This year, I was fortunate to have my job support my attendance at the International Patient Safety and Quality conference in Gothenburg, Sweden to present a poster on our work around family planning quality and really, to learn and think toward future projects. Many pieces fell into the right place, allowing Dan and I to achieve a goal we’ve been working toward for nearly six years come together: to see where my Swedish family is from, and to be able to share that with my mother.
With me heading to Sweden for the April conference, we started poking around to learn more about my family heritage. When we found out that the town my family is from was only an hour and a half from Gothenburg, that sealed it. Now was the best time we were going to have to be able to explore this part of Sweden, combining my work trip with flight miles and years of saving and planning to be able to travel there with my mom and share this family heritage experience.
We weren’t sure how Mom would react to this wacky proposal. “Hey Mom. I’m going to Sweden for a conference. We’d like to go with you to find where the family is from. Are you interested?” It took her no time at all to commit and jump in whole heartedly to the necessary research that made the family heritage part possible. So the division of labor quickly became me on logistics, Mom on family history research, and Dan on academic studies. (Dude, he’s a PhD student, that’s his all the time job!)
We scheduled Mom and Dan to arrive (separately) on the last day of my conference. Having already navigated the public transportation from the airport to my hotel and conference center, I sent instructions in advance. Dan made it. Mom got a tour of all of Gothenburg, seeing more of the city in her few hours of being lost than I did after being there for nearly a week. In her style, she met a number of kind Swedes and fellow travelers who helped her navigate back to my conference center. She arrived a few hours late, but surprisingly together. (I would have been an lovely combination of angry/anxious after getting lost in a new city, not being able to find the person I was supposed to connect with, and not being able to call or email or text. And yes, we both were using international phones, but you’ve got to also have the correct phone numbers, which was our barrier to connecting! But Mom? She made it, arriving dressed up like a conference participant and owning her adventure.)
That evening, Mom and I had dinner at the Stagedoor, apparently the “happening” place in the area (Mom’s pick – she knows what’s what) and waited for Dan to arrive and the official exploring to begin on the next day.
Official Exploring Day 1
We started the day by moving to a hotel in the heart of Gothenburg, chosen partly for its convenient location and partly for the amazing breakfast spread featured on the hotel website, then set off to see the city.
We started at the Fish Church, where Mom was able to answer the burning question, “Do Swedes actually eat lutefisk?” For those unexposed to this delicacy, count yourselves lucky. It has been prepared at our Christmas dinners a few times, and threatened countless other times. When we talked to a fish monger who was about Mom’s age, he turned up his nose, grimaced and said, “No. No Swedes like that.” Explaining that his parents generation had enjoyed the fish, but no one younger likes this highly salty, soaked in lye for days, reconstituted fish. Mystery solved and lutefisk permanently (I hope) removed from the Christmas dinner menu.
After the Fish Church, we strolled the city, coming upon a fabric store. One of the few requests Mom made on this trip was to find some Swedish fabric to take home to be able to sew with. And here it was, with the kindest staff inside. Check that request off the list!
We toured through a little indoor market, finding tekaka bread (another kakabrod is a Christmas staple at our house) then spontaneously opted for a Paddan Boat tour.
Sure it was a bit chilly, but it was a highly entertaining trip through the canals around Gothenburg and an overview of the main sites and a bit of the history. I would definitely recommend this to other Gothenburg visitors.
By this time we were all ready for lunch, and what’s better on your first full day in Sweden than meatballs and fish? Yum!
After an afternoon break, dinner (which we managed to get to between bouts of heavy rain) and where we kept warm under heaters and blankets, it was time to call Day 1 a success and get some sleep.
Official Exploring Day 2
With another day in Gothenburg, we set off for the Botanical Gardens (a bit early to see too many flowers in mid April) and I bee-lined for the Tropical Palm Greenhouse, where we peacefully (and warmly) wandered among the exotic plants.
From the gardens we strolled along the canal in what was once the original suburbs of Gothenburg toward the Haga district. The suburbs really just mean outside the original seven meter city wall. Why seven meters? To protect the city from the Danes who were just across the water and an enemy of the Swedes. The story goes that the wall only needed to be seven meters tall because the highest mountain in Denmark was six meters tall and those “stupid Danes” wouldn’t be able to scale something higher than six meters. Most of the wall is gone now that peace has long-since descended, but there are a few places in the city where you can see the old, less than intimidatingly high, wall.
The Haga sort of creeps up on you. It looks like houses, businesses, normal city streets until you turn your head and see the flags and cobblestone street that beckons you to come explore its shops and restaurants. By the time we made it to the Haga on this chilly day of exploring, it was time to find a fika (Swedish coffee break) and chance to warm up. Seeing the biggest cinnamon rolls I’ve ever seen, we opted for a little bakery/coffee shop and tried a variety of its treats.
The Haga is known for its Haga cinnamon rolls: the giant cinnamon buns we saw in the window made with cinnamon and cardamon and the sweetest, softest bread. We also tried strawberry rhubarb crumble pie with sweet cream, something like the Swedish Toffee Bars Mom makes at Christmas (but with peanut butter), and a giant flaky cookie that rivaled the cinnamon role in size. And yes, finished it all.
With another afternoon break (we know how to do vacation!) and dinner in our bellies, we called it a day to prepare for the start of the big adventure the next day: renting a car and heading “out to the country.”
Official Exploring Day 3
This day marked the start of heading away from the city and into the country, and to where our family was from. We rented a car from a location near the Central Train Station in Gothenburg, loaded our luggage into the tiny boot, and headed out toward Mellerud in our bright blue Fiat. Mellerud is the closest “town” to the Grinstad parish where our family lived. It’s a sweet little post with a tourist information center (but not many tourists to speak of in April), a bookstore, and a handful of restaurants.
We chose to have lunch at the Mellerud Hotel, the same one I had looked for in vain to book a room, but had been unable to locate on the internet. This wasn’t really a surprise, though, given the size of the town. The Hotel served a buffet lunch and the best goulasch soup ever. Yep, I’m going for the definite ever. We ate among the silver-haired lunch crowd before poking around the town and opting to “make a go of it” and see if we could find Grinstad parish by looking for the name of the parish on the map and using Mom’s memory of a photo she’d seen of the church. Adventure!
The first landmark we found was Lake Varnan, the largest lake in Sweden. But its real importance to us was that this was the lake where my great-great-grandfather was a ship captain and where my great-grandfather told stories about running down the the lighthouse to wave to his father on the ship. Sweden has a law that the land is open to all, so you can camp or walk across any land (with minor restrictions and the expectation that you’ll show respect), which allowed us to tramp across various properties as we explored the lake and scouted to see if we could find the lighthouse. It’s a big lake, so we did not.
Back in the car, we headed the opposite way on the road along the Grinstad arrows until Mom spotted the church from the family photo.
We pulled over to explore and see, just see, what we might find. The church was locked, but that no matter, since we had an appointment made through the Mellerud Historical Museum for the next day when we would return with guides. We began to wander through the gravestones to see if we might be able to find one from a family member, but the process was more difficult than expected. Remembering the list of plots at the entry, I ran back to see if there was some sort of system to follow and found 4-36 associated with Cajasa (pronounced Kai-sa, which was a revelation!) and Sven Emanuelsson’s grave (my great-great-grandparents). Finding no map, but some of the graves marked with little green tags, I was able to follow the pattern until: I found it!
Finding the grave was a more emotional experience than any of us had realized. Here was proof of their lives, the people that had to exist and live as they had to allow me to be here now. It was a very moving connection to the people who are my roots.
So how do you follow-up such a tangible connection to your history? By checking in to a small town hostel in Bralanda and having dinner at Kebab Pizza where we feared the shop owner wouldn’t let us go because he so much enjoyed having English speakers in the restaurant. We managed to eventually get our check and steal away to get ready for “the big day” with our Swedish guides.
Official Exploring Day 4
Mom was a rockstar with her research in preparation for this trip. She had spent hours on ancestry.com, called relatives in the states, found old newspaper articles, took photos of family heirlooms, and put together a wealth of information about family trees and a long list of questions to try to answer. But her best find was Annali, a remarkable genealogist at the Mellerud Historical Museum who went back through the primary source documents (now digitized) and helped construct a fuller picture of the two lines of our family that came from the area. Sweden has impressive records kept by the local parish ministers of family records, jobs, and immigration status that makes this type of research possible.
After reviewing documents Mom had brought to explain things like the traditional Swedish wedding scarf (of which we own a quarter), to interpret a cross-stitch (that had initials and birthdates of family members), to read, and interpret, an old Swedish prayer for us, and to explain about the mischievous tomtes we heard stories of growing up. We also confirmed that kaka is the word for bread a round bread in the Grinstad area, and that it traditionally, and still is, prepared with butter and cheese (although they may add other toppings like ham). Annali then made sure to give us a tour of the Mellerud Museum. Although a bit creepy with the mannequins with wigs, it gave us a good picture into how people lived over the years in the area.
Annali had also organized to have Borje, a classy, active, and smiley 70+ year-old gentleman who had grown up in the area and was also a member of the historical society, join us for the tour. He knew the area well and he could help us find places based on descriptions found in family memoirs and passed down through stories, even without addresses. We started at the Grinstad church, where we had an appointment to allow us to actually enter the church and see the place where our family members worshipped, were baptized, confirmed, married, and buried. The church, itself, was built in 1250 and the baptismal font was made in the 1300s. The church is so old it has a labyrinth painted on the wall that the church is working to restore.
After imagining what it must have been like to come to this church week after week, we ventured back outside to visit the Emmanuelsson grave. And it turns out we found it just in time! It had been green tagged. Because there is limited space in the cemetery, old gravestones are taken down and the bones moved elsewhere at the church property, if there is no one to claim or care for them. So by total chance of timing, we were able to claim and save the stone and this part of our history!
Then, with Borje’s help, we followed unmarked roads to the house where Christine Andersdotter (later Hamlow) was born and lived, on a farm called Langerud, as well as the farm next door where her mother Kajasa Andreasdotter (my great-great-great grandmother) was born and lived, on a farm called Hultet. Continuing down the road, we came upon land where cousins had lived across the street from Carl Albin Svenson (my great-grandfather who immigrated to the US).
And then, all due to Borje, we followed the road a bit farther to…the lighthouse, just as my mother remembers her Grandfather Charles (Carl Albin) telling her stories about.
After this morning full of history, with several other family stories that I’ll still need Mom to help me sort through to get straight, we visited another buffet lunch (I tell you, the Swedes know how to do it) right on Lake Varnon before returning to the historical museum for additional genealogical research. The ancestry.com research had indicated a possible twin on one side of the family, that Anders Johan (AJ) Hamlow (the immigrant who had come to Leadville, Colorado in 1869 and then on to Nebraska where he founded the Waverly family farm with his young wife, Christine Andersdotter), had a twin.
None of us had ever heard of this twin, so Annali helped us trace back over the minister’s records to try to find this supposed brother. In tracking from the beginning, the “twin” didn’t show up on the family register until age 20 for the “twin” and AJ. We suspect that the “twin” was either a minister error or someone who was temporarily staying with the family. In tracing the “twin,” we learned that AJ’s family was very poor, living as tenant farmers. AJ worked as a farm hand on various farms, but by 1866 found himself unemployed and moved to Hultet for work, which is likely where he met Christine. This got us to wondering about how AJ and Christine “got together,” since Christine came from a well-to-do landowning family, and AJ was extremely poor.
We constructed the story (and I’m sticking to it!) that AJ and Christine fell in love in Grinstad parish, but weren’t allowed to marry because it wouldn’t have been good for Christine’s family/social mobility to marry someone so poor. So instead, AJ immigrated to the US and Christine followed (without papers to immigrate, only to visit!). AJ and Christine were married a two weeks after Christine arrived in the US, and they both became US citizens when AJ later applied for naturalization.
But there was a funny thing in tracing AJ and his “twin.” Sweden has a very clear pattern of passing down last names, naming the daughter (dotter) or son after the father. So Christine’s dad was Anders, making her Christine Andersdotter. Carl Albin’s dad was Sven, making him Carl Albin Svenson. Yet AJ’s dad was Jonas and his last name was Hammerlof (Hamlow). According to Annali, the Hamlow’s in the area were known for being strong, strapping men. Sounds nice, but didn’t fit AJ’s description. In digging into the records, we learned that AJ was actually Anders Johan Jonasson (or, as Annali translated, Johnson). Somewhere after leaving Sweden he changed his last name, and even seems to have been naturalized in the US as Hamlow. Mom’s new research project is to figure out when he changed his name, and why? Was it to start over in a new country? To get away from the name associated with poverty? Did he just like the last name? So the Hamlow Family Clan is such, but really only in the US. Perhaps we are better known as the Johnson Family Clan!
We also learned that AJ’s sister, Wilhemina (“Minnie”) immigrated to Waverly in 1872 with a work permit, meaning she had permission to be there to work, but not to stay permanently. Consequently, she still shows up in the Grinstad church records as “living at home” because, technically, she was only away for a bit for work. Eleven years later, AJ and Minnie’s brother, August, immigrated with official papers, bringing with him the official immigration papers for Minnie who was also “immigrating with him” that year. This paperwork may have been especially necessary to allow Minnie to get married in the US, since the paperwork showed that she a) had permission to be there and b) wasn’t married in Sweden.
After a satisfying day of family history, it was time to continue on our Swedish journey. We arrived at Fjallbacka, about an hour and a half west of Mellerud, arriving in late afternoon with the most beautiful sun falling on the colorful town.
Because we were traveling on off-tourist season, the hotel upgraded our rooms, giving mom the double bath bathroom and Dan and me a jacuzzi bath. Not too bad.
We ate a picnic dinner along the water, then regrouped at the hotel to review our notes and what we’d learned that day. And we continued to be grateful for all the research Mom did in preparation, and will continue to follow up on to help us put together this beautiful picture of our family.
Official Exploring Day 5
The next morning, Dan and I got up early to hike through the ravine to the top of the rocks overlooking Fjallbacka leaving mom to luxuriate in her two tubs.
After breakfast, we drove on to our next stop along the Western Coast in Sweden to Marstrand, a small municipality that has been a town since 1200! The town is overlooked by the massive 17th-century fortress, Carlsten, that has served as both a fortress and a prison.
We took the ferry across the short channel to explore the fortress and to sit, peacefully, at the top of the hill overlooking one of the ice-free port.
It’s hard to believe how quickly the time passed in Sweden, and how fulfilling it was to be able to peer into this part of our family history and to imagine what their lives might have been like. The best part was being able to share this with my mom, and to have these stories to be able to pass down to future generations.