Anthonsen & Dahl
My uncle had not been around much when I was younger, and I hardly saw him at all in my adult life, but my mother would speak of him often with a loving, but hollow voice. Mind you, she never said very much, no descriptions or stories, only a distant, “God bless your uncle,” or an offhanded, “Konrad would never have allowed this,” here and there. I knew only that they had lost both their parents during the second world war, when she was young and my uncle was only just a teenager. He raised her and would have raised the others, had they not also been lost.
But I may be able to count on a single hand the number of times I actually saw the man. I knew his look, either from photos or memory, or a combination of the two, but he was a tall and stern-looking man. A definition of the word “stoic” if I’d ever seen one. His hair was just shades lighter than brown, though stark beside my mother’s once rich, black curls. They both had them same slate gray gaze, which she decidedly made warm and inviting, but his was cold and I knew even as a small child that he had seen things no one should ever have to see. He was as still and quiet as a stone wall, but I admired him because my mother did so, even if I hadn’t a clue why, as children often do.
I stood now, at nearly 36 years old, just beyond the threshold of his three story farmhouse off the coast of Denmark, because I was named in his will as the sole heir to everything that belonged to him.
I had spent the last week and a half in a state of complete bewilderment at the news of my inheritance. I was, in fact, next of kin; my uncle never had children and my mother was laid to rest close to four years ago. I thought, however, that there must be someone better than me, someone whose name had crossed his lips more than the few times mine must have that could keep his last bits of life with meaning. I had virtually nothing to attach to the dust covered furniture around me; I could barely even remember my uncle’s voice.
My wife, Joan, and I had gotten the news on a Tuesday evening during dinner. We lived in a small suburban town in northern New Hampshire. I’d immigrated from Poland as a young adult to study at the University of New York where, soon after, I’d met Joan. She was born and raised as an American, from parents who had immigrated from Quebec, so she knew nothing but tall buildings and safe, sturdy walls.
“Krzysztof Jackiewicz?” said the heavy accented voice on the other end of the phone. I received long distance calls from cousins now and then, so the unfamiliar voice startled me.
“Speaking,” I said. Much of my accent had left me, but Joan often said she could hear it in my near perfect diction or in strong vowels whenever I might be upset.
“Mr. Jackiewicz, I am Casper Anthonsen of Anthonsen & Dahl in Copenhagen,” he began.
“Please, it’s Mr. Jacobs, Christopher Jacobs.”
I was confused for two reasons, the first being that very few people outside my family knew me as Krzysztof Jackiewicz. I had Americanized my name almost immediately after stepping off the boat in New York City. Back then it was not safe to have a Slavic name. Even now, Americans were hateful to immigrants, especially those that sounded German or Russian. It was easier to disguise your name and blend in. My neighbors, employers and friends knew me only as Chris Jacobs; even Joan had only heard it once or twice.
My second wave of confusion came from wondering why anyone from Copenhagen would be calling me. All of my relatives were spread throughout the Soviet Union and Romania. I even had a distant cousin in New Zealand, but no one that I could recall was anywhere in Scandinavia.
“Apologies,” Casper said gruffly, as though he were in a hurry. “Mr. Jacobs, I’m afraid I have some bad news about your Uncle.”
“My Uncle?” I began quizzically. “I have no family in Denmark sir, you must be mistaken.”
“Are you not the nephew of Konrad Demyan Engel, Mr. Jacobs?” I paused, recognizing his name instantly, but still utterly bewildered.
“I am very sorry to tell you, Mr. Jacobs, that your uncle passed away in his sleep three nights ago,” Athonsen explained. “We would have contacted you sooner, but you were very difficult to track down.”
“Oh,” I said in an empty voice. I was ashamed for a moment that I felt no sadness at the news. How could I, having hardly known the man apart from my mother’s scattered mentioning? “I appreciate the effort Mr. Anthonsen, I suppose I’ve missed the proceedings?”
“Mr. Engel wrote very specifically in his will that he would have no formalities upon his death. His body has been sent to Poland for burial in his family plot.” I had seen that plot many times with my mother, and twice after she’d been laid to rest. She’d been tucked in beside my grandmother and an unnamed infant boy that would have been her third brother. Two other siblings laid on the other side of my grandmother, buried there “long before they should have passed,” as she had put it.
“Oh, well, I thank you for tracking me down,” I said, unsure of what else to say.
“Mr. Jackiew—uh, Jacobs, I have also contacted you because you were one of only two people named in Mr. Engel’s will,” Casper said, an edge of impatience in his voice.
“I—I’m what?” I said, so dumbfounded that Joan craned her neck out from the kitchen doorway to listen. I looked at her in amazement.
“Mr. Jacobs, you are the main beneficiary to your uncle’s estate,” Casper repeated. “You must come to Copenhagen as soon as you are able to collect your inheritance.” I was silent for a moment, my mouth hanging open like a small child as they see their first snowfall. Joan had come fully into the room now, pink oven mitts still on her delicate hands.
“I…yes, that can be arranged,” I stammered into the phone. “Let me get a pen.”
By the weekend I had arrived in Denmark alone, leaving Joan at home to look after our son and daughter. Casper Anthonsen was a stout man with decidedly Norse features, high cheekbones and bright eyes, making a stern face far friendlier than it otherwise would have been. A short reading of my uncle’s will made it clear that I was to inherit his farm on Bornholm, an island east of the mainland in the middle of the Baltic Sea. A photograph showed me the old, but sturdy house on a sizeable patch of land near the beach, just out of Denmark’s smallest village of Svaneke.
So, that evening the two of us found ourselves on a boat to Bornholm. I was still in disbelief as the salty waves of the Baltic sprayed my cheeks. What could have possibly motivated my uncle to think of me on his deathbed?