“I don’t believe that life is linear. I think of it as circles — concentric circles that connect.” — Michelle Williams
It’s time I shared my own caregiving story here on the blog, and a few solemn, serene moments in the frigid air today pushed me to begin. Because my caregiving story starts, and continues, with the names on that stone.
So today, I visited my grandparents. The people who were an active part of my life since the very first day of my life. The people whose memory I seek to honor by keeping their pictures visible in my home, by recreating her recipes in the kitchen, by smiling at everyone I meet just like he did, by always working hard and keeping faith and family first.
In my grandparents’ home country of Norway, regularly visiting deceased loved ones and meticulously, lovingly tending their gravestones is a ritual marked by people of all ages.
A year after my grandpa died, I visited Norway for the first time. While there, my family hosts brought me to the graves of several family members, including those of my great grandparents (on Grandma’s side). At first, it seemed strange, even a little uncomfortable, to be stepping into cemetery after cemetery — until I realized that not only were they sharing a part of my family history by bringing me to these places, they were also sharing parts of themselves. When a fourteen-year-old relative wanted to bring us to the grave of one of her family members (someone who was not even related to me), I better understood this practice of remembering the dead as a sacred one, a part of their culture, fabric, and heritage. My heritage.
I went back to Norway again in July 2017, returning to the US just two weeks before my grandma left this earth. While we didn’t visit as many grave sites this time, I had a truly remarkable experience in a cemetery there — the cemetery where my other great grandparents (on Grandpa’s side) are buried.
Vanse Kirke, my grandfather’s home church, has a very large cemetery. I had asked my second cousin (who is actually related to my grandmother but lived in the same town as my grandfather’s family) if she could bring me there one day so I could see where my grandfather’s parents were buried before I left Norway again.
When we arrived on a cold, rainy day that left mists hanging over the mountains and fjords, I realized finding my great grandparents’ graves on my own would be an impossible task. The cemetery was massive. But I wanted to try.
We pulled into a parking spot in the empty church lot. A man was digging a plot close to the church building. My second cousin and I approached him, rain dripping off our coats and onto our faces. Speaking in Norwegian, she explained who I was and why we were there. The man spoke a bit of English and explained his close connection to the community, the church, the cemetery. He offered to help if he could. “So, who are you looking for?” he asked.
When I said my great grandmother’s beautiful name, his whole face lifted in a smile. “Jennia Pedersen?” he said. I nodded. “She delivered me.”
My great grandmother was one of the premier midwives of her day in that part of Norway, delivering hundreds of babies around the region. My grandfather used to tell me stories of how he’d go along with her sometimes, assisting her in the births. And here in front of me, decades and generations later, stood a man who a few minutes ago was a stranger, but then, became someone powerfully connected to me because of the person who brought him into the world. And that person, though I never met her in person, is part of me. My great grandmother, the woman who brought my beloved grandfather into the world. Who gave me my Norwegian heritage. My hardworking woman heritage. My caregiving heritage.
It felt like a dream. Like a scene from a movie. A surreal, serendipitous moment that has stayed with me since that day, and will probably stay with me for the rest of my earthly life.
So in honor of that day, that moment, and all that it means, I’m ready to tell more of my caregiving story — which starts with who I am as a person, with the caregiving heritage gifted to me generations ago. And I couldn’t think of a better way or day on which to begin.