A rose-painted Christmas story

Photo: Larrie Wanberg Detail of the keyhole and the beautiful rosemaling that adorn the heirloom chest.

Photo: Larrie Wanberg
Detail of the keyhole and the beautiful rosemaling that adorn the heirloom chest.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

It’s magical to see the sparkle and wonderment in the eyes of my children of preschool age when I view a home movie taken 52 years ago, now digitized, of a Julenisse’s visit to their maternal grandparent’s home in Voss, Norway, on Christmas Eve.

A four-minute video, taken originally from 8-mm film, is now posted on YouTube so family members with a digital “key” can view and share on-demand across continents and across five generations. My soon-to-be eight great grandchildren can view their grandparents as they were as children—at the age that today’s children are now.

My wife’s family home that was across the street from the historic stone church in Voss, dating back to the year AD 1000 and St. Olaf times, was one of the few buildings left standing from precision bombing by the British that took out the railroad terminal a block away on the other side of the church.

I visited my future in-laws’ three-story home just 12 years after WWII. A clothing storefront run by the grandfather was on the ground floor, residence on the second floor, and the marvelous high-pitched attic was like a family museum of artifacts. The basement was a series of “lockers” for vegetables, dried meats, and fish and a special space for making 12-day Jul beer from Viking yeast embedded in wool patches.

In the attic above was a rose-painted chest from my wife’s grandmother that was a gift to her.

Thereafter in our family, we always had the rose-painted chest as a centerpiece to our home. When you opened the chest with a wrought iron key, the name of the ancestor—“Betty”—was scrolled in script. The chest, which was handed down to our family, stored within it the evolving treasures of material possession of a family heritage and lineage.

Photo: Larrie Wanberg The rose-painted chest in action in the home as a repository for gifts and cards.

Photo: Larrie Wanberg
The rose-painted chest in action in the home as a repository for gifts and cards.

Inside this chest was my wife’s bunad from Voss, weavings, wall hangings, memorabilia, old photos, and a 30-foot scroll in a mailing tube of the family tree dating back to year AD 800.

Included in the chest was a box of 8-mm videos that document our romance when meeting through her photos in two issues of National Geographic Magazine. (She served as a guide to Chief Editor Brown in 1954 and was featured again in 1957, when I was a Fulbrighter at University of Oslo. She became a Fulbrighter the following year to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Years later, Editor Brown invited us to lunch and a tour of the magazine, but that’s another story.)

To pass on the tradition of closely-held possessions, we had a mini rose-painted chest placed at the foot of the bed for each of our four children. Each chest was painted in different colors and had a key and the name of the child on the chest.

With today’s diversity, none of my nine grandchildren have married a spouse with Norwegian roots. Yet Norwegian heritage is still strong through a virtual rose-painted chest with a digital key that can be opened on YouTube during Christmas for in-home viewing or on a picture cell phone for mobile family members who are traveling the world.

The goal is to add compelling stories to pass on to a new generation. My hope is that the rose-painted icon can become an icon that one carries to open stories of heritage with the swipe of a finger across a digital screen.

Many stories of ancestors need to be memorialized to upcoming generations.

For example, the story of my wife’s grandfather who skied from Voss to Oslo to attend Holmenkollen Ski Event, broke a bone in a lower leg, splinted his leg with two tree branches and some strips of clothing, and skied on to Oslo. I remember him well, as he was intrigued with my being a Norwegian American. He had huge hands, like a mini baseball glove, and a gruff voice, but he was a storyteller.

Photo courtesy of Larrie Wanberg The family house in Voss, across from a church.

Photo courtesy of Larrie Wanberg
The family house in Voss, across from a church.

Or my mother’s mother who received immigrant families at a rail head in Elroy, Wis., and helped them move on westward in large covered wagons built by her grandfather. My mother’s father operated a general store and once fired a temporary employee named Knut Hamsun, the famed author, because he repeatedly disappeared to sleep on the floor sacks in the storage room.

And my father, who served 45 years in one congregation in rural North Dakota, and helped find the gravesite of famous skier Sondre Norheim, who homesteaded on the prairie before the territory became a state. My dad didn’t speak English until he started school and often preached in Norwegian, sometimes at Norway Lutheran Church.

For myself as a storyteller and writer, I retraced my youthful footsteps by narrating on camera the story of when I first met my wife in Norway in 2011. My filmmaker son Lars and myself were in Norway to present three short films at the Fourth Annual Digital Storytelling Conference in Lillehammer.

With so many stories yet to be told to my great grandchildren, I’m dedicating 2016 to the initiative and thereby keeping in touch as the patriarch in America of the family farm name from Olden Nordfjord since Viking times.

To see part of this heritage visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZCy3DQN2n8.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.