“What I Know About My Culture, So Far”

written July 18, 2010


Fifteen of my sixteen family strands originated from the quaint icebox known as Sweden.  I did some online research recently, to discover that the best of early 19th-century times paradoxically brought about the very worst of times.  Peace, prosperity, and potatoes produced a lot more Swedes, who would later find, suddenly, very little for them to do or eat.  Eventually many thousands set off for a less cramped America, in search of a better but not always warmer life, settling in the Dakotas or Minnesota.  Still others came to central Illinois, where I am from.

Doesn’t seem much different somehow

Grandma and Grandpa Cochran were vicarious Swedes, decorating their farm house with the red Dala horse, “Valkommen” signs of greeting, and even took a trip or two to the old country, to see how the place had changed in a century and a half.  Grandma would often talk about the nearby old Swedish colony of Bishop Hill, were she would spend days with her pinochle gang perusing doilied crafts and spiced jams.  Only years later did I discover that Bishop Hill was the result of an Erik Jannson being thrown out of Sweden by King Oscar I of all people as a result of Jannson’s seething hatred of Sweden’s state Lutheran Church.  Jannson set out to build a religious utopia (it was all the rage) on the fertile Illinois rolling hills, but his good intentions didn’t keep his suddenly squalid followers from initially living underground. Perhaps unsurprisingly enough began dying of typhoid that the prophet Jannson finally resorted to posting guards to bar anyone from escaping the commune.  The museum hasn’t added this part of its story yet, but it wouldn’t make the blankets for sale any warmer or the lingonberry pies any sweeter.

The tourists would rather not know what happened where the gift shop is now…

Although I am almost, but not quite, a purebred Swede (although translucent might be a better term), I have thus far not fully embraced my Nordicness.  Instead, my heritage is haphazardly derived from a culmination of cultural grab-bag .  Like most people, I’m instantly drawn to the mythic elements of my lineage.  I have a collection of the Norse Elder Edda poems, but that’s probably as far as I’m allowed to practice the old religion; building an alter to Odin and Loki would probably just get me arrested.  Yet how great would be to imagine a remnant of the Vikings coursing through me–but one thought of Abba shipwrecks this idea, as “Dancing Queen” doesn’t inspire me to raid or pillage.

Ready for battle to sing “Under Attack”

The Swedes of my imagination seem to be conflicted in some way, torn between their ancient, bloody roots and their docile, modern ways of neutrality.  This is my guess anyway, from thousands of miles away.  Alfred Nobel personifies this duality, I think, having created a recognition of peace after the guilt pangs from giving the world TNT.  Maybe it’s that a lot of the old aggressions are now being refocused on the ice in the form of vicious cross-checks and high-sticking.

That’s more like it.

To both my parents Sweden is less a tangible European country than recollections of hazy childhood tradition. They remember hearing some semblance of a disintegrating Swedish  language, spoken by the aged generation once or twice removed from immigration.  For Dad Sweden was the lutefisk was served for Sundays, and for Mom it was traditional meatballs, a few bits of songs, and photographs on the television of a royal family whose faces she couldn’t place.  I am afraid my connections are all the more obtuse: the Swedish bikini team was just a marketing gimmick, but at least Malaco’s Swedish Fish are authentically imported.

Inte Verklig

I took it upon myself last year to enlist the help of Ancestory.com.  The hardest part of researching Swedish names is that until not too long ago they changed with every generation (the father’s name was taken regardless, with males taking a –sson ending, while females assumed a –sdotter.  My father’s direct line was perhaps the most difficult, but it luckily reached until the discovery a Carl Johann Olafsson. It was quite a moment, to finally unearth the person for which now five generations have been Carlsons.  I believe it was his son, John, that came to America in the 1840s.

As for the one odd family line, they are a single line of Scotch-Irish from the clan of Cochran, which an enterprising aunt has extensively traced back to the 1200s.  They were some characters, including Lady Godiva (somehow?) and supposedly one of the men who killed Thomas a Becket.

This would make for a really awkward Thanksgiving

Their American story doesn’t pick up until the early 1700s in Massachusetts. Being a history major, I was delighted to learn that a 19-year old Cornelius Cochran set off for Boston the day after Lexington and Concord, to spend six months guarding Roxbury, yet I suspect his initial fervor either soon waned or the crops needed harvesting.  And while this is all interesting, this sheds very little light on who I am, if family history is supposed to at all.

I have never felt the innate need to emphasize or celebrate my cultural heritage;  part of it is that I wouldn’t know where to being.  Swedish acculturation has been successful or discreet enough that it never left a noticeable mark on today’s culture- IKEA notwithstanding.  When was the last time you heard of anyone ordering out of Swedish, or had a conversation about the skater Sonia Henie?  Second, allowing my origins to stay in the background denotes my own sense of comfort and security in being a vanilla American.  So comfortable, in fact, that I can lovingly mock where I am from, or find nothing objectionable about a beaded fat man in skins riding a motorcycle in Minnesota Vikings games as a mascot of my people- a far cry and different reality from the pain Native Americans often feel about the Washington Redskins.

That I’m okay with this says volumes, I think

Being from a tiny, entirely Caucasian town, I never had to consider what made me different, or if I was at all.  I took it for granted.  I have been oblivious to the very question of if someone might judge me based on my blue eyes or my paleness (unless at the beach).  I’ve been spared a lot of agony and questioning as to where I belong or if I do, I realize, but it comes at its own loss.  There is something appealing to having defined roots and traditions that tie you indelibly to a rich and varied culture.

I’m not sure where I would go to tap into mine.  Bishop Hill and other old settlements is an Americanized echo of imagined Scandinavian pioneer life, while the Stockholm of 2010 would hold less relevance.  Beyond the trinkets, the food, and the tales, there is still something real.  In the living room of my parents house is a solid wooden crate, on which is stamped the name of a young Cochran that made his way across the ocean, someone real and I’m sure full of hope and fears.  This seems the place to start.

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