The story

Throughout my childhood and teenage years in New Zealand, I heard stories of Volrath, my Norwegian great-grandfather. Besides being amused by his outlandish and dramatic name, I was enthralled by his adventures. He’d left his homeland as a young man in the early 1900s to seek his fortune in the New World. Being born into a well-to-do and up-standing family he was not driven, like many emigrants, by poverty or necessity of any kind but went into the unknown purely by choice.

In hearing stories of his son, my grandfather Anton Vogt, I memorized his catch-phrase about his heritage: conceived in Argentina, born in Norway, educated in England, France and South Africa, a New Zealander by choice. Later on in middle age, after co-raising six New Zealand children, he traveled once more and lived and worked in Australia, Lebanon and Canada, finally retiring to the south of France. My uncles and aunts and parents all traveled too and many lived in other countries, so that by the time I was 14 I just assumed I would do the same: travel and live all around the world.

Lately, I have wondered about the women in the original story. Volrath’s mother, sister, wife, daughter. Were they stalwart supporters behind the scenes of their men? Were they co-creators, co-conspirators? Or perhaps even the drivers of changes? Or maybe unwilling participants with little say? Margot, Volrath’s wife, who accompanied him in most of his adventures; what was her story? How did she experience the adventures – with equal passion, gracious acceptance, or resentful bitterness (or a combination of all three)?! What did it take to choose a man living in a faraway land, to follow him from here to there?

And then it dawned on me, this story sounded familiar. It was eerily like my own. I too have lived in several countries; I too have followed a man to a distant land. How much of my decision was me being co-conspirator, how well have I balanced acceptance and resentment? I was born and made in New Zealand, have been resident since of England and Australia, and now USA. Is this simply a repetition of generations of behavior? A wanderlust in my genes? Is it a need to find home, or a recognition that home is in many places? Is it a sign of seeking something missing, or an acknowledgment that wholeness is found in the pieces of self found in a variety of places? Is it about places at all, or rather about the people who reside there? Is mine a story of a woman following her man or following her muse? Have I been self-determining? Was Margot?

Certainly two things are clear: the story starts with my great-grandparents Volrath and Margot leaving their home country of Norway; and now their descendants, the 4th and 5th generations: myself, my siblings, my cousins and their children, are spread around the world.

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Finding clues at home

I am so excited to be back in my homeland New Zealand after four years away. My mother and sister, brother-in-law and nieces all live in Australia, where I also lived for 12 years before I moved to the US, and also where my husband tends to get work, so trips home up to now have been there.

But recently I have had aching homesickness for the original home, the land I was born and made in, where my aunts and uncles and step-grandmother live, none of whom I’ve seen for at least eight years. Perhaps it is all this family research I am doing, this writing I am doing, about family. Perhaps it is a feeling of time passing, of stories held in the heads and memories of people who won’t be around forever. No perhaps really…these are the main points!

So here I am in Auckland, staying with cousins, visiting uncle and aunt. I am asking a gazzillion questions and photographing frantically: photos each has, and family heirlooms too, with the stories each holds. Each story gives a new light to the story I am writing, each remembrance a gem. The family legends have crinkled at the edges with each piece of fact I have found in archives, but now each memory softens and rounds out the reality.

At my cousin’s place I see for the very first time pictures of our great-great-grandmother, her namesake, Abigael, and husband Hersleb, and I find her more aloof than I imagined and him more warm. It might be the magnificent handlebar mustache that gets me. I know he is the patriarch, the judge/lawyer/politician involved in the split of Norway from Sweden in 1905. It is a fine upstanding family that our Volrath was descended from. I photograph belongings of Abigael’s: an antique sewing table, writing desk and music sheets bound in a book with her name embossed on the cover. All wonderful tangible clues to what an upper class lady of the day spent her time on.

Cousin Jackson brings out the source of even greater excitement: Volrath’s pocket watch! I hold it and imagine Volrath holding it. It is a BIG watch. I research it online from the brand name John Pound of London and find it was called the Goliath. It amuses me because I know he once had a business called Titan and I think it was in the same timeframe of the watch – both based in England.

Uncle John shows me round his hallway walls: the family crest, the portraits of ancestors apparently stolen by my grandfather when back in Norway, a fantastic school portrait of Volrath when he was just seven years old, and a picture of Volrath and Margot striding elegantly down the main street of Wellington in the 1930s. He pulls out some of the family silver; a teapot, salt and pepper shakers, a fish slice, a pair of scissors apparently just for snipping grapes.

He drives me past the house he thinks Volrath and Margot lived in for a while, and I have another address for them too. I walk along the beach I have walked along before, but this time knowing they would once have walked there too.

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Google is my friend

Yes, some of the archive files I’ve found through ancestry.com have been amazing for my family research. It is thrilling to do a search on someone and have various options come up…a shipping record here, electoral roll there. But I have found other, free, sites that have been equally if not more useful for the particular countries of interest for my book: New Zealand and Norway particularly.

Sites like the wonderful Norwegian digital archives that include parish records which have been an invaluable source of information, and the National Library of New Zealand’s site of past newspapers searchable by name: New Zealand newspapers. Also, New Zealand Ship Passenger Lists showing more shipping records of ships coming into and out of New Zealand than come up on ancestry.com, and good old births, deaths and marriages New Zealand.

And then there is simply good old-fashioned Google. When I did a search simply on Margot Herlofsen I scrolled down and came across an obscure article written in Spanish about the launch of a book called the Petersen Five. What’s that got to do with Margot I thought? Turns out, her very own sister is mentioned: Laura Herlofsen. Laura married Haakon Petersen, and it is her whose baby daughter Margot ventured to visit in 1909. Oh my goodness, what did it mean?! Via somewhat dodgy Google Translated English I was able to ascertain that Laura’s granddaughter, also Laura, had compiled letters from Laura & her family home to Norway in the 1920s into a book translated into Spanish…because Laura’s descendants were still in South America, now based in Paraguay! Huge excitement…I had found an arm of the family we didn’t even know about…we have “cousins” in Paraguay. I realized I didn’t know anything about Paraguay and read up on it all. It’s landlocked, it borders Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil. It is where yerba mate tea and stevia come from.

Then I thought, how do I get in touch with this woman?? I googled her name and found nothing but the original article…she wasn’t on Facebook or Linked In…I figured she’d likely be in her 70s and maybe social media wasn’t her thing. But then Google helped me again…I came across an article written about the book on a university website…the grand-daughter of Laura the second, Marian, had written it! I then searched on her name and found this young woman on Linked In! Exciting. So I sent her a message, somewhat excitable but garbled, basically saying hey, I think we’re related!

And then I waited. And waited. Figured I must have got it wrong. Then a month later I got a response…she didn’t use Linked In much but how great to hear from me and she would put me on to her grandmother, who did use email and would be delighted to hear from me. Before I knew it I was not only emailing with her grandmother but coordinating my cousins in Auckland, New Zealand to meet with her and her fiancé on their honeymoon – it just so happened that they were already booked to go there!

It’s starting to feel like I’m being divinely guided in my search!