I watched as my brother Peter cut up his meat. The candle flickering in the middle of the table cast long shadows on his face. He kept cutting and cutting and never taking a bite, as if that would prevent him having to answer our Father.
“You’ve read the letter, so what do you think?” My Father said again, impatiently looking at Peter. It wasn’t really phrased as a question. We knew exactly what my Father thought already because he had spent the last 20 minutes explaining that. Now he was asking his youngest son to agree. I concentrated on my own plate and stole glances at my brother who sat across the table from me. He was only a year older than me yet the weight of this decision rested on his shoulders rather than mine.
“Well?”, said my Father.
The letter itself sat there on the table. The envelope lay beside it, ripped apart and empty. A few pages with long cursive writing scratched on them was all that had emerged. Those pages just had words written there. Simple words really. Words about a new country, a new opportunity, a new century, a new chance. Words that were about to tear our family further apart. My Uncle had written them and probably had the best intentions in mind as he did. That would not change their impact.
“There are many jobs here. Many carpenters are needed as construction is booming. Even cars are abundant and many families have one. The buildings of New York are very tall and when you come in by ship you pass a large monument called the “Statue of Liberty”. I urge you to consider sending those who have no connections and I will find them work here in Seattle.”
There were some other pleasantries at the beginning and end about how they were doing and messages to others in the family here but that was the important part. The part that had caused my brother to forget how to speak. All of us around the table knew what our Uncle meant by his reference to those with “no connections”. This farm was small and there could be only one heir. That would be my eldest brother who was on a trip to Oslo at the moment. Of course, I was 17 and soon enough would be married to someone who could provide for me. Well, that was my hope. A particular face emerged in my mind but then evaporated away quickly when my brother finally spoke.
“I am not sure, Father” my brother said, “I love it here in Kragero. The town, the ocean, my friends. I do not want to leave this place.”
My Mother got up from the table and cleared some dishes. She was biting her lip and did not look towards my Father. So many had left already to go to the United States and now she might be losing her son as well. I watched her retreat into the dark kitchen where she lit a small lamp. I wanted to join her, to retreat from this scene, but I sat still instead.
And then I saw it. I had not expected this because of the speech that had come before but My Father’s eyes had wavered – I was sure of it. He had looked away, then back again – it was quick, but I was confident of it now. My brother probably had not seen this as he was still moving the meat around his plate. It was watching my Father’s deep blue eyes that showed me this and suddenly I realized that he probably felt the same as my Mother. Could it be? Then why extol the benefits of a country he had never set foot on, which is what he had been doing since the letter was opened? When he spoke next I began to understand.
“Son, I … I have so little to give you here. I work hard, but …”. There was silence. My brother had glanced up when the words stopped. Perhaps like me he had understood more than words could even convey. Outside the wind continued to blow and I was sure in the morning there would be snow covering the fields. It would be the first snow of the year and it felt ominous that it was arriving tonight.
My brother’s response had been brief and my Father’s reply seemed to defuse the need to explore the topic further that night. The plate with the meat still on it was taken through to the kitchen and I saw my Mother grab hold of the hands that held it and look into his face. I could understand that she did not want to lose a son, even if there were so few opportunities here. “We can make a way”, was her response to most difficulties. She still told us how her own Father had made due with bone porridge during the harsh winters many decades ago. “We can make a way”, that had been her reaction to whatever life had thrown at her. But to lose her son to a ship that would carry him for weeks to a land she would never have the time or money to travel to. What do you do with such a reality?
The next morning I went for a walk very early in the day. The night had not yet given up its hold and the sun seemed weighed down and unable to rise up over the horizon. As my brother had said, the town of Kragero was near to the ocean and walking beside the water was also one of my favorite places to wander. It was sometimes called Perlen blandt kystbyene, “The Pearl of the Coastal Towns”, and if you visit you can see why. The Telemark region has hundreds of islands in that area and the water is a beautiful color blue with tall evergreen trees lining the shore. The trees grow straight and true and are fed by the frequent rain. Some hang precariously on the edges of cliffs above the water below. It looks like they will never fall and crash into the sea they wave a greeting at each day when the breeze blows through their branches.
The snow had not been as heavy as the wind last night had shouted that it might be so I was able to walk easily enough as it was already melting in the sun. I had a destination in mind. My Grandfather’s cottage was at the end of the beach and up a small hill. I knew he would not serve me the bone meal porridge of my Mother’s story. Instead there would be tea and perhaps even a biscuit of some kind. Since my Grandmother Elise had passed away he had learned many new skills and seemed to particularly enjoy baking. I had enjoyed teaching him some of the things I had learned from my mother and now one of my specialties, krub, was his favorite too. I would laugh at him whenever I opened his door in the evening and smelled the sliced potatoes in cheese.
“Grandfather, I see you have stolen my recipe once again.” I would say.
“But of course, my dear” he would gaze at me over his small glasses and reply with a small laugh and smile that turned his whole face into a welcome.
Usually he would be sitting in the small lounge in his favorite upright chair by the window smoking his pipe and reading the newspaper, when he could afford to buy the tobacco and the paper. Sometimes it was just one of those activities instead. His next words were always, “won’t you stay? There just happens to be enough for two”. Of course I always did stay. I loved this game that we played and I knew that he loved it too. He said I reminded him of his daughter, my Mother, and since I was the only granddaughter he had I had grown up being more than a little spoiled by him.
Walking along the path by the shore that day I turned over the conversations at dinner in my mind as if they were smooth rocks I had picked up from this beach. There were so many angles, so many perspectives. What was the right thing to do? Many others from our village and even further afield had made the same decision as my Uncle. They were saying that even in the big cities people were making the decision to move. To leave the “old country”, as they called it once they arrived in America.
I heard a voice shouting. “Sigrid Odegaard”. I turned around and looked back where I had come. The voice yelled again, “Sigrid Odegaard. Sigrid Odegaard!” I had stopped and turned around at this point and was also the only one there so the formality of using my full name seemed rather unnecessary. Then I saw that it was Sarah. I will not lie at this point, I do not care for Sarah. We were in the same class at school and she is only a few weeks older than me. However, you wouldn’t know that from the way she treats me. Well, it is not just me, it was everyone in school younger than she was. She acted as if her birth date had destined her to lord over all who came after her. I think she used my full name because it made us seem less like friends and more as if she was my teacher.
“Sigrid Odegaard”, she said as a statement when she had finally caught up. She stopped a few feet away and put her hands on her hips. She was smiling widely as if she had just been told a secret, like what she was being given for Christmas. I smiled back at her. She was not tall and had what I would only call a solid, sturdy sort of beauty with a wide waist and strong arms. Looking at her mother you could see that she would end up as a very matronly sort of figure. But she had been blessed with striking blue eyes that were the same colour of the ocean we walked beside. They seemed to radiate out and were hard to resist, when she decided you were worthy of their attention.
“I saw you walking off and I thought that I just must speak to you”, Sarah said. I smiled back at her. Smiling seemed easier than talking and I knew she would not need much encouragement to tell me whatever she wanted to say.
“I wanted to make sure you were invited to my house tomorrow afternoon”. She said. I must have looked quite surprised. I had never been inside her house although I had passed by it enough times. Since her father was the Mayor it was hard to miss as it was right in the centre of town.
Sarah had seen the look on my face. “I’ve asked all the girls” she said, to explain. I could guess who they would be. I knew them all well, of course – a dozen or so of us were all around the same age. You couldn’t help but know everyone in a small town like ours. She must have seen some hesitation in my eyes because she opened hers even wider and gave me their full benefit while saying.
“Oh please, you must come. It just won’t be the same if you are not there.” She smiled again at me.
What could I say to that? All I could do was nod and assure her I would come. She turned away and bounced off down the path by the shore back where she had come from. I turned to walk the other way and it was then that I noticed a stone. You may rightly observe that to be a strange thing to notice but I did so. I bent down and picked it up and felt the cold of it lying there in my outstretched palm. It was almost round and the melting snow made it wet and dark, almost black. I brushed it off and slipped it into the left pocket of my skirt and then continued walking.
When I arrived at my Grandfather’s house I could tell he was in because of the smoke that rose from the chimney in imitation of the pipe that seemed to have been built onto his lips. I knocked gently and opened the door at the same time. I could see him around the corner as he was sitting in the kitchen eating some bread for his breakfast. As I came close I could see the butter melting on top and it made me hungry to see the jam he had spread on over that. I sat down and reached for a slice myself. He just nodded and smiled. It was comfortable just to sit together and we did not feel the need to pollute the silence with talking.
“So what have you brought me today?”, he finally asked. He knew there would be something. Whenever I walked along the beach there was something to be found – some dried seaweed, some driftwood, the shell of a crab. I put the stone on the table. He looked at it, then picked it up and lifted it up and down.
“A good size and weight and perfectly flat”, he said, and looked at me.
I nodded back. “It will go far”, he said. We sat again in our comfortable silence until he said, “Let’s go for a walk later”. He knew I would agree because one of the reasons I came so often to see him was the excuse of being outside and going for a walk. I put my hand in the other pocket and felt the letter there. Then I pulled my fingers back slowly and reached for more bread.
By the time we had finished breakfast the sun was much higher. We walked down to the shore, jumping over boulders, and threw rocks like the one I had found so that they would skim along the surface. It was fun to watch them although more often than not the waves would claim them on the first bounce. Eventually we tired of that game and I sat down on a large log that must have been tossed around for years because it was worn smooth. Despite its long journey from some unknown forest the strong wood remained, even if the bark had been completely stripped away. My Grandfather sat down too. He was the same height as me but much thinner. He was too thin, actually. The changes were gradual and it was only by remembering him with my Grandmother that I could picture what he had used to look like. He needed to eat more of that bread and butter and Krub.
“So, how is Peter?” he asked. I gave a little start and wondered how he knew that my mind was thinking of my brother at that moment.
“He is fine. He went with Father today to buy some seed and other supplies,” I replied. I turned my gaze out to the ocean.
My Grandfather looked at me with raised eyebrows. “No, not that Peter,” he said.
I blushed. I could feel it rising up. How did he know about me and Peter Anders? Small town life at work once again no doubt. But there wasn’t really much to say, except for the fact that Peter was the man for me. Of that much I was sure. The last time we had spoken was yesterday, before I had returned home to the drama of my Uncle’s letter. I had every impression that he was thinking about something big as we walked down the road. Something that he was struggling to express and I knew exactly what it was. That lack of communication was my signal because normally we spoke freely and, most importantly, we laughed about everything. I felt like when I was with him I improved somehow and became a better version of myself. A bit like how I felt about my Grandfather, he helped me aspire to become better even if the reward was just a kind word of encouragement from his lips.
Peter was the only son in his family and their family farm was just a few minutes down the road from ours so we had grown up knowing each other. Summers in the fields, winters skiing to school. Originally I had gone over as a child to spend time with his sister Ruth. She was just a few months younger than I was and so we had a lot in common. As the years passed I became a frequent a visitor to their kitchen and spent many mealtimes around the table with their family. That was why It was going to work out perfectly because this way I could still stay near to my parents.
I didn’t know how to express all this to my Grandfather though. It made me feel suddenly shy and uncertain. I diverted the topic away down another road by reaching into my pocket for the folded up letter.
“Father thinks that there may be a better life in America”, I said, as I passed it to him.
I waited some time as I watched him unfold it and begin to read. The Uncle who had written this was on my Father’s side but my Grandfather had known him as a boy as well so all the news and greetings in the letter needed no translation. I watched the birds rising and falling through the air like kites as they plunged into the sea in front of us. If they managed to catch a fish they stayed a while floating on the top, otherwise they took off again to dive down. Over and over they plunged down in search of their elusive prey. I wasn’t sure which I identified with more but I hoped that I was more like the bird, although the fish could always escape by swimming away further and seeking the safety of the dark and deep fjords.
When my Grandfather turned to me finally I saw there were tears in his eyes, but I didn’t understand why until he spoke.
“You should go”, he said.
The words were said in an almost casual way as if he thought I had been asking his permission and he did not want to offend me. I had not expected that response at all and I quickly realised I had not explained fully who my Father had been talking about. My going had certainly never even been hinted at by my Father.
“No, no”, I said quickly, “Not me – Peter. Father thinks that Peter should go to America because there is no farm here to pass on. He is the one with no connections that my Uncle is talking about.” I looked closely at him – at his eyes, his glasses, his white hair poking out from under the brown hat. He was a hard one to read right now, perhaps because of the emotion he had just gone through. He seemed relieved but I could not tell what he was thinking and as we sat in silence I could only guess. I suddenly felt that somehow this silence was covering over a rift between us that I had never expected would be there. I wished that I had the words to transport us back in time what was only really a minute or two but it was now too late.
I knew something deeper had happened when the next morning I found my feet did not turn and take me on my usual path down to my Grandfather’s house. Instead they turned down the long walk towards town and I found myself eventually strolling down the small streets there instead. Houses crowded together hunched over in the rain like beggars. It was a gentle rain today which fell lightly and did not interfere with much. My Father and brothers would be pleased because it had been so dry recently. Over dinner the previous night no one had mentioned the letter or America and instead we had talked only about the animals and the need for rain. I had learned long ago that the weather was both a farmer’s best friend and his worst enemy. In fact, we talked about the weather so much that it almost took on a physical presence in our conversations and sat there in the darkest corner by turns laughing with us in our merriment or shouting at us in our tears.
Despite the soft drizzle of rain this morning there were a number of people out walking through the narrow streets of Kragero. You could hear the sound of the seagulls in the distance. That sound help reinforce to summer time visitors that no where was very far from the sea here. The sound of the water and the birds was the music that accompanied us all through our daily life. At this time of year there were very few who came down from the North to visit. The winter sleep would soon be overtaking everyone throughout Norway as the days grew ever shorter.
Eventually I found myself wandering past the childhood house of Theodor Kittelsen, the painter, until I came to the shore and looked out at the island of Øya a short stones throw away. I sat down and watched the small wooden boats coming and going, looking as if they controlled their own destinies when in fact men with oars and sails directed them here and there. I heard some laughter echoing down the street behind me and then the same voice, “Sigrid Odegaard” it called. “Sigrid Odegaard”. I reluctantly turned from the boats and looked back towards Sarah. She was with two others, Ingrid and Marit, and they were all laughing at some private joke.
“Sigrid Odegaard. I hope you haven’t forgotten this afternoon”, she said, as she walked by where I was. In fact, I had completely forgotten and tried hard to hide my true emotions.
“I’ll be there”, I said to her.
That left me a lot of the rest of the day to fill in so I passed the time visiting different relatives who lived in town. My parents both come from large families so there is no shortage of cousins or Aunts and Uncles. By the time I got to Sarah’s house the wet weather had moved on and a weak sun shone through onto the street. I took it as a good omen as I knocked on the door resolutely.
Sarah’s father Eric opened the door. He smiled down at me from his enormous height. It was hard to understand how his daughter was so short when her father had to stoop to enter most houses. He was a well liked and kind man, as a mayor should be to secure the votes of the public. But he genuinely did seem to care in a way that was not in a hunt for favor in the next election. He spent time even out our way talking with the farmers when the rain stopped for long periods. His large beard covered his entire face and when he laughed he would throw back his head and roar up into the sky in delight.
“Ah, Sigrid, I am glad you could come. How is your Father coping with the weather this year?”. You couldn’t help but respond to the warmth of his personality which made you feel like what you had to say was both important and true.
“Very well, or, I should say, as well as is possible”, I replied as I came in and shook the coat off of my shoulders.
“Yes, yes, I understand, it is very true” he nodded at my words as if I had successfully summarised all that was wrong in Norway and how we might be able to fix every problem while we were at it as well. I smiled, imagining him later that night composing a letter to the King with my comment.
I walked through to a small room where Sarah sat on a small couch with Ingrid on one side with Marit on the other. She looked up at me and then glanced through to the kitchen at the other end of the room where I could hear the sound of glasses and her Mother working away.
“Over here, Sigrid Odegaard”, she called kindly. Sarah signaled to Marit who quickly moved aside so I could sit down beside Sarah.
Sarah’s father had passed through the room and gone into the kitchen. I looked around the room and was frankly very impressed. It made me realize how very modest our own home was to see the comparative luxury here. They had large lamps and paintings were hung from the wall. There were several photos including some of Eric dressed up in his mayoral clothes. The rug underneath our feet felt thick and warm. Through the window I could see the ocean and I thought about how nice it would be to sit on my own and watch the boats from here.
“Will they bring some Akevitt now, Sarah?” whispered Marit across my face, as if I wasn’t there. She sounded excited.
“Yes, yes,” Sarah said, clearly annoyed. She seemed to have been holding her breath so the words were exhaled fast, as if she was quickly batting away a fly. Akevitt was only drunk at special times and I had only ever been allowed to have a sip. It was an alcoholic drink made from potatoes and grain. In the kitchen I heard Sarah’s father laugh and I could picture him in my mind with his head held right back again. I glanced at the photo of him dressed up as the mayor and it made me smile to think of the formality of that picture with his frozen face that contrasted so much with the laughter I could hear now.
I heard another voice joining in the laughter and realised it must be Sarah’s mother. Then I heard a third laugh that had now joined in and I felt my entire body jump involuntarily. My suspicion was confirmed when I saw Eric walk out holding a tray that had 7 small glasses on it. Behind him was Sarah’s mother and behind that walked Peter. They walked out, a merry trio, humming along to some tune that must have been the source of the joke. At any other time I would have been smiling now, just seeing Peter, but the context was all out of place for me. When he saw me he stopped in his tracks and his eyes widened while he still hummed the silly tune. Clearly he had not expected to see me here either.
Sarah’s father placed the tray on a small table and turned to us all with a grand motion, as if he were about to address the hundreds who had voted for him to be mayor. I looked to my side at Sarah and saw that her mouth was open. Not in a smile, more like the moment of anticipation before you begin to speak. Those beautiful blue eyes were narrowed and were watching my face with some kind of pleasure. I turned away from her and saw that Peter had sat down on another couch and was avoiding me, looking at Eric instead.
“I am so pleased that you girls, Sarah’s closest friends, could join us here today on such a happy day.” He turned to the tray and handed the glasses around to each of us. I somehow knew what he would say next and I wanted to close my eyes, as if that might stop it being true.
“An engagement is such a momentous time for a couple and I am so proud of Sarah and Peter and all that they will be to each other, for this community, and for our family.” He said, sounding again like he was talking to his voters.
I felt crushed, numb. I had no words to say, no action I could think of, until my feet took over the situation and I found that I was standing and walking out past Eric, past a petrified version of Peter, out the door, down the road, not even turning around once. I was breathing and walking, breathing and walking. One step and then another.
I thought about my Grandfather a few months later as I looked back through the clouds trying to pick out the last shore of Norway that we would see. My brother Peter stood beside me and we looked at each other with a pursed half smile, each sad in our own private ways. I knew that my brother was secretly thankful for my decision but the look on our Mother’s face would haunt us both for the rest of our lives in that far off land.
But back to my Grandfather. I had visited him even more of course. That final day I had gone to his house, feeling almost like it was a normal stroll, but knowing that this would be the last time I let me feet pick my way down familiar roads.
I knocked and opened the door and we played our little games with conversation. My trunk was packed back at home and tickets had been bought and paid for with a large portion of the cost of mine coming from my Grandfather.
“Grandfather, I don’t know”, I said. “Have I made the right choice?” There was no easy answer, no right answer.
He looked at me through teary eyes. “Sometimes it is the act of making the decision which legitimizes the choice”, he said. “Now that you have chosen, it is the right decision.”
He smiled and walked over to the small fireplace. He reached down inside on the left and pulled something out.
“Did you know that this was my Grandmother’s secret hiding place?” He asked, looking over at me to see my reaction. I was quite astonished because I thought I had explored every part of this house over the years. I had never noticed any such place before.
I was sitting in his favorite chair and he came over beside me. He reached down and placed something into my hands.
It was a rock, but not any ordinary rock. For a start it was perfectly round like the sun. One side was quite a dark colour and it felt cool to touch. The other side had thin white lines which stretched across it almost perfectly forming the shape of a cross.
“I found it here, after she had died. It holds a story, I am sure, but I do not know what it is.” He said.
He folded my fingers over it. “Please take it, to remember me”, he said. “I feel like it is time to pass it on. You were always going to have it. I always knew that. I remember when you were a little girl and came here I thought of giving it to you then but always felt I should wait and, perhaps, now we know why.”
I felt the stone resting there in my hand and nodded, looking up at him. I am nodding in memory of that moment now as I feel the stone in my pocket with my left hand. I turn it over and over and trace the shape with my finger. The strong wind is blowing spray up from the waves below and we are starting to get wet but we continue to stare back at that dark shore which is still an echo on the horizon. After many long minutes Peter takes my arm.
“Come, Sigrid”, he finally says, “it’s time we went inside”.