I walked down the dirt road, flanked on either side by miles of pine trees. The tiny Hope Lutheran church sat in a quarter-acre clearing at the top of the closest thing to a hill you can find in the flat forests of central Minnesota. My family used to go to that church every year or so when I was a kid—never for a regular service, but only when someone died. We would sit in the basement after the funeral and eat pimento loaf on rye with a side of pickled herring and lefse, and drink watered-down Kool-Aid. I used to cringe eating those stereotypically bland Norwegian meals, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken a strong sense of pride in my heritage, which is why I visited the homeland earlier that summer.
The landscape between the airport and Oslo looked like the north woods of Minnesota, where I grew up. Except these trees were taller, more densely packed, and oil derricks sprinkled the forest, each one like Paul Bunyan’s ax reared back and ready to chop the land clean. I booked my trip to Norway without knowing who Rolf Jerspet was (pronounced yarp-set), and without knowing that he was, supposedly, a long-lost relative living in Oslo. My brother Eric first put me in touch with this Rolf Jerpset character.
“He’s a bit kooky,” my brother said, “and he’s like 80 years old, but he told me online that any family is welcome to visit.”
“And how’re we related?” I said.
Eric laughed. “I’m not really sure. And I’m not entirely positive that we are, to be honest.”
Rolf—relative or not—told me on Facebook that I could stay at his house in Oslo for as long as I pleased. I flew in with plans to take Rolf up on his offer. When I walked from the bus station to Rolf’s house in southeast Oslo, I saw no single-family homes, only condos; people were running around in the chilly, shining morning; and kids were biking with helmets on. I rang his doorbell with my stomach in my throat. There was no answer and I began to wonder if I had made a very grave mistake flying halfway across the world to meet up with this stranger who may or may not be a relative. But Rolf answered after a minute or so. I didn’t think his English would be perfect based on our communication over Facebook, but it was made even more difficult in person with his age and bad hearing. First things first, Rolf grabbed me a beer.
“Do you like it cold or not so cold?” he squeaked.
“Cold,” I said.
He opened the fridge and I could see a small splotch of light green mold at the back, making me anxious as it dangled over an open package of unwrapped pizza.
“I like mine not so cold,” he said and bent over to pick his up from the floor near the trash. He moved gingerly to the living room, but moved nevertheless in that defiant Norwegian way that reminded me of my long dead grandparents, both buried near that Hope Lutheran church in Minnesota. In fact, Rolf and I resembled each other more than my grandparents and me. His eyes were light blue and deep-set like mine and he kept a casual white-stubble beard that looked frosted. Perhaps when he was my age his beard, too, was red. He had little liver marks on his hands and face like any older person, but his askew baseball cap and sweatpants gave him the look that he could throw his walker aside and challenge me to a foot race. We sat in his living room and he cut me off a small slice from a light brown brick of goat cheese. It was so rich and creamy that the tang of it almost stung the back of my tongue.
The flavorful goat cheese was in stark contrast to the pimento loaf we used to eat in the old church basement. When I got back to America from my trip to Oslo, I went straight to that church’s cemetery to bury my uncle Rolland. He’d been cremated and placed in a box made of wood from the family’s tree farm just down the road from that cemetery in the tiny township of Orrock.
After a very brief service my aunt, the self-proclaimed family historian, gave a tour of the family gravestones. She had already asked me in patronizing tones about my trip to see “Rolfy-Boy” and told me he wasn’t really part of our family, criticizing the family tree he had given me. The gravestone tour, it seemed, was to dispel any myths I may have brought back across the Atlantic. As she went through, I referenced what she said against the family tree from Rolf. She came to the stone of my three-times great grandfather, Lars Thampsen.
“This gravestone is actually wrong,” my aunt said to the group. “Lars went by Trondson and was born in 1815.”
I looked at the gravestone closer and could see for sure that it said 1807 and, although it was worn, clearly said Thampsen, the same way Rolf had it spelled on the family tree. I quickly searched Thampsen’s plot on the Orrock cemetery directory online and it said the birth and death dates for Thampsen were unknown. Rolf, it seemed, got the information from somewhere else, somewhere my aunt and the rest of the family didn’t know about. Perhaps one of the many books he had strewn around his living room.
Aside from not knowing Rolf, I also went to Norway without knowing that I would be there for Constitution Day—the equivalent of flying halfway around the world to Philadelphia over the 4th of July and wondering what all of the hubbub was about. I woke early on Constitution Day and pinned the Norwegian Coat-of-Arms across my heart and made my way into the city. The women around Oslo wore black cloaks over their red, flower-trimmed dresses. And they all wore their hair in braids of varying designs and intricacies, like woven gold. Even though their clothes and hair were meticulously crafted, theirs was still a casual, cool, gold and blue beauty that had an air of expectation in it. When the parade passed the palace, I waved to the king and his royal family as they presented themselves from the palace balcony and he was my king.
When I got back from the day’s festivities, Rolf and I drank beer and ate ice cream, a Constitution Day tradition, despite the cold weather. Whenever we chatted, he employed only the most economical small talk before going into the family history. He spoke good English, but he shook out some in-between syllables as he searched for words. His right arm brushed against a feeding tube holder every time he lifted the warm beer glass to his mouth. He told me about Eidskog county (pronounced eyed-skoog) where the Jerpset family originated. At one point he pulled out a family tree he had hand-written, at the top of which was our common ancestor, Trond Larsen Jerpset. He had piles of books around his lazy-boy chair that he was referencing as we spoke and I started to believe his assertion that we were related. Hell, I even saw my name and my brother Eric’s name toward the bottom of the tree. But as I looked closer, I noticed that my dad was not written in his generation, and Eric and I were attributed to my uncle, Rolland.
“Actually,” I said, “I have 3 other brothers. And our dad’s name is Richard not Rolland.”
He wrote down “Richard Thomas Larson, 1950-” and wrote my name and my brothers’ names under him.
“And Rolland died last year,” I said, and he filled in a 2014 after “Rolland Larson 1934-” In that family tree it was nothing but a puzzle piece for Rolf to place: a few simple strokes that symbolized a person’s life and death. 1934-2014. Dead.
After burying Rolland’s ashes, I walked up to the church and saw a sign I had never cared to remember out front: two burgundy-stained poles about shoulder-length apart with four boards nailed horizontally like steps on a ladder.
Hope Lutheran Church
Sherburne County Historical SocietyAnd one final board indicating the church’s former name: Eidskog 1873, named after our family’s home county on the east side of Norway, where Jerspet farm still stands. Rolf Jerpset, it seemed, was indeed a fellow decendent of Trond Larsen Jerpset and my long-lost, distant cousin
Copyright © 2016 Greg Larson
Greg Larson is a third-year MFA candidate in Nonfiction at Old Dominion University. He is an avid baseball fan and he prefers taking the stairs to the elevator. His work has appeared in Belle Reve Literary Journal, BlazeVOX, Moonsick Magazine, On the Veranda Literary Journal, Page & Spine, Proximity Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Switchback, and others.