Meeting my great-grandfather’s ghost

In 1906, my great-grandfather jumped ship in New York harbor. He never returned to his native Norway.

He was 18 when he started his new life, under a new name, as a carpenter in Brooklyn. The proof of his reinvention has always been on his citizenship papers, where you can very clearly see that he had erased his given surname and penciled in a new one: Leire.

the Leire family in New York, 1925(?)

For most of my life, the narrative I knew of my great-grandfather was a patchwork of passed-down stories, stitched together with logical, but fabricated, explanations to give us a picture of his life. I never had the chance to meet him, but my mother knew him when she was a child and provided color to what I thought I knew of the man named Severin Leire.

What I thought I knew of him was this: that he was born illegitimately in a small Norwegian village. That his mother eventually married. That he did not get along with his stepfather. That he did not go through immigration. That he met his wife at a Swedish church. That he built a house in the Bronx. That he helped construct the Empire State Building. That he sold bow ties during the Depression. That he changed his name to erase his past.

While I was finishing graduate school, I asked my mother if we could go to Norway and see where he was born. We still had family there: hundreds of aunts, uncles and cousins who strangely seemed to know a lot about me, while I knew nothing of them.

During the trip, those things that I thought were logical explanations for my great-grandfather's decisions were unfounded.

View from Severin’s home in Norway

On an afternoon boat ride from his childhood home to his church — a seven-mile journey, each way — I learned from my relatives that Severin's father was a young sailor from an island out on the horizon. His mother got pregnant, out of wedlock, at 17, and never saw that sailor again. When she gave birth, her parents took baby Severin on that same seven-mile journey to be baptized at the church. His mother — a sinner — was forbidden from attending and must have wept for hours while her newborn — cold and hungry — braved the row boat ride to and from his baptism.

Severin’s mother kept and raised him while working as a housekeeper. One of the houses she kept belonged to a wealthy man named Henrik, who fell in love with her, married her, and accepted her son as his own. It was unheard of at the time, explained my relatives…. A love story, really.

Severin and his family in front of the home he built in the Bronx

When Severin was grown, he became a sailor, just like the father he never met. He went to America to make money to send home to his family. When his citizenship paperwork was processed, he changed his name not out of spite, but out of love. The surname he chose was that of his stepfather.

That alone would have been enough to change a lifelong opinion of a man I had never met. Yet the stories continued — curious ones.

We visited one of the family houses and noticed a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. ”Uncle Severin sent that from America,” my great-aunt explained. “It is real crystal. His mother cried. She loved it."

We heard the family stories about Nazi occupation. “Your great-grandfather sent us oranges when we could not get fruit."

We saw the letters that were sent with love from New York. “We kept in touch with Severin’s daughter when he died."

Crystals? Oranges? Letters?

“He never mentioned any of that to anyone," said my mother, as baffled as I was by this revision of history.

In that trip, I learned that my lineage was not born of bitterness, but of deep love. It took meeting the ghost of my great-grandfather to know the man he really was.