Nightgown & Undershirts – Pee Wee and Winslow. Sleeper – Grandmother Cleage. Pop beads, music box, rings, boat, rattle – Ma and Henry. Poppy $10 Louis $10 Barbara – back carrier. Silver spoon – Gladys. 2 sleepers & clutch ball – Martha. Jim out of town (St. Louis) . Xmas eve at Miriams. Living at Bro. Johns. Xmas, went by Grandmother’s. first time she saw Jilo. Dinner and spent the night at Ma’s. Jim back on 30th. Party at BCL (ugh). Man across the street from Miriam’s hollering for help (“I’m not kidding Help!”) Pearl and Micheal didn’t come home for Xmas.
I thought of this card when I saw the prompt for this weeks Sepia Saturday. There is no kiss but there is water and a boat. Reading the card made me remember that I had written up my trip to Norway years ago, I didn’t have to write it from scratch. Hence this post.
This article first appeared in Catalyst Magazine in the Summer of 1990.
In June of 1981 I was 34 years old, three months pregnant and on my way to spend seven weeks in Norway with my then ten-year-old daughter Jilo. I left behind my husband Jim and three younger daughters, Ife 8, Ayanna 5 and Tulani 2. There were also several milk goats and a flock of laying hens on our 5 acres in rural Simpson County, Mississippi. It was my first time outside of North America.
I had been corresponding with Sister Peg Dunn, a nun, about our mutual interest in Sigrid Undset, Nobel Prize winning Norwegian author of “Kristin Lavrensdatter.” I had become intrigued after reading that she wrote her novels while raising six children. Sister Peg arranged for me to attend the International Summer School at the University of Oslo. Jilo and I traveled to Norway with her.
It is now 1990, nine years later. I’m 43, the yet-to-be-born-baby is 8 and Jilo will be 20 in June. We now live in Michigan. The goats and chickens are gone, but we’ve got rabbits and the garden grows larger every year. When I think about that trip these are my memories, excerpts from my journal and from letters I wrote home.
I remember wondering if those men wearing fatigues waiting to board my plane were hijackers. The pain in my ears as the plane descended. Hearing Danish spoken over the airport loud speaker.
June 16, 1981, Airport in Denmark Dear folks, We are drinking orange juice in Denmark and waiting for the plane to Oslo. Ten hours is a long ride! Only two more hours of dark and I am sleepy. More soon. Love, Kris
I remember the marigolds and petunias in the window boxes of the apartments and houses everywhere we went. Walking up0 five flights, seventy steps to the apartment we stayed in. Looking out of the kitchen window at the grass, women hanging out wash and children playing in the yard below. Walking, walking and more walking.
June 17, 1981 Wednesday, Oslo, Norway Dear Jim, We are staying with the lady poet that I met in Chicago. She gave me 2,000 koner ($400) in the bank here. Jilo and I walked all over and never got lost. Everyone does speak English so far. Women wear backpacks instead of carrying purses. Tomorrow the three of us will take a train to Trondjem – a seven hour ride, where we’ll stay in a youth hostel until Monday. I miss you. Love, Kris.
I remember taking the train to Trondjem. How at one point, everybody (except us) got up and turned their seats around to face the opposite direction. How tired we got of the bread and salami and bread and salami and bread and salami, we had packed to eat. Mistakenly jumping off of the train before it pulled all the way into the station and then having to jump over the wires and cables to get to the station.
June 19, 1981, Dombas Norway Dear Jim, We are staying in a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains tonight. We walked a mile or more from the train station to the hostel with our backpacks. Was I glad not to have a suitcase! Love Kris.
I remember not being afraid to walk around at any time of the day or night. The long days. At midnight it was dusk. Riding the train through glacial mountains. How low the clouds were. Seeing a waterfall in the mountains. Gudbrunsdal Valley. How hard it is to strain to catch a work you understand in a new language. How it is even harder to come up with one and say it. My discomfort at entering the World War II Museum of Resistance and being greeted in, surprise, Norwegian by the welcomers. How they saw my expression and tried French then, to my relief, English.
June 21, 1981, Monday, Dombas, Norway – journal entry.
Jilo and I walked around Dombas in the morning. There was a field full of the biggest, bright yellow dandelions I have ever seen. Someone was growing tomatoes under plastic covers…there were bus loads of middle-aged German tourists. Can’t help wonder what they were doing during WWII.
June 23, 1981. Wednesday. Oslo, Norway – journal entry.
A warm sunny day. Today we went out to Blinern University on the trikk (subway). Took a tour of the campus. Met a friend of Sister Peg’s for lunch in the cafeteria, Liv. She has a research fellowship here. Is married and has an almost two year old son, Mangus. She had taught a few years in Chicago. Had read and seen “The Women’s Room” on TV recently. Especially remembered the part where the woman is trying to quiet the two children and put them to sleep and the husband staggers out going to his mother’s where he can “get some sleep.” She said the wife should have thrown one of the babies at him.
We walked home, a half-hour, pleasant walk through a camomile covered field. At dinner preparation time (Jilo cooked) we blew the stove fuse and couldn’t figure out how to change it so had to eat cold leftovers.
Then we caught the trikk to another friend of Sister Peg’s. She lived in an apartment made from the second floor of her parents’ house. She taught English to adults and Norwegian emigrant children. She also had seen “Women’s Room” and liked it, although she said, it didn’t deal with the problems of her generation. She told us about the social discrimination against emigrants, poor people on the east side of Oslo (where the tour buses never go) and different dialects in Oslo and having her passport stolen from a basket she carried in the store. Those things didn’t used to happen, she said. She had been going to Poland. There was a candle on her table and along with wine, coffee, chocolates, nuts, coffee cake, Christmas cake, butter and goat cheese. Jilo drank solo (grape pop) She gave Jilo a snowflake pin and showed her a bunch of English books. One poetry book included the poem “Give you son forty licks, beat him when he sneezes.” She told us how she used to drag her younger sisters around by their feet when she was left in charge and they would act up.
I remember watching Ethiopians playing soccer in the field of camomile. Celebrating Jilo’s birthday in the mountains with whipped cream topped apple cake. The Folk Museums with old, old houses, stave churches and guides dressed in national costume. The festival day at school with the fiddler father, singing mother and dancing daughter. How they seemed to really be enjoying themselves. Eating lefse, roumergroten, flat brod and brown goat cheese, Jilo walking and riding the trikk all over Oslo, by herself, not speaking Norwegian and never getting lost or having any trouble.
June 29, 1981, Monday, Oslo – journal entry.
Today began cloudy and rainy but ended up nice and sunny. Met a Californian in the laundry room. A student from last year passing through, doing her clothes and reading Don Juan. Trying to lose her past. She asked if I’d found rules to live by. I told her my sister had. She also mentioned the fox in “The Little prince” and being responsible for what you love.
I remember the children’s party. Organized by a Mexican married to a Norwegian and a Bulgarian. The kids tossing balloons around. The Bulgarian complaining about her young chuildren catching colds so often at day care and balancing the children, her ex-husband and job. The Mexican singing “Las Mañanitas” for the son of a Norwegian woman who worked in the kitchen. Hearing the Royal British Wedding on television in another room while I washed clothes.
July 3, 1981, Friday. Oslo – journal entry.
Started out a very sunny, warm day until after lunch, ended up being cold and rainy. Jilo and I went with some students to the theatre. Before the play started a tall man came up and said that he should have written a synopsis and did I know the story? Then he started telling it to me. A fairy tale about a princess, a would be prince who had to get three feathers of a dragon to win her. Very good…I even understood a few words. The theater was old and big. We had to to to a small room up in the top or the play. Afterwards we went in the cold rain to a kiosk and got sausages, french fries and ice cream. We had agreed to talk only in Norwegian. Whew! I was cold with a dress, bare legs and sandals. But a good evening and it’s nice to be back in the room and warm!
July 2, 1981, Oslo Dear Ayanna, This morning the Norwegian woman who cleans my room, washed the floor and was speaking Norwegian to me about my flower, but I couldn’t understand what she meant. I guess I have to study harder. Love, Mom.
I remember realizing that the woman had put a saucer under the plant for me. Walking to the park past a mental hospital. The man people told me had been brilliant who stepped from one square to another square for hours at a time all day long when they let him out of the hospital. Seeing topless sun bathers. Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park with nude statues of all stages of life but, strangely I thought, no pregnant woman. The garden section, blocks and blocks of tiny houses for drinking coffee and eating cakes, surrounded by flower and vegetable gardens of those who lived in apartments. The strange feeling of living where Nazi soldiers had lived when they occupied Norway. Hearing my mother’s laugh coming from a group of students gathered on the steps below my window. Watching day by day as a young man worked on repairing the stairs…the girl that came and watched him, talked to him. just wanted to be with him.
July 19, 1981 Lillehammer, Norway Dear Jim, We did get out alive from Sigrid Undset’s bed and house. It was very strange. Reminded me of one of those Public TV mysteries where suspecting travelers are taken in and treated kindly by weird folk who later murder them in their beds. I discovered how Sigrid Undset wrote a Nobel Prizewinning novel “while raising six children.” She left the two step-daughters in Oslo and moved to Lillehammer with her two young sons and a nursemaid. There she wrote the first book of “Kristin Lavernsdatter.” She was tired after this because she had to keep interrupting her work to cook, clean, etc., so she brought tow more old houses. One small one for her husband (an artist) to paint in when he came out from Oslo and one for herself to work in. It is this one that we slept in and it is connected to the original house by an added on corridor. She also hired several maids and a cook., in addition to the nursemaid. She then left the kids and the servants in the original house and proceeded to write her masterpieces. She later had a third child and for many years later served as a foster mother to two Finnish war orphans…Her daughter-in-law, Christianna, was odd but very talkative and nice to us. She gave me two children’s books by Sigrid Undset (in Norwegian) and she got her young neighbor to drive us out to Undset’s grave about 15 miles away. There was a weird little man, about her age who she referred to as “the young man.” He tried to be pleasant, spoke no English and was always leaping around smiling. One time he was supposed to open a bottle of wine and he couldn’t find the corkscrew. He kept popping into the room and finally she sailed out after him. I expected to hear a loud smack as she boxed his ears, but she found the corkscrew and opened it. I could understand a lot of the Norwegian they spoke and that was encouraging. I had given up hope. Love, Kris
I remember how awful it felt to be back in school studying Norwegian and how much I felt I was missing by sitting in the classroom when real Norwegians were all about talking real Norwegian and wonder still why I kept going to class.
July 22, 1981 – journal entry.
Homework very hard. Feel overwhelmed by busy work. Decided to skip class tomorrow and go on field trip with another class. Miss Jim. Interviewed by the newspaper, Aftenposten. Very poor English by reporter, better by photographer, nonexistent Norwegian by moi. Rather embarrassing. Jilo got us some Norwegian deodorant. It doesn’t work a bit.
I remember the lady from Denmark who sat next to us on the plane ride home and talked about how bad things were getting, she had to lock her doors now when she left her house, not like the old days. How dirty everything looked when we got back to Chicago and how good it was to see my family and eat home-cooked food again.
We moved to Simpson County, Mississippi in November of 1975. Jim was in charge of the Emergency Land Fund’s Model farm. Our daughter Jilo was 5 and Ife was 2.5. I was 29 and Jim was just about to turn 31. This was before we had goats, chickens or rabbits. The
greenhouses weren’t in production. I remember several of the farmers Jim worked with gave him gifts of money for Christmas. It didn’t amount to more than $30 total but it paid for all the gas we used.
We decided to drive up to share the holidays with Jim’s family in Rock Hill, MO. They lived at #1 Inglewood Court, right outside of St. Louis. 17 year old Micheal, 15 year old Monette and 12 year old Debbie were living at home. We made the 8 hour trip in the little gray Volkswagon that came with the job. We took food to eat on the way, left early and drove straight through. I don’t remember anything specific about driving up. As I recall we got to St. Louis before dark. Jim’s parents gave us their bedroom. They were always so nice about that. Jim and the kids and I shared the pushed together twin beds. There weren’t presents for us but Jim’s mother looked around and came up with some. I don’t remember what she gave Jilo and Ife but she gave me two copper vases and Jim two glass paperweights. I don’t remember what we took as gifts.
I remember going to see Jim’s brother, Harold, at one of his jobs. He had several, just like his father always did. We also stopped by his studio where he made plaster knick knacks. Or was it cement bird baths? Or both? There was a Salvation Army or Goodwill store nearby and we stopped and I got some shirts for the kids and a dress that Ife wanted. Mostly we stayed around the house and visited.
We stayed until New Years Eve and left in the evening. There is never enough food or time to prepare it for the return trip. We stopped at Howard Johnson’s somewhere on the way home and I remember getting fried oysters. It was cold and dark and clear. There were stars. And there are always trucks. We listened to the radio and talked and maybe sang some. The kids eventually fell asleep in the backseat and we welcomed the New Year driving through the night.
I came across this photograph of my oldest daughter, Jilo, while organizing my photographs. I like the shadows. This one was in the box marked “Detroit 1966 – 1972”. We were living in Brewster projects. I was teaching pre-k at Merrill Palmer Institute, which was within walking distance. I didn’t drive and walked or took the bus everywhere. Jim was there part of the time. He was a community organizer, still running the Black Conscience Library and also working out of a center on 12th Street. I wasn’t yet pregnant with my second daughter and hadn’t decided to move to Atlanta, where my sister lived. A year later in March, I would have two daughters and all of us would be living in Atlanta. I worked with the Institute of the Black World for awhile. Jim got a job printing with the Atlanta Voice. When he told me I could stop working outside, I gave notice and stayed home with my six week old and almost three year old. It was all a long time ago.