In high summer recently I had a chance to travel back to my home neighborhood in Chicago with my sons, where my mother-in-law Galina still lives, and then on with them to my father’s family’s old ancestral digs in northeastern Iowa, a place called Siewers Spring.
I was grateful for a warm and unexpected welcome by Christine Oliver and family at the Hjelle Farm by Siewers Spring, and on a busy eve of her wedding no less. Here is a photo of my sons Kevin Seraphim and Nicholas and I with the “brick house” (formerly home of the first Siewerses in our branch of the family to come to the US in the 19th century) in the background across the spring, which is also a state park and state fish hatchery.
We took the trip at my son Nick’s request, he wanted to travel with his brother before starting college at the small Christian liberal arts college where he now attends. The trip morphed into a visit to his grandmother and then Siewers Spring and so the theme of it in many ways became family roots and backgrounds, which our sons didn’t know well growing up in an academic Russian-American family remote from relatives in northern Appalachia. (My wife, Matushka Olga, due to some work logistics and an ill family pet, wasn’t able to travel with us this time.)
Eric Sevareid, the late CBS news commentator, wrote elegiacally of the rolling landscape of northeastern Iowa, and its attraction to Scandinavian immigrants, having grown up himself nearby in the Dakotas. For my sons, the trip was an initiation of sorts also into my native Midwest, as we drove through northern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin on the way to Decorah, at times trying to outrun tornado warnings and severe thunder storms in what seemed to them like scenes from the reality TV tornado-hunting series, but which brought back childhood memories for me of the flatlands. Our experiences included a stop in a country bar-burger place, just across the border in Minnesota by the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which seemed to delight Nick especially in what he considered to be a taste of heartland American life.
When my ancestors arrived in northeast Iowa, it was to join the Norwegian immigrant community clustered around Luther College. The Lutheran founders’ memorial there dedicated to the pioneering faith of the College’s origins, includes the name of Lyder Siewers, a professor whose obituary describes his love of nature and children, and who went on to edit the magazine of the national Norwegian newspaper based in Decorah.
As we arrived at Siewers Spring without warning, my sons urged me not to embarrass them by making a scene. But seeing some people gathered by a tent outside the old brick house, I nonetheless walked across the bridge and introduced myself to Christine Oliver, who immediately recognized me indirectly through knowledge of my father in Chicago, welcomed us, and kindly took us on a tour. I knew I was “home” in a sense, because she immediately pronounced our last name correctly in the old style I use (“See-vers”). However, even that name is a mark of displacement in a sense, for it is a Baltic German name best known in Estonia, and in the U.S. apparently among old Moravian families originating from Bethlehem, PA, and Winston-Salem, NC, not our immediate family branch. The Siewerses in our branch hailed from Fredrikstad and Bergen in Norway, merchant towns where according to family lore they once had a trading fleet that was seized by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Material family fortunes never recovered, but Lyder had married Christine Brandt, scion of a famous Norwegian family also entwined with the Hjelle family, which now owns the farm adjacent to Siewers Spring State Park, and to which Christine Oliver belongs. Our ancestors also had connections with the Collett family in Norway, whose members hospitably took me in on a post-college graduation trip to Norway long ago. In Iowa, the Siewerses intermarried with Irish Catholic immigrant families. Hence my father was a couple generations removed from his Lutheran forebears in growing up in the now-vanished tribe of West Side Irish in Chicago. Then he married a woman of Yankee-Swedish background who grew up a Christian Scientist on an old farmstead in Chicago. But that’s another story.
On the tour of the brick house by Siewers Spring, I saw an old piano, gifted there by my father during restoration of the house. I remembered it well from our basement on Estes Avenue in West Rogers Park, Chicago, where I grew up. Earlier, driving by that urban house, I recalled most fondly memories of our backyard, seeming so small now, but such a vast semi-tamed wilderness in my early childhood memories. Nearby was the bustling and hustling hyper-urban part of multiracial and multicultural and economically diverse Rogers Park, where my mother-in-law lives near Lake Michigan in an apartment building with many elderly Russian Jewish neighbors. The nearby leafy home of my urban childhood memories was a house of tragedy, too, where my sister died too young, and full of sadness mixed with wonder, as is all of human life itself.
I must have been a strange, if distantly familiar to a few, figure at both Siewers Spring and strolling my old city neighborhood on our trip, in Russian Orthodox Christian clergy garb including riassa and skufia, stealing back for a visit “home” to help my sons find some context for their history. A couple people stopped me on the street in my old Chicago neighborhood to ask me who I was because of my garb. But the experience of displaced home connections, present yet lost, links to my life today as father of Russian-American young men, husband of an immigrant, missionary Deacon in a worldwide faith that in deep Christian tradition is familiar yet strange to Americans despite its long apostolic lineage, and a literary professor who focuses on early English literature, which is ever-more of a strange country to young Anglophone people and even to my own academic colleagues. The Russian Christian existentialist philosopher S.L. Frank, an exile first from Communist Russia and then from Nazi Germany, wrote in his book The Meaning of Life of “strange love,” love for a home place that no longer exists. This echoes the human condition, our yearning for a lost Paradise, and our ability through Jesus Christ to find it again, more and deeper.
Recently at Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary in Jordanville, NY, I was walking through farmland near the golden domes of the Church there, with Reader Nicholas Chapman, erudite director of Holy Trinity Publications, while he spoke to me of how some people seek a romanticized view of a home region, using as an example nostalgists for the old American South, neglecting the evils of slavery in seeking an imaginary refuge from modern materialism. For me, Siewers Spring and the backyard of my old house in West Rogers Park in Chicago have functioned as imaginary refuges of memory. But over and around and beneath and before and beyond, as in St. Patrick’s ancient Irish lorica prayer speaking of Jesus Christ, lie memories of joyful sorrow from within the Church home where I live today with our Lord, the “memory eternal” we seek from God for us. In Him we believe in the resurrection of the dead and hope for a return to Paradise through His grace, the particular man Who is the Creator God. That “strange love” of true home and family makes every moment of life here and now deeper: An opportunity to struggle with His grace for virtue touched by immortality, in the freedom of voluntary choice to serve the Truth–the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Who is a Person. His Mother intercedes for us with Him, Who shows us the Father, and through Whom the Spirit comes upon us. In the mystery of His love, in the Body of His Church, we find home and family in the deeper context of His never-ending font of love like the headwaters of the four rivers of Paradise, in what the Russians call the sobornost of hidden unity–fulfilling the experience of home by emptying ourselves in love.