Published by Gloria Forlag AS, Oslo, 2018
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
‘Maria, come in and close the door. We’re going to listen to the devotional.’
I should have known Grandmother was sitting on the divan in the kitchen, her hands folded. I can’t have been more than eight years old. There I stood with one foot over the threshold, near deliverance, and one foot out in the hall, close to freedom. My gaze was fixed on the glass of water with flowers in it that stood on the kitchen table below the window; the three oxeye daisies and a harebell that had far too much space in their provisional vase. Finally, I had to lift my head and look at her. Strict Grandmother, who didn’t understand that the devotional on the radio was one of the most boring things I could be asked to listen to.
‘Come here,’ she said, and patted the divan.
She had gathered her grey hair into a bun, and a delicate hairnet held it in place. I studied her old, slightly yellow skin, inhaled the smell of something sweet mixed with something stale. A network of wrinkles spread from her forehead and down her cheeks, the skin loosened from the bones and sinking meekly downwards. The green Crimplene dress she was wearing was half hidden behind an apron.
‘Don’t sit there swinging your legs like that, Maria. Sit still,’ she said. Then she took my hands and folded them.
I always heard a ringing in my ears whenever I had to sit that way – completely silent – and just listen. I didn’t understand what the man on the radio was saying. But Grandmother explained that although we do crazy things, Jesus has given us forgiveness. He was hung on the cross for all our sins.
‘Amen,’ said Grandmother.
‘Amen,’ I said, already getting up from the divan to make my way out of the kitchen.
I was a little girl back then, and life was about looking forward. I’m over fifty now, and the time has come.
I’ve started to look back.
Grandmother Maria, who I’m named after, was the head of the family and our moral defence. We were afraid of falling out of favour with her because she had a direct line up to the Lord himself – and because her displeasure was always cutting.
‘She’s a strong lady,’ said Father.
‘She’s evil,’ said Mother.
I don’t know whether other families have a head member in this way – I haven’t heard of it, and so I suppose it isn’t very common. But the head of our family was most definitely my grandmother on my mother’s side. She gave us direction, and she shamelessly judged us all as one. She had opinions on everything: our boyfriends and girlfriends, friends, clothes, hair, appearance, education, school – the way we spoke, ate and walked. She was rarely satisfied. She identified everyone’s faults and never hesitated in pointing them out. My hair was too thin, my skin too pale; my legs too short, my back too long. My bum was too big – and I spoke far too much nonsense.
‘It’s better to hold your tongue and let people believe you’re smart,’ she might say at the dinner table, simultaneously telling me to sit up straight and stop resting my chin in my hand. Since my back was so long it was particularly important to keep it solid and strong, she said. All the same, she was a woman of few words – those she used were short and precise. She spoke mostly with her eyes and tiny twitches of her facial muscles; the way she carefully drew up the left corner of her mouth was just enough to ensure that we noticed it. Consequently, we became masters at interpreting body language.
We’re a family whose antennae are far too long. Everything has to be deciphered and interpreted; our relationship to communication is strained. First we hear what is said – then we start the hunt for the true message.
Grandmother explained what makes us the Hardbogs to us kids.
‘Because we’re strong up here,’ she said, jabbing her index finger towards her skull. ‘We can bear anything.’
I’ve always thought that this is the way things are – that the ability to endure is a family trait. So from the age of ten I became a child with an unnaturally high pain threshold.
Grandmother set all the rules, and there were rarely any grey areas. Most things were about right and wrong, or perhaps what constituted a sin and what didn’t. And she never faltered. When Mother raged and cried because she felt insulted, Grandmother stood firm in her statements and opinions. Once, my grandfather had held a pistol to her forehead – on the evening before the great betrayal. The evening before he abandoned the family. Why he didn’t pull the trigger, I don’t know. Grandmother never spoke about it.
I don’t know why I’m thinking about her. I suppose it must be because I’ve started the journey back.
Back to all these people who have made me who I am – I’ve started to summarise my life. The choices I made and didn’t make; the challenges I left to others. Lies that will tear down everything I’ve built, friends who came and went – and my beloved, who was never mine, but hers. This life, framed so prettily by a half-crazy family always searching for something, although we have no idea what. And in the midst of all this madness I feel stronger than ever
before. This is my life; the choices have been mine.
First, life is about what we’ll become, who we’ll love, the children we might bear; the jobs we’ll do and the experiences we’ll have. Then it starts to be more about what we’ve done, experienced and achieved – life becomes one long CV. And so we diligently live on, until the day we no longer know who we are, because we’ve forgotten ourselves. We don’t remember the love, our children, all the encounters life has given us – the sorrows and the joys. Our possessions no longer have value for us, and what we’ve achieved loses its significance.
I know this because I’ve seen it in all the women who came before me. My great- grandmother, my grandmother and my mother. So the fact that I’ve started to look back frightens me.
It might be the beginning of the end.
But when I forget who I was – who will I be then?
I know that I’m triggering areas of my mind I should stay away from. It’s neither healthy nor particularly sensible, but if I’m going to find out how I wish to be as an older woman these things must be aired. It’s time for a thorough cleaning – after all, a new spring awaits.
That my thoughts are going haywire before I’ve even got up is definitely a bad sign. I potter out to the bathroom to start my comfortable and familiar morning routine. This is how I find a sense of calm, regain my equilibrium. I try to find the right distance from which to view myself in the mirror. It’s no longer possible to see anything distinctly.
‘It’s probably nature’s way of protecting us,’ I think.
So we don’t have to see all the wrinkles.
Regardless, I put on my glasses, and now that I can study my face clearly go through the advantages and disadvantages of Botox and other body-altering procedures. As usual, I conclude that the disadvantages of medical intervention outweigh the advantages. I take my glasses off again, set them on the sink, and think that poor eyesight is still probably the preferred solution.
And anyway, I now see that I don’t look so bad after all. My teeth might not be as white as they once were, but they’re all mine, and they’re straight and attractive. We have good teeth in our family. My wrinkles have largely centred around marking the suppressed anger I’ve carried all these years. I suppose it had to find a way out sooner or later, that’s just how it is. Murder will out, as they say.
My hair is grey, but frequent appointments at the hairdresser ensure that it still looks dark brown. It’s thick and shiny – just long enough for me to gather it into a ponytail and short enough that I can wear it down without looking desperate. The latter is important to me. I don’t want to look like those women who seem to be clinging on to a youth that has long since left them. It’s pathetic.
Nevertheless, I’m still manically concerned with appearing younger than I am, and feel no shame in comparing myself to others.
I get into the shower and let the hot water thaw me. My morning stiffness disappears down the drain; the fresh smells of shampoo and soap fill the room along with the steam.
I have a day off.
Today, I have a day off.
I put on my soft dressing gown and tie the belt around my waist, then brush my hair and go out to the kitchen.
I sit down at the kitchen table and pass the flat of my hand across the smooth wood. The little tablecloth that Grandmother once embroidered is folded up at the edge of the tabletop to make
space for a crossword and cup of coffee. The coffee maker simmers away on the worktop – its aroma fills me with a sense of wellbeing. Sitting here in this way moves me. Grandmother often sat at the kitchen table, Mother liked to sit at it, and now it’s my turn. Here, I can let my mind wander and my thoughts flow freely; have my inner conversations in peace.
I look out of the window and notice that the birds have eaten the fat balls I hung out for them – there’s only a little left on one. A blue tit comes and lands on the green netting that surrounds the food. I wonder whether it’ll get stuck, but the bird flies away, satisfied after its meal. How stupid that the netting is made of light green plastic – I’ll have to find another product. Perhaps I should make something myself? All you have to do is mix sunflower seeds and coconut fat and – presto! But it never happens. I’m not the kind of person who makes things happen just like that. I’m a thinker. The planning phase is always long.
I’m desperate for my beloved today. Why isn’t he here already? He wrote that he’d come
‘My Maria,’ the letter said. ‘I’ll come straight after breakfast.’
I don’t trust all the lies that I’ve told, nor do I remember them. That’s why I need him – so he can remind me.
I’ll soon see my beloved. The thought makes me restless and expectant, filling me with shame and desire as usual.
He’s the one I can’t live with and can’t live without. He fills me with love and empties me of thought. I have loved him, despite this, unceasingly.
I’ve got up far too early; the calm I felt just a moment ago is gone. I look down at the tablecloth and carefully touch some loose threads that need repairing, pick at the old coffee stain I should have removed with bleach.
‘Why don’t you just throw this tablecloth away, Mum?’ suggested my twenty-year-old daughter, holding it up. It must have been last week. I simply said no, without offering any explanation. The tablecloth always makes me think of the two women who have shaped me. My grandmother and my mother.
‘Have I told you about Dad?’ she asked, sitting up in the bed. A bed made of metal piping and tubes. A nurse had just been in to see her with her daily dose of medicine.
Mother inhabited several realities simultaneously. She had conversations with the visible and the invisible – and not least with the dead. I tried to keep up with her, but it wasn’t easy. I sat in a chair at her bedside, flipping through the pages of an album. It was a nice album that I had put together, containing family photographs. I’d just read an excerpt from the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy aloud. Mother smiled and nodded as I read, but she couldn’t follow the plot and didn’t understand the content. But she’d still started to think about her own father. ‘You’ve told me about your dad a thousand times, Mum,’ I said.
I assumed it was her father she was referring to, not mine, because everything revolved around her now.
Grandfather, by the way, is the reason that we’re completely disillusioned and not quite like other people.
The short version of Grandfather’s story is that he was lazy, addicted to gambling – and an inept Casanova. He wore his Sunday best every day, took the bus into the city and worked in an office. When work was over he would go to one of the city’s bars with his friends for a quick drink and to socialise. He generally came home late, emptied of his good mood and full
They had three children; Mother was the eldest. She was forced to take responsibility for her siblings from an early age and, by her own account, was systematically ignored by everyone. Next came my aunt – an exceptionally charming child. She had dark curls, blue eyes and dimples in her cheeks. Her presence would continually tip Mother off balance, to the extent that Mother could be said to be balanced to begin with. My uncle was the youngest. Funny, creative and musical. He became a competent musician, despite the family’s lack of enthusiasm for his talent.
Grandfather was a man who – completely unjustifiably – viewed himself as better than everyone else. He was arrogant towards people he had no need for; smug and superficial. Those in a festive mood loved him – he was the self-appointed centre of attention. He drank the most and sang the loudest – others could simply lean back and let themselves be entertained. He lived impulsively, moving from idea to action without his brain being particularly involved. And so one day, he simply left.
‘I married a man who was too big for a cradle and too small for the bed,’ Grandmother would answer curtly whenever anyone asked what had become of him. ‘Three kids is enough, he became too heavy to carry,’ she would add, before refusing to say any more on the subject. Because of Grandfather, we grew up with a distorted view of the frivolous. Those who laugh, talk loudly, congratulate and praise themselves; who pretend they’re better at things than they really are. Our family has no faith in such people. We simply don’t trust them.
Because these kinds of people are bad luck.
‘One night, Grandmother woke up because Grandfather was holding a pistol to her forehead,’ said Mother.
‘I know, Mum,’ I answered, as I had so many times before.
I take the tablecloth with me and put it in the bathroom, to remind myself that I need to remove the coffee stain.
What is it that shapes us? Is it nature or nurture, betrayal or love? Is it what happens to us, or how we interpret these events?
When I was young, I wrote live well in my friends’ autograph albums. Like a tiny cross, I wrote it: Live well! Now everything will be straightforward and nothing but joy, joy, joy. I go back to the kitchen and pour myself another cup of coffee.
‘Life surprises everyone,’ I think.
The little birds are still eating breakfast so I continue to sit at the table. The fridge hums cautiously as the dishwasher makes its lovely ‘I’m doing my job’ sound.
I feel a kind of peace again, and so consider sending up a note of thanks to Our Lord. Peace is a good feeling, but a rare one.
In actual fact, I’m not particularly interested in the past – that’s not why I’m looking back. Nor do I intend to blame others for my losses and faults. Everyone has their own, and I have mine. But if I’m ever going to summarise my life I’m going to have to turn to my memories and experiences. That’s just how it is.
On the occasions my grandparents were in the same room, Mother always expected a catastrophe – she just didn’t know what form it would take. That silent scorn that all children
understand. The looks, the caustic words and crushing atmosphere that make you wish you could become invisible.
‘Maria, I can’t breathe.’ Mother looked desperate. I got up from the chair I was sitting in and went over to her.
‘It’s okay, Mum. You can breathe. Everything’s fine.’
She lay in her bed, so old on the outside and so small within herself. She didn’t know that I was her daughter, but continuously called my name.
‘Maria! Mum!’ she cried out. Perhaps both were Grandmother?
I don’t know.
She looked up at me, confused, as if looking for an answer to a question she couldn’t quite formulate. I stroked her cheek and patted her hand. She slept. Her chin dropped, and she looked as if she was over a hundred years old. She dozed, for around a quarter of an hour perhaps. As usual I thought she’d died, because it looked that way, but the devil looks after his own. My mother, Anna Elisabeth, gasped for breath and opened her eyes again.
‘Oh my Maria, you should have seen how beautiful Grandmother was when she was young.’ Luckily the little girl she had been just a moment ago was gone. It was a relief, because I didn’t like to see her like that. The whole situation was both confusing and sad.
‘Grandmother was beautiful, you say?’ I’d seen several photographs of her in her youth, and if I did my best to set her personality aside I could see it. Grandmother had Spanish blood in her veins. Black hair, golden skin and brown eyes. The old photographs couldn’t hide it – she had been a beauty, old Maria. Strong-fisted and straight-backed, with a row of pearls for teeth. Grandfather used to say that he’d chosen her the same way he would have chosen a good mare. He assessed her teeth and her capacity for work.
There’s much I could say about my mother and grandmother. They’ve taught me a lot about how to get on in life; were sometimes extremely forthcoming with their advice.
‘The only person you can truly trust, Maria, is yourself,’ said Mother.
‘Is the Lord,’ said Grandmother.
‘Don’t take life too seriously,’ said Mother.
‘Don’t be a fool,’ Grandmother interrupted. ‘Life is blood, sweat and tears.’
They were both strong and domineering women, each in their own way. They drew all kinds of conclusions, and I attempted to navigate between them.
But neither of them told me anything about how to live with others; how to give and receive love and survive the days together as a couple. I have no idea how forgiveness works in practice, and have no experience with compromise whatsoever. Independence, on the other hand, is in my blood. But no one is permitted to touch it – that makes me uncomfortable.
I sigh and get up from the kitchen table. The morning’s reminiscing is over.
The flow of my thoughts is under control and an acceptable calm fills my soul.
But still I long for he who should have been mine. Which is as it should be, because we’ve loved one another unceasingly. Like defiance, desire and love, both in and out of rhythm.
We no longer have a relationship – we have a life. I set the coffee cup in the sink and go to get dressed. Then I brush my hair again and put on my hiking boots and a jacket.
It’s March, but winter is not yet over.
Outside, the weather is beautiful. The spring sun shines from the blue sky, and I notice that my internal frost starts to loosen its grasp. I inhale through my nose and feel renewed; that I am whole.
I see him from a distance. The same posture, the same way in which he lifts his hand to say hello.
His embrace encircles me perfectly. Then he takes my hand, and we walk.
We have a forest we call our own.
He knows that I’m feeling down, even though I’m happy to walk this way, hand in hand. He understands me.
Despite the fact that I’ve decided to be happy, I don’t quite manage it. I know that all the thinking has disturbed me. Grandmother, Mother and me. Age, loneliness, lies and betrayal.
As always, we walk for a long time without speaking. Our fingers interlace, as they usually do. Every now and then he stops and simply holds me, and then we walk on.
‘My Maria,’ he says suddenly. ‘I think our time has probably come.’
I feel afraid.
I don’t understand what he means. Those words, the time has come, do nothing but remind me of the day my father died. Why is he using them?
‘The time has come, Maria. We must hurry to the hospital. Your father’s condition has worsened.’ I barely heard my aunt’s voice. Mother and Jørgen were with Father already, but I was with my aunt.
‘Father’s going to die,’ I thought. ‘Dear God, take care of us now! When Mother says that he’s abandoning us, she doesn’t mean it. We know he hasn’t chosen this. We know, do you hear? Do you hear me, God? Amen in Jesus’ name, amen.’
My uncle drove the car and I sat in the back seat. We were on our way to Akershus University Hospital. I was ten years old.
Leaving is an act one chooses, a consequence of one’s own free will. I knew many who chose to leave.
‘As we forgive those who trespass against us,’ a familiar voice chanted inside my head. This was something Grandmother often said. I didn’t understand what she meant by it, and I never dared to ask. I sobbed loudly in the back seat.
‘Don’t cry, Maria, you’re a Hardbog,’ said my aunt.
In room 308 death had already begun its preparations. Father’s face was yellow and waxen, and he was unconscious. I remember how we stood around his bed and waited for death. Mother kissed him on the cheek.
‘We’re all here,’ she said. Then he drew his last breath, and he was dead. I was just starting my life; he had stopped living. He was dead. Gone forever. I suddenly regretted that I’d disturbed him when he was trying to watch the evening news.
‘Forever is a dirty word!’ I played hopscotch on the tiles in the hospital corridor – it was a nice, long corridor. I understood that I wasn’t allowed to run, but playing hopscotch was fun, too. Jørgen didn’t want to.
We packed up his things; Mother arranged the funeral.
I hated everyone who said: ‘It’s a good thing he doesn’t have to endure any more.’
Endure what? It wasn’t a good thing – it was painful. But it was only ever women who said these kinds of things. Stupid women, with low voices and craning necks. They wanted to shower me with understanding and empathy, to show how good they were. The men never
said anything. They fell strangely silent, as if afraid to remind us that Father was dead.
I so wanted to talk to someone about my father, but nobody wanted to listen. Every night I lay in bed wishing I would dream about him so that I wouldn’t forget what he looked like; the way he smelled and talked.
Mother got rid of the hospital bed and medicines, the hoists and commode. Our living room became a living room again. Much more pleasant, but very empty. Grandmother said that Father was now finally with God. And not long after his heavenly ascension I understood the connection. He sits at God’s, the Almighty Father’s, right hand. It made sense.
Jørgen, my brother, is four years older than me. I don’t know what it’s like to be him. He was surrounded by many women, but his upbringing wasn’t really of interest to them. He got away with a lot, which irritated me – and probably him, too. As not even the feeling of unreasonable rules bound us to one another, we never developed a solid sense of sibling camaraderie. Jørgen moved out when he was seventeen, and I hardly even noticed. In his early twenties he married a woman so unlike me and the other generations of women in our family that it was comical. Little Merethe Adamsen. She’s so petite and skinny that I daren’t discuss anything with her for fear that she might collapse. Her frame looks weak and poorly, but she’s borne Jørgen two children nonetheless. To say that she doesn’t enjoy our company is an understatement. After he became a father for the first time, Jørgen tried to create a kind of big, extended family, but Merethe Adamsen claimed we had it in for her. A laughable assertion.
‘Talk about being paranoid,’ I said resignedly to Jørgen when he explained how Merethe was feeling. After this my brother gave up on the idea of creating an extended family, and now we rarely see each other. They have two boys, who in my opinion are a couple of wimps. They’ve inherited their mother’s whining nature and my brother’s invisible presence.
Little Merethe Adamsen has a fondness for interior design and mindfulness. She’s also an eager proponent of alternative medicine, and all of this provokes me. But that doesn’t mean I have it in for her. I just think she’s a bit dumb.
‘I’ve sent a strand of Christian’s hair off for analysis in Germany,’ she said when my nephew was weak and tired, unable to sleep.
Praising such actions doesn’t come naturally to me, so my brother will have to excuse my response. Christian, my nephew, received from Germany a long list of all the deficiency diseases he had, and Merethe Adamsen was impressed.
The sound of spring brings me back to the present and my beloved.
Had anyone seen us, they would have said that we looked harmonious – never have suspected how we’ve managed our lives and love.
‘My Maria,’ my beloved says gently. ‘Shall we talk about the future?’
I start to feel nauseous – we never speak about the future, we stopped doing so a long time ago. When conversations never lead to change or progression, but only end in a hopeless loop of familiar arguments, tears and bottomless sorrow, what’s the point?
‘What have you done today?’ he continues to ask, attempting to get a conversation going. I tell him that I’ve been thinking about my grandmother.
‘I would have liked to have met her, Maria,’ he smiles, and I immediately think that would have been a catastrophe.
‘She really wouldn’t have liked you,’ I say. He doesn’t hear me, so I repeat it, a little louder this time.
He laughs and shakes his head.
‘Everyone likes me, Maria,’ he says – and I know that he’s right. But I also know that I’m
right in thinking that Grandmother wouldn’t have liked him. She had no time for conceited dandies, she would have said. I can just hear her. She would have asked me what use he’d be, and I would have said that I loved him, and she would have raised her eyebrows and said: ‘Oh do you now?’
Not that my beloved is a dandy, but he works in the entertainment business, and that’s an industry for which Grandmother had no respect. She couldn’t comprehend how entertainment could be work. In her eyes it was simply idleness – which, as everyone knows, is the root of all evil.
‘I love you, Maria,’ he says.
‘I know,’ I answer quickly. We know this. We love each other, but that doesn’t mean we have a future together. I’ve learned that much, at least.
‘Do you remember the Grand Hotel?’ I ask. Then we walk on in silence.
‘I want you to stay with me. I want you to look after me. Now and forever.’ I looked over at him. He was sitting in a chair, putting on his socks.
‘It’s me you love, not her,’ I continued happily, unaware. He got up from the chair and moved over to the window. We were at the Grand Hotel, in the centre of the city. He looked down on Parliament; I looked at him.
‘My Maria, I can’t.’ He turned and glanced over at me. ‘You know that, don’t you? I can’t.’
It was summer, and I’d just turned twenty-five. We’d been conducting our relationship for the past two years.
He came over to the bed and sat down beside me. I lowered my gaze, but he lifted my face so that I was forced to look him in the eye.
‘My Maria,’ he said simply. ‘There can never be an us.’
He had chosen her again.
Hilde, the woman to whom he was married. The mother of his boys and the glue that held his life together. Of course she won.
I lost my map and compass, and a sense of direction I had never really had.
Now I’m fifty-five and he’s sixty-five. I no longer worry about the lack of a map or compass – experience indicates that it’s he who finds me, not the other way around. I see that he’s thoughtful, see his sincerity and tenderness. He’s still the most wonderful thing to me, but I don’t want to speak about the future with him. Although this used to occupy me daily. ‘You’re so beautiful,’ he whispers. I like that he says it. It’s a nice thing to hear.