*This was originally written ca. 2000, and then locked away in a computer file, nearly forgotten...
Secrets in the Walls
or The House My Bestefar Built
They will never know what they have in that old house, in that old neighborhood, in that old city, just blocks from the larger city of Detroit. They will never know the historical value behind the birds-eye maple wood that had been so delicately molded into the living and dining room window sills and the dining room’s corner cabinet, or behind the cherry-wood cabinet doors and drawers in the attic apartment. A master carpenter had built that house, a master carpenter who had worked for Henry Ford on a long ago day when that famous automaker had included carpenters amongst his many employees. It was Henry Ford’s carpenters who had built the Henry Ford museum and other buildings within what would become Greenfield Village, the tourist attraction that now draws thousands to Dearborn, Michigan every year. And my grandfather, my bestefar, had been one of them.
Whenever something is built, no matter what, no matter where, some scraps will result. Nor is it unusual for a carpenter to put such scraps to good use rather than discard them. So it happened that my bestefar took home some scraps of birds-eye maple and cherry wood, and fashioned those scraps into marvelous and unique details as he finished the house he built for his family, with his young, teenage son at his side.
But years have passed now. The old man is gone, and his family has moved on. His house has seen new owners, new families, and none of them will ever know the value of those once cherished scraps of wood. Perhaps they’ve removed them, painted over them, replaced them, turned them into scraps once more, tossed into a pile and forgotten.
They will never know the Danish immigrant who came to Detroit to seek a new life, anxious to forget some unspoken wrong we could later only guess at. Was it the wife and children he had left behind (a secret we would learn of years after his death)? And what of the reasons he left them? Had the Freemasons truly denied him entry in his home-land, and if so, why? Here in his new land he was welcomed into the local lodge, and oh how he would cherish that membership. Was it the ancestor who was believed to have abandoned wealth for the love of a peasant-girl? Which of these secrets held his thoughts in those later years of his life, as he sat rocking away the hours in his chair by the window? And what truths lie behind them?
In his old age, Bestefar cursed at some distant, blue-blooded ancestor who had given up wealth for the love of a peasant woman. He would say nothing more, this once-master carpenter for Henry Ford; he would provide no keys to unlock his long-held secret. Years later a search would reveal this much: his own grandfather had been a landholder of unknown size, but his father had inherited none of it.
Jens Nielsen Bay was the name of my great-great grandfather. He is listed in records first with an occupation of farmer and "sognefoged", a term referring to an official who performed certain judicial functions in his parish of Viskum, and later as "aftaegtsmand", a term referring to someone who is supported by the new owner of landed property, generally indicating a father who has given over ownership of his land to his son.
Jens was married twice. His first wife, Kirsten Andersdatter, died at the age of fifty-seven. Five children resulted from that marriage, and all were grown by the time Jens took his second wife, a woman by the name of Ane Marie Jensdatter who was nearly twenty years his junior. Ane’s family was originally from the parish of Hojbjerg, and, like her father before her, she chose to call herself by the surname of "Hoiberg" or "Hojberg".
It is unclear how many children resulted from this second marriage, but there were at least two: a set of twins named Anders Jensen and Niels Peter Jensen. It is also unclear what became of Niels Peter. But although Anders was considered "Jensen", as his second name attests, he took – or was given – the surname of his mother, Hojberg, rather than his father’s surname of "Bay".
This is where the tale of my great-great grandparents takes a tragic, and heartbreaking turn. Ane and her family were identified as "paupers" in church or parish records upon her marriage to Jens. And her marriage to this farmer and landholder did nothing to change that distinction in her life. She died at the age of sixty-six as a resident of "the poor law institution in Viskum", even as her farmer-husband was being "supported" in his long-time home. And Anders, a child of that union, would face an entire lifetime of struggling. One source lists his occupation as a "roadmender" for the city of Viborg.
In keeping with a tradition of generations, my grandfather, the son of Anders, should have been named Karl Andersen Hojberg; but he was named instead for his own grandfather, a man he received nothing else from. My bestefar, Karl Jensen Hojberg, chose to escape the life his father had struggled through by traveling to a new land filled with opportunities that were closed to him in Denmark. But what was he escaping, exactly? Could it have been the first wife we had never known existed, and the two children she bore him? Records I’ve seen show that my bestefar, listed as a soldier, was the father of a child born out of wedlock. A wedding eventually followed, attended only by members of the bride’s family, none from the groom’s. A shotgun wedding, perhaps? We can only imagine…. Sometime after a second child was born, a formal divorce was granted the couple. Those records are sealed until 2004 (addendum: now it is 2008, but we have not yet attempted to retrieve these no longer sealed records), so at present we can only guess at the reasons; but an elderly friend of my grandparents, herself the last of her generation with no one left to protect with her silence, has spoken of indiscretions on the part of my bestefar’s first wife. Had she wronged him so miserably that he needed an ocean between them? Had she hurt him so badly that he was willing to abandon his children? Or had he wronged her?
What secrets do the walls of that old house hold, the house my bestefar built? How much more of that master carpenter’s story could they reveal? Despite the secrets, despite whatever wrongs had been committed in his life, and whoever they had been committed by, my bestefar had been a proud man. He was proud of his skills, proud to be a member of the Freemasons, and infinitely proud of his grandchildren. He so loved Kari’s delightfully long hair that he would stroke it endlessly and plead with her never to cut it. And oh, how his eyes glistened when I told him of the college scholarship I had earned.
Whoever resides now in my bestefar’s house will never know the old couple who had once lived in that small apartment upstairs. They will never know the old man who had once been that master carpenter, but who had eventually come to be, instead, the mournful figure who spent an eternity of lost days in the chair by the window.
Children used to catch glimpses of that old man in the window. Eventually those children came to think he was a ghost. And those children may have been right. For the old man had come to be a ghost of his former self. His eyes had gradually died, and the master carpenter died right along with them. That was how the old man, the ghost in the window, had come to be.
Whoever watches through that window now will never know the old woman, my bestemor, who had cared for that old man, despite the way she used to shout an almost constant disagreement with things he said, things he did. "Old man," she used to say to him, turning those simple words into a derogatory remark.
Whoever resides in that old house now will never know how thoroughly that old woman had cared for that old man, climbing two flights of stairs to launder clothes soiled by his incontinence and still making sure he had plenty of gravy to properly saturate his meat and potatoes – just the way he liked them.
They will never know how my bestemor had relaxed in her death-bed, sighing with sad relief, for by then Bestefar was gone, passed away in a chair by the window in his hospital room. His passing had given her the freedom to go as well, for she no longer had him to worry over.
They will never know how content Bestemor had been, lying in her bed in her attic bedroom in the house her husband had built – how peacefully she slept despite the hammering being done in the room below during a small renovation project. "It makes me feel at home," she said to me with a satisfied smile.
Whoever works in my bestemor’s kitchen will never know the grandchildren who had bounded through the side door on Sunday afternoons, relishing the strong aroma of Bestefar’s Erick cigars and racing toward the corner drawer – the one Bestemor always kept the gum in. They will never know the way Bestefar would hoist us high into the sky so we could make baskets in the hoop in the yard, nor hear the beauty of his rough voice when he called out for his Kaereste ("sweetheart" by translation, a term he used for each of his granddaughters), or when he would softly sing "me and my shadow". Yet the quiet echoes of his voice must surely remain somewhere within those living room walls.
Maybe there have been other old men and old women in that old house, and other grandchildren, and other games, and other songs. But of all those who have come to pass through those doors since our family said goodbye to that old house, in that old neighborhood, in that old city, none will ever know the master carpenter who built it with his young, teenage son at his side. They will never know the Danish immigrant who had built his dreams into that house, and sealed his secrets there as well.
They will never know. But the walls will never forget