I have seen two pictures of my grandfather. The first was taken sometime in the 1920’s and shows a boyish figure standing in front of a wooden shed, clad in the winter uniform of a Finnish soldier. The second picture was taken in Moss Landing, California, and shows a middle aged man of strong build, standing next to my grandmother and mother on the bow of a small tuna boat named the Jay-Cee. I believe in knowing your past.
Alex Ogren is a man I will never meet. What I know about him is only what my mother has said to me in passing. I cannot paint a picture of him out of scraps; to do so would be a sort of injustice. What I can do is say what I know. I know that he was a fisherman who emigrated from Europe after World War II, had a short temper, and was unphased by the prospect of physical harm.
I don’t know when my grandfather was born; presumably it was around 1904. This would have given him a front row seat to the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent independence of Finland, which, though it was not at the epicenter, did not escape without unrest. He served in the army and would have supported the war effort against the invading Soviet Union during the Winter and Continuation wars. In the late 40’s he met my grandmother and moved to Washington state, and then to Watsonville, California. He operated a fishing boat and made runs on the Monterey Bay. He retired before his death sometime in the 1980’s.
The way I see it, his past is a part of my past as well. I know only bits and pieces about my grandfather, and yet there is a level of identification that can only be seen among family members. I never heard him lose his temper, or rant about the injustices between the rich and poor. I never saw the Jay-Cee, I never saw the town in Washington where my mother was born, and I never saw Moss Landing harbor at the height of the fishing boom.
However, I did see the fishing line he used, 800-pound test and made of braided steel. I got to see a package of the chrome lures and the glass net holders he somehow got his hands on. I got to see the plywood boxes he made, and the jury-rigged shelves he set up. I heard the few stories about his exploits: teaching my hysterical mother to drive just as Minte White Elementary School let out down the street. Or having to radio the Coast Guard after a drunken pleasure boater rammed his vessel in the middle of the bay. I got to see the epilogue of a story, and it still bothers me that I know very little about its beginning, middle, and end.
I believe in knowing where you come from. I believe in knowing what other people did to get you to where you are now. For many people this is a complete family tree and genealogy, with annoyingly nostalgic relatives and a metric ton of old Polaroid pictures. For me, this is two photos and some short stories told without much thought.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.