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Amid the pandemic, a family learns their neighbors are their long-lost relatives

The Stroms, left, and the Njotens standing six feet apart in their neighborhood in La Crescenta. (Sarah Porath)

When Kjetil Njoten and his wife, Zoe Leigh-Njoten, along with their son, moved from London to Los Angeles a few years ago for Kjetil’s job at a TV network, they spent their first year trying to find the perfect neighborhood to put down roots. Last summer, they bought a house in La Crescenta, a community 15 miles outside of L.A. It would take them months, and a pandemic, to discover that family roots had already been planted by long-lost relatives living four doors down.

The Njotens had met some neighbors in passing, but it wasn’t until California’s coronavirus stay-at-home order in March that the Njotens had a chance to really get to know the people who lived near them. During a “social distancing happy hour” outside on their street in early April, the Njotens struck up a conversation with Erik and Jen Strom, who live four houses away.

Because Kjetil, 45, is originally from Norway and Erik, 38, has Norwegian ancestry, they started discussing Norwegian heritage. Jen, 37, said she had casually looked into her husband’s family history in the past but stopped when she was unable to locate Newton Island, where her husband’s Norwegian family was supposedly from.

Kjetil and Zoe joked that it could be Njoten Island, the tiny speck of an island northwest of Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city. Kjetil grew up in Njoten, and it’s from there that his family derived its surname. The island, Kjetil said, is three miles long and one mile wide and has a population of about 30 people.

They said it is often pronounced as Newton in English. But it is spelled “Njøten” in Norwegian and pronounced nyuh-ten.

“When [Jen] said ‘Newton,’ I thought, ooh, maybe!” said Zoe, 46. “It would be a ridiculous coincidence. Ridiculous. But maybe it’s Njoten!”

That night, Kjetil emailed his mother in Norway, asking her to do some sleuthing. She looked at her own family records, and by the time Kjetil woke up the next morning, she had replied. Not only was Erik’s family from the same island, but the two men shared the same great-great-grandfather. In fact, the home that Kjetil grew up in once belonged to that great-great-grandfather, Jacob Njoten.

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This was too momentous to share over text. The Njotens asked the Stroms to walk over to their house, and while standing at a safe distance under the Njotens’ covered porch, Kjetil said: “Hey, good news! You are from the island, but not only that, we are related!”

The four of them stood there for a moment. Then there were cries of disbelief and tears.

“We were ecstatic!” Jen said.

“None of us can believe it,” Zoe said.

They resisted the urge to run over and hug each other.

Having made the discovery during a pandemic is a double-edged sword, Erik said.

“It’s given us an exciting thing during this difficult time,” Erik said. “But having it happen during this time also means we can’t do what we would like to. We can’t hug or have dinner together or go in each other’s homes.”

But, as Jen pointed out, maybe it took something like this life-altering event to bring them together.

“We wonder how long it would have been [for us to make this connection] if we didn’t have this reason to slow down from our regular life,” she said.

The discovery would have been amazing at any time, said Kjetil, but to uncover it during the lockdown was “such a bright light in what is a pretty uncertain and worrying time.”

The best part for both families is what this means for the youngest generation — their children. Monty Njoten, 10, and Emma Strom, 4, will grow up as cousins living just 100 yards apart.

As European expats, the Njotens have missed having family close by, and of all the neighborhoods and houses they could have picked in the Los Angeles area, Zoe said: “We end up living on a street next to these people originally from this tiny island [in Norway]. It’s crazy! It’s beautiful.”

As they wait for coronavirus isolation to end, the Njotens and Stroms chat through their new family WhatsApp thread, swapping recipes, photos and family stories. The Njotens showed the Stroms a framed aerial photograph of the idyllic island, which includes the farmhouse where their great-great-grandfather — and 100 years later, Kjetil — lived.

This discovery prompted Erik to ask his mother, who also lives in La Crescenta, more about their family. He got some genealogy documents from her, and she showed him a family history book that commemorated a large reunion on Njoten Island in the 1990s that some of Erik’s relatives attended. Among the scanned photographs is a group picture that includes a young Kjetil.

“That blew our minds a bit,” Kjetil said.

The spiral-bound family history book also holds the lyrics to a “welcome song” from the July 1996 reunion, all about their great-great-grandfather Jacob’s farm and family on Njoten Island. A verse mentions that Erik’s great-grandfather Andreas “bid farewell and sailed west for U.S.A.” in 1896.

That’s where the family history splits between continents. No one could have predicted there’d be another reunion in 2020 in an American neighborhood more than 5,000 miles from that farmhouse in Norway.

The Njotens and Stroms are hopeful that a group trip to Njoten Island will be possible sometime soon, but in the meantime, they’re busy making plans to celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day, an official public holiday observed May 17. But if the California stay-at-home order is still in effect then, they’ll turn their sights to a holiday that’s still new to the Njotens — Thanksgiving.

“We have American family now,” Zoe said.

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