Sunday, November 27, 2011

Someone Else's Dream

(Image "Masquerade" by Thomas Barbey)
Last night I had the strangest dream. I woke up from it sobbing in grief, but it wasn't my dream.

Of course, it was a bubble from my own subconscious, but it's just flotsam, or empathy, for an old acquaintance I spoke with last night on the phone.

Should I tell you my dream, or should I tell you the horrible Job-like story of my acquaintance's life? Let's start with the dream.

The Dream
I was in a hardware store talking with a friendly old man wearing little, round, thick-lensed glasses. He and I traded glasses and I realized I could see through his. We were laughing about that, but I was thinking, "Wow, my eyesight is as bad as an 85-year-old man's!"

Then his wife came up to me then, peered at me closely and said, "What are you, about 50?" All I could say was "No!" but instead of volunteering my true age, I walked away, into the back room and burst into tears.

That's when I woke up crying.

I have always looked younger than my true age. The paradigm I am used to in such encounters is that I volunteer my age and people don't believe me, they think I am much younger.

My mother was the same way, so young-looking she could  get away with lying about her age by 10 years or more. Which she did until the time came when she was prouder of her good health than of her beauty.

Whose Dream It Really Was
This acquaintance of mine is someone I knew in junior high and young adulthood. I lost touch with her or a decade or two and then found her again about three years ago.

I know it's not possible for someone to be cursed, but this woman's life is a string of such terrible stories that it seems almost supernatural.

I do know that we bring many things upon ourselves through the choices we make. And that our attitude dictates how these experiences will be processed into our identity.

Many of the things that have happened to her over the years were her own fault, but the consequences now are so tremendous it seems like overkill, like the Biblical story of the boils and griefs that God and the devil afflicted Job with to test his faith.

Now she lives a quiet life and isn't harming anyone, but her health problems are overwhelming. The latest chapter in her saga is, all at the same time, congestive heart failure, an unsightly skin condition, an antibiotic-resistant staff infection and now, allopecia. Her hair is falling out.

A Wake of Tragedies
Her life history consists of a trail of sudden deaths and suicides in her wake. I could tell 10 tragic stories here, but this post would be too long.

She visits someone, she begins talking to them, she gets involved in their lives and starts giving them her twisted point of view, overriding their own opinions, giving them books to read, generalizing about men, society, politics, religion.

Her views are encased in wry humor, she seems simply edgy, but she is twisting the knife, digging out insecurities, finding evidence to support her view.

If the person she is talking to is vulnerable or wounded (they always are), their hope begins to dwindle.

If they don't get away from her as fast as possible, they soon die, either in an accident or by their own hand. In one case, someone murdered someone else before they committed suicide.

I'm not making this up and I am not exaggerating.I have seen it with my own eyes, over and over. She leaves a trail of death in her wake.

Beauty as a Weapon
Once she was rather pretty, not overly so, but.attractive enough that she made extra money as a prostitute for a few years.

Maybe that is how she managed to do so much damage. Maybe it was hard for people to believe that evil could reside in a pleasant-looking young woman.

Maybe she used her beauty as a weapon so much that destiny saw fit to divest her of it. Life has not been kind to her. What beauty she may have possessed has been stripped away. She looks 20 years older than she really is, her health is failing and her hope is fading.

Left Alone
She has been left all alone with no family, no friends, no lover.She lives alone in a house in the mountains, with no companions, only 3 dogs and a TV.

She has swindled her way into a life without work, but that has left her also without purpose, and her false disability has now become a true disability; now she is not healthy or strong enough to work.

Does evil know it's evil? Because she truly doesn't know. Is she a sociopath? Maybe so. She thinks all these things have happened to her, through no fault of her own.

She is in despair, asking Why? But not listening to the answer.

Seeds of Discontent, Web of Sympathy
Part of me fears connecting with her. My instincts tell me she is dangerous. Last time I went to visit her, my son's terrible accident happened while I was away. Every time I talk to her, seeds of discontent are planted in me.

Yet I can't bring myself to stop talking to her. I feel like I am the last thread that tethers her to humanity. I try to offer gentle advice about doing things differently, changing her attitude, but I see that is not possible.

My suggestions-- move into town to be around people, get involved in activities to make friends, stop smoking, change your diet, take up yoga, get a counselor-- only make her angry.

If I stop taking her calls or if I break our connection, what if she does herself in? Then there would be a suicide in my own wake.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Story of S: Found In Translation

My grandfather (center)
I was never into genealogy; that was my dad's thing, but he somehow managed to get me involved, one way or another, over the years.

Pappaw's WWI Journal
For example, when I was a teen he had me transcribe the little journal my grandfather Edwin Albert Anderson kept while he was trudging across France in the winter during World War I.

I painstakingly copied out those entries, which were terse and unembellished due to my grandfather's absolute physical exhaustion every day. He and his platoon marched miles in the rain and snow, dug miles of trenches, they stopped to get "deloused," they ate, and they slept.

There was no trace of my grandfather's gentle humor in those entries, nothing of what I remembered of my comfortable, smiling blue-eyed Pappaw, who had passed away when I was 7.

The Swedish Patrinymic Naming System
Some other project I did for my dad brought me into contact with the next generations back, Pappaw's parents, Augusta and Adolf Anderson, who came to America in the late 1880s, and their parents, who stayed behind in Sweden, and several generations before that.

And it was there in those records that I discovered something interesting that had a lasting impact on my life: the Swedish naming system, whereby children take as their last name the first name of their father + a possessive S + the word "son" or "dotter" depending on the child's gender. Andersson, Johansdotter, etc.

I looked up from my paper and thought with a smile, my name would be Karol Eddiesdotter.

Then suddenly it occurred to me, "Why is our name Anderson and not Andersson?"

When We Lost Our S
I searched through the records and saw exactly when that S was lost. It was when Adolf came to America. At the time, I thought some careless customs officer had misspelled Adolf's name and that some clerical error had followed my family, generation after generation to this day.

Within a year, I had changed my own name, first informally and later officially, to Andersson.

No one in my family batted an eyelash about this change, no one told me I was being disloyal to my family. To this day, everyone in my family, whose name is Anderson, spells my name Andersson. I love my family for that

But the story doesn't end there.

Lost Name, Found History
Much later, when my feminist principles had been tempered by time, I got married and took my husband's name for exactly 7 years. It was remarkably easy to change my name to his. Just show up at the social security office with a marriage certificate and wham, my name vanished like smoke.

It was during those years that I became interested in my Swedish heritage. It started as a hobby when I returned to college. I needed to furnish a cheap little Victorian apartment that I was going to occupy during the week while I attended school in Arcata. Because I had to furnish the place on the cheap, I patronized garage sales and thrift stores.

I found myself attracted to a certain kind of decor, which I didn't at first even recognize as Swedish kitsch. I would find something cute -- say, a colorful teakettle with "Kaffetaren den basta ar av alla jordiska drycker" (Coffee is the best of all earthly drinks) printed on the side -- and think, "Aw, this reminds me of my grandparents."

Soon my little apartment looked a lot like my grandparents' house, as does my apartment to this day.

Swedish Diaspora
Soon I began to study the Swedish language and culture. It became my hobby. Every time I got in the car to go somewhere, I was listening to audio recordings of Swedish language for beginners.

I also learned about the Swedish diaspora of the late 19th century and the social forces that drove more than a million Swedes (a third of the population) to the US: famine, loss of land, attractive opportunities in America, attractive ads offering jobs, jobs, jobs in places like Pennsylvania and Illinois, where Adolf and Augusta wound up.
Since Ellis Island did not open until 1892, I realized that Adolf and Augusta had entered the country (separately, unmarried, perhaps as strangers) at Castle Garden Immigrant Station.
Augusta made the journey with her younger brother, Algot. The two were coming to join their elder brother Bengt in Illinois.

A Likelier Story: New American Names
I began to see the story of our lost S in a whole new light, as more than a careless bureaucratic misspelling. Instead it probably went more like this:

After an exhausting passage, young Adolf who spoke almost no English was simply given his "new American name," Anderson. Maybe he was even proud; after all he was a young man, full of hope, setting out on the journey of his life.

But Augusta lost more than simply an S. The word -dotter was removed from her name, replaced with -son, which must have seemed odd to her, but then again, maybe exciting too, this new American name.

I have taught ESL and have seen more than half my students assign themselves an "American name." Attached to this impulse are probably the notions of fresh start, new identity, breaking with the past, forward progress and individualism.

The Irony of Going to Sweden without my S
In 2009, I went on a trip to Sweden without my name. It was after my divorce but before I could complete the name change process and regain my name.

Oddly, the process for changing your name after a divorce is much harder, involving $300 in court fees, a legal advertisement in the newspaper for six weeks, then a court hearing, then trips to the social security office, the DMV, the bank, etc.

So I had to go to Sweden with a name that said absolutely nothing about who I am, not only without my precious extra S that identified me as a Swedish American, but without even my Americanized Swedish name.

It was my dad's genealogy projects that allowed me to wind up in Sweden. I was in search of some information for my dad, and the amateur genealogist who translated the parish records for us also hosted my visit there.

He showed me many historical and relevant things that allowed me to understand the emigrant experience. Yes, emigrant, not immigrant, because suddenly I saw Augusta's and Adolf's stories as stories of leaving Sweden instead of stories of arrival.

Found in Translation
Over time, I have formed a special bond with these ancestors I never met, particularly Augusta who fascinates me enough that I have a whole story in my head (part fact, part fiction) that needs to get written one of these days.

The next project my dad gave me felt climactic in a way I can hardly describe, as if everything I had discovered, however serendipitously, led to a single, seemingly modest but deeply meaningful activity.

My dad sent me a letter to translate, a letter Augusta wrote in 1930 to her son, my grandfather Edwin. It was several pages of scrawled, often misspelled Swedish that tested my translation skills. I labored over it for a week, calling on every Swedish friend I had to sort out the meaning of certain phrases.

What I learned was that Augusta was an ordinary woman, a grieving mother whose youngest child had just died in a car accident when she wrote that letter. Her grief is nearly unbearable, though she barely hints at it as she writes matter-of-factly about practical things.

She is a wife trying to make ends meet, missing her other son who lives far away in Texas, sending a sweater to her dear little grandson, my dad.

I know what it's like to worry about your youngest child. I know what it's like to miss your grandchild. I know what it's like to worry about the future.

So in a sense, it was that first colorful little Swedish tea kettle I found on a dusty shelf in a Eureka thrift store led me to my great-grandmother.

And the force of my father's continual interest in family history has kept me safely tethered to my family in spite of distance and time.

It was an odd roundabout journey and it's hardly over.

But that's another story.