I came home from Sweden with the best travel souvenir ever: my Swedish family.
I knew finding family was a long shot. After all, I had no names of living Swedish relatives. All I did know was that my great grandfather had been born in a little town about an hour and a half north of Stockholm by train, called Skutskar. I figured at the very least, I’d find a headstone or two of distant relatives, and would have the opportunity to pay my respects.
A stateside relative had done a good amount of geneaology legwork from her computer, and based on notes her parents had left her. But even she had no information about living relatives in Sweden. Her files included a hand-sketched family tree going back to the very early 1800s, ending with my grandfather’s generation.
She also had a rough description of the location of a house that had once been in the family–as written from memory by her brother, and two photocopied pages from my Great Grandfather’s bible, detailing his family tree, in Swedish.
I’d never seen these items before, and considered them treasures.
My mother also had a phenomenal portrait of my great grandfather, Franz Andreas Holmgren, who emigrated to the United States in 1904.
Anyone who has dipped their toes into the still waters of family genealogy knows it is a crazy, seemingly bottomless ocean. It’s a sea of names and dates and photos that rarely fall into place on your tree, conversations abandoned on genealogy sites years ago–with no way to reach someone if you do find you are related. Even Ellis Island records can be deceiving, as I found out. I spent hours upon hours searching for information and came up dry aside from one lead from someone who shared our family name, but wasn’t related. He thought I might be related to someone his father knew. In Skutskar.
I had to go to Skutskar to find my family.
So I planned to spend two days there, booked a room nearby, and took the train from Stockholm to see what I could see. At the very least, I knew it would be meaningful to me to set foot on the same soil my great grandfather and great great grandfather had walked.
On my first day in Skutskar, the rain, though light, was constant.
I found several gravestones at the local cemetery bearing our family name. But I knew so little about our family tree, I wasn’t sure if they were relatives or just people who coincidentally had the same last name as my ancestors.
Some folks back home had said records were kept by the churches, but the church in Skutskar was locked. Soaked to the bone, I headed to the Skutskar library with the hope that maybe they had some property records…or something, anything, about my family.
I inquired at the front desk of the library, but because I don’t speak Swedish, there was a significant language barrier. I whipped out my trusty Google Translate app, typed in my request, and the librarian nodded knowingly, then led me to a back room.
There sat a woman who was about to change my life: Britt-Marie.
It turns out Britt-Marie used to work at the library, and had helped hundreds of people find their Swedish families. The moment I met her, she was doing research for another woman, Charlotte, who wanted to find her family in the U.S. But the moment I walked in the door, she dropped everything, and for the next five days (I extended my planned stay) she focused solely on helping me find living relatives and records about my family.
After coming up with nothing in my computer-based searches back home, Britt-Marie brought tears to my eyes when she quickly located a record with my great grandfather’s name on it.
But she soon focused on what was most pressing while I was in Sweden: finding living relatives.
First, she found Bo. I got to meet him my second day in Skutskar. I couldn’t believe it. I threw my arms around him, and apparently his eyes got as big as saucers when I did. I guess there isn’t much hugging from American strangers that happens in Skutskar!
Bo drove us to find the house that had been in the extended family (thanks to Britt-Marie’s keen sleuthing).
Bo also told us where he and his family had lived, above a cafe in a building in the center of Skutskar that was no longer standing.
And I got confirmation that Uno’s grave, which I had photographed the day before, was indeed that of my great grandfather’s brother, Uno.
My findings had already surpassed anything I’d hoped to learn about my Swedish family. But Britt-Marie was nowhere near done with her genealogical magic. The next day, with her help, I met two more relatives: Birgitta and her daughter, Johanna.
They were so lovely!
They helped build out the family tree, and they also called Birgitta’s sister, Eva, another member of the family who lived near Stockholm.
Britt-Marie kept uncovering more information, details I would have never found on my own. Precious information one would never dream of finding about their family. Where they lived, children they’d given birth to who hadn’t survived, what they owned, who they owed money to, and how they died. Much of this was revealed in records called Estate Inventories, a log of possessions and debts taken after someone’s death.
Britt-Marie also confirmed that my great great grandfather had built a house in Skutskar, which likely had been torn down in the 70s. I’d walked past the plot of land every day I’d been in Skutskar, not knowing my family had lived there.
One relative, at the age of 16, had planted four birch trees on the property, which were still standing.
Birgitta and Britt-Marie shared a giggle as I pocketed rocks from the property to bring home for my mother and aunt, at their request.
On my way back to Stockholm, I met up with Eva, another member of the family tree.
And before I left Stockholm, I met up yet again with Johanna, who planned a lovely day together (more on that later!)
It’s hard to put into words what it meant to find my family in Sweden, and it’s impossible to describe the sense of overwhelm that comes with seeing full lifetimes of your ancestors unfold before you, their sorrows, their joys, even the tiniest details of everyday life.
But most of all, to realize in the core of my being that the decisions made by someone more than 110 years ago to leave his family and move to another country in search of something better had a profound impact on the course of my life and even my very existence…is absolutely overwhelming.
Britt-Marie continued to send more information as she found it. After connecting with another relative she located, Lennart, she sent a photo. It was my great great grandfather, Anders-Gustaf. Even my mother had never before seen a photo of him.
And she confirmed it was my great great grandmother in a photo from Birgitta’s albums. My great grandfather, the one who would emigrate to the United States as an adult and forge a new beginning for the Holmgren family, appears in the image.
Three weeks after my return from Scandinavia, I got an email from Britt-Marie (who continues to research my family history to this day).
It was titled: unbelievable.
I thought I’d met four members of my Swedish family while in Sweden. It turns out, I actually met six. Charlotte, who had been looking for her U.S. family, was actually in my family tree (I’d met her during Fika/coffee break at the library).
And, would you believe, Britt-Marie is in my family tree too?
This Christmas, from our humble apartment in Minnesota, we’ll be cooking up Swedish meatballs, serving them with lingonberry jam, and toasting all of our Swedish family with mulled wine.
And I’ll raise a special toast to Britt-Marie, the Swedish angel who gave the best souvenir I’ll ever get in my travels: my Swedish family. It’s a gift to all of us in the Holmgren family tree, but in particular for my nieces and nephews, who have a renewed connection to their Swedish ancestry and the opportunity to make sure that connection never gets lost again.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.