This is the little Danish-American town of three hundred where my grandfather, Stanley Pedersen, was born. J. never got to meet my grandparents, so we stopped there on our journey, to feel for any echoes that might remain. It was a fiercely cold, sunny morning, with gusting winds that drove a body deep into its coat, hat, and whatever else it had had the good sense to bundle on.
The old folks were in Tom the Baker’s, drinking Folgers, and when we pushed open the door every head turned, just as they always have. Harriett’s Spisehus was under new ownership, Harriett herself still in good health but, in her upper eighties, ready to retire. Still, the old diner smelled the same: of old wood, plain coffee, and cooking grease. We were the only ones in there, but Colette made us each a plate of Danish pancakes anyway. The pancakes came out just as Harriett’s were: eggy, thin as crepes, the same pot of maple syrup and tin shaker for powdered sugar, OJ and bacon (for J.) on the side. So now J. has had the quintessential Dannebrog meal. He has taken its communion.
We visited the cemetery. Wandered, covering our frostbitten ears, looking for the stone. Lost among a cluster of very old stones all ending in -sen, I turned back and saw the arms of J.’s blue coat waving like a ship’s signal flags. The stone was mossy and the bundle of dried sage I had brought from Montana looked invisible at its base, as if it had already disintegrated into the earth there. Are you sad? J. asked. They are at peace, I said.
The farm, three miles out of town, had changed hands several times since its original sale out of the family, Colette informed us. When we pulled in, the young family was not there, maybe in Cairo (karo, like the syrup) or Grand Island. So we felt at ease to look around. The arching tree that had grown strong and tall under my grandpa’s care was a stump. The barn, the smokehouse, the showerhouse, the farmhouse, were all there. A little less taken care of, but intact. The silo, upon which I had climbed to look as far as possible across the endless Nebraska cornfields. The cornstalks were dry and chopped short for the winter, and it wasn’t possible to know whether Grandma’s dazzling flower garden or Grandpa’s potatoes and vegetables would return in some iteration the following summer. I saw no elusive barn cats. But on the fenceposts lining the row where we had all learned, on Grandpa’s lap, to drive the John Deere, there they were. I shouted.
A pair of old leather boots that Grandpa had stuck on the ends of two posts were still there. I don’t know whether they were his, but it was his humor, not undone by ten years of unrelenting winds and seasons. We left and drove off down the gravel road back toward the interstate. I don’t know if I will ever go back. It has been done.
The day was cold, but it was sunny.