Crying with strangers: 48 hours in Andersonville
Checking off a bucket list item in Chicago that might not make sense to anyone else but me.
Bucket lists took on a whole new meaning after my dad died.
The desire to live every day, or every year, as if it could be your last has been one of the more positive things to have happened in the five years since his death at age 65.
Five years, y’all. That’s a long time.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I left my traditional journalism job and started working for myself in more ways than one. Literally. Last time I counted, I have nine types of “jobs,” from consulting and freelancing to tarot and organizing, that fill my working hours, and that kind of self-employment — when paired with grief as a dancing partner — has allowed me to approach my own bucket list a little differently.
I’ve written before about how my work has evolved into Work, and this bucket list stuff doesn’t feel like recreation as much as it feels like Work, as in What Are We Doing Here work. We only get one shot at this life, and it’s non-negotiable for me to look at my time as the most precious resource I have.
So, at the top of my bucket list for 2023 was a trip I’ve been dreaming of taking since I was 23 years old, newly pregnant and suddenly tasked with creating a life that could encompass a child and not a return trip to my study abroad home.
“One day, I’ll take him there” turned into “this year, I’ll take them there.”
Getting remarried wasn’t exactly what I’d call a bucket list item, but it was a deeply personal decision I made and am profoundly grateful to have had the chance to make.
But what I want to write about today is a relatively new bucket list item that I intentionally put on top of the priority list last year: A trip to Andersonville, the historically Swedish neighborhood of Chicago.
A few Christmases ago, at a holiday get-together in Missouri, my cousin and his partner, who went to college in Chicago and stayed, told me that they lived just a few blocks down the street from the Swedish American Museum in a neighborhood that had once been home to one of the highest concentrations of Swedes in the country.
Ping. That’s the sound of a bucket list seed being planted.
When I got notice over the summer from the Swedish-American Historical Society — a group I joined about a year ago that was another exercise in following Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic muse — that the members were hosting a gala in October, I decided that my own interest in Swedish culture was worth the time and investment for me to go there. And stay in Andersonville.
So, I bought my gala ticket and my plane ticket and found an AirBnB in this old neighborhood north of downtown.
I wasn’t going to Chicago to see the Bean or the Art Institute or Wrigley Field or any of the other tourist attractions. I was there to see Andersonville, a place where my own ancestors never visited but where they would have found themselves at home.
It’s been many decades since Swedes were the dominant ethnic group in Andersonville, but the Swedish American Museum explains that 150,000 Swedes lived there at the turn of the century, making Andersonville the second largest community of Swedes after Stockholm.
After the Depression, Swedes dispersed to other parts of the Midwest and, as they intermixed with other ethnic groups and assimilated into their American-ness, started losing their original national identity.
Built around the bustling North Clark Street, Andersonville is one of the most multicultural neighborhoods in the city and is home to one of the largest LGBTQIA++ communities in Chicago. Nearly every storefront is a locally owned shop, and most have a pride flag hanging in the window. The bookstore was closed the day I arrived in solidarity with the people of Palestine.
You’ll find dozens of restaurants serving everything from Middle Eastern to South American fare. There are two Swedish restaurants still around – Svea, which is an older restaurant that’s popular for brunch, and Lost Larson, a newer upscale bakery and cafe that also has a little market with Swedish foods. (The founder of Svea, Kurt Mathiasson, opened the museum across the street in 1976. A number of longstanding Swedish restaurants in the area have closed in the past few years, including Swedish Bakery, which closed in 2017 after 88 years in business.)
Over the past nearly five decades, the museum has evolved into a celebration of all immigrant cultures, with its primary exhibition hall under renovation until next year. But I loved wandering this three-story building that includes a library full of Swedish books, where the museum continues to host Swedish language and culture classes.
The top floor is the children’s area, where visitors find a kid-sized version of a Swedish farm and a ship that would carry immigrants to America, as well as what an American farm might look like. It was a physical representation of the story found in “The Emigrants,” a four-novel historical fiction series that is among the most celebrated in Swedish-American circles.
Wandering through this miniature world, I ran into a young museum staffer who seemed to be enjoying working in this quiet museum where they could welcome people like me.
No one else was in the museum that day, so I struck up a conversation. “Are you Swedish?” I asked. “No, I don’t have a relationship with my family,” they responded, tears in their eyes. I realized I’d hit a nerve. I was in this museum to connect with part of my ancestral past, and this person had made an intentional exit from the people and ancestral line that preceded them.
They’d found their way to Andersonville, where no specific ancestry or sexuality or gender conformity was required.