In the winter of 1775, nine-year-old Håkan Fornell’s parents, Nils and Margareta, died within two weeks of each other. Orphaned and alone in the winter of 1775, he fended for himself in Värmland, a rural region of western Sweden. His 14-year-old sister, Annika, returned home from someplace the church records do not show and they went begging through that winter to stay alive. Håkan then moved from Förby, the tiny farm village where he was born, to a farm in Stora Kil, a slightly larger village, where we think his father’s mother had relatives who took him in—we aren’t sure.
This summer, when my father and I visit Stora Kil, the site of Håkan’s eventual respite had since been transformed into a modern housing complex off a large yet humble road. We pull to the side and pause for a moment in our car, thinking of our distant ancestor’s journey and hardship. The sun pushed its way through the clouds and the Volvo we rented in Oslo felt a little warmer.
You notice such details when your summer trip collides with family history—however intentional that collision might be.
When Dad and I were getting ready for our travels, my wry and somewhat mischievous youngest brother looked to my father and said, “I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.” All laughed, teasing Dad somewhat about his incessant research and planning; but, deep down, we all felt a little softer than that, a little hopeful that he might find something bigger than himself, something ancestral and maybe even ancient.
Our journey starts in Oslo. I flew in from New York and Dad from Madrid, where he had been on business. We chose Oslo for its proximity to Munkfors, Sweden—the small steel-manufacturing town where my farfar—my father’s father—was from. The drive from Oslo to Munkfors takes us through the idyllic and historic forests of eastern Norway—the Finnskogen, where the log cabins of America originated. Dad had been to Munkfors only once—in 1979. He and his father visited an aging relative and, as my dad remembered on our trip, they ate moose meat, allotted to seniors by the state.
Munkfors is an important place in my family’s history and, arguably, at least an emblematic one in Sweden’s. Once Sweden began to move from an agrarian economy toward an industrial one, the Klarälven River became not just a means of transport but of power. Munkfors sits on a bend in the river with rapids and waterfalls—a logical site for a steel mill, where my great-grandfather worked. In 1918, my great-grandfather led a general strike in Munkfors, which in turn necessitated their subsequent relocation to Detroit, where my family settled, like so many other Swedes. My grandfather was 14 when he arrived in Detroit—the Paris of the West, as it was then, the Arsenal of Democracy, as it would become.
The Munkfors steel mill now houses a modest museum. There a group of older men in the lobby, which also features a café and serves as the town gathering place, inform us, first in Swedish and then in broken English, that the museum is closed today. My father is a respectful and polite man, never pushy or entitled. His second-generation American daughter, however, maneuvers a little differently, and I urge him to tell them—and the woman behind the counter, who clearly holds the power—why he is here, what brought him to Munkfors. Tell them in Swedish. And he does, in broken Swedish: My grandfather worked here. And in quiet agreement, they allow us, a Swedish-American father and his American daughter, into the mill.
From Munkfors, we follow the river south, stopping at small “villages”—really just clusters of farmhouses—and churches on our way. My father’s ancestry research coupled with his own airtight memory guide us through our family’s history along the river. We visit churches where relatives eight generations back were baptized, married, and buried. We stop at the farms where they made ends meet in hard times. My father narrates the experience in his very particular way—lovingly, but never haphazardly, always informed by facts. I don’t remember much of those. My dad’s brain serves as prosthesis for my own memory. When I can’t remember something entirely, I ask him and he remembers. It’s only recently that I’ve come to terms with or even fully realized this truth. In Sweden, looking for ghosts, it really hit me that one day I won’t be able to ask him, and I’ll be left wondering.
We spend most of the first leg of our trip in the Volvo where we have a lot of time to talk and not talk. We don’t listen to music even though both of us are music people with opinions and preferences. There are moments when Dad talks about his own memories of his now deceased parents, glimmers from his childhood in Detroit. I didn’t know my farfar, really, but I know my Dad and I love him and also feel tremendous gratitude for him and his poetic—however industrial—interpretation of the human experience.
I was moved to tears—quiet, hidden ones—when Dad was talking about his own father, of whom he does not speak often and with whom he had a distant relationship, and how his father taught himself the skill of drafting during the Great Depression. My farfar was a young man in the ’30s: able-bodied, incredibly intelligent. These years out of work affected him and his outlook greatly. When my father was a teenager, he remembers driving in their neighborhood in east Detroit and his father pointing to different corners where he suggested my father could stand and wait for work doing manual labor, should he ever be out of a job. My dad tells me that he also learned drafting in junior high and went on to win the Detroit junior high drafting competition.
Did Farfar ever give you lessons or special advice?
I assumed he had. Thinking back on my own childhood, I can recount countless hours spent with my father working on math problems—with which I struggled—or talking about history or ideas—which I craved.
No. I learned it on my own in school.
My quiet tears arrive at this moment, thinking of my Dad as a boy—industrious, persevering, detail-oriented, optimistic—winning this vocational award. He would go on to win many more awards, a Rhodes Scholarship among them, but this one stands out to me as the most telling, the one carrying the most longing.
My farfar’s family and life in Värmland dictate the first part of our journey where the land is flat and where it feels remote, foreign, far away from more familiar things. As we follow the river south, we enter Småland and we head towards the city of Jönköping, and more specifically, Huskvarna, where my farmor, my grandmother, was from. The landscape, as we head south, seems to get more energetic, more dynamic. The sun seems brighter, its rays more easily accessible. I’m not sure if the place, the landscape, shaped my farmor or if she, or my memory of her, shapes my interpretation of it.
Huskvarna is known for making things—motorcycles, sewing machines, bicycles, refrigerators. Sweden’s industrial history revealed itself to me in traveling my family’s history: the steel of Värmland was shipped downriver to the manufacturing lake towns of Småland, like Huskvarna. Huskvarna has an excellent museum which details a thorough history of the city’s manufacturing legacy. It holds the attention of my father, a boy from Detroit through and through, for a few hours. My grandparents’ ancestral homes are very different, but they share a history—much like my grandparents themselves.
Our time in Huskvarna feels more familiar to me. As a child, my father would make sure we, my younger brothers and I, would visit his mom for breakfast when we were in Michigan seeing our extended family—trips often dedicated to my own mother’s side of the family. I long for my farmor standing in the doorway of her house, watching us pull up in a rental car. She was always there—apron-clad, hair just so—ready to greet us, delighted to spend time with her son and grandchildren. In my memory, there is a framed photograph of her childhood home in Sweden hanging on the wall next to the breakfast table. After all these years, I’m not sure where I got that image, actually—from pieces of stories I’ve savored, from wishful thinking, maybe even from reality, maybe it really was there.
Dad loves the breakfasts in Sweden in general, but he particularly loves the breakfast at our hotel in Huskvarna. To be fair, there isn’t anything special about this hotel breakfast: crusty white bread, mild cheese, cucumbers, bell peppers, a smoked fish of some kind, yogurt, and coffee. We sit outside and we watch the world go by. The town is mostly older people. We watch them walk the town square in the morning. Some nod to each other, most carry on in guarded ways. I watch Dad as he sits and loves this—all of it. For him, loving something is an active emotion. You can see it on his face. It radiates from him. While others love silently, he loves expressively and outwardly. I’m grateful for this. This morning, in Huskvarna, he is connected to an original kind of love. That is clear to me.
My farmor, whose life and story both fascinate me and make me proud, exists in my childhood memories in vibrant ways: baking things, instructing me to do this or that, sitting and smiling the way a person does when they feel grateful for being surrounded by the people they call theirs. Visiting her childhood home with my father, sparks her story in my imagination, igniting all I’ve heard, felt, and learned about her throughout my life.
She was a nurse in World War II, where she was charged with administering anesthesia, which requires great skill, attention to detail, and responsibility. As the eldest daughter of seven children, she eventually took on more responsibility than a young person ever should when her father died. My farmor’s younger brother died when he was a young man, as well—of cancer. This fact still seems to send a shudder of grief through his nieces and nephews (and now grand-nieces and grand-nephews) who never knew him—a shared family sorrow that has traveled through generations.
Farmor came to Detroit in 1954, and she married a man, my farfar, she had known for two weeks. We think Farfar returned to Sweden for a couple of years in the ’50s—where he worked for Volvo—to look for a Swedish bride. Later in life, Farmor shared with my father that she had purchased a return ticket to Sweden, just in case.
We also visit my farmor’s church. Dad saw this church when he was four years old, when he spent the summer in Sweden with his mother. He didn’t remember much but did recall what his mother had told him about the church. He looked up at one point and remembered her sharing her memories of the ceiling. It was painted with tremendous detail. On one side of the church, where the rich members of the congregation sat, the ceiling showed a heavenly bounty. On the other side, where the poor sat—where my grandmother sat—the ceiling depicted a hellish landscape.
We couldn’t find any records at the church about where people were buried. We knew, though, that my farmor’s father, mother, and two of her brothers were buried there, and shared a family gravestone. Without a map or a clear sense of where to start, Dad and I look for the grave—in the rows of gravestones old and newer. We are drawn to one section and decide to begin searching. Dad would look to the left and I would look to the right. We go row after row until finally my eyes land on our family name, Törnqvist. I quietly call my father over, we both confront that familiar surge of emotion, and stand silently in front of their names, the marker of their lives. I was grateful that I could give this to my dad. It was random, chance, I know—but part of me was relieved that I had found the gravestone for him, that I could be part of this story with him, that he wasn’t alone.
After Huskvarna, we travel east and north, visiting more family, and ending up in Stockholm, greeted again by relatives who have become dear friends over the years. I have booked us a more than comfortable hotel room at the Diplomat Hotel, which, upon our arrival, initially disgruntled my prudent father, child of immigrants. I assure him it will be worth it. On our second night in Stockholm, we find ourselves sitting on the sofa in our room, finally listening to music. We had just had a nice dinner where I saw my dad really relax and enjoy our trip more as a vacation, less a pilgrimage. The sun was still in the sky, even though it was around 10 p.m. Swedish summers are magical in that way. Sitting next to my dad, I feel grateful for him and for those who have come before us. I miss my strong-willed but joyful farmor and I feel a deep respect for my farfar. As I write this, though, I find myself thinking of Håkan.
Håkan was orphaned and alone but by whatever will he had in him, he carried on. My dad’s parents are gone and he, too, shares what must be an inherited, familial strength. I see this in his affect, his instinct to put his face to the sun even in the hardest times. And I suppose both Håkan and my dad were searching for something. Håkan’s searching was necessary—searching for a way to stay alive, a place to live. Dad’s searching felt necessary, too—maybe he sought something to sustain him, to feed his curiosity. But what he sought feels stronger than curiosity. It feels more sacred than that. Dad doesn’t have a sister like Håkan did, but he has a daughter. I didn’t meet him in Förby—I met him in Oslo. I’m not sure if we found what we were looking for, or if we ever really knew what that was. But we have this story and we share it with each other, with my farfar, my farmor, Håkan, and all of those in the generations before us and in front of us.