Today I am in search of my mother’s father’s past.
My grandfather on my mother’s side has always been sort of an unknown to me – he emigrated from Denmark, he was much older than my grandmother, was good at math, and purchased the Victrola stored in my grandmother’s attic the month before the stock market crash in 1929.
It’s not a lot.The records we have indicate that he was born in 1874 in Fuglse, a quiet agricultural area on the island of Lolland in the south of Denmark.
There is a small village here, but the church isn’t in the village. It sits on a low hill a short distance away, clearly visible from several miles, the bold red sanctuary and dark tower standing high above the surrounding fields.
I’m a little disappointed that the unpainted tower lacks the stepped edges so common in old churches here. While I guess from this might meant that this church might not be as old as many of the other churches in the area, the opposite is actually true – Fuglse is one of the oldest churches in Lolland, a 12th century granite block structure that was totally reconstructed in 1595.
It is a dark, stormy-looking morning, the sky threatening rain. The parking area nearly, but not quite, empty. Does this mean that worship has yet to begin or has it already ended. . . or is the parish so small that these few vehicles represent all of the worshipers in attendance on a Sunday morning?
Music floats out to greet us as we enter the church yard – services are underway.
My original intent was to slip into worship and just sit in the back, but now I realize that a stranger showing up here will not go unnoticed. Rather than disrupting the entire service, I’ll go in and find the rector once the service has ended. Besides, this will give me time to visit the cemetery before it rains.
I hope to find the graves of my great grandparents: Rasmus and Bodil (Ottosdatter) Rasmussen.
The neatly maintained cemetery clings to the top of the hill on all sides of the church, with sweeping views of the surround farmland. It is a lovely, peaceful place, but under threatening skies it seems cold and lonely.
Now that I consult my notes, I realize I missed being here on the anniversary of my great-grandmother’s death by one day, as she died on May 14, 1909. My great grandfather died a few years later, in 1914, but most of the graves here are much newer than that. Almost none date back even to the 1950s. We find an undated family grave for the N.P. Rasmussen family and a much too-recent grave for a Rasmus Rasmussen. These are not what I’m looking for. There must be older graves somewhere – churchyards in Italy, Ireland, and England have grave markers that go back hundreds of years – why are there no old graves here?
At the far end of the church we find the most likely candidate: A funky undated stone that reads Gaardejer Rasmus Rasmussens Familiegrav .
I can’t really read (let alone translate) the first word, but it is clear this is a Rasmussen family grave of some unknown vintage. Rasmus Rasmussen has been a common name here for generations, but with twins that died in infancy and at least one son who never married, a family gravesite seems likely. To me the stone itself seems to have a bit of an Art Nouveau sensibility to it, which could date it to the right time period. The evidence is pretty scant, but this could be it.
But there is no way for me to learn more standing here. Besides, I’m freezing in the cold damp wind.
Halfway to the car to fetch my jacket I hear voices and realize the worship service has ended. Oh no. I hurry toward the parking lot just in time to catch a young woman in a dark cloak and elaborate white neck ruffle. She’s young (which means likely to speak English) and must be involved in the church in some way, so I interrupt her conversation to ask if there is someone I can talk to about old.
She directs me back to the church, telling me there is an older gentleman there who knows more about the church history than anyone else, but warns me that he doesn’t speak English. I thank her and hurry back to the church, only to find the nearest door locked. I thought this is where everyone came out. . . is there another door?
I head around the side, but no, there is no door there.
As I hurry back I see an older man leaving.
He clearly doesn’t hear me, so I try again, hating to shout in the church yard, but feeling a little panicked by the thought that I may not even be able to get inside the church, let alone found the graves of my grandparents I have almost reach him before he realizes he is not alone. I ask (in Swedish) if he speaks English. He seems completely befuddled. Oh dear. I try to ask about old graves, but of course don’t remember the word gammel. He tells us he has an appointment (brunch I think), but he turns and lets us into the church anyway.
Inside I hand him my journal and point to the names and birth and death dates for my great-grandparents. “Graver?” He takes the book back to a table and turns on a light. I head into the church to look at the place where my ancestors once worshiped.
It is, of course, dark and quiet inside, a simple space with just a few elaborate decorative touches.
It is just like almost every other country church in Scandinavia, but as I take in the room, I realize that this is likely the church where my grandfather was baptized, probably in this same stone font, maybe with this same golden bowl.
Time slips in and out of focus – yesterday, today, tomorrow – how different are they really. . . and how closely are they connected.
The older gentleman calls to me, handing back my journal and shaking his head. He has no information for me and now it is time for me to leave so he can again lock the door and be on his way.