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Björn

How one remarkable dog and a string of amazing coincidences became an unforgettable family legend.

 Björn

Mother and the owner talked for a while, but Jenny was oblivious. As far as she was concerned, the dog was going to be hers. The details were for the grown-ups to work out.

That evening, after supper and a full briefing about Björn, Dad gave his final approval, along with a few stipulations. Mother then completed arrangements with Björn’s owner.

Dad, meanwhile, set about designing a kennel and doghouse. The next day, after work, he purchased supplies at the lumberyard and began work on Björn’s new abode. As was the case with all of his projects, Dad took no shortcuts and spared no detail. The resulting wood-framed, shingle-clad doghouse had an insulated floor and a removable roof for easier cleaning. It still stands today, as secure and sturdy a structure as any in these cold climes. “With a little straw in there,” Dad told us, “Björn will be toasty warm even when it’s 20 below outside.” Given the way Dad built things, we had no doubt his warranty was good.

Dad had done his part and more. The “we” in Jenny’s letter would now “do the rest.”

Jenny’s dream day finally arrived. Björn’s owner had agreed to bring the dog to our house, and, in anticipation of his arrival, Jenny ran around the house, wild with excitement. It was quite possibly the happiest day of her young life, but this was not the case for the dog’s owner. The young man gave Björn a long farewell hug, speaking inaudible but emotional words as he buried his face deep in the dog’s luxuriant fur. As for the collie—he simply wagged his tail at everyone, old and new.

After the handoff, the man drove away and Jenny strained to keep Björn under control. She and a couple of friends whom she had invited over for the special event took turns hanging on for dear life. They laughed and screamed as the boisterous collie yanked and pulled on his leash. He took them for a walk around the block—once, twice, and again and more—until the girls tired of it.

The friends ran off, leaving Jenny holding the leash and not knowing what to do next. Björn, like any dog, knew exactly what to do next, and somehow Jenny managed to get in the way. “Aaaaaaah!” she screamed, as dog pee ran down her leg. She had not anticipated that the dog for which she had lobbied so hard would reward her with such an ignoble gesture. I happened to be standing next to her when this occurred, so she handed the leash to me and said, “Here, you take him!” From that moment, Björn became my charge, my friend, my companion.

Björn was as at home in that secluded lakeside woodland setting as any dog could be anywhere on earth. And now that Dad was lord of the realm, he named the place Björnholm, in honor of “the most beautiful collie that Albert Payson Terhune could have imagined.”


Björn and I loved the outdoors year-round. In the depth of winter, we took daily expeditions up the frozen Mississippi River, which ran parallel to our street. We preferred subzero temperatures and dangerous wind chills—all the better for our imaginary treks across Greenland and from Ellesmere Island to the North Pole and back. We pretended we were a lone man-and-dog team of Arctic explorers, facing and embracing danger to reach great fame and fortune. On the coldest, windiest days, as we leaned into the wind and slogged our way through the snow, Björn’s panting produced a beautiful coating of frost on his collar fur, our fates tethered by his leash.

Where Björn romped most happily, however, was not in “the Arctic” but in the woods of Björnholm. And it pleased us all, especially Dad, that our dog loved the place as much as we did.

Our family’s spot was more than a geographic destination. Grandpa Nilsson, a violin teacher, had come by a modest sum from selling his interest in a music studio and purchased the land in 1939. He built the cabin two years later. For my grandparents, going “up to the lake” was like returning home to the picturesque lakes and woods of their homeland in the province of Småland back in Sweden. For my sisters and me, going “up to the lake” meant we could roam and dream, feast on our grandmother’s cooking, delight in our grandfather’s stories, watch our father work on his innumerable building projects, and listen to the golden voice of the famous Swedish tenor Jussi Björling belting out arias on the hi-fi that Dad cranked way up with all the windows open. The sound never disturbed the neighbors, because there weren’t any. Our father and grandparents had created what my sisters and I came to know as paradise.

Björn was in paradise there, too. His daily routine consisted of dashing off into the woods or down the old Indian path and returning hours later, his pink tongue hanging low from the side of his long bottom jaw. After slurping eagerly from the bucket of fresh water we kept for him outside, he’d climb atop the stone steps in front of the cabin, lie down gracefully, cross his forepaws, and rest. There he’d pant, pointing his nose into the cool breeze coming off the lake.

Björn was as at home in that secluded lakeside woodland setting as any dog could be anywhere on earth. And now that Dad was lord of the realm, my grandparents having passed on, he named the place Björnholm, in honor, he said, of “the most beautiful collie that Albert Payson Terhune could have imagined.” Mother expressed her agreement by pulling out her brushes, paper, and watercolors, and painting Björn’s portrait, which lights up a wall of the cabin to this day.

Two years after Jenny had handed Björn’s leash off to me, I went away to far-off boarding schools, then to college. My visits home were brief and infrequent, though I’d manage to spend every August at Björnholm, where its namesake still roamed free. And after his daily exploits, Björn would slurp from the same old water pail, then lie on the front steps, forepaws crossed, still enjoying paradise.

During that time, it was Dad who grew close to the dog whose inclusion in our family he had initially rejected. Dad’s gentle gestures and words of affection made it clear that Björn had become Dad’s best friend. “You are a good dog, Björn,” he’d say emphatically as he patted Björn firmly on the shoulder. “You are a really great dog.” Whereupon Björn would nuzzle his nose into Dad’s large, open palm.

More years passed. We all grew older, but Björn, of course, aged seven-fold faster than the rest of us. His once-tan snout became grizzled and gray, he moved more slowly, his sight dimmed, and his hearing began to fail. Dad reported that the poor dog’s daily walk was down to a slow hobble once around the block.

During that time, it was Dad who grew close to the dog whose inclusion in our family he had initially rejected. Dad’s gentle gestures and words of affection made it clear that Björn had become Dad’s best friend. “You are a good dog, Björn,” he’d say, emphatically patting him on the shoulder. “You are a really great dog.”


Then came the day, in July 1979, when Dad called to give me an update on Björn’s accelerating decline. I was three years out of college and working out east, and I knew Björn was not long for this world. “It’s just not right for him to be in such pain and in such a decrepit condition,” Dad said gravely over the phone. We both knew what that meant. We both knew what was next.

Two days later, my parents called again with news of the inevitable. After Dad told me about Björn’s final trip to our veterinary neighbor, “Doc” Andberg, he handed the phone over to Mother. I suspected that Dad had left the room to bear his grief alone. “Eric,” she said, “it was very sad. I’ve only seen your father cry twice, and one of them was today, when he said goodbye to Björn.” It was all I could do to choke back my own tears—tears of sorrow and of regret for being so far from home.

Several days later, Dad transported the remains of his beloved dog to Björnholm. There he buried them and built a cairn over the site on a hillside, to the west of the cabin, where pine boughs frame the view of the lake and its gorgeous, empyrean sunsets. Shortly thereafter he bought a large wooden sign with “Björnholm” carved across the face and mounted it over the back doorway leading into the porch where Björn had slept many a fine summer night.

Many more years passed. Having started lessons long ago with Grandpa, Jenny and our two older sisters had gone on to become professional violinists of some renown. They were so good that Jenny’s future husband invited them to perform as a trio on his nationally syndicated public radio show. A short time later, the tall and affable host of the show took Jenny to lunch. Lunch led to dinner. Dinner led to love. Love led to marriage. Marriage gave them a daughter.

Nearly 20 years after Dad had laid Björn to rest, my sister and her husband gathered family to their home. The occasion was my niece’s baptism, a private ceremony presided over by the local Episcopal priest. Among us were my brother-in-law’s sister, Linda, and her husband, David. They lived in the Twin Cities as well and were frequent guests at my sister and brother-in-law’s home. I had gotten to know and like them, for we shared many common interests and viewpoints, and Linda and David always struck me as genuinely kind and caring people.

Everyone except the priest arrived well ahead of time. The grandparents—all four—waited patiently in their chairs, and other family members hovered nearby. Some of us drifted into the background and surreptitiously sampled the snacks and refreshments intended for after the ceremony. The baby, meanwhile, fidgeted in my sister’s arms, and my brother-in-law stood tall and still behind them, his large calming hand raised behind the infant’s head.

In this lull, Linda stepped forward and said, “Oh, I just have to tell you all what happened last weekend!” The story she began to recount snapped my brother-in-law’s head to the side and lifted not one but both of his owlish eyebrows.

Her earnest voice quieted the idle chatter in the room. “You’re not going to believe this!” she exclaimed. “David and I were driving up to Anoka to visit my folks. Right after we crossed the river into town, David took the first turn to the left and drove down the street.

Dad transported the remains of his beloved dog to Björnholm. There he buried them and built a cairn over the site on a hillside, to the west of the cabin, where pine boughs frame the view of the lake and its gorgeous, empyrean sunsets.


“‘Why are we going down here?’ I asked, and David said, ‘I’m just curious to see if I can find a certain house.’ ‘What?’ I asked. He didn’t answer right away. He drove a couple of blocks almost to the end of the street and slowed way down. Then he said, ‘I once had a dog. The most beautiful dog. A dog named Björn.’”

Instantly, I shot a glance at Jenny, whose face had filled with a mixture of awe and disbelief.

“‘It was during Vietnam and I was going off to the army,’ David said, ‘so I couldn’t keep the dog. I had to sell it, and I wound up selling it to . . . ’”

I swallowed whole the rest of the cookie I was chewing.

“Right then he stopped in front of a colonial-style house,” Linda explained, “and then he said, ‘I sold it to a family that lived right there.’ And he pointed right at your house!” She looked straight at Dad, and in his eyes I saw tearful joy and happy amazement.

Linda continued: “I said, ‘Do you know who lives here?’ and David said, ‘No, do you?’ And I said, ‘Yes! I’ve been here before. It’s the house where Jenny grew up and where her parents still live!’ He stopped the car and got out. Then I got out and saw the kennel and doghouse in back. I pointed to them and called out to David. David just stood there and stared at them. I went to the front door and rang the doorbell, but no one was home. I looked back at David. He was overcome. Can you believe it? More than a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”

Dad cleared his throat in the manner that a man of the Greatest Generation uses to settle his emotions, reached for his wallet, and pulled out an old photo, a picture of Björn. He handed it to David and said, “That right there is the most beautiful dog the world has ever seen.” As he drew a handkerchief from his pocket, Dad added, “And he had a wonderful life, a positively wonderful life.”

Dad blew his nose, and David blinked hard to contain his own emotions. The rest of us, as teary-eyed as the two men, realized that we would be retelling this story many times in the years to come: a story of legendary coincidence.

Eric Nilsson is a lawyer and dog lover who lives in Falcon Heights.

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