Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Telling Petra's Story

Roy Allgood and Petra with family in China
                 a few years before both parents died. 

  The Telling has a life of its own.

     The information I was given by Alt for Norge about my grandmother Oline Petra Staven (Johnsen) percolated for the entire trip back to the USA.  I kept coming up with different scenarios and multitudes of questions. What was the relationship between her and her great aunt?  What was she doing in Trondheim?  Where was the rest of her family? She was 18. Did she really steal and commit murder and how could she?-  my saint of a grandmother?  Why had she been pardoned by the King and how did she get to the USA? I was in a bit of a state of shock.

      I had gone to Norway with romantic ideas of bucolic poverty and was now faced with a very different picture. I remembered blathering on about how much at home I felt in Norway, about how I have been drawn to similar land and chosen to live my life in ways that are very Norwegian. Blah, blah, maybe DNA has memory....  And now I wondered if all the while, those of the crew who knew of my grandmother's crime were watching me, waiting for my murderous DNA to come through. I ruminated.  It is a long trip from Oslo to Portland.

      But most of all, I thought of my mother.  I had no idea how she would take this harrowing information. She is not a particularly sentimental woman, but still, this was her mother.  As soon as we were back in the States, I called my sister from the airport and told her. Her initial response was incredulousness, then she worried about my mother's response also.

     I had been gone almost 6 weeks and the trip home was grueling, so it was understandable that I did not want to talk right away. But I did tell my mother when she met me at the airport that I had found out some information about Petra that was "Big". I didn't smile.The next day, all I could think to do was give her my envelope and have her find out the same way as I had.  I told her how it had been given to me and watched her delve in.  She gave me imploring looks as she read and all I could do was nod and say, "Yes, I know."  When she was done, she was crying.  " Oh, the poor thing," she said, and I thought about how strange it must be to look back at the age of 83 and consider your mother as a young girl.  My mother has lived almost twice as long as her mother did.
      Then, as I watched, my mother pulled herself together, rearranging the image she had carried of her mother for most of her life - adding this key chapter to her mother's story. It did not take long.  Petra had spent her life devoted to others and now there was a reason.  My mother had to tell her sisters and called them. I wondered if Petra could have ever imagined that her children would discover her secret in their old age.

       In the following weeks, I shared this story with friends and family and found the responses interesting. It was almost a Rorshott test - each theory illuminating the inventor.  The aunt had been so mean she deserved to die; it was a mercy killing, an accident, there were accomplices.  The theories multiplied.

      We had many questions, so hired a researcher in Norway to dig for more answers.They came and they were dark. Pictures of the prison, a paltry visitor's record, a detailed description of the crime that was hard to bear.  Our imaginings of a mistreated young girl faded away.  It looked as if Petra had wanted money.  Times were hard.  My mother said, "Poverty does strange things to people."  We still struggled to accept and understand.

       I was the messenger and the liaison. I let the producers of Alt for Norge know that I had shared the information with my mother and that we were considering if we wanted to make Petra's story public.  My sister was angry. Like a true New Yorker, she was suspicious and felt we were being used by Alt for Norge. It was a good sensational story!  The tears, the shock, the drama!  I could imagine it in a bad tabloid.  Our grandmother the murderer.  So it became my job to convince my family that Norwegians are trustworthy, that the producers of Alt for Norge were respectful. They had given us veto power which was evidence of their integrity.

     I let my mother decide and she agreed to let Petra's story be told.  I was not surprised, my mother has never been one for secrets. But I think it was also that, in a strange way, my mother was even more proud of her mother than she had been before finding out about her crimes. Not only had Petra been a strong loving, giving person, she had become so after committing murder and spending 5 years in jail.  She must have carried that burden with her as she did her missionary work. She had had a harder life than we had ever imagined and redeemed herself.  I think this was what my mother wanted to share - a story of a young girl who made mistakes, paid for them, and changed.

   As the editing was being done, Alt for Norge sent us a draft of the scene of me reading from my brown envelope. Very strange to see those intense moments captured on film. My mother thought it was done respectfully and was satisfied. But now there were journalists calling and more decisions to be made. I made inquiries about the various papers and accepted interviews. If there was going to be media coverage, at least we might be able to skew the angle.  I spoke of the good life my grandmother had lived and the possiblity of change.

    It seems that the King's Pardon Petra received in 1914 had been one of many pardons given in honor of the Centennial celebration of the Norwegian Constitution. Thank you, Norway, for giving her a second chance. But she did not change her life alone. The prison chaplain helped her, she went to live with one of her sisters, and someone arranged and paid for her training as a nurse and her trip to the USA.  She had many helping hands along the way. It has made me more aware of our need to support each other.

      We had asked TV Norge to try and contact our Norwegian family and let them know about Petra's story. We did not want them embarrassed or surprised. Turns out that some of them knew about Petra, and had decided not to tell my aunt when she had visited.  They assumed that if Petra had not told her children, her secret should be respected. Secrets...  It makes sense that Petra did not tell her young children before she died, but my mother wonders if she ever would have.  There is so much we will never know.

       One of the strangest twists of this story came when one of our relatives contacted us. She has spent time researching Petra's story and is convinced that Petra was innocent! The death certificate was natural causes, there was no evidence of a struggle, no witnesses, and claims at the trial were conflicted. Petra confessed stealing a watch and then a receipt was found. The trial was very quick - an 18 year old had inherited the aunt's estate and there were those who contested it. Our relative believed Petra was unfairly accused.

         This new theory came as a surprise.  What an awful addition to our imaginings, that she might have spent years in jail for a crime she did not commit. What was even more surprising was our disbelief, we had come to accept Petra's guilt, constructing a narrative so as to understand. We will never know.  Since the show has been aired, a few viewers have contacted us with stories of Petra, pictures and hints of letters. We hope to learn more,  but it was so long ago, I am afraid we will never have all the pieces of this story. Yet to know something of the trials and tribulations of my grandmother's life has been a gift. Petra had been a vague ancestor to me and now she is a real person.  She never returned to Norway after she left, but I have returned for her.

     Thanks Alt for Norge!

     I guess that is all for now, but the circles created by being on this show continue to grow. I have made contact with many relatives and hope to return to Norway next year.  My cousin Bodil, has a dairy farm and has promised that I can milk a cow! Because of my discoveries about Petra, I have rekindled connections with my cousins here in the United States and we are talking about a family reunion. I am staying in touch with the other contestants from Alt for Norge and I predict that some of us will remain friends. Petra traveled to China and may have felt that she had left Norway behind, but she kept her Bunad. The world is a terribly small place.  I am proud to be a Norwegian-American!

Until next time!  Ha det bra!(I hope that's right!)

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