Tag Archives: Denmark

We’re Related to Pirates!!

pirate drawing“Pirates!” my son exclaims. “We have pirates in the family? Awesome.”

“Vikings,” I repeat, thinking that isn’t exactly the same. I’m standing next to a Viking burial mound on an island off the coast of Denmark talking to him via cell phone. He’s responding on the wavelength of the current zeitgeist that includes Talk Like A Pirate Day, every September 19, and recent books that tell how to release one’s inner buccaneer–a California thing.

The island is Samsø—an hourglass shaped landmass in an arm of the North Sea. It’s twenty miles long, six miles wide, pinched to half a mile at the point where in the year 726, the Vikings dug a canal, a remarkable feat of engineering that allowed ships to sail from the fjord to the mainland with speed and safety—polite language for outrunning another ship. OK, think pirate, raider, explorer. Then also remember a remarkable shipbuilding culture complete with a pantheon of Norse gods. The Vikings gave us Valhalla and Thor. It is said that Samsø is where Odin learned magic.

I’ve returned to Samsø where my Danish ancestors once lived to see if I can learn anything about my family’s background. Vikings and/or pirates was not what I thought I’d find.

There’s more.

Near the remnants of the old Viking canal, there is a sandbank with newly uncovered Stone Age dwellings. According to a local pamphlet, pollen analysis indicates that grazing cattle and sheep on Samsø is a tradition reaching back to the beginning of Neolithic time, in other words, since mankind first began to keep domestic animals.

Cattle and sheep! That’s what my family raised on our ranch just above Bone, Idaho, even though sheep and cattle were not supposed to mix in the American West. Here’s the larger thought, since my family goes back father than written records on Samsø, I have to consider the possibility that my roots in this place might extend to the last ice age and that cattle and sheep have been part of my family’s livelihood for tens of thousands of years. Cattle and sheep still grazed in the island pastures that I passed. It was enough to give one pause.

However, nothing stopped me like the reproduction of an old Viking house. It exactly matched the description of the first house my Danish ancestor and her new husband made from the wagon that they’d brought across the plains. According to the family stories, they turned the wagon over, mounded earth over it, and made it through the cold months.

Cattle and sheep; pirates and dugouts, until you return to the old places you might not sense how far our stories echo across time.

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Filed under Family history, Family Stories, History, Legend, Old Storytelling Traditions, Why Stories?

Stodgy Vs Story

I had a great aunt whose idea of entertainment was to bring out the family photographs and carefully repeat the names, “This is cousin So-and-So.” A man’s wife was always “Mrs. So-and-So,” never a first name, who was called something else before she was married and something else after she re-married. Of course, Mrs. So-and-So was related to someone else I was supposed to know . . .. I was worse than bored. I grumped and slumped until my great aunt finally excused my bad behavior saying “very likely I was just too young to remember.”

Hardly.

I also had an uncle who twisted nursery rhymes into ribald limericks. Since no one would explain why they were funny, I had to remember them until I was old enough to figure it out on my own.

Mary Had a Little Lamb imageMary had a little lamb

She tied him to a heater

Every time he turned around

He burned his little peter

will run through my head the rest of my life.

Names and dates don’t stick: never have, never will; but, once in awhile, my great aunt got distracted and told me something interesting, like the fact that one of my ancestors was a Viking pirate. Of course, when I asked to see a picture of him, she didn’t have one, which meant she was forced to fill-in. “Our family came from Denmark, not the regular part of Denmark, but a little island off the coast with a hidden cove—a favorite Viking hideout. There were pirates plundering nearby ports from that little island far longer than from the Barbary Coast,” she claimed.

Viking Ship Picture

Turns out that’s mostly true, but, even if she was still alive, I doubt she’d be impressed by the fact that I’ve been to that little island, checking out her pirate story, among other things. She was less about truth and more about application. When she told a story, she made sure it made a point.

“We are luckier than pirates,” she told me. “We have so many new things, such wonderful inventions, these days a pirate wouldn’t know what to steal.”

Turns out my great aunt also kept a journal. She names her first boyfriend, Alonzo Eckersley, and tells how they spent one summer together:

Every night we would take a ride on my horse and then dream dreams of what we were going to do in the future. One night his dog was poisoned. Both of us surely did cry.

She doesn’t say what happened to Alonzo. Instead, she shifts to how she went away to board for high school. She lived with a family named Stewart and took piano lessons but didn’t like making music. She names her best girlfriends: Mildred Rhule, Grace Ritchie, and Ruby Ward.

photo of young women and 1922 automobileThey had a car and so did I. We had a good time that summer with all the boyfriends! I guess there were too many boyfriends because I got so I hated them all. They were all alike, how disgusting, and they all acted and talked alike.

The year happens to be 1922, but the tale is timeless.

We take photographs, sometimes feverishly, trying to hold the moments that matter, but, nearly always, when I tell someone that I’m gathering the family stories, I get a puzzled response, as if that is not a task for the serious. Names and dates on genealogical charts, fine. Copying the family photographs, encouraged. Stories? Why stories?

Because two pages of her journal were enough to change my impression of a stodgy old aunt.

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Filed under Family Photos, Family Stories, Life Story, Memories, Personal Narrative, stories, Uncategorized, Why Stories?