Another Perspective

Heritage Day

Would you like to be Norwegian for a day?

By 11.25.03

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Today marks Heritage Day at my son Bud's elementary school. He and his fourth-grade confreres have spent a week making family trees and designing posters around the theme of a given foreign country, one of their family countries of origin. We used to do this kind of thing, too. Where I grew up, however, discussion of "our nationality" got boring fast. Swedish, German, Norwegian. That about summed it up in Robbinsdale, Minnesota.

I helped Bud with the family tree, being careful not to do any actual lettering, and making only the gentlest of suggestions about design. I did show him the principle of the "tree," with a trunk branching into two, then each branch splitting into two more, and then two more. "It does look like a tree," Bud marveled.

Right down by the trunk we ran into the first dissonance. My name is Lawrence Henry. Bud's name is Bud Henry, and his brother's name is Joe Henry. (Perfect names for golf, writing, or music, the three Main Pursuits of Man.) I made up Henry myself as a pen name, taking it from my maternal grandfather's first name. I was born Larry Hutchinson. At the time, 1975, I was writing novels, working with the second of what would turn out to be four literary agents. Libraries held a dozen or more novels by various Hutchinsons, all of them obscure. There were only two Henrys, O. and Will, and I would not likely be confused with either.

(Thank heaven, by the way, despite the best efforts of Chuck and Scott and the rest, that I did not sell any novels in my callow, addled youth. What might have become of me does not bear thinking about.)

So from there, Bud and I made leaves for the branches, and began assembling family names, back through the generations. On my wife's side, Dungan, Traverso, Blumer, and Jardine. On mine, a generation further, Hutchinson, Thresher, Sabo, Abbott, Jacoby. (My buddy Jeff Jacoby assures me we are not mishpocheh.)

This tree Bud drew and put together along the right-hand half of a 17 x 22 piece of poster board. On the left, we printed out flags from the Internet, and put the appropriate family names alongside. Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, England, Germany, Italy. (Finding the Scottish flag was a real bear, so thoroughly has Scotland been subsumed by the U.K.) And we put the stars and stripes up top because, as I explained to Bud, when the American flag gets displayed with other countries' flags, Old Glory always gets top billing.

What does all this mean, other than being an interesting lesson in world geography and American history? Not really a whole lot. We're as American as can be, obviously. But there's something else. When Bud was four, I took him to my maternal grandparents' hometown, Arlington, South Dakota. There, we visited the cemetery, where he saw the graves of his great- and great-great grandparents. His great-grandparents had only one child, my mother -- and she was adopted. What little we know of her background says her birth parents were Irish and French, though it has always seemed to me unlikely that a full-blooded Irishman and French woman could have found themselves in Eastern South Dakota in the 1920s.

So Bud is not related by blood to anyone further back, on my side, than my mother and father. Our younger son Joe we adopted from Guatemala. Joe is not related to any of the people on Bud's tree by blood. My uncle adopted two girls from El Salvador, girls who have given him many problems into what is now their young adulthood. They know not a word of Spanish. They complain bitterly, nonetheless, in their Minnesota accents, of their "lost" heritage.

Whatever. Bud has selected Norway as his country, and today we are supposed to present, at a gathering at his school, some Norwegian food, and Bud, dressed in "authentic" Norwegian costume. The only costume I ever saw my grandfather wear, other than his police uniform, was a union suit, suit trousers held up with suspenders, and high-top brogans from Sears & Roebuck. We do have one picture of Grampa just off the boat, at three years of age, dressed in a suit jacket and knickers. No dirndls or lederhosen or whatever might be the Norsky equivalent.

I think I have sold Bud on wearing a yellow slicker with a tie-down slicker hat, because Norwegians are fishermen.

As for food, yes, everybody does love lefse, the giant Norwegian tortilla made from mashed potatoes and flour, but it's a two-day-long production to make the stuff. (My grandmother's recipe says, "Mash six large potatoes with a tablespoon of salt and half a can of Pet Evaporated Milk. Set bowl in a snowbank overnight.") Lutefisk you don't want to know about, let alone smell. It's dried codfish preserved in lye, soaked to flaky mush, boiled, then covered with melted butter.

So maybe we'll bring pickled herring, which nobody will eat. Or maybe a can of kippers, with the portrait of old King Oscar on it.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.