Saturday, April 24, 2004

Stone mason
Ålesund, the closest city, burned down in January 1904. Today the city centre is heavily modernised, but luckily some of the city that rose from the ashes has been preserved: some of the most beautiful stone architecture in Norway, thanks to the German Kaiser Wilhelm.

Among the stone masons drifting north was a young man from a family og stone masons. His father had come out of Sweeden, nobody knows from where exactly. The name he used was Karlson - son of Karl, which means man in both Swedish and Norwegian. The son of Karl followed the work on the railroads, and the first time the history of this particular stone mason touches on my past, is when he meets the daughter of a farmer close to Bergen. At the time the son of Karl was a labour party agitator, a skilled mason and, according to the picture hanging on the wall in my mother's summer house, a man with strong features and intense eyes, looking in his old age dreamily into some future just beyond our point of view. The woman he met was his match. Her picture is at the other side of the window, at the same wall, and she looks directly into your eyes, her hair pulled back to reveal the shape of a face I find alarmingly familiar: strong jaw, clear brow, long neck, she haunts the family with glimpses of her features generations down the line.

The son of Karl and the daughter of the farmer not only loved each other, but they made love. More than one of my great-uncles had been born by the time they married. She was cast out of the family not for her love but for that marriage, with the words of her father still ringing in the memory of this family with their bitter venom, poisoning the past but also setting us all free to choose for ourselves. "It would be better if she had a mill-stone about her neck and was drowned and resting at the bottom of the ocean than marrying that Swede!"

She never backed down. She married her stone-mason, her wandering Swede, took his name, gave birth to this children and lived a long life in Oslo, apart and estranged from her family until her brother took over the farm and invited his nephews back to visit. From these two came several stone-masons, and when Ålesund burned, the work pulled them north. This one stayed behind while his brothers drifted further north, following the work. They went north to work on rebuilding and maintaining Nidarosdomen, the gothic cathedral in Trondheim, started in 1070 and kind of fully built around 1300. According to family history, there are still stone masons of the line of the son of Karl working on the cathedral.

But this particular one stayed in the vicinity of Ålesund. He liked to go to town in the week-end, and would blow some of his salary on staying at the best hotel in town, Grand, today named Hotel Scandinavie. In this hotel there was a particular young maid, from the north of Norway, who had caught his fancy.

Although he was a mature man, already married and divorced once, the feisty little girl from an island far north caught his attention, and he never went north to his brothers or back south to his children and former wife. Instead he bought a piece of rock, built a house on it, and paid for permission to work the stone along the shore close to that house. The stone in this area is clean and even, a warm, fine-grained light grey. Out of the rock he cut a living for himself and his six younger children. He worked to give his children education, and managed to pay for two of them, one boy and one girl, an engineer and a school-teacher, as well as some additional schooling for his two younger daughters. Not quite as much as they dreamed of, but more than some. He cut headstones, stones for memorials, stones for any use, but to know him in his old age, think of him when you walk the streets of Ålesund.

The characteristic warm grey of the mountains around my mother's childhood home occasionally breaks the cooler grey of the Italian stone in the intricate patterns of the cobbled streets of Ålesund, and I know that he or one of my uncles, or even my father, have handled this piece of rock. They have split a huge block out of the side of the mountain, then split that again into smaller pieces, until at the end one man could shape each single stone individually, with quick and light snaps of the hammer, and yet an other square can be added to the load waiting to be shipped out the fjord and back in one fjord further south, to be used to cover the streets we walk on today. When I put my hand on one of the memorial stones he cut, I know that I touch where his hand touched, and I know my children and my children's children can do the same. I know very little of him, and touching his stones is the closest I will ever be to my grandfather, but from his stones I learn that he was a man who cherished balance, he chose the pure grey granite over the flashy marble, and he never chose to polish a surface if he could leave it raw, living with the texture of the rock. The only polished stones I know of his are those of the cobbled roads: polished by feet and wheels, paws and hooves.

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