My Two Grandfathers

Carl and Gunhild Forsberg and Ben and Martha Johnson. Photos courtesy of family archives

In this age of questionable ethical and moral conduct and increasing allegations from women of mistreatment by men, relatives and otherwise, how lucky are we who had the gift of men of character in our lives. To know men of character means to learn what decency is, what manners are, what respect is. Such men give us the lifelong gift of knowing our value and understanding boundaries. Both my grandfathers were men of character. In many ways they were similar, yet in many ways they were different as well. I had the great good luck to have Carl Victor Forsberg as my maternal grandfather and Bernard Nils Johnson as my paternal grandfather. In Swedish we say, Morfar and Farfar, which means mother’s father and father’s father. Both men were born in Sweden. My Morfar came to America as a man of 30; my Farfar came as a boy of one. Both were soft-spoken men. Yet they were commanding figures, each in his own way. One was sure: they were good men.

My Morfar was a seaman and a musician from Hallefors, deep in the Swedish midland forests. He loved the water and he loved music. With hair the color of rhubarb and the kindest light blue eyes, Carl came from a hardworking family. His father Victor was a train conductor who was killed on the job sometime in his 60s. His mother came from French Huguenot roots. Her name was Karolina Hero Andersdotter, a lovely woman of healing gifts. Grandfather Carl called her a Trollara, meaning she knew about natural medicines, homeopathy we might say today, and more than that, he seemed to imply she had the gift of foresight. He had a two brothers and a sister, none of whom left Sweden.

One of the wonders of the Internet age is that some of us have connected with relatives far away, people we might never have known at all but for or Facebook. That’s the case with my Forsberg relatives, whom I now have met on Facebook.

Grandpa Forsberg was a fearless man, not easily led by anyone, a man self-taught in the arts who played violin among other instruments and tuned pianos by ear. His pitch was that perfect. Carl came to Jamestown directly from Sweden in 1926, leaving his wife and two daughters behind in Karlskoga with Mrs. Zettergren, his wife’s mother.

Always a planner and a man who made decisions carefully and well, Carl wanted to be sure he could find a job and a place to live before he brought his family. Within a year, he had done so, and his wife Gunhild arrived with my mother Barbara and her older sister Ingrid on the Gripsholm the following year.Grandpa Forsberg ultimately worked for Jamestown Metal Corporation for the next thirty years until retirement, supplementing his workday week earnings with his weekend life as a musician. He was a man who believed in hard work and saving money, on self-reliance and on good planning. He saved enough in ten years to buy land and build his house on the shore of Chautauqua Lake in Fluvanna next door to his daughter Ingrid and her husband George Sherwin. Upstairs, grandpa collected books about travel, a set of Shakespeare’s plays (all in English), and National Geographic Magazine from 1935-55. There they all lived until 1977 when Grandpa, Grandma and Ingrid died within a few months of each other — Grandma in March, Grandpa in April and Aunt Inky in July. My mother wept that she lost her whole family in a few months. It was a sore loss for all of us. Mother was tough though. She lived until 2017 though, and died peacefully at age 93.

Carl and Gunhild Forsberg, Karlskoga, Sweden, 1915.

Grandpa Forsberg traveled with his daughters and his wife back to Sweden in 1946 for a long summer visit and again by himself in 1957. He recorded his visits on 10 millimeter movie film. My knowledge of Sweden and our Forsberg relatives was told in my memory to the familiar click click click of film. Much of it was in black and white or sepia. The Swedish films — and there are perhaps six of them — linger on faces and landscape in a way that shows my grandfather’s artistry and his love of home and family. What I most remember about Carl is his unique deep voice. He sang bass; his voice was so soft and resonant. He retained a slight Swedish inflection all his life, most notably the three beat rhythm and accented vowels. He said my name in three syllables, and in those sounds was all the loving kindness any grandchild could have had. Ja, he’s say, and taps my arm. You’re a good girl, Sandara.

Ben Johnson, Jamestown circa 1914.

Carl Forsberg, Sweden circa 1914.