*Sung to the tune of “Finland, Finland, Finland”
Everybody knows that the most likely site of the Vinland of Viking lore is Newfoundland (makes sense, since the only known Viking settlement in North America was located at L’Anse Aux Meadows). Few realize, however, that the last Canadian Viking died just last year, in the city of Maple Ridge, British Columbia:
Lars Nilsson (aka Larry Nelson) reliving his glory days as a Vinland Viking at a fish and chips shop in Abbotsford, B.C., in July 2015.
Dad had a wicked sense of humour, nourished by the absurdity of growing up Nelson. When he was in the hospital in Abbotsford, the city where he was living when I went out to see him last year, he received an unexpected visit from his brother Geoff, who I had called a couple of days earlier. Dad and Geoff had been “estranged” for quite a few years (“estranged” was Dad’s semi-ironic way of describing his relationship with his family—a posh-sounding word normally reserved for families that are as distinguished as they are dysfunctional), so they didn’t have a great deal to talk about. It was an awkward encounter that didn’t last much more than 15 minutes, and when Geoff left, Dad looked at me with a sarcastic glint in his eye and said, in a mock-melodramatic manner delivered in the stentorian British accent of my grandfather, “I can die now”—as if the only reason he had been clinging to life was so that he could see his long-lost brother for the last time.
Later, when Dad had been transferred to the hospice in Maple Ridge, a volunteer asked him how old he was. When he said 70, she seemed to be trying to calculate the year of his birth, so I said he was born in Croydon, England, in July 1945—not long after V-E Day, and less than two months before V-J Day ended WWII. The volunteer, who struggled with the sort of chitchat that she felt was part of her duty to the dying, didn’t have anything to say after that, so Dad stepped in to fill the lull in our conversation. “Too bad I wasn’t born just a couple of years earlier,” he said in a tone of genuine regret, as if he wished he had been around to live through the epic struggle against the Nazi scourge. “I bet I could have done some real damage.”
Dad was the only one of the four children of Ernest and Mona Nelson to be born outside of what is now Canada. The eldest son, Ernie, was born in Newfoundland when it was still under British colonial rule (having lost its earlier dominion status after going bankrupt, in part because of its contribution as an independent nation to the First World War). Geoff, who is younger than Dad, was born in Newfoundland after it became a province of Canada, and Anne, the youngest, was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Many years ago, I asked my grandmother why my grandfather had decided to move back to England from her native Newfoundland when the war was still raging in Europe. For a good 10 seconds or more, she just stared ahead blankly, as if she had never considered the question before. Then she looked at me with a bemused expression and said in her Harbour Grace brogue, “I don’t know. I wonder, was he all right in his head?”
Mona the Mirthful: Nan, Dad, and Santa (Christmas 1992)
The whole family later relocated to England again in the late fifties or early sixties. Dad told me that in those days, most Brits thought Canadians lived in wigwams and hunted beavers for a living. When I went there myself in the late eighties, it wasn’t much better. At a party in London, a woman asked me where I was from. When I said Canada, she asked me which part. I answered Newfoundland, but said it in the usual Canadian way, with the accent on the last syllable instead of the second, which sounds more like “f’n” than “found.” Thinking I had said “New Finland,” she said, “Oh, so you’re Scandinavian.” I didn’t bother to correct her.
It’s been a long time since I last visited my native New Finland (or, as I prefer to call it, New Vinland)—a very long time. After returning to Canada from London in the summer of 1988, I joined another uncle, Edgar (or “Huncle Heggler,” as I called him as a child, when I still had the Newfoundlander habit of adding aitches where they don’t belong and taking them off where they do) on a moving trip, delivering furniture from Toronto to St. John’s. At the time, Burmese friends my age were fighting to bring down their country’s dictatorship. Later, as I returned to Toronto to start university, they were fleeing to the jungles of the Thai-Burmese border, going into hiding, or being rounded up and sent to prison, where many would spend the better part of the next decade. (Throughout most of the nineties and into the twenty-first century, Burma’s prisons were the closest thing the country had to universities, as all post-secondary education had been suspended to prevent student activism, and the prisons were full of young people in the prime of their lives, learning what they could from each other in preparation for the day when they would be free to continue their struggle.)
Many of the Burmese friends I’ve gotten to know over the past 18 years (since I first came to Thailand to volunteer, first as a teacher and then as a reporter and editor for exiled media) have since returned to their home country. The six and a half months I spent with Dad last year came close to ending my own self-imposed exile, but now I’m back in Thailand, far from the lands of my ancestors.
Sometimes it has to make me wonder, with my dear old Nan, if I’m all right in my head.
And now for something completely different: