realize, came from a feeling of connection to a land and to a people I had never laid eyes on … sort of a genetic homecoming.
It was May 1996 and I had traveled to Norway with my parents, Don and Darlene (Christenson) Huseth, and my sister, Solveig. Our family is unusual – perhaps in many ways – but primarily in that we are 100% of Norwegian heritage. Quite unusual in America in 1999! So when the opportunity arose to visit “the home-country” with my parents, it was a dream come true.
As breathtaking as the sites and wonders were however, the thing that stands out in my memory is the time we spent with family … with distant relatives we had never met, who took precious time from their busy schedules to come share of themselves with their American shirt-tail cousins.
Kjetil and JoAnne Nerland were the first to greet us at our Oslo hotel. They were a young couple perhaps in their thirties (who incidentally, later had a baby and named her Mia). We chatted for some time until Kjetil’s father, Harold Nerland, arrived and invited us back to their home for dinner. His wife prepared a delicious Norwegian meal for us and we visited the evening away. We talked about the relationship of their ancestors to ours who left Norway to come eventually to Minnesota: Dora Huseth’s mother, Grandma Marit Jensted was from the Furu family, cousins to the Nerlands. We talked about the ones that went to America but returned to Norway. We played with their grandchildren and talked about how hard it is to get little ones to go to bed when it remains light until 11:00 PM. We admired their multiple sets of encyclopedias and the ingenious height of their coffee table. We talked about Norwegian government and how it differs from American government, about taxes and benefits, and the price of gasoline. We learned that even though many things are paid for by the Norwegian government — things like medical care, college tuition, and a one-year paid family leave for both mother and father after the birth of a baby — the down side is that taxes are very high as is government involvement in everyday life. For instance, when naming your baby, you must get government approval for any non-Norwegian name. The evening was gone before we knew it – one of the most precious memories of the trip.
The next day we traveled to Lillehammer where we again were greeted by more relatives, a cousin to Harold Nerland named Ivar Furu and his wife Magnhild, and another cousin named Britt. They had traveled nearly 4 hours from Furugrenda to have dinner with us at our hotel. Again we visited the evening away. We talked about American and Russian politics. We talked about the upcoming presidential election and the pros and cons of a second term for Bill Clinton. We talked about the volatility of Russian politics and what a real threat instability in Russia presents to Norway, being so very close geographically. We heard about their interesting careers in the Norwegian parliament. We discussed farming in Norway vs. in America. We talked about aviation and teaching, about children and grandchildren, about current events at home and abroad. The next morning they joined us for breakfast and then followed our tour bus for the morning coffee stop, as they made their way back home. They had taken two days out of their schedules to come visit with us – what a gift! Dad stayed on in Norway for a week after the tour ended, lodging at the home of Ivar and Magnhild where he got to know the rest of their delightful family. He also spent some time with a pilot friend in Bergen named Knute Helbekkmo, to whom he had given a multi-instrument rating (Donald was a flight instructor) in Minnesota some years before. We all wished we had been able to stay on as well, when Dad got home and began to describe how he really got to experience the people of Norway and their way of life, along with seeing the sights. What a treasure for him!
I tell you all this to say that the power of family is a strong bond … stronger than I had acknowledged before my trip to Norway. It is a bond … a connection that transcends oceans, cultures, generations, and yes … even blood. It is a bond that says, “I’ll walk along side you in good times and bad. We are the village it takes.” It is a connection that says, “I share a history with you. I have some of the same memories as you do. It is our shared knowledge … our shared memory that becomes a cultural force. We do not stand alone.”
So as I stood in the Oslo airport, what was this lump in my throat and the tear in my eye? Was it God preparing my heart to show me just a glimpse of the roots that support and nurture my branches? We probably all agree that our past shapes us and gives us identity, but what I learned in 1996, is that our past goes back beyond our own personal memories. I am who I am, due to the forces at work generations before I came along. Those strong and innovative families who eked out a living perched on the side of a mountain. Those adventurous – or perhaps desperate – men and women who left the only home they had ever known for a place that promised something more for their children. Those courageous pioneers who traveled by ship through Newfoundland, by train through Chicago, and by covered wagon to settle in Minnesota, South Dakota, Washington State and many points in between. Those industrious folks who carved out a new life in a new land rooted in hard work and community, education, beauty, and God. Those fun-loving families, who knew the value of making their own fun in a sometimes cold and dark world. These are the ones who set the stage for me and for my children. These are the roots that give life to my branches.
Now standing on the edge of a new century, I again feel that overwhelming giddiness – an excitement for my future and a gratitude for my past.
If you are young, begin now to ask questions about your roots. Begin today by listening with a new ear to the memories that shape you. Make a plan to go to the places that cradled your forefathers.
If you are old, keep telling your stories … keep imparting your values … keep sharing the histories that only you know. Write them down or record them on tape, for these are the bricks and mortar that form us here today and the Huseths and the Christensons and the Leraas’ of the new millennium.