I didn’t see much of my parents during Obama’s first term, and now that I answer their emails and visit them at Christmas, I deflect their scrutiny from my bank account (near nil), my wardrobe (fraying), the state of my teeth (in decay), by turning the collective attention to family history. On my mother’s side the past is let be in favour of photographs of far-flung infant cousins I ought to have met by the time they’re of voting age, but my father spins lore around scraps of memory. A volume commemorating The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Albanian Orthodox Church in America 1908-58 lists the birthplace of his maternal grandfather, Elias Mitchell – the surname is from Ellis Island – as Stratoberdha. My father believes the name means ‘military camp on the hill’; no one has spoken Albanian in my family since Elias’s generation. In A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture I found a reference to an Orthodox village of that name, one of five in the vicinity of Korçë where those who suffer from headaches are told never to wash their hair on Fridays except at dawn on the day of the crucifixion. There it was on Google Earth: two little clusters of about a dozen structures known as Katund-Stratobërdhë in the hills south-west of Korçë, about 15 miles from the Greek border. ‘That’s it,’ an Albanian told me. ‘The name doesn’t mean something special. It’s just a village name.’
Before my birth it was agreed that I would be called Christina or Otis, but when I came out male my mother made a deal with my father to name me after his paternal grandfather. Christian, whose son married Elias’s daughter in Massachusetts in 1942, retired a few years later from a New York law practice. Then he took to writing his memoirs. On Christmas morning I read 78 pages he sent to the Atlantic Monthly. The rejection note has been lost.
Christian’s grandfather Rauch fled the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin for Denmark, a refugee of the Napoleonic Wars. He had a farm in Jutland and died in 1809. Of his two sons, Mathias went broke and shipped out to America, fate unknown; the other was the first in a line of three men called Peter Andreas. Peter Andreas I prospered: his farm had a windmill. Peter Andreas II fought for Denmark in the Second Schleswig War of 1864 and died in 1888, leaving his widow Severine with 11 children. The eldest, Christian’s brother Peter Andreas III, avoided conscription by going to Wisconsin two years later. On Boxing Day 1892 Severine asked the remaining ten children if they’d like to follow him. ‘Are you really going over to the wild people?’ a neighbour asked.
The first episode on the SS Norge strikes the memoir’s much repeated twin notes: embarrassment and luck. Christian and his younger brothers bunked with a man from Copenhagen, and worried he’d think them ‘rubes’. Instead, he chatted up their older sister, asked Severine for her daughter’s hand at the voyage’s end, married her four years later. The Norge took two weeks to cross the Atlantic; there was roast goose stuffed with prunes on New Year’s Day, but no anchovies for the eight-year-old Magda to put on her egg sandwich one morning. She threw a crying fit, stormed out of the dining hold, and left it uneaten: recognisable family behaviour. Eleven years later the Norge ran aground on Hasselwood Rock off Rockall; it was the deadliest ever shipwreck before the Titanic’s.
The Lorentzens landed in Hoboken, stayed at a hotel on Lower Broadway, laid eyes on the snowy Brooklyn Bridge, observed the cruelty of the New York horse driver’s lash, dodged a street fight, and learned on a hot Jersey ferry that Americans ‘accustomed to central heating had discarded heavy underwear’. They took a train to Chicago, where for the first time they saw someone throwing food away (‘unholy wantonness’), and made their way to Janesville, Wisconsin. It’s now the home of failed vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, perhaps my distant relation. Sometimes Christian sounds a bit like him: ‘For a first lesson in American democracy no better place could have been selected than a Wisconsin farm.’
Peter Andreas III, nicknamed ‘Dogskin’ by locals because of his fur coat, rented a farm small enough to work alone. He found jobs for his sisters as domestic servants at $3 a week, sent the little ones to the local school, and hired Christian out as a farm hand, a phase that lasted two years and thirty pages, with special attention to wages ($10 a month plus seed corn), the effects of inadequate mittens and the efficiencies of threshing machines. In Denmark hired hands were made to sleep in the barn with the animals; in Wisconsin they slept in the house and ate at the family table but were also made to milk cows: women’s work in the old country. The first winter was spent stripping tobacco in a warm room. In the spring he injured his left arm pitching corn stalks, and had to quit his job. He recovered and was taken on by an Englishman called Joe Hill. On his first day, accustomed to working in a group, he was left alone in a field with a team of horses to husk corn. It was his ‘life’s darkest moment’ so far.
Hill was hard-working and kind and took him to town on Saturday nights, but the Hills were social isolates in Janesville, did no entertaining, and didn’t go to church: ‘there were no outings or picnics of any kind.’ Hill was nice enough to send him to the horse races one Sunday, and gave him two days off to attend the World’s Fair in Chicago, where he got lost when a painting ‘held me spellbound’ and injured his ankle, another job-ending impairment. After the ankle healed, he was hired out to a fat, unprosperous farmer with small feet and small hands called Clarence Wright. He was now drifting away from the Danes, who spent Sundays on the front lawn getting drunk, racing horses and competing in trials of strength. Repelled by their ‘rowdyism’, he found himself attracted to ‘the quiet dignity’ of his church-going neighbours. ‘Our way,’ he thought, ‘was out of line.’ He joined ‘the young people’s Society of Christian Endeavor’ to improve his English and pursue his cherished goal of assimilation. Church socials were nice because he could attend them without being someone’s guest: they had to have him. ‘How else should I have got to know the heart of the American people?’ Dinner of chicken pie cost a quarter or you could bid on a girl standing behind a screen with a supper for two. ‘I don’t think I ever got up enough spunk to bid on a girl for my supper.’
In the winter of 1895, Christian decided he didn’t want to be a farmer any more. His mother noticed his ‘pensiveness’, and asked if he would be interested in going back to school. Seventeen miles away was Beloit College. In his first year Self Help by Samuel Smiles, the Malcolm Gladwell of the 1850s, was the course book in biography – it left its mark on him and on his memoir.
Hence my disappointment on Christmas morning. Christian turns out the clear, sturdy sentences of a lawyer who’s given himself a day off from arguing. What’s worse is that he lacked a sense of his own best stuff. I’ve carried the manuscript around with me without reading it since I was at school. I had the notion I might someday raid it for material to put together a multigenerational family epic. It ends shortly before his graduation, with Christian determined to pursue a career as a mining engineer. But then his roommate learns that the McKinley administration is sponsoring two positions for Beloit students to teach English in the Philippines: surely that would have been a more exotic tale. I lost my taste for family epics years ago, but I’d imagine the Pacific stint would have been more useful than the Janesville stuff. A stanza from Christian’s college yearbook goes:
L is Lorentzen
The wild and woolly Dane
Whose yarn about Denmark
Would drive you insane.
You look to your namesake in the hope or fear that you might see something of yourself. The people in the office say I drive them insane. I wonder what I’d be like if I was called Otis.
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