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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

The “Red Witch” is a two-masted sailing ship docked in a Chicago harbor on Lake Michigan. As we boarded her wearing matching red T-shirts emblazoned with “Andersen Family Reunion,” our sailing expedition felt like a floating cliche.

I cringe whenever I see extended families decked out in matching shirts, as if wearing the same cloth brings them closer to unity. The Andersens were no different last week as we celebrated our family’s Chicago roots and Danish heritage.

Our focus was Axel Andersen, our patriarch, my grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. Trained in Denmark as a master carpenter, Axel first worked the family farm in rural Minnesota, alongside his parents, Soren and Karen Christina.

There were 25 of us aboard the “Red Witch,” giving our best Long John Silver impersonations: “Aarrrrgh!” It was hotter than Hades in Chicago, so it was a relief when a breeze filled the sails and eased the torpor induced by 90 degrees and high humidity.

The family gathered in Chicago because that’s where my grandfather moved from the farm in the 1920s. Lured by the promise of the big city, Axel used his carpentry skills building wooden crates for $12 a week.

Axel soon established his own contracting business, building bungalows on the North Side with all-Danish crews. There was a thriving Danish community in Chicago then, and Axel used his ethnic connections to the fullest advantage, building modest homes in modest neighborhoods for modest people – the workers of Chicago.

Axel invested wisely in the stock market and, despite the Great Depression, he retired comfortably when he was in his 40s. He then traveled the world, basking in high style. When he visited Denmark (he crossed the Atlantic by ship 27 times), Axel dressed to the nines and became a poster boy for opportunity in the New World.

After our sailing adventure, we had a big family dinner at my aunt’s home in Oak Park. Crippled and homebound at 85, Aunt Ellen is our last remaining relation from Axel’s era. She wept with emotion as three generations of Andersens flooded into her familiar home.

Songs were sung, speeches were made, toasts were raised with chilled aquavit. My brother showed 16-mm. films made by Axel 80 years ago, the screen and projector set up in the back yard. We watched our forebears in the flickering images from another age.

The night was festive, but there was a somber undertone. Most of us knew this was the last reunion for Ellen, and for her home, which was designed by my architect father and built by the hands of Axel, as was my childhood home. Ellen cannot afford to keep the house she has had for 50 years, so her move into a care facility is imminent and dire.

There was a sense of finality for me as well, a closing chapter on Chicago. My good-byes felt final, with a sense of completion for the past. One can hold on only so long to the old home place, just as Axel must have realized when he left Denmark a century ago.

All my grandparents were born in Denmark. My parents were both named Andersen, and they met in the Danish Lutheran Church. Danish was spoken in my home, and we ate traditional Danish food. I grew up with pride for the smallest country in Scandinavia, for my Viking blood, for a family name that in Denmark is as common as Smith or Jones.

My parents loved Denmark. I will never forget it. My son will hold it as a distant identity. His children may lose it entirely. And so the melting pot amalgamates another gene pool into the larger stew, blurring ethnic distinctions, customs and memories.

Lifting off from O’Hare, I looked over the huge, sprawling city and felt the last thread break. Home, that illusive notion of place and time, is no longer the one my grandfather built or my parents built. Home is the one I have built in the Fryingpan Valley, where a small Danish flag stands on my desk and the memories, though faded, run very deep.


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