In the late 1930’s, Folke Svensson left Göteborg, Sweden on a boat travelling to the United States when he was 27 years old. He settled in sunny California with his young wife Sara after a few layovers in other cities. He was a bookbinder, and she was a public school teacher. In 1963 their youngest daughter Maria was born, and in 1996 she gave birth to me.
My mother grew up in a home where her parents spoke to her in Swedish and she responded in English. Being “Swedish” was for my mom and her sisters, but felt irrelevant to me. Mormor and Morfar’s lives before they crossed the Atlantic were as foreign to me as they themselves were to California 70 years ago.
In August of 2016, I spent 18 days in Sweden. I travelled by train, staying with relatives I had never met in four cities I knew almost nothing about. In most senses of the word, I was an outsider. By blood, I was part of these two families, but we didn’t share the past, the language, or the culture that seem essential to our experience of family.
Swedes are a remarkably hospitable people; in a quiet and comfortable way, these families—my family—made me feel at home. They opened their lives to a curious stranger. They shared unknown stories about our families and my grandparents. They asked about our lives in the States. We became friends over fika at the kitchen table or on long walks through berry bushes. Along the way, we realized that blood runs deeper than most can fathom and few get to glimpse. It was an extraordinary, but why?
Roots are fragile. In the span of a single lifetime, the histories of the very blood in our veins can be lost if neglected. The photographs I took in Sweden are a consideration of a place and a family, and how those two are inextricably bound together. The ties that bind us are often most powerful in the quiet moments—a passing wind, a beautiful sunset, or an embrace.
Remember that your name is connected to a web of human stories, and finding those strings makes the world more comprehensible.