Something was off this month. I was sad, but didn’t know why. Then it hit me: October is the anniversary month of my father’s death. On 10/9/02, my dad passed from this world into the next.
My mind missed the anniversary of Daddy’s death, but my heart nailed it.
It’s been 11 years since my dad died of complications from surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. After he died, I realized there were so many things about him that I didn’t know.
As time goes on, I find myself longing for more than random snapshots of his life. I’ve dreamed of writing a book that would paint the full picture, but it seemed too overwhelming a task.
Until last week. I had lunch with Dr. Carter Martin, a retired UAH English professor, and his wife, Linda. Dr. Martin, who has authored a few books of his own, encouraged me to “just start writing.”
So I did.
Gjert Andreas Hovland (Andy to his American comrades), was an amazing, funny and generous man who considered himself to be the richest person in America. He didn’t need nice clothes; he wore his blue mechanic’s uniform as proudly as he donned his thick Norwegian accent. He didn’t care about fancy cars, but he relished his old, used Cadillac with the chrome, flying-lady hood ornament. More than anything, Dad wanted to make enough money to put his kids through college and return to Norway, his cherished homeland, whenever he pleased. Check, and check.
Despite achieving his version of success, those of us who loved him most knew that Dad had a world of hurt buried beneath his strong, spirited exterior. He was a man who seemed larger than life with his love, faith and exuberance, but struggled with burdens he never shared and emotional pain he never released.
I know. I spent much of my teens watching him as he tried drinking them away.
Even so, I marveled at the man who overcame so many obstacles, emigrating from Norway in 1954 to pursue the American dream in Minnesota, a hotspot for Norwegian settlers. He grew up in Egersund, now one of the country’s largest fishing harbors. Times were tough during his childhood and intensified during World War II. That’s when lutefisk, an oft-mocked combination of dried fish and lye, became a staple of survival. My father sang its praises and looked forward to the annual lutefisk dinners at the Norwegian Glee Club of Minneapolis.
While very few had it easy during the war, Dad’s family was especially poor. The son of a fisherman, he quit school after sixth grade to work at Ryttervik, a factory that produced fish meal and fish oil. When Dad was 17 , he was involved in a work-related accident, falling some 20 feet and sustaining a head injury. He spent two weeks in a coma and permanently lost sight in his right eye. According to my mom, the factory’s owner gave my dad one Firkløver, a popular chocolate bar, for his trouble.
Dad recovered from the accident by the time he met my mom, Sigrun Håheim, a tall, slender, insecure woman who says it was love at first sight. She was almost 18; he was 21.
A beautiful courtship followed, but as soon as Dad announced plans to move across the Atlantic, she ended their relationship, shattering both their hearts. She couldn’t imagine that brighter pastures existed beyond Norway’s snow-capped mountains and breathtaking fjords. He hoped they did.
When dad immigrated to America, he became a U.S. citizen, joined the Army, and began a career as a car mechanic. He married a woman, also a Norwegian native, with whom he had a son, my big brother Larry. The marriage ultimately failed and his first wife returned to Norway.
Mom, who had been devastated since their split, was at last willing to explore Minnesota and a new life with Gjert. She moved to the States in 1964 and my parents got a second chance at true love, exchanging wedding vows on October 23, 1965. Sigrun finally got her man, along with his sweet little boy. Poor Larry had no idea what chaos was about to creep into his life, one little sister at a time.
Dad loved us with all his heart, but didn’t share many details of his life. Maybe he would have, if only I had asked. For instance: ‘What was it like working in the factory?’ ‘What did you love most about the North Sea?’ ‘How often did you think about Mom after you left for America?’
And ‘Why, although you attended Church every Sunday, didn’t you ever take communion?’
While Mom has some answers, she doesn’t have them all.
Next summer, my family and I head to Norway to reconnect with cousins, aunts, uncles and others. It will be the first visit for our daughters, Serina, 8, and Sophia, 6. My husband, David, and I were there last in 2003 with Mom, my siblings and their spouses. Larry’s grown children, Rachel and Christopher, and Heidi’s eight-month-old daughter, Lena, also made the trip. We were there to bring Dad home, to bury his ashes in Egersund soil.
When I’m there, I want to walk in my dad’s footsteps and explore his beloved North Sea, filling in blanks wherever possible. I feel as if God is leading me in that direction, in part by putting encouraging people, like Dr. Martin, in my path.
I have never written a book and the effort still seems daunting. But imagine if my dad never took that leap of faith across the Atlantic. I’m ready to jump, to launch this emotional, fact-finding journey, and start painting his portrait, one page at a time.