My grandmother, Esther (Nana to me and my sisters), loved the sea, and loved Norway. Her family followed the sea, and they all came from one place. She even had a little shrine in her house, with two small flags, American and Norwegian, a woodcut of the house in Norway where her mother was born, and a small replica of a Viking ship.
The Viking ship was especially meaningful, and she was especially proud of it. It wasn't just any old ship--it was the Oseberg ship...and it's part of the family. My family's history has been carried on the matrilineal line, but to get to the 10th century we have to go back through the 1920's.
My father used to say that there are two kinds of Norwegians--the ones who drink and the ones who go to church. It's been my own observation that those categories tend to alternate, skipping generations one by one, only occasionally conflating and, rather recently, collapsing the paradigm altogether. My Nana was a church-goer.
The Sins of the Father
Her father, Nils, was definitely a drinker. As I grew up, Nana would trickle out the stories, always thinking I was far too young to hear sordid details. My mother would fill in some of the gaps when Nana wasn't around but, being her mother's daughter, there were serious gaps in her knowledge base, too.
Esther was the youngest of three children, born in 1904 to Norwegian immigrants who lived in a tenement in Hell's Kitchen in New York City. Having been born in Hell's Kitchen more than a decade after her parents married, I think it's pretty safe to assume that the family hit hard times rather early on. Or maybe they had just hit a rough patch, because Hell's Kitchen has always had a menacing reputation. Her father Nils occupies almost no part of her stories, except as a shadowy figure, half-menacing and half-comical. Nana believed that her sister Alice, ten years her senior, married early and primarily to get out of the house and away from their father's abuse.
By 1918, the family had moved to Greenwich Village, somewhere on Christopher Street, and lived on the third floor above a funeral home. Nils kept a spare bottle of booze hidden in the basement, where the funeral home had its mortuary.
You can probably see where this little vignette is going, especially when you remember that 1918 was the height of the Spanish Influenza in the United States. Although New York City suffered fewer deaths per capita than other neighboring cities like Boston or Philadelphia, some 30,000 people died. Cemeteries over-crowded and funeral homes overflowed.
One autumn night during the height of the epidemic, after the funeral home closed, Nils sneaked down to the basement to find his extra bottle and came upon a package wrapped in newspapers. Thinking it might be something valuable, he opened it and found a dead infant for whom there was no casket available. In terror, he dropped the baby on the table and ran away, forgetting his booze. The experience didn't sober him up, but it did keep him out of the basement from then on.
Alice married a sailor, a naturalized Norwegian named Louis Pedersen, who shipped out almost immediately after the wedding. As a bride, Alice had no idea how to cook, but she figured out how to make Jello which, with the introduction of refrigeration, was making its way into the market. The first time he came home on shore leave and was hungry, Alice proudly showed him the new refrigerator and its contents--a veritable rainbow of every kind of Jello available.
He encouraged her to learn how to cook. And, eager to please, she did; in time, she became an excellent cook, and Louis had a story that, ever after, he told with great delight. With Alice gone, the rest of the family moved around, to Back Bay, to Flatbush, to other locations in Brooklyn. There must have been tensions that no one ever spoke of, because the New York State 1925 census lists Louis and Alice living in Brooklyn with their two children, and Alice's mother Hansine, her brother Arthur, and her sister Esther, my grandmother, a 21 year old stenographer.
Nils was not living with the family, but there's no record of where he was. Then, on March 7, 1927, the New York Times listed his death:
ARENTSEN--Suddenly, on Friday, March 4, 1927, Niels P. Arentsen, in his sixty-third year, dearly beloved husband of Hansine Arentsen and dear father of Mrs. Alice Peterson, Arthur and Esther Arentsen. Relaives and friends are respectfully invited to attend the funeral services at John H. Nusskern's Funeral Parlors, 355 Bleecker St., New York City, On Tuesday, March 8, at 2. P.M.Official records are one thing--family history is another.
Although neither Aunt Alice nor Nana expended much effort in recasting their father either dear or beloved, they didn't speak ill of him. I heard the story of Nils' death only once, and then only in a roundabout way. Nana said that she knew "they" said Nils had been drunk and walked out in front of that horse-drawn fire engine, but she didn't believe it. In fact, when she and Alice were summoned to the fire station to identify his body, he was lying on the floor and covered by a blanket in the same room where the firefighters were busy playing cards, and she believed they splashed liquor over his clothes to make it look as if he'd been drunk, the same way they tucked a glass bottle into his coat pocket. Their disrespect to two grieving women particularly galled her.
So my grandmother, the Woman About Town, met my grandfather, the sailor.
Men are One Thing, But What About the Women?
Ah, the women. Here's where the ship comes in. And this is all family history. I know that the records exist in Norway but they haven't been digitized, I don't have personal contacts in Norway, and I forgot most of the language a long time ago. That means a good bit of this is unverified, except where I can happily note official changes to the oral record.
My grandmother Esther might have preserved the story and ensured that her grandchildren absorbed at least a little of the (carefully vetted and approved in advance) official family history, but I really have to jump back two generations, to Esther's grandparents, the Oseberg relatives. [By the way, the family pronunciation is Ew-suh-buh. (Ew as in "Ew, I smell something bad," suh as in "supper" and buh as just the sound of "b" without any vowel.]
Finally, the Viking Ship
The best way I explain all this is to hopscotch backward, from me to my grandmother, to her mother Hansine, and back to Norway, specifically to Tonsberg. And again, without going to Tonsberg and looking up the land records, it'll be hard for me to authenticate what was handed down in oral history. But according to Nana, who heard it from Hansine (who was already a New Yorker when it all went down), the Oseberg ship burial was found on her family's farm.
By 1900, Viking ships were all the rage. With the discovery and conservation of the Gokstad ship, Viking ships were as popular then as zombies are today. Still, it was a surprise in 1903 when a Norwegian farmer brought a hunk of old carved wood to the Archaeology Department at the University of Oslo. He had hacked it out of a burial mound on his property. The archaeologists were amazed, and tentatively dated the artifact from the eighth century.
The Oseberg ship is without doubt the largest, most complete and most important Viking ship burial ever discovered. It's justifiably famous and there are literally tons of sources that will give you photos, facts and information about the ongoing conservation efforts that you can find. Some good places to start include:
The Viking Ship Museum, a part of the Museum of Cultural History
The Oseberg Viking Ship Burial from Irish Archaeology
The Oseberg Ship 100 Year Anniversary, in Norwegian, and worth translating. Google Chrome will do that automatically for you, although it's not always the most graceful translation.
The Oseberg Ship, Norway, another Norwegian site, with nice photography and information.
The obligatory Wikipedia Article
Another decent read from About.com
I grew up surrounded by reminders of Viking art and romantic family history about the ship and its connection to my family. The two women in the grave were rumored to be Queen Asa and her servant, although there's no evidence to support that supposition, it didn't stop us from dreaming ourselves into being the descendants of Viking royalty.
When I was researching for my dissertation and chasing some lead down a lengthy and now-obscure rabbit hole (all researchers have done the same, and some of the most interesting stuff comes out of rabbit holes) I found an account of how Norway led the rest of Europe in changing its antiquity laws. Some farmer turned up at the University of Oslo in 1903, with a piece of a ship. He allowed the University to excavate the burial mound on his farm, surveyed all the pieces, and then announced he would sell them. After some controversy and a bidding war, during which children went house-to-house raising money as U.S. children do for Unicef, all to meet the farmer's asking price. A national effort kept the treasures in Norway. The king begged the farmer to keep the treasures in the country but he was adamant that he would have the highest possible price. After a national effort, the people prevailed and the ship and grave goods became the property of the Norwegian people. The following year, the Norwegian parliament changed the law and nationalized all antiquities so it would never happen again that the whole country would have to beg to keep its heritage. (Would that all our peoples were so fortunate.)
Of course, given what I knew of my family, I thought immediately of Abraham, Hansine's father. And for years I thought I was descended, not from Viking queens, but from the tightest bastard in Northern European archaeological history. I told my sisters, who thought the story was hilarious. My mother said, "Thank God your grandmother's dead, because this would kill her." It would have troubled her, but Mom used to say things like that whenever I colored outside the lines.
Subsequently I learned that the farmer's name was Knut Rom. So the miser was not my great-great-grandfather, after all.
How to explain? I can't. My grandmother was clear, her mother was quite specific that the ship had been found on the family farm. She even had the woodcut of the house where her mother was born. (That woodcut is somewhere in my house, packed away. My house is a black hole that swallows things and turns them up at unlikely and inconvenient times, so I know better than to look for it.) I suspect that maybe Abraham sold the family farm after Hansine left for the United States, but it may be that the farm had passed out of the family before then.
Enter Olaf the Bold
My grandmother Esther had a tough early life, an immigrant family where her parents spoke no English, her father an alcoholic, starting out in the Worst Neighborhood in New York City, but no obstacle was too much for her to overcome. She became a career woman during the 1920's and '30's, then a Navy wife, then a widow and remained, her whole life, an upstanding strong woman, probably the strongest woman I've ever known. In her late 70's, she thought nothing of driving alone between New York and our home in Virginia, seven hours driving in 18-wheelers' slipsteam without stopping, and she'd get there in time to watch her soap operas.
She spent her whole life conserving--money, resources, time. She made her own clothes, then made my mother's clothes, and eventually dressed all five of her granddaughters. She was a bookkeeper, office manager--in fact, she never encountered something she couldn't do. And through her whole life, she saved.
Then, starting in 1971, she reversed course and followed her lifelong ambition: travel. She went first to Norway, met long-lost relatives, brushed up her Norwegian, and of course, visited the Oseberg farm and ship.
That was the first of many trips to Europe. Every few years she would go back and travel with her cousins to Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland, etc. She would diet rigorously all year long, then go back to Norway in the summer and eat her way across Europe. She'd send home post cards that reported, "Rome is dirty. And the traffic is terrible. Saw the Vatican." She'd write, not about the art and architecture, but the quality of the cream scones and afternoon teas. She would come home ten pounds heavier and immediately start dieting again so she could repeat the exercise again next year.
She got to be such a seasoned traveler and so enjoyed her travels, that one of my best friends from college nicknamed her "Olaf the Bold Tea Drinker." She reveled in that nickname, as much as she reveled in her Norwegian ancestry and her rediscovery of family in Tonsberg.
In the end, it doesn't really matter whether the Oseberg of my line is the same as the Oseberg who named the farm where the ship was found, (although the name's not common and the family was centered in Tonsberg where the farm is located). Families go in all funny directions after a few generations, and family lore takes all kinds of weird permutations. There's no chance the stories from my childhood and history's data points are going to meet in too many places.
And when you think about it, there's a good chance we're all related to each other. Some years ago, before the web came about and list-servs and gopher holes were all the rage, I read on Ansaxnet where someone announced that he had traced his ancestry back to Ethelred the Unready, and was promptly flamed for inappropriate boasting about being related to a famous figure dead for a thousand year. The fuss died down when an eminent Anglo-Saxon scholar did the calculations and, based on population distribution and allowing for pandemics and natural disaster, he figured that everyone who has any Caucasian ancestry has roughly a 50% chance of being descended from Ethelred the Unready, too.
My Viking ancestors date from about the same time, and they certainly got around. (Vikings were responsible for the Irish having red hair.) On the Ethelred the Unready scale, I figure that if you have any Caucasian ancestry, there's a 50% chance we're cousins already.
A thought like that can change your whole outlook. And it can make you want to travel and see where the family's been.