My sister’s husband is a famous storyteller, but even he could not have conjured up the story of Björn, a true tale of remarkable coincidence that forever connects his family and ours. The story began when my brother-in-law was barely out of college, when his radio monologues had not yet become a national phenomenon, and his future wife, my younger sister, Jenny Lind Nilsson, was just 9 years old. The story came full circle one Sunday afternoon, 30 years later.
Even before this tale became part of our family lore, we already knew about lesser coincidences. For example, my brother-in-law and I share the same birthday, Aug. 7. Also, our families hail from the same small town.
In fact, my brother-in-law and sister both were born in the same small-town hospital, a converted Victorian house identified by a blue neon “hospital” sign atop a steel pole out front. After the story became a family legend, however, these other connections were hardly worth mentioning.
Our “small town” was Anoka, Minnesota, an old lumber-mill site straddling the Rum River at its confluence with the Mississippi, about 20 miles upstream from Minneapolis. For my family, however, the place we more closely associated with Björn was a three-hour drive from Anoka, on the shores of Grindstone Lake in northwest Wisconsin—a place named Björnholm, which in Swedish literally means “bear islet.” The name fits perfectly, because our grandparents were Swedish and black bears do prowl the woods around our cabin. But the Björn of Björnholm—the Björn of this story—was not a bear. He was a dog.
Just after school let out in June 1967, my sister Jenny developed the notion that we should own a collie. I’m not sure where she got this idea. It might have been the popular TV show Lassie, but we didn’t have a TV, so it is more likely that Jenny, an avid reader by age 9, was inspired by Bruce or The Heart of a Dog, two books by Albert Payson Terhune, a dog breeder who lived in New Jersey and wrote captivating stories about the collies he raised. I read these stories too and loved them. Though Dad had enthusiastically introduced us to those wonderful books, he immediately put the kibosh on Jenny’s request to buy a collie.
“Who would take care of it?” he asked in a disapproving tone when Jenny broached the subject at the supper table. “And where would we keep the dog? We can’t have a dog like that inside the house, you know, shedding hair and ruining the furniture.”
Typical Dad. However much he loved art and music, you could always count on him to be disappointingly practical. My two older sisters and I knew that Dad’s words meant no, and Dad’s “no” meant no.
But Jenny and Mother were not deterred. On the sly, they pursued Jenny’s idea of owning a collie. Mother called around and located a collie breeder out in the country somewhere. A day later, she and Jenny toured the breeder’s kennels and fell in love with several collie puppies. That evening, Jenny, with her irrepressible exuberance, told Dad about the “wonderful puppies” and again asked if we could get a dog. “No, I’m afraid not,” he said.
If Dad was stubbornly practical, Jenny was irresistibly persistent. The next evening before supper, she placed a letter on Dad’s plate. Her written appeal proved to be a critical turning point in the story.
The precious letter itself disappeared amidst the stacks of books, notes, memos, magazines, diaries, sketches, photographs, unframed prints, unfinished poems, newspaper clippings, correspondence, and boxes within boxes of keepsakes that accumulated over a half century in our parents’ spacious house in Anoka. In the wake of Dad’s recent death and Mother’s move to assisted living, somehow it fell to me to sift and sort, save and toss. In time, Jenny’s gem resurfaced, a full 43 years after it had worked its magic:
Dear Lovingful Father, the letter began . . .
I am sure you do not know how wonderful the puppy is.
If we got the puppy, the only thing you would ever have to do is build the doghouse and pen. We will do the rest.
If on Saturday afternoon you could drive out and see the puppies I am sure you would love them as Mother and I do.
Mother told me she has been wanting a dog for 25 or 15 years. Mother would esceptialy [sic] like a collie and not any old mutt. Here’s a chance for some wonderful, healthy, lovingful, happy dogs. Please take this deeply into consideration.
I am sure if you got the dog you would be happier than without. I deeply hope your decision will be the joyful word yes!
Lovingful, Jenny Lind
Jenny watched intently for Dad’s reaction. The more he read, the wider her smile grew. By the end of the letter, Dad allowed a warm, gentle, approving laugh. Jenny cheered. Dad then worked out a compromise between his practical side and Jenny’s persuasiveness. “Okay. We can get a dog, a collie,” he announced. “But it has to be a grown collie, not a puppy. Puppies are way too much work.”
Björn had a shiny coat of long fur, white and brown with a hint of black, a handsome face with a classic, long collie snout, almond eyes, and perfectly proportioned white feet.
Ecstatic, Jenny scoured want ads for a “grown-up collie.” With Mother’s help, she found a promising possibility:
Purebred collie. Moving. Must sell. Call evenings.
Mother placed the call and made arrangements for us—her, Jenny, and me—to see the dog the next day.
The dog’s owner lived in Minneapolis, which at the time was roughly a 40-minute drive from Anoka. He was an affable young man, about 20 years old, and he demonstrated a deep affection for the dog he called Björn. “My husband will like that,” Mother exclaimed. “He’s very Swedish. He will surely approve of Björn!”
“Good!” the owner said. “I’m Swedish too, and it would make me feel good if you kept his name. You see, I really love this dog.” The owner then explained why he had to find a new home for Björn: The war in Vietnam was escalating, and he was going into the army.
Björn had a shiny coat of long fur, white and brown with a hint of black, a handsome face with a classic, long collie snout, almond eyes, and perfectly proportioned white feet. I noticed the feet, because Albert Payson Terhune had written that one way to size up the show quality of a collie was to consider the proportion and coloration of the feet. It was Björn’s winning disposition that captured our hearts, though. “He’s a little over a year old,” the owner said. “No longer a puppy but still full of spirit!” Björn smiled wide and wagged his tail so vigorously that his hindquarters wriggled back and forth. “Friends!” he seemed to be saying, “I love friends!”