Even after I was introduced to Hillary and Art (as I’ve decided to name them for this post) and knew them in the sense that I could pick them out of a crowd, I still hardly knew who they were in terms of my family tree. I still get lost in all of the greats and grands. Hillary’s great grandfather was my great great grandmother’s half brother. He was fully Norwegian, having been born, married, and died in Norway. His son, Hillary’s grandfather, was the first in the family to sail to America and remain there to raise a family. Hillary was the first of his offspring to return to Norway. Even though we are so distantly related, there is something powerful about knowing that somewhere down the line you share a relative. Maybe I was imagining it, but I could almost see bits of my grandma in Hillary. Some of their mannerisms, expressions, and how they both have this strong connection and pride with their heritage. I have never been particularly interested in genealogy, but hearing it from Hillary made it come alive. For me, family trees have always been a repetition of names connected by lines in a complicated pattern. For Hillary, each name is a story, and a part of her identity. Getting to know her and her own story gave me new insight on the importance of genealogy and made me want to learn more about my family for the sake of figuring out my own identity.
Hillary first felt a hole in her family knowledge when she was just three years older than I am (that would make her 22) and her father passed away. However, it took nearly thirty years and an inheritance from an unknown relative for her to act on this feeling and begin to delve into her family history to find the missing pieces. Starting in 1997, Hillary spent countless hours at the geneology library, searching through old documents and images. Slowly the black and white photos, registries, and censuses became more than just lists. A story of a family began to emmerge. Hilary’s family. Instead of feeling that hole in her filled, Hillary became increasingly absorbed in her quest to learn more about her family. Their joys and sorrows became her own. By day, she was researching them and by night she was dreaming about them. Eventually, she hit a brick wall in her research due to the Privacy Act. She wasn’t content with where her research had led her; the story still hadn’t reached its end. So she drafted a letter to a Norwegian church inquiring if she had any living relatives on Algrøy, an island in Norway. Then, on her birthday, she received quite the unexpected present when she answered a call from a man with a funny accent offering the first tidbit of information about her family: a photo of her grandfather’s house. The next few months, Hillary continued to be overwhelmed by the influx of information about her family. This information was different than what she had previously researched though. No more was she confined to peruse documents to determine the stories of her ancestors; she had moved into the realm of living family members. Her research on her ancestors was as complete as it could be with her given resources. So she moved into the next stage of her research: meeting her living relatives and experiencing the land where her ancestors had lived, married, and died. It was time for Hillary to make the trip to Algrøy and in 1998 she did just that.
By the time she arrived in Algrøy, Hillary had prepared all that she could. She had been in correspondence with her cousin who she would be staying with and heard countless family stories. She had studied a map of Algrøy and was familiar with all of the houses and their occupants. She also had compiled a complete family tree. None of this prepared her for actually meeting her relatives. It was like the characters of the story that she had been working so hard to uncover were leaping right off the pages. Or rather, she began to see herself as a character in the story. The connection that Hillary had felt all along to her grandfather’s world was confirmed and deepened when she saw a very familiar photograph of an uncle hanging in one of the homes. What an amazing concept that on the other end of the world the same photograph can mean the same thing to people that you have never met before. Eating meals with these relatives, going on walks with them, singing songs together, exploring their seahouses, and playing with their children further established the connection that she felt with her family history. These were two of the most profound things that I learned from Hillary: 1) I am a character in the story of my family and 2) family connections are so powerful that they can supersede cultural and individual differences. In this way, geneology is very much alive.
Hillary particularly connected with her oldest living relative on Algrøy. I think their friendship is a beautiful representation of how her connection with her family was so powerful that it transcended the barriers of language, culture, time, and distance. Their first “conversation” was with eyes only. Another example of Hillary’s unique connection to her past is the name she gave to her first daughter. It was custom to name the first born female after the father’s mother. Different variations of Hillary’s grandfather’s mother’s name have been given to the first born daughters on three different occasions in accordance with this custom. With no knowledge of this recurring family name, Hillary subconsciously selected this same name for her daughter. Strangely enough, she also felt a tie to the land itself. You’d think that visiting a foreign country would make one feel like a foreigner. But for Hillary, coming to Norway was like coming home.
In August 2002, Hillary finally returned home to Algrøy, Norway, to stay for good. With the help of her husband, Art, (when Art and Hillary met he spoke little English and she spoke no Norwegian) she has since learned Norwegian and completely integrated into the Norwegian way of life. She is surrounded by family and the hole that she began to try to fill in 1997 is finally full. She is no longer separated from the story of her family’s past.