Family baggage

When my parents moved back to Sweden last year, they didn’t just give me old photographs. They also gave me several pieces of furniture, including a trunk.

It is a beautiful piece, at least 130 years old, wood with metal bindings, sturdy handles, a lock and a painted inlay. It holds a lot, and I keep my wedding outfit in there — dress, shoes, veil.

Since I live in a tiny house already crammed with furniture, the trunk lives at my mother-in-law’s. I think it’s happy there, because she loves to polish furniture, and has treated the trunk to some expensive beeswax, making its dark wood glow. I don’t remember the trunk ever looking this good, even though I grew up with it, and saw it in a succession of houses in a succession of different countries. For many years, it was just there, in a corner, kind of glum.

If ever an object was haunted, I think this trunk would be. But I may think this because I know something of its first owner, my great-great-grandmother Anna.

She was my mother’s father’s grandmother on his father’s side. At 18 (could that be when she got the trunk?) she was married off to her father’s business associate. Oscar was 25 years older, and known for his business acumen, which yielded a luxurious lifestyle and a big beautiful house by the sea in Vaxholm, a spa town not far north of Stockholm.

He was also known for his terrible rages.

Oscar and Anna were married long enough to have four children in rapid succession. One son (my great-grandfather) and three daughters. Then, Anna ran away with a young lieutenant, and married him shortly after her divorce from Oscar.

Divorce was scandalous in the 1880s, but it was not unheard of, particularly in high society.

Nor was it unheard of — in fact it was common — for the husbands to get full custody of the children. Because of this, and possibly because of Oscar’s terrible rage at being left by his young wife, Anna didn’t get to see her children again until her daughter Stina got married.

By that time, the children couldn’t even remember what she looked like. Stina told her family about the walks she and my great-grandfather would take, where they would spot a beautiful lady and wonder if she might be their mother.

The reconciliation seems to have been tenuous at best. My grandfather never mentioned any relationship with his grandmother, and my mother never met Anna, though Anna was alive until after WWII.

My third cousin Christina, Stina’s granddaughter, got to meet Anna when she was a child. A writer and illustrator, Christina wrote about Anna last year for a Swedish publication. My mother sent me a copy of the article, along with a photo of Anna and her daughter Stina. In the photo, Anna is beautiful, with delicate features and blond hair. Unlike her baby daughter, she is not looking at the camera. Her eyes are huge and sad.

“When I was a child, they told me things about Anna,” Christina wrote. “I understood she was ‘dangerous,’ someone to stay away from … ‘She was flighty,’ they said. ‘She likely had two wombs.'”

(Two wombs? Wow. Now that’s a hysterical woman! I’m surprised Anna didn’t run away with a regiment.)

However, Christina’s impression of Anna when she finally met her was quite different.

“She was old then, a stylish white-haired lady in a floor-length lilac gown and lace shawl. Beautiful, kind, dignified. Mother and grandmother were with me, and I hid behind their skirts. I was given cakes and candy and juice. Nothing added up to the image I had been given of her.”

Because those images didn’t match, Christina, unlike her relatives, has nothing but sympathy for Anna, and believes only terrible circumstances must have led her to leave her children behind.

“An affair surely could have been ‘conducted discreetly’ if Anna had wanted to keep her economic and social status … She seems to have been desperate. Did she run for her life?”

Like Christina, I think Anna escaped an unbearable marriage. The constant childbearing, the husband she was practically traded off to, the one with the terrible temper, must have been awful.

Did Oscar hit her? Coerce her for wifely duties so they could have a son since she kept having daughters?

Even if that is not the case, Oscar seems not to have been around much, especially for the children. While being an uninvolved father was not unusual for the time, it seems he was less involved than expected. For instance, he missed his daughter’s christening, preferring to go drinking and fishing.

But I think it may have been the worst case, especially in light of how Oscar reacted to her leaving. No contact, not even any images of this woman in the house (had there been, the children would have known what she looked like). Talk about rage, terrible and unforgiving.

As for Anna, she lost everything. Her children, her reputation in society, her home, even her personal property. Was she really so madly in love with her lieutenant to give up so much for him?

Maybe. Or maybe it was, as Christina surmises, survival, even if survival meant paying a terrible price. But what choice did she have? What choice did any woman back then really have?

Anna and her second husband did stay together, but as far as I know, she had no more children. She may not have been able to have any. Or she couldn’t bear losing any more.

I don’t know. She had already left behind so much.

Her trunk was something she left behind, in that big unhappy house by the sea.

And eventually, it got to my mother, who hauled it all over the world, winding up in North America. Now it’s mine, and it’s not just a place where I keep a symbol of my own, much happier marriage. It’s a symbol of happiness coming at an awful price. It’s the ultimate piece of family baggage.

No wonder I think it’s haunted.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.