Norwegian Birchwood Summer
THERE is a certain way birchwood smells burning on a summer's morning in childhood. The white-barked plentiful fuel of northern Norway is pungent split in the shed, but in the cookstove it fills the room with a warm cloying smell like a sweet custard. We cousins and braided cousines ate at the little tables by the cookstoves in the low eating-house across the road from the big white farmhouse. It stood like a ship on a hill with its many porch windows and a flag with a blue cross on red that made it seem very proud. My aunts cooked for everyone on the birch on the two iron stoves in the little house, and at first I thought they were always singing together, then I realized it was simply the sleigh-bell dialect of the north, whose only variant was hus h
ed runners on snow.
My grandfather had plenty of birch stacked in the shed and piled outside, for the long winters and big snows; I had never seen winter on the farm but I knew summer there. Even on warm days the smell of the birch coming out of the cookhouse chimney touched my spirit through smell. The closest I came to deja vu was at a lodge in the Rockies where pancakes were cooked on aspen - probably from the pureness of the altitude and because it was breakfast and summer.
There were good things to eat and terrible things: The blueberries and cream and smoked trout were all right if they were not accompanied by a skin-covered sour milk pudding and if the bones were fleshed out of the fish. My cousins ate everything and were plump and milky. They giggled at the face I made at the stinky milk pudding. I was part of the American family come back for the summer; no one spoke much English, so I had to rely on the tone of the sing-song spoken me. I tried to make friends with my
cousin Astrid; but she ran away with her sister when I tried to say "It's a nice day, isn't it" from a phrase book.
I knew things were going to be different. One evening an aunt took my brother and me up to bed at a hut above the potato field and winked at us we were to have a treat: a cookie, an orange in her apron? No, a broken piece of dried fish!
"Oh, tusen takk, Tante Ingrid!" we said politely as she beamed with pleasure. We held the fish as if it were chocolate to savor later.
I was trying to make sense of all these strange and wonderful relatives. I learned to go to sleep to the sound of rushing water, counting eight waterfalls on the mountains, looking out the window at three in the morning to the all-night sunset, eating what I could. I had been severely warned by my American mama to be polite at all costs. But I couldn't understand all that was said to me, even though we had studied a phrase book before the trip.
Then Torfinn, papa's youngest brother, showed up. He was newly married and just out of college. He was perhaps the most beautiful young man I had ever seen: a carved fresh face rugged as the ancient ranges of Scandinavia. He looked magic, like a Lapp. He spoke Norwegian soft as sleigh-runners on snow in a young masculine song; but he also spoke English.
Through him I could understand. Right away he adopted me and my brother, out of the medley of aunts, uncles, and cousins all staying at the farm.
"It's made with a mixture of soured goat's milk and cow's milk - a favorite of your grandmother," he said about the sour dessert. He never said we had to eat it; but explained it to us as he wanted us to respect things Norwegian. Because I liked grandmother, who cried so passionately at seeing my father back from America, I wanted to like the pudding. But my nose wouldn't agree.
ORFINN showed us the binoculars hanging on the wall of the cookhouse. They hung on a nail between the two stoves and we often used to look out the window into the bright day of grasses and sunshine and across the river to the mountains beyond. He showed us how to adjust them to a child's eyespan and we looked together for elk up high or at summer snow patches, whatever a child tries to see through his imagination and a lens. There were increments of distance of the field in meters. They were very good o n
es, powerful, and fine to hold.
"We captured them from the German Army," Torfinn told us, conspiratorially. In actuality, they had been left in the war retreat from the farm, which had been occupied as a district headquarters. They were a souvenir. We often looked at the barracks in the river from the cookhouse window. The government had put up a chain-link fence on the island, a remaining mystery of the Germans in Norway.
We already knew it was the one place in 20,000 acres of mountain valley we cousins were not to go. It contained undetonated weapons and mysteries from war collected from around the farm.
The binoculars made my brother and me long to go there. We wanted to see what things people had in war. The binoculars hung there for us to look at the camp. Others used them, too, and put them back, like summer books in bookshelves or old games in broken boxes. We were fascinated the camp was intact.
Torfinn came for us mornings to go check the trout net down the river, and spoke to us in formal English, so strange for a young man, while we put our socks on. He told us good stories about our father, his heroics in and around Norway in the war. He took an interest in us "uneducated" cousins that we might know the correct story and be a part of this little kingdom of family.
Walking through the fields, he cleared up why strange Uncle John built his house across the river and lived alone with his cat. "He quite enjoys his solitude. And time to reflect." He explained that our stern-faced grandfather was actually humorous and loved a good joke, something we couldn't tell from his hard face, which showed a life of struggles. He explained our cousins were quite "curious" about us, and if they giggled or didn't always ask us to play, "They are quite concerned and a little embarra s
sed they don't speak English as well as they should."
Torfinn took us in hand. He put the story straight with his young dignity: He wanted us to see what it was to be "a Stromholt."
It was Torfinn then who savedus from getting an eternal blot on our character. Only he, who had such a mind to explain the truth to us and set a standard, could have released us from so terrible a faux pas.
Tempted by the birch smoke trailing across the river, we decided to jump the fence for a quick look at the German camp. It was breaking the one rule of summer, for everyone.
CAN remember on the next-to-last day before leaving, examining a box of shiny dynamite caps with the word ACHTUNG!!! stamped on it. When I looked up, I saw the chain gate ajar, padlock hanging open, and there with his hand out to me, silently - Grandfather! I remember the big creased hand, the gentleness of it, made me want to cry.
Without a word, he led us back, hand-in-hand, across the river, past the cookhouse, where aunts and uncles in festive summer dress were lined up to watch an old man leading his grandchildren to their father... . I wanted never to come to Norway again, ever to see the red-and-blue-cross flag again, I wanted never to see my cousins.
He gave our hands over to my father, and walked away. There was silence all around the farm. I was too scared to run for mama. She had told us severely to be... .
"He says you could have blown up the farm," said Papa. I burst into tears. We were sent to bed early with no supper, in the hut. No one came to see us for a long time. Finally, my cousin Astrid came to the door, running from the woods, with two sweet rolls, buttered for us. I was embarrassed as a girl my age saw my tear-stained face, gave me a kiss, and ran away.
Sometime in the night when we were asleep Torfinn entered and sat in a rocking chair. I awoke him looking at us.
"These gave you away," he said, holding the binoculars in his lap. "That was a dangerous place to be. Most everyone was concerned with your safety. But it's quite natural you boys were interested in the history of the farm."
m so sorry," I said, trying not to weep again.
"It took courage to go there. It was very wrong. But I think you boys will make good Stromholts."
He put the binoculars in a case. He handed them to us.
"Take these. As a going away gift. Everybody would like you to have them. They are for your good care."
It was sometime later home in another country, away from the farm, the cookstoves, and the summer breakfasts, I realized the binoculars had all traces of war or iniquities smoked out of them - the casing smelled of birchwood, sweet and forgiving.