Late in July, Pete and I hosted the 2010 Mortensen Family Reunion. The ranch filled with Mortensen family members from across the United States, Canada, Panama, and Denmark. Axel Mortensen, who emigrated from Denmark, was my maternal grandfather. Members of my grandfather’s offspring and members of two of his brother’s offspring all made their way to the Elk River Valley for our gathering. In all, there were over eighty including representatives from four generations, eight great-great grandchildren, and nine relatives from Denmark.
Over the course of four days we shared meals, oral history, live acappella, mandolin, and fiddle music, plein air art, croquet tournaments, orienteering, stick horse races, blind-man tractor contests, a fund-raising silent auction, rodeo demonstrations, and a sky lantern memorial for family members whom have passed away. The final event of the long weekend was a traditional family reunion service on Sunday morning conducted by my uncle, Joe Mortensen, a retired First Baptist minister. He began by asking, “…why (do) we go to the trouble of get-togethers like the one we’ve just had…why do we have a reunion?”
Having just returned from Ghana in West Africa, my uncle recalled visiting the Coast Castle, a fortress from which slaves were shipped for labor. A fellow traveler, an African-American woman, was deeply touched by the site of the “door of no return” through which slaves were taken to waiting boats. In response, she said, “You all know where you came from. I never did. But now I know. In reflection, my uncle suggested to our gathering, “Our reunion helps us know where we came from.”
Through great genealogical research efforts by my Aunt Mary and other family members, the history of both my maternal grandfather’s family and my grandmother’s family is known—we are fortunate to know from where we came. For the reunion my aunt created detailed family trees of three of the seven Mortensen siblings represented at the reunion. They were on display all weekend along with photo albums and other related historical items. In the perusing of the family trees, small groups would read and point fingers, and then ask questions about who and whom and where and when. Most often they would refer to my aunt for the answer or others would join in on stories they had heard or had been handed down.
Reflecting on my Aunt Mary’s genealogical work and collection of memorabilia, my uncle said, “Every tribe or clan has one or a few people who are the Keepers of the Flame. They are the ones who know the secret of making a fire. Mary is our Keeper of the Flame, collecting pictures and other memorabilia, making charts of our families so we can see who is connected to whom…” My Aunt Mary does indeed nourish our family tree--the roots, buds, and branches. With detailed connections in the form of a paper tree and her on-going emotional commitment to the clan, she lights, she stirs, and lovingly keeps the Mortensen flame burning.
When my uncle finished his remarks, I looked across the picnic table at my two children. I quietly hoped that they identified and saw more clearly from whom they came and therefore who they are. For in the dark of the night, on days when the winds of life unexpectedly shift, or when a sense of true north bobbles, the needle of the compass undecided, remembering their clan and their branch on the family tree will offer a place of clarity, a point of steadiness.