When writer Christina Lalanne bought an old house in San Francisco, she was sure it had a story to tell. What she didn’t expect was that the story would come to her in actual words. As Lalanne details in “Castles in the Sky,” her story for The Atavist Magazine*, the words were written in a diary and in letters that fell from the ceiling of the house’s basement while she and her husband were renovating it. The documents had been hidden for more than a century, stashed away by the man who built the house in 1910. His name, Hans Jorgen Hansen, was inscribed in the diary, which was mostly composed in Danish, but he wasn’t the only person to write in it. So did a woman named Anna—a fact Lalanne found odd, given that Hans’s wife was named Christine:
What drama or scandal was locked in these pages? Handwriting is a funny thing, not least because few people read it much anymore. Anna’s was neat, polite, and comfortably contained by the page. Hans, whose writing made up 90 percent of our find, had a bolder stroke. His flourishes veered maddeningly into indecipherability. In places, the pressure he exerted on his pen had made the ink pool and the letters bleed.
I sent a few diary passages to various Danish friends of friends, but while the language was theirs, none wanted to spend the time required to decipher such baroque penmanship. Frustrated, I made out the letters as best I could and typed the words they seemed to form into Google Translate. At first what came back was gibberish. But the longer I spent with the words, the more of them I got right, and the more the translator divulged actual language. I was also becoming familiar with Hans’s scrawl. His “D” was the longest, most elegant version of that letter I’d ever seen. It marked the beginning of the diary entry in which he lovingly recalled meeting Anna when they were children.
I eventually typed every word from the diaries and letters—some 20,000 in all—into the translator, and a picture of Hans and Anna’s story began to come into focus. Mat and I also did some genealogical research, amassing supporting facts. I found documentation of Anna and her grandmother’s 1897 passage to New York via Ellis Island. I found the household in St. Joseph, Michigan, where Anna was employed. I found evidence of Hans’s departure from Denmark after his stint in Faaborg—a voyage to Sydney, Australia, and onward to Brisbane—as well as his death certificate and a record of his grave just outside San Francisco, which we visited. We reconstructed Hans’s family tree and found a great-grandson on Facebook. We learned that Hans had three children with the woman named Christine, and that their marriage ended in divorce.
I was sure I knew why: Hans and Anna could only love each other. What then had kept them apart?
“Castles in the Sky” is a love story intertwined with Lalanne’s meditation on her relationship with the past, including the loss of her parents when she was still in grammar school. Through dogged sleuthing and poignant reflection, she seeks to unravel the mystery of what happened to Hans and Anna:
I have a vivid memory, early one morning when my father was in the hospital, of my uncle making his way up the carpeted stairs to the bedrooms where my siblings and I slept. I was nine years old. I knew my uncle was bringing bad news. How is that possible, to just know? Maybe his steps were slower or heavier than normal. Or maybe you can feel someone you love slipping away from this world.
Every few years I have a different experience of knowing. I’ll be in a crowd or walking down the street, and I’ll catch a glimpse of my mother or father. Something about the way they move or hold themselves or brush their hair from their face makes me certain. I’m wrong, of course, but the joy is true. If only for a moment, something I want seems real.
A similar thing happened when I finally found Anna. My trip to Denmark had furnished me with the facts that follow a person during their life, no matter where they end up. I knew Anna’s date of birth and the village where she was born and her date of entry into the United States. I knew that her father was Danish, her mother Swedish. I found her application for a passport. I looked at her picture, her dark hair and mournful eyes. She signed her name in the same meticulous way she had in Hans’s diary.
These facts are what made me sure that the Anna I came across on Ancestry.com was unmistakably, irrefutably her. My heart leaped in my chest. Then it fell, because of where I found her and what it might mean.
*The author of this post is the editor in chief of The Atavist, which is Longreads’ sister publication.