By Katie Knight
Christian Christiansen had big American dreams.
It wasn’t the American Dream — he had no desire to own his own plot of land and farm it or to raise cattle and work his way up through the social ladder. His dreams were far more expansive and a little more unique: Broadway theater.
Christiansen, who would become my great-great-grandfather, was an aspiring opera singer. He had risen to some notoriety in his home country of Norway, but realized that to have a richer musical career, he’d have to go somewhere bigger to pursue his great dream.
So, Christiansen packed up his belongings and convinced his soon-to-be wife Kristence to join him on a voyage to the United States. The couple, plus some of their extended family, boarded the RMS Saxonia in Britain and landed on the Boston shore in late November 1904.
The couple moved to “Little Norway” in Brooklyn and were married in September 1905. Their neighborhood, full of Norwegians, was so packed with other families named Christiansen that the newlyweds decided to change their name and make the mailman’s job easier. Shortly after their wedding, they became Christian and Kristence Lanner, having chosen to name themselves after a their hometown on the Norwegian coast.
Thus, Christian Lanner pursued a singing career in New York City. His days consisted of voice lessons and rehearsals in addition to some kind of part-time job that our family isn’t sure about. My grandmother said his most important performance was at Carnegie Hall for a recital for promising vocal students. In the middle of Christian’s musical career, Kristence gave birth on Jan. 9, 1911, to Arne Lanner, who would become my great-grandfather.
Arne had as normal of a childhood as a kid can living in the diverse and chaotic New York City, except for one aspect – his Uncle Karl did some bootlegging in Brooklyn when he wasn’t out at sea with his fellow Merchant Marines and would often bring Arne along to sit on top of the goods in case Karl got pulled over.
Most of Christian’s time was spent performing in middle-tier shows at middle-tier theaters; local reviews always said he was “good” but not great. Unfortunately, performing at Carnegie hall was the peak of his career.
In 1917, Christian threw in the towel and moved his family to Hackettstown, New Jersey. Although my grandmother doesn’t quite know why they chose Hackettstown, she suspects that some extended family was already there. She also said she never heard about his employment after opera, but vaguely remembers stories about a milk route.
Arne and his siblings – an older brother, Chris, and a younger brother, Marius – graduated from Hackettstown High School. Five years later, in 1937, Arne graduated from Dartmouth College with a major in economics. He worked his way through school with no help from family, so he occasionally took a semester off to save up for future semesters.
After college, Arne worked a series of odd jobs for companies like Talon Zipper Company in Pennsylvania, (he was apparently a whiz at fixing zippers) and US Steel in Gary, Indiana, near Chicago, where he met Ellen Feldman, who was one of the first female flight attendants for TSA. They married in 1942, in the heat of World War II, and moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where Arne worked as an engineer at North American Aviation making B-25 Mitchell bombers.
Finally, he worked at Hallmark Cards for nearly 30 years in Kansas City, Missouri, until he retired in 1976. He died 13 years later in 1989, when he lived in San Diego.
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Sadly, I never got to meet Arne. I never got to hear him tell about how he paid his way through college. I never got to hear him talk about about how he charmed my Ellen so much that she decided to leave the man she was engaged to, so she could marry him instead. I never got to hear him talk about what it was like to create bombs that helped defeat the German Army.
I did, however, get 21 years with Great-Nana Ellen, who loved talking about her husband. When I was little, she fed me the Norwegian delicacy knekkebrød (pronounced cuh-NICK-eh-brah) — a type of crispy flatbread — and anchovies. She reminded me every time I got a bad sunburn, which was often, to blame it on my Norwegian ancestors and their pale skin.
Especially amid recent comments made by President Trump about preferring immigrants from Norway over other countries in places like Africa, I’ve had moments where I’ve thought, ‘Why isn’t my family history a little more interesting? Why can’t we be from somewhere else?’ But, I’ve decided to never allow anyone else to make me resent who or where I came from. The United States is unique and fascinating because of the culmination of all of our histories — who and where we came from — and every single person and place adds value.