Memoir Writing Example
I read this excellent article by Christina Lalanne in Atavist magazine (article link below) and wanted to share it because it is an amazing example of a life story memoir:
Castles in the Sky
by Christina LaLanne
While renovating a house in San Francisco, a couple discovered a diary, hidden away for more than a century. It held a love story—and a mystery.
A few years ago, my husband and I decided to buy a house. We wanted to save a piece of historic San Francisco, making a new home in an old place before it became unrecognizable. Mat and I visited a few grand Victorians, their facades dripping with gingerbread trim. Inside we expected to find the San Francisco that my parents and grandparents knew: formal, dignified, timeless. Instead there was clean, crisp minimalism. Silicon Valley tastes had gotten there first.
What luck, then, that we did find our house. Narrow and wooden, it was in some ways a time capsule of 1910, the year it was completed, with stained-glass windows, parquet floors, and a built-in buffet. Most of its surfaces, however, had been painted white. Realtors had informed the sellers that to attract buyers and a good price, the place needed to be brightened up. So the subtle distinctions among types of wood—oak, mahogany, fir—were erased in favor of aesthetic uniformity and an oppressive glare.
Thankfully, the house’s most unusual features were left exposed, though you had to squint to see them amid the encroaching whiteness. Two murals, dusty and faded—they were unsigned and of no great ability, but what charm they had. Stretching across all four walls of the dining room was a depiction of colonial San Francisco. Catholic priests, swashbucklers, and revelers passed in front of a faded Mission church, opposite a seascape with a Spanish galleon in the foreground and another silhouetted on the horizon. Seagulls hovered above the buffet. A small back room presented a quieter, more reflective mural. It was a landscape of the American West at its most idyllic: a tranquil lake and waterfowl surrounded by a thick forest. Occupying two corners were, respectively, a white stork and a pair of mute swans, distinguished by their orange beaks. A mighty, lone mountain loomed behind them.
Who had created these scenes?
My imagination filled in a story. Maybe the builder was a European aristocrat whose father had squandered the last of the family fortune. The son was forced to live modestly, in no grand neighborhood and in a house too small for servants. But he refused to do so without art or elegance, so he adorned the walls himself.
Or perhaps he was a man of noble Spanish descent who with melancholy dreamed of the days before American fortune seekers arrived. Even though he hadn’t lived through that era himself, it was in his blood. He could feel what it was like when California was sparsely populated by Indians, cattle, and Spaniards, when contact with the rest of the world came through only a handful of ships per year.
Maybe he was a former frontiersman who recalled the wonder of the landscapes he had willed himself across. People don’t understand nowadays, he would say, how easy they have it—just hopping on a train to get where you’re going doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as getting there on foot. He recalled leaving home as a boy, the flatness of the East giving way to the ruggedness of the West. He hadn’t just witnessed the change—he’d felt it beneath his boots.
The first week we owned the house, Mat and I learned the true identity of its builder. Such are the wonders of the internet. A quick newspaper-archive search and there he was: Hans Jorgen Hansen, a young Danish immigrant alternately described as a carpenter and a contractor. He built many houses. This one, finished when he was 30 years old, was his home.
He had created something beautiful, but the world it seemed didn’t value his vision of beauty anymore. I was determined to restore the house and to hear what it had to say, to find the story I was sure it held. What I didn’t expect was that the story would come to me in written form, after being secreted away for more than a century.
It is probably easier to ignore the past, to forget what came before and remake the world clean and new. That has never appealed to me. I value the past because I have to. My parents died when I was in grammar school, my mother a year before my father, orphaning me and my three siblings. Now, years later, few traces of them remain. I inherited my dad’s 1969 orange Jeep, by which I mean that Mat and I dragged its remains out of a barn and spent thousands of dollars making it drivable again. The Jeep is old and stiff, the floor rusted through in spots, and there never were doors or a roof. I’m sure I make for a curious sight driving around San Francisco in what most people would relegate to a junkyard. I joke that one day, just like in the cartoons, I’m going to go over a bump and suddenly be holding a detached steering wheel, the rest of the Jeep broken in a heap beneath me.
Renovating a house, then, wasn’t the first time I had taken something old and neglected and broken and tried to make it whole again. Our house is on the western side of San Francisco, in what was once marked on maps as the Great Sand Waste. Drifting dunes were tamped down to create more than 40 avenues of prewar, suburban-style housing, and the neighborhood was optimistically renamed the Sunset District. There is a calm sameness to the swath of single-family homes that seem to march out to meet the ocean. While I will never love the fog that drifts in from the Pacific and the drabness it brings, I chose to live here. And I convinced Mat to do the same, out of a stubborn insistence that I am a San Franciscan. I grew up here. So did my father and grandfather.
I once found a picture of our house from 1914. Sand is piled up on the empty lot on the south side, where an apartment building would eventually be built. A woman and child perch on a horse cart being drawn up the street. Lace curtains hang in the house’s windows. They seem so real that, sitting inside more than 100 years later, my urge is to turn around and part them, letting in whatever sunlight manages to peak through the passing clouds.
Even when there is sun, the dining room gets almost no light. That was intentional: Builders at the turn of the 20th century knew that dining rooms would be used most often in the evening, when candlelight cast a warm, intimate glow. To enhance the effect they were placed in the center of homes, the ceilings set lower than in other rooms, and the walls paneled in polished wood. Mirrors, brass fixtures, and crystal knobs lent sparkle.
When we moved in, these details were covered by the menace of white paint. At first I thought I would just strip the buffet. I geared up—heat gun, dental tools, chemical strippers, protective respirator—and worked for three weeks, six hours a day. When I finally freed it, the oak glowed a beautiful, natural orange. The art-glass windows in the cabinet doors had been a garish yellow, but now that the panel behind them wasn’t white, they were a warm amber. The room’s mural of colonial San Francisco even seemed to mellow. The galleons no longer sat on a chilly black ocean—the water was a lovely midnight blue. I noticed for the first time the use of tangerine paint on every wall, meant to complement the wood in the buffet.
I knew it wouldn’t be right to stop. I had to liberate the wall panels, the window frames, the box-beam ceiling. I stripped the dining room for a year and a half, patiently picking paint out of egg and dart trim and dentil molding. Stripping leaves a lot of time for thinking, and my recurring fantasy was of unloading trash bags full of white paint chips onto the doorstep of whoever had decided that obscuring this house’s interior was a good idea. Perversely, perhaps, I enjoyed the work and continued the transformation when I finished the dining room. I spent six months stripping the small back room with the second mural, three weeks stripping the bedroom mantel. Today the house’s entryway greets me with half-white, half-exposed panels every time I walk through the front door.
Other parts of the house we sent off for restoration. We had the living room mantel and the bookcase next to it ripped out, and we carefully labeled the pieces of wood that piled up on the floor so we knew how to fit them back together. Mat and I knocked 13 doors off their hinges, then removed the hardware too. We hauled everything out for a chemical bath. After being dipped in giant vats, the wood came back renewed.
Our house began to offer the kind of clues I’d hoped for, hints about its story. When we took the bookcase off the wall, a piece of paper slipped out. I unfolded its edges, perforated by a hundred tiny nibbles that made me wonder if resident mice had been trying to make paper snowflakes. The bites formed a perimeter around a faded hand-drawing of the brackets on the house’s exterior. This was part of the builder’s original design.
When we repurposed a bedroom as part of an enlarged kitchen, we carefully removed the charming inlaid squares in the floor’s corners to reuse later. Under each one, someone had placed a piece of card stock advertising a tailor named C.J. Petersen. Who was he, and why had someone put the cards there? I leaned them on a window ledge as a reminder to find out.
I once discovered a paper bag crumpled up in the house’s rafters. I’d hoped it held photographs that previous owners had forgotten. Maybe I would catch a glimpse of lives otherwise lost to time. But when I opened the bag, I immediately threw it down in horror. Inside were two sets of dentures. Surely someone was having fun with me.
I was raised Catholic, and while it’s not very fashionable to believe in God anymore, the alternative is to accept personal extinction. I believe only time separates the living and the dead, and that it’s not an insurmountable barrier. My parents, for instance, still exist somewhere. My youngest sister once went to a psychic who surprised her by announcing that our parents were watching and guiding her. Except they really weren’t too concerned with her—they’d been busy directing their energy toward our sometimes wayward brother. (My sister was annoyed but conceded that he was probably a better use of their resources.) I was sure that whoever left the dentures had a far less noble purpose. I imagined them looking down from the heavens, laughing at a century-delayed joke.
One cold January evening, as the fog hung low to the ground, the cable cut out while we were watching TV. Mat went downstairs to reset the modem. Our basement had been torn apart for several months because we were doing a seismic retrofit. The steps I soon heard Mat walking back up were also in need of an upgrade. The wood that at some point had been used to repair the staircase was cheap, and the sound the steps made underfoot was loudly hollow. That night, however, the thud was arresting. Mat wasn’t walking back to me—he was bounding.
He flung open the door to the room where I was waiting and held out a book, its marbled cover torn and thick with dust. Somehow I knew in that moment that it held the key to the house’s story. By bringing the house back to life, I had earned it.
I opened the cover and saw in elegant handwriting the name Hans Jorgen Hansen and the year 1900. It was a diary belonging to the man who built our house. As I turned the pages, I noticed that someone else had written on them, too, a woman named Anna. How unusual, I thought, for two people to share a diary—even more so because, according to historical records, Hans’s wife was named Christine.
The story of hans and Anna begins the way stories often have over the centuries: A youth on the verge of manhood sets out from his ancestral village. In this case that village is in Denmark, and the year is 1900. The forces of the world conspire to entice young men like Hans, now 20, out of the fields and into cities. If they have a yearning for adventure and a bit of daring, they continue onward to new lands. They may never return to the villages that shaped them because the world needs them. Its appetite for ambition and cleverness is insatiable. Tradition be damned—here is progress.
On the second day of the first year of the new century, Hans loads his suitcase into a wheelbarrow and sets off down an icy road, pushing his belongings over gentle hills. He arrives at a train station, where he buys a third-class ticket to the industrial city of Odense. By urban standards it’s provincial, but broad boulevards have supplanted medieval lanes, lending Odense a bit of grandness. Hans is here for a train transfer, but with time to see something new, he walks into the bustling town.
He’s looking for a bookstore—an appropriate goal in the city whose most famous son is also Denmark’s greatest storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen. This Hans, the subject of our story, appreciates Danish literature, but right now all he wants to read about is America, because that is where he longs to be. On Vestergade—gade is Danish for “street”—at one of the largest booksellers in Odense, he thumbs through journalist Henrik Cavling’s dispatches in From America. He would like to buy it but should probably save his money. He doesn’t want to leave empty-handed, however, so he purchases a diary instead.
That diary—dagbog in Danish—will accompany Hans around the world. It will feel at times as if it were his only friend, his dearbog. For now he continues by train to the seaside town of Faaborg, where he will work.
Anna and Hans knew better than most that the bonds of blood aren’t always enough to keep people together. Together they would create something stronger.
When he arrives, a letter is waiting for him. It’s from Anna in America. Anna who has already gone into the mouth of the hungry world. From the moment he first saw her, six years earlier in his village, Hans knew it was his destiny to be with her, the beautiful girl with black hair. It wasn’t her fault that she had to leave him. Anna lived with her grandparents, and she was only 14 when her grandfather died. She and her grandmother had no one else to rely on in the village, so they soon left for a place called Michigan, where Anna’s aunt lived.
People said that if her mother had made better choices, Anna’s life would have unfolded differently. Anna was born out of wedlock. Other boys might have looked down on her for this, but not Hans. In Anna he saw a nobleness of spirit.
Besides, his mother had also committed a sin when she conceived him; he and Anna had that in common. Their respective fathers were good enough to acknowledge their progeny, bestowing them with a little dignity and a surname. Anna’s paternal grandparents were the ones who’d raised her. But she and Hans knew better than most that the bonds of blood aren’t always enough to keep people together. Together they would create something stronger.
I didn’t learn these details from the diary. At least, not right away. Its entries were written almost entirely in Danish, which I can’t read and don’t speak.
There were two diaries, in fact, the second of which had relatively little writing, all of it by Hans. There was also a stack of letters. Mat found everything—all this treasure—when he went to reset the modem. The basement ceiling had recently been demolished as part of our renovations. The books and letters had fallen from their hiding place, a cavity where Hans—who else?—had stashed them. I wondered if Mat and I were the first people to read them in a century.
At first all I could learn about Hans and Anna was gleaned from the documents’ few sections written in English:
Dear Anna… Tonight I have been reading over and over again your old letters from the dear old time; but I must not dream the old dreams; but Oh Anna I can’t help it because I do love you in spite of all.
Dear Hans… I am to blame for all you have ever suffered and God forgive me for it…. I am so sorry I was such a good for nothing foolish girl but at the same time I never meant to do any sin.
What drama or scandal was locked in these pages? Handwriting is a funny thing, not least because few people read it much anymore. Anna’s was neat, polite, and comfortably contained by the page. Hans, whose writing made up 90 percent of our find, had a bolder stroke. His flourishes veered maddeningly into indecipherability. In places, the pressure he exerted on his pen had made the ink pool and the letters bleed.
I sent a few diary passages to various Danish friends of friends, but while the language was theirs, none wanted to spend the time required to decipher such baroque penmanship. Frustrated, I made out the letters as best I could and typed the words they seemed to form into Google Translate. At first what came back was gibberish. But the longer I spent with the words, the more of them I got right, and the more the translator divulged actual language. I was also becoming familiar with Hans’s scrawl. His “D” was the longest, most elegant version of that letter I’d ever seen. It marked the beginning of the diary entry in which he lovingly recalled meeting Anna when they were children.
I eventually typed every word from the diaries and letters—some 20,000 in all—into the translator, and a picture of Hans and Anna’s story began to come into focus. Mat and I also did some genealogical research, amassing supporting facts. I found documentation of Anna and her grandmother’s 1897 passage to New York via Ellis Island. I found the household in St. Joseph, Michigan, where Anna was employed. I found evidence of Hans’s departure from Denmark after his stint in Faaborg—a voyage to Sydney, Australia, and onward to Brisbane—as well as his death certificate and a record of his grave just outside San Francisco, which we visited. We reconstructed Hans’s family tree and found a great-grandson on Facebook. We learned that Hans had three children with the woman named Christine, and that their marriage ended in divorce.
I was sure I knew why: Hans and Anna could only love each other. What then had kept them apart?
Winters in denmark are long and cold. The wind that sweeps off the North Sea blows through the country’s bays, shallow hills, and beech forests. The nights, too, can seem endless. A man may find himself alone with his thoughts for longer than should be allowed. “There is not much to say,” Hans writes one January evening, “just that time was twice as long as the previous day.”Sheltered by thick, half-timbered walls, illuminated by weak candlelight, Hans and other men stave off boredom with games of cards and letters from faraway places.
Hans often lies awake at night imagining himself in New York, where Anna will travel from Michigan to reunite with him. In his diary he writes that the streets “will be completely different from the cobblestones of Faaborg.” He decides to “learn something useful to be worthy of her” and becomes a carpenter, a job he hopes will allow him to earn his way to America and support Anna. But good-paying work can be hard to come by in Denmark, and Hans will spend portions of the winter and spring of 1900 trying to find it.
In moments of despair, his mind wanders back to happier times. When he was 14, he tended cows in Husby, the farming hamlet where he grew up. Husby overlooks the sea, and the wind carries the smells of agriculture into peoples’ homes. At the heart of the village’s expansive fields sits the parish church. Most churches in rural Denmark have simple whitewashed towers, but not this one. To create a symbol befitting their status, the local aristocracy—among the most powerful landholders in the country—took inspiration from Italian artistry. Husby’s church boasts a copper onion dome atop a Tuscan-yellow tower, a glimmer of grandeur in an otherwise modest landscape.
Hans remembers his younger self leaving the cow fields one day to play with other boys in the village and seeing Anna for the first time. “In my quiet mind,” he reminisces in his diary, “I imagined myself and Anna engaged.” It was as if he didn’t really have a choice, not that he wanted one. Fate brought them together again at age 16, working as farmhands at the home of a widow. Anna was lively and dramatic, a “witty endearing spirit.” After she moved to America, she and Hans began a correspondence. They “became closer and came to rely on each other,” like family of their own choosing.
“I have seen many beautiful girls,” Hans writes in his diary, “but no one has been able to erase the image of my dear black-haired girl with the brave and joyful mind.”
Now, in Faaborg, Hans receives letters from Anna assuring him that she loves him. He is certain their union “will soon become reality,” that they “live only in the world of dreams yet.” In Danish, there’s a word for this kind of reverie: luftkasteller, or “castles in the sky.” Hans is building luftkasteller. The castles are their future, his and Anna’s, strong and impenetrable.
Or so he thinks.
Passage to America can be expensive. Other Danes are instead leaving for Australia, where the government is so desperate for labor that it will subsidize a man’s journey. Hans would likely live someplace hot and dusty. Going there would delay his arrival in America by years. Still, it feels one step closer to Anna.
That is how Hans finds himself in the middle of the Indian Ocean, aboard the steamship Oroya, as the year turns from 1900 to 1901. The journey to Sydney lasts 45 days. Hans and a few Danish friends board another ship to Queensland, then travel 300 miles to the territory’s interior, where dry grass stretches on and on until there is enough moisture to support a forest of red cedar, kauri pine, and other trees. The men help fell those forests, cutting the timber used to fuel the continent’s economic growth.
Hans lives in what the Australians call a humpy: a structure made of two poles stuck into the ground to keep a tin roof aloft, and open in front to the elements. There is only enough room for two makeshift beds. One is for Hans and the other is for his friend, a man named Sorensen. They wash their clothes in a river and cook their food over an open flame. The Australian heat is so fantastic that sometimes Hans can only laugh at it.
He thinks often of Anna, especially at night as the moon rises. “I have seen many beautiful girls,” he writes in his diary, “but no one has been able to erase the image of my dear black-haired girl with the brave and joyful mind.” Yet something has changed. He has not received a letter from her since he left Denmark. “I long to hear a little from little Anna in America,” Hans writes in April 1901. “It is 6 months since I got the last letter from her but I wait every day.”
He doesn’t know it yet, but his luftkasteller are about to break apart, and they will threaten to crush him. By the end of 1901, Anna will be married to another man.
The details of when Anna decided to forsake Hans and how she told him weren’t contained in the diaries or letters that fell from my basement ceiling. Perhaps Anna did finally send him a note in Australia, only to say that she couldn’t wait for him any longer—she needed certainty, a family, a life. Or maybe she had no choice. Anna would later write, vaguely, of getting “in trouble on my own.” Did she, like her mother and Hans’s had before her, become pregnant out of wedlock? Unlike them, did she decide to marry her lover? I could only guess that the missive containing that explanation was gone because Hans couldn’t bear to keep it.
Anna’s marriage might explain why Hans didn’t write in his diary for four years. He suffered grief in silence. Their story wasn’t over, though. I knew that for sure, because Anna didn’t write in the diary until 1905.
I was hooked on the puzzle I was piecing together, to the point that people in my life started asking why. To me the question was the reverse: Why wouldn’t I try to untangle the story of a love affair more than a century old? Who wouldn’t want to learn what became of Hans and Anna? So what if they weren’t my ancestors. So what if they were just ordinary people who lived ordinary lives. Anyone in my position, with a diary full of mysteries that all but fell into her hands, would surely go to the same lengths to find answers.
In truth, I know that my fascination with the past—reawakening it, finding meaning in it—motivates me to ask questions that many people don’t need answered. It compels me to do things that to others seem drastic, even obsessional, but to me feel inevitable. Like scraping paint from the walls of my house for so many hours, over so many months, that long after I’ve removed my respirator for good, I sometimes think I can still see its outlines on my face.
A few years ago, while going through digitized family videos, I found old Super 8 footage of my dad taking a trip to Utah in his—our—orange Jeep. No sound, just moving images of my 20-year-old father, with his own father by his side, maneuvering along four-wheel-drive trails. The Jeep was shinier than I’d ever seen it. There was no one left to ask what route my father and grandfather had taken on that trip, but I knew the canyons of Utah well. I was certain I could find the trails from the video. I isolated images of rock formations and scoured online photos until I found a match: Paul Bunyan’s Potty, a natural arch in Canyonlands National Park. Mat and I loaded the Jeep onto a rented trailer and towed it 1,100 miles to Utah. We brought a drone and a GoPro with us. Mat did all the filming as I drove roads the Jeep had been down some 40 years earlier.
I don’t know what I expected to find in Utah, only that I was sure I had to go. The same was true when I bought a plane ticket for April 2019 and traveled more than 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Denmark. I rented a car and drove alone down country roads on a frigid day, feeling excited and a little embarrassed. When I arrived in Husby on a Sunday, the buildings were so sparse that calling it a town seemed generous. The only business I was able to identify was an auto repair shop, and it was closed.
I wanted to find a road called Norregade—it was there, at the home of the widow of a man named Lars Andersen, that Hans and Anna first spent time together as teenagers. “The wind is crying out and bringing back to my thoughts the winter when we were together,” Anna once wrote. She and Hans said their goodbyes on Norregade before Anna left for America. “I remember our last meeting like it was a shooting star,” Anna wrote. “God knows if we meet again on this rolling earth.”
On my map of Husby, Norregade didn’t exist. I assumed it had been renamed and I just needed to ask someone in town. Driving Husby’s back roads, I spotted a couple out for a chilly afternoon stroll. I slowed the car, rolled down the window, and shouted, “Do you speak English?” They turned to look at me and replied with an almost bewildered “Of course.” Well, I explained, I have a strange question. You see, I come from America, and a Danish man built my house 100 years ago, and I found his diary, and do you know where Norregade is?
The couple said they didn’t, that they were only weekenders. But their neighbors might. They climbed in my car and we drove 30 seconds to the home of a retired couple who were in the midst of baking rye bread. I asked if they knew Norregade. We don’t, they said, but our other neighbor might—she’s 90 years old. The husband went to fetch her. Five minutes later she was beside me, the expert who had lived in Husby her whole life.
She knew Norregade—it was now called Sjobjergvej. (Vej means “way.”) She had known the Andersens, too, the family of the widow Hans and Anna once worked for. She even knew which house had belonged to them, and marked its location on my map. I set out for Sjobjergvej, where I asked my questions all over again and found myself welcomed into the home of another couple. The old farmhouse where Hans and Anna worked had long ago been demolished. Still, I was in the place where their love story began.
People’s eyes lit up when I explained why I was in Husby, just me and my binder full of photocopied diary entries. A woman cheered when I showed her pictures of my house, like Husby’s worth in the world had been secured by what one of its sons achieved elsewhere. And here I was, ratifying his efforts by traveling all the way to Denmark.
I visited other towns that figured in Hans and Anna’s story. I contacted regional archives to locate documentation of their existence. I sat with historians who translated diary entries better than I—which is to say Google—ever could, scribbling as they spoke. I popped into a coffee shop and didn’t leave for five hours, as an impromptu cadre of locals pored over documents and pictures, coming up with their own theories about Hans and Anna. I sparked enough interest that I was later contacted by an amateur genealogist who sifted through Danish church records on my behalf, gathering information about Hans’s and Anna’s families.
I came home from Denmark with a better understanding of who Hans and Anna were and where they came from. If only every trip a person takes could be so warm, so fruitful. Hans once wished the same, only to embark on a hopeful journey that ended in bitter disappointment.
Hans’s American dream gnaws at him. Is the country really all that people say it is? He finally is able to find out for himself when he travels to California’s northern timber country, where the giants of the forest sit in a landscape that formed in the Jurassic period. The redwoods are the tallest things alive. The Douglas firs are almost as mighty. Together they seem to dare men to build something—a civilization—as grand as they are.
Hans finds San Francisco to be a marvelous party disguised as a city. He plays cards, bowls, and gambles. He wonders if settling down will ever be for him if it means that he’s not with Anna.
They still write to each other. As friends. Childhood friends. Practically family. In the fall of 1905—more than five years since Hans left Denmark, and eight since he last saw Anna—he travels to see her. He is bound for Chicago, where she can visit him from her home just across the city’s great lake, and he can return the courtesy. He’ll find work and a place to live for a while. And maybe he’ll like it enough to stay. Maybe Anna will ask him to.
Anna is the same kindhearted, buoyant young woman he remembers—still beautiful, with jet-black hair and sharp, full features that give depth to her lingering girlishness. She has lived in the small town of St. Joseph ever since she left Denmark. Her grandmother and her aunt and uncle are close by. She has no children. She has worked as a servant in wealthy households. She has never been truly happy.
But oh, how Anna has loved Hans’s letters. What adventures he’s had, how worldly he’s become.
Anna’s marriage isn’t going well. Her husband, whom Hans meets in Chicago, is a mischievous and sometimes callous man. He was born in Germany. He loves to drink, sometimes with women who are not his wife. His name is Emil, but no one calls him that. Everyone calls him by his last name, Frost—even Anna.
Frost isn’t a fool. He sees what’s going on between Anna and her friend. Once, when drunk, man to man, Frost tells Hans he would sell Anna to him for $500. Then he pretends it was a joke all along. Ha! Frost says he couldn’t live without her anyway. Later, Frost tells his wife that Hans “didn’t care enough…. I won’t let him have you now.”
On one of Anna’s weekend visits to Chicago, she and Hans go out, just the two of them, for dinner at a restaurant on Humboldt Avenue. Neither will write down what transpires that evening, but maybe—surely—it happens like this: Their conversation turns to Frost, because it always does. Anna grew up without parents and told herself that, even if her origins were impure, she would always be pure of heart. She’d made a vow. But if only her husband could be more like Hans. He sits listening to her. It takes everything within him not to move his hand across the table and put it to Anna’s cheek and tell her he loves her more than anything. At the very least he needs her to understand that he thinks she deserves the world. Hans starts to tell her about his diary with the marbled cover. He will give it to her, and she will understand how he feels. The proof is in the writing.
She still has hope, or maybe it’s faith. “It is God’s will that when you and I again get together it will be under different circumstances,” Anna writes.
Anna returns home to St. Joseph in possession of the diary. She reads Hans’s words from 1900 onward and is overcome—she scribbles into one of the diary’s margins that when she grasped his devotion, her heart “almost stood still.” She knows the diary is not hers to keep, but when she gives it back to Hans, she wants him to find comfort in her words, just as she has in his. Anna writes:
Oh how my heart ached for you the day we left Chicago. I sat like a dead woman all the way home. Frost talked and I could not answer. I think that was the saddest day of my life. How I would love to be with you but I can’t until God wills it so…. My beloved brother life would be empty if it were not for you…. We were born to each other I feel it.
The possibilities spin in her head. It’s not an honorable thing to do, leave one’s husband. At least not now. Maybe she will in the future. Even though it would be a sin. But doesn’t God want people to be happy? Doesn’t he want her to be happy?
When it’s time to return the diary, some two months after Hans gave it to her, Anna has made up her mind. “I would be the happiest woman in the world if I could always be with you but there would be one little drop in our cup and that would be that I would always fear that I had done a sin,” she writes in her final entry. To leave her marriage would jeopardize her soul—and Hans’s, too. “In parting us this time,” she writes, “[God] also saved us from the results of what we would have done.” As long as Frost “does his duty,” Anna says, “I shall do mine.” She still has hope, or maybe it’s faith. “It is God’s will that when you and I again get together it will be under different circumstances,” she writes.
It is a sad truth to bear, and Hans decides to return to California. He has shared everything with Anna—what more can he do? She is welcome to visit him. “You are all I have,” he writes in the diary, “and you are as welcome as flowers in May. I am always waiting for you to pay me a visit or to stay forever.”
Hans makes his arrangements to leave Chicago, diary in hand. One day he writes with what feels like finality, pledging to get married to someone else just to show Anna he can live without her—she who says she loves him but who “promised someone else the same.” Hans writes, “You and I little Anna could be happy; but you set me apart for another.… Anyway, I am not angry with you in any way.”
It is now the spring of 1906. What neither of them knows—what no one knows—is that the God whom Anna so fervently believes in will soon punish San Francisco. On April 18, at 5:12 a.m., the ground beneath the city will shake harder than it has ever shaken before. When the earthquake is over, the fires will start; they won’t stop for three days, until most of the city is reduced to ashes.
Once the dust of the disaster settles, the old game of making a fortune will return in full swing. Two hundred thousand people—half the city’s population—will be homeless, which is good business for someone like Hans. Skilled men will be needed to sweep up the ashes and put houses back where they used to be.
Hans returns to San Francisco, or what’s left of it. He will stay forever.
To tell the story up to this point, I had most of what I needed. The diaries and letters were often rich in detail, certainly full of emotion. I just needed to organize what Hans and Anna wrote into a narrative, supplemented by what I had learned in Denmark and in my genealogical research. But Hans mostly stopped writing in his diary after leaving Chicago. An entry here and there, nothing more. They were short and often melancholy. “The sadness is coming over me again,” he noted on August 10, 1908.
The last time he wrote in the diary, Hans was 30. It was 1910, the year he finished building the house in which I now live. It probably didn’t happen this way—probably wasn’t this dramatic—but I imagine Hans huddled in the dark of his basement, shaking his head in disappointment as his pen meets the pages of his bogfor the last time. Before he closes the cover and hides the diary in the ceiling, he writes:
September 19, 1910
Many years have gone since I last wrote in my book, and I have to talk to someone tonight…. My whole life has been destroyed and I have now been away from [Anna] for a long time. And yet her and no other is what my life is all about. Anna, Anna why is everything against me. Everyone tells me I’m crazy, because I am not taking any interest in anyone but you. I shall always keep you in my mind and treasure your memories and keep them for myself. Goodnight, you are my life’s star, without you everything is empty and you never want to write to me. Everything that I have is your letters and the memory of you. Goodnight my beloved friend, you are my everything. Hope disappears. I hope it will rise again.
Three months later, Hans married Christine Petersen, literally the girl next door, on what was surely a miserable wedding day. “I know that I do sin if I marry another,” he’d once written. Hans and Christine’s great-grandson told me that their marriage was not a happy one. Their divorce was contentious, and Hans was not remembered fondly by his descendants. I didn’t pry. I knew from Hans’s diary that he soured over time. A romantic became a cynic. A hopeful youth grew into a bitter man.
Maybe Hans wasn’t wholly deserving of my sympathy, but understanding what ruined him was another matter. I still had so many questions: Did Hans leave the diary and letters untouched for as long as he lived in the house, or did he retrieve them from their hiding place on occasion to read in secret? Christine and her brother C.J. Petersen, the tailor whose name was on the cards Mat and I found in the bedroom floor—one small mystery solved—were awarded the house after Christine’s divorce from Hans was finalized in 1929. Were the hidden documents left behind on purpose, valueless after so many years, or forgotten in the chaos of separation?
More research only led to more questions. In newspaper archives, I found a perplexing detail: Right around the time that Hans returned to San Francisco, in 1906, Anna and Emil Frost were divorced after all. Unfortunately for Hans, Anna’s liberated future didn’t include him. Maybe it was only the idea of Hans—comforting, attentive, a reminder of home—that Anna loved.
I knew that Anna was 25 when she divorced. After that her trail went cold. I couldn’t find evidence of her anywhere. As I had when I first saw the murals in my house, I started filling in the blanks with a story: Anna lived the rest of her life in Michigan, working in other people’s homes. She remarried someone kind and reliable, but it was a relationship absent the passion she had known with Hans. She had children. In old age, perhaps she returned to Denmark. She’d once written to Hans that she couldn’t “wait til we get to our fatherland … where our feet trod when we were children (God bless those days).” Maybe for the sake of nostalgia—something she hadn’t allowed herself to feel while raising her family—she traveled to Husby and visited Norregade, standing on the quiet lane I would visit several decades later. Maybe she hoped that being there could answer her questions about the life she’d chosen not to live.
I have a vivid memory, early one morning when my father was in the hospital, of my uncle making his way up the carpeted stairs to the bedrooms where my siblings and I slept. I was nine years old. I knew my uncle was bringing bad news. How is that possible, to just know? Maybe his steps were slower or heavier than normal. Or maybe you can feel someone you love slipping away from this world.
Every few years I have a different experience of knowing. I’ll be in a crowd or walking down the street, and I’ll catch a glimpse of my mother or father. Something about the way they move or hold themselves or brush their hair from their face makes me certain. I’m wrong, of course, but the joy is true. If only for a moment, something I want seems real.
A similar thing happened when I finally found Anna. My trip to Denmark had furnished me with the facts that follow a person during their life, no matter where they end up. I knew Anna’s date of birth and the village where she was born and her date of entry into the United States. I knew that her father was Danish, her mother Swedish. I found her application for a passport. I looked at her picture, her dark hair and mournful eyes. She signed her name in the same meticulous way she had in Hans’s diary.
These facts are what made me sure that the Anna I came across on Ancestry.com was unmistakably, irrefutably her. My heart leaped in my chest. Then it fell, because of where I found her and what it might mean.
She wasn’t in Michigan or Chicago or Denmark. Anna had been in San Francisco all along.
She had moved here by at least 1910. What reason could there have been but Hans? Yet two months after Hans wed Christine, Anna married a man named L.B. Carpenter. They never had children. A mining engineer, Carpenter died in 1929 and left Anna with no choice but to return to domestic service as the Great Depression unfolded. Meanwhile, Hans never recovered his financial footing after divorcing Christine, though he continued to build houses. He moved into a residential hotel in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood then full of clerks and teachers, skilled laborers and transient workers, all living conveniently in the city’s downtown.
Did Hans and Anna try a relationship when she first arrived, only to find that it couldn’t live up to what they’d imagined for so long? Hans’s diary gives no indication of this—perhaps when they were finally together, he didn’t feel the need to write. In his final entry, Hans wrote that he’d been “away from [Anna] for a long time.” What if he meant months, not years, as I’d assumed? I found myself hoping so. The notion of Anna coming to San Francisco and not seeing Hans felt impossible.
Hans died in 1966, Anna in 1968, which meant they both lived into their eighties. I was able to find only skeletal traces of their later lives. Addresses in city directories. Census data, but only up to 1940. Newspaper clippings that mentioned city lots Hans was developing. Anna didn’t have any descendants to find and interview. Hans and Christine’s great-grandson told me that St. Joseph, Michigan, sounded familiar, but he wasn’t sure why.
There was one final revelation, and with it a glimmer of hope: In the last decades of her life, Anna moved into an apartment building in the Tenderloin. She lived only three blocks away from Hans. Maybe this was a coincidence, but I remembered the words of their youth. “I know that sometime a time will come when Anna and I are together,” Hans wrote. “A voice whispers in my ear that (Everything comes to those who wait) and I will wait for you to come in 20 years.” Here is Anna: “When you and I get to be 80 years old I shall love you just the same no matter where you are…. Never forget that I am always with you and always will be, [even] if you go to the end of the world.”
I drove to the Tenderloin and walked the distance between their apartment buildings. The historic cityscape, rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, is pleasing, even if the neighborhood became synonymous with inner-city vice. This was already becoming true in the mid-20th century, when Hans and Anna lived here. Perhaps by then the tempestuousness between them had eased and they were a comfort to each other. I imagined Hans ambling to Anna’s apartment, and Anna coming down to greet him, seeing his familiar grin. Maybe they no longer interpret the pull between them as romance, cherishing it instead as an unbreakable kinship.
She takes his arm and, side by side, they walk through the city.
In the home movie Mat and I re-created in Utah, I am behind the wheel of my father’s Jeep. The drone, piloted by Mat, shows me driving a barren red-dirt trail, steering through a series of technical four-wheel-drive maneuvers, and coming to a patch of earth where the road ends. The drone zooms out to show why: I have come to a bluff—there is a sheer 1,000-foot drop to the Colorado River below. Since the Jeep can go no farther, I get out and walk to the edge.
When we returned home from Utah, I took our footage and combined it with what my father had filmed on Super 8. I spliced scenes together, blurring the line between past and present. The moment when I’m on the precipice cuts to one at the same spot shot decades earlier. My father is there, his legs dangling over the cliff. I reversed the footage at this point so he appears to turn and greet me—the approaching figure—with a knowing nod. He’s like the wise knight in The Last Crusade, waiting all those years for Indiana Jones to arrive.
The movie seems to enter a time warp at this point, flashing rapidly between past and present. Few people who know my family have been able to get through it with a dry eye. At the end, Mat runs into the frame for the first time. The spell is broken. Mat puts his arm around my waist as we wave to the camera. Or are we waving to my father, thanking him for leading us here and for the opportunity to see him again?
I am desperate to communicate with the past, but so much of it is elusive, scattered, unknowable. I’m all too familiar with the frustration of sifting through fragments of truth and possibility for answers to my questions. I understand now that searching and listening and following are vital, but not always enough. I reconstruct what I can and use imagination to bring the rest into being. To set the world as it should be. To set it as I need it to be. What else can I—or anyone—do?
I write all this enveloped by Hans’s study. It’s a beautiful, peculiar little room, the one with the second mural. The sharp California sun streams through the picture window, with its tulip-patterned stained glass, and brightens the Honduran mahogany I spent half a year liberating from white paint. The effort it has taken to get here—I know it, because it was partly mine. The room sprang from Hans’s mind and from materials he could get his hands on, but it is here, still, because of me. So is the love story once concealed in the basement. I found it, heard it, and told it the best way I know how.
Maybe, though, someone else’s version of Hans and Anna’s story was always in plain sight. I stare up at the mural of the American West. For a time, I was confused by the two mute swans and the white stork, painted in corners of the room, because neither species is native to North America. I should have put it together sooner: The mute swan is a symbol of Denmark—the national bird—and features in Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling.” White storks, now rare in the country because of habitat changes, traditionally arrived in Denmark from Africa each spring, signifying new beginnings.
The pair of swans—they’re Hans and Anna, aren’t they? Surrounded by the possibilities of a new world, swimming together in calm waters, together forever. It’s what Hans wanted more than anything, this ending to their story, and he made it so.
Christina did an AMAZING JOB researching and writing that article.
It is one of the best I've ever read, and it illustrates the power of life story memoir writing.
Even though the memoir above actually came from a diary, the information revealed 100 years after the writing - even in partial form as above - is breathtaking.
... Just imagine if YOUR grandfather or grandmother wrote to you and described why they came to America, how they found their spouse, and what they did during their life.
That information would be invaluable.
And SO cherished.
It would also offer a partial reflection on YOU - the blood relative of the person writing the story.
So, why don't you write and share your story with your family? The will love it, and so will you.
Try out The Life Writer App for free here: https://www.thelifewriter.com/user/register
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Here is Christina's excellent original article:
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