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  • In 1906, my great-grandfather jumped ship in New York. He never returned to his native Norway. At age 18, he started a new life, under a new name, as a Brooklyn carpenter. The proof of his reinvention has always been on his citizenship papers, where you can very clearly see that his given surname was erased and replaced by a new one: Leire.

    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. My mother was a child when he was still alive and provided color to what I thought I knew of the man named Severin.

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

    When I graduated from school I asked my mother if we could go to Norway and see where he was born. We had family there that my great-aunt had kept contact with: hundreds of cousins who seemed to know everything about my family, while we knew nothing of them.

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

    We took a boat ride from his church to his childhood home -- a seven mile journey -- and learned that Severin's father was a sailor from an island on the horizon. His mother was pregnant at 17. When she gave birth, her parents took Severin on that seven mile journey to church to be baptized. She 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.

    She kept and raised her son, while working as a housekeeper. One of those houses belonged to a man named Henrik, who fell in love with her and married her. He accepted her son as his own.

    When Severin was grown, he became a sailor, like the father he would never meet, even when they lived but a mile apart in Brooklyn. 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'd never met. Yet the stories continued. Curious ones.

    We toured the family homes and my great-aunt pointed at a chandelier. "Uncle Severin sent us that from America. 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 his daughter when he died."

    Crystals? Oranges? Letters?

    "He never mentioned any of that to anyone," said my mother.

    These were stories I would never have found in old boxes or photographs. These were stories that turned the ghost of my great-grandfather into the man he really was.
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