Judging a Book By Its Cover: A Bit of the Backstory

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How does a book cover like this happen?

First, you live the story.  You move with your partner’s professional positions to several different countries, raising a family all along that bump-‘n’-swerve road, picking up languages and friends and a strange mashup of social codes on the fly, keeping a flimsy grip on your sanity some of the time, discovering depths of experience and breadth of  understanding most of the time, acquiring the kind of training that stretches and reshapes you and galvanizes your scraggly gaggle of a family, welding you to each other, to humanity, to this planet.

This life fits you. You fit it. So much so, you can’t imagine anything else, and you fling yourself again and again into the swirl, even forgetting to wash your hair the week of that sunny Sunday morning when your friend, Parson School of Design student Erin, calls up, singing, “The light’s good today, guys! Want to get some candid fam shots by Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on our way to church?”

You’re busy writing all these years, of course, because that is what you do. (Far more than you wash your hair, if you really have to know my grooming habits). You’re writing about this life and how it yanks and pumices and oils your soul.  And then you discern, as you approach a decade of this nomadic life, a distinct inner voice that says you need to get this written into a book.  So you begin capturing the first phase of your nomadic family spiel, the move from Broadway to Norway. “Now is the time to write this story,” the voice persists. “You won’t have another chance like this.  Capture your early family right now, in this unfiltered light.”

So you obey the nudge, and you sit and write that book.  On a big Norwegian table placed squat in the middle of your Paris apartment, you sit.  You write so much you feel frustrated because, zut!, Paris is out there! Why crouch with your back to it, writing? (Because doesn’t everyone in Paris do just this? Crouch somewhere writing while the tourists stride around town?)

A band of motley literati friends critiques your pages.  You change things, change them again, change again and again and realize your own written voice sometimes gets on your nerves. You need a major break from yourself. You need to pack that voice into industrial-sized envelopes and get it into someone else’s ears. You send these fat envelope babies to a bunch of fine publishers with offices in big American cities.  Seventeen of them.  Even before you lick the stamps, you’re feeling like a fool, not to mention a misfit in the face of those distant, hard-edged cities and their mysterious publishing fortresses.  They loom and intimidate, those fortresses, leaving you sleepless and self-flagellating, needing as treatment the equivalent of fity hour-long heated eucalyptus oil full body rubs of reassurance.

Not a one of the seventeen publishing fortresses opens their drawbridge.

All the rejection letters are variations on one polite theme: “We wish you only the very best in your future writing endeavors.”

Well, see? What did I tell everyone?  

So, you tuck that manuscript away, way in the bottom of one of the 400+ boxes you’ve packed to leave your several years in Paris for a new life chapter in Munich.

And the next week, three days into a vacation in the States, and one day after visiting your eldest at his first college dorm, you get a phone call.

That call sends your story – all stories  you’ve ever known or written or told – into a screeching spiral which in its blackwash vortex sucks the air out of the universe. Your story – the old one pinned on paper and crammed in the bottom of a cardboard box, or the new story that your body writes as it crawls through coldening tar – feels massively irrelevant.  There is no more story.  There are no more stories.  There is no use in telling. There is nothing. Everything you now know is unwritable. What remains?  All there is, is loss.

**

Four years later, you’re quietly aware that even though you now live in Singapore where the air is as humid as living in the drying cycle of your dishwasher, there is somehow air to breathe. The cosmos has stopped screeching, reeling and jerking, and in soundless streamlets it has begun to fill back up with meaning. Not the meaning it had before. But meaning far more dense, immutable, textured like a freight rope lassoed around the underside of reality.  Though at times inexplicable, there is a story happening, a weighty narrative materializing as if it were writing itself, drawing you onward.  You write it out, riding it out, the story, and as you do, you move with it.

Your husband, the one you feared at times wouldn’t survive the vortex or its ghostly post-ravage landscape, is regaining traction.  He can laugh and joke and walk upstairs without getting winded.  Then one day, from out of the blue, a noted scholar contacts him, asking him to be one of several subjects for her book on lives like yours; nomadic but anchored lives that circle and recircle the globe.

He agrees. He does the interview. The scholar publishes her book, Cultural Agility, and it quickly becomes a seminal work in the field.

Wise and brilliant friends are constantly encouraging you to keep going, keep writing your stuff, keep knocking on fortress doors. When one such friend suggests you might tap-tap on the door of a publishing house that is just that – a house or a cottage literally, and not a fortress – you end up sitting in the CEO’s kitchen. The man is accessible, responsive and committed to producing your work.  He doesn’t just want to publish it (although he’s eager to do that); he wants to discuss it.  He even wants (get this) to take part in editing it himself.  You Skype at all hours from your opposing sides of the planet, discussing both the literary endeavor as well as the business aspects of such a book project.

“You’ll need to do some things,” Mr. CEO publisher says in one of countless Skype sessions, “which might not be comfortable at first.  Like, you’ll need to begin a blog.

Panic sits on your shoulders like a silverback gorilla in full heat, and you say something to the effect of, “Other options, sir? Like, let’s see. . . swimming around the whole of Australia? Through shark infested waters? In a Lady Gaga suit make of raw sirloin?” You’ve fought long and hard to reenter the world. But enter the virtual world?  That kind of exposure? Can you do that and not disintegrate? You begin chanting an Homeric epic saga about all the reasons blogs (and perhaps publishing altogether) are not for you.

“Start a blog right now,” kindly CEO sir says. “No later than next week.  Right when you begin your move from Singapore. And,” he adds, “I’m sending a contract right now.  Get me your finished manuscript in six months.”

Soon you have all these blog-followers, and you are carefully thriving in that connectivity, and these follower-friends begin chiming in on the progress of the book. (They’re even bossy about designing the cover. They simply take over.)

The scholar who quoted your husband in her book? She’s now quoted on the cover of yours.  Her blurbs are enough to make you run for cover, (neither you nor your own children would ever call you a “role model for all parents”), but you’re hoping everyone will overlook the endorsements’ effusiveness and focus on that darling little ISBN tattoo.

And this time around your twelve-year-old takes your photo for the back cover. For which event, thank goodness, you decide to wash your hair.

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Global Mom: Dreamcoat

Weddings. Messiah barn burnings. Feminine hygiene product pitching. New Orleans Jazz. Embassies. My own Mormon church.  And then at last, a biblical musical. It seemed an appropriately epic way to end our Norway years.

Josef Og Det Utrolige Farvet Drømkåpet needed a lead narrator.  Barbara, my multitalented musician girlfriend was already directing the musical’s children’s chorus and doing orchestrations from a massive keyboard, working her big circle of local music talent to build the band.  She was overbooked.

Since I’d already done the English version, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in New Jersey, the producers thought I might be able to do it here. So I said yes to play the narrator in Norwegian.

Then I became the show’s artistic director.

And choreographer.

And even found myself back stage in one of the performances, training dogs. (They were the biggest hounds I had seen in my life, cast in this show as Ishmaelite camels.)

The closing night of Josef, I walked out into the parking lot, costumes in a suit bag, humming one of the show’s tunes.  When I stood next to my car overlooking Oslo fjord, I stopped abruptly in my tracks.  I looked straight ahead.  Had I not noticed before? Across the road and down one block was a small barrack painted barn red. Next to it, a chain link fence.  There was a gravel parking lot and four swings, a simple metal slide, a teeter-totter. I’d known it all first under a meter of snow. And where I was standing that night, still in my stage makeup, congratulatory roses in my arms, was only a few meters from where I’d once hidden behind the steering wheel of my parked car, thermos of peppermint tea in my hand, scouting out this intimidating but undeniably enticing new world, weighing the dangers of a thing called barnepark, considering the foreignness of this cold, impenetrable land.

Somewhere in the middle of the post show cast party we held at our home, I felt the same vice grip I’d had in that dressing room at the television studios.  The whole Bradford clan, Melissa, Randall and their three children, and a dozen of the main players in the cast were gathered around our long Norwegian table, then watched taped footage of our closing performance of Josef.  Claire bopped up and down in the lap of Anita-Marie. Parker was with Tormod and Per Trygve who’d played Jacob’s oldest sons, Reuben and Simeon, doing phrase-by-phrase translation from the Norwegian text to its English original he had learned when I’d done the show in New Jersey and this nine-year-old son, then three, had memorized the whole script. Dalton, now toddling sturdily, raided every last refreshment platter.  Randall did crowd control and video machine duty while dispensing casual Norwegian one-liners to all our guests. 

Here were the faces.  Faces of real people whose language I spoke and whose humor I caught, whose regional accents I could identify, whose families I’d eaten with and worked with and sung with. These folks, they brought me a Thank You gift.  A Thank You gift! . . .?. . .They said they wanted to thank me for helping with their show, for serving them.  I tried to tell them nei, det er ikke lov! And that they forstår ikke.  I tried, but know I never managed to tell them or Johanne or Britt from barnepark, or Bente or Pia or my whole loving church family, or Barbara or Sigrid from Nesøya Skole, or Ellen my jordmor, or Gunnil from barselgruppe, or the nameless conductor on the sinking Yamaha keyboard, or little Karolina or Louisa who’d checked my grammar as well as my sanity, or strawberry-blonde Jesper who’d just needed toilet paper, or my neighbor who’d hiked over my head and shoveled off my roof, or the many nameless but not faceless others who filled our Norway years – I know I never managed to tell them thank you and that nei, nei, nei, I had not done a thing for them. It was they and their country that had done endless much for my young family and for me.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Farm Wedding

Østfold lies southeast by an hour from Oslo’s talk show and television commercial studios.  In the middle of that county is the village of Ski, and in the middle of Ski is a tiny white stucco chapel.

credit: woophy

There, on one of those brilliantly blue-skied late spring days, Sigrid, the daughter of a prominent local farmer, is getting married, and I’ve been drafted to serenade the day-long traditional farm wedding. What will unfold before me, the only non-Norwegian on hand, is like a movie so enchanting I start to feel I’m unfit as the soundtrack.

I arrive early by car, ready to review the program one last time with the church organist who skids into the gravel parking place on his road bike, and who, with no more ceremony than the nod of his head (which he keeps wiping as he continues to sweat) launches us into a break-neck dash through our program, tearing through four Norwegian love songs at the same speed with which he arrived on his bike. “Well now,” he says, slapping the organ bench, “I think that’ll about do it,” and he’s running over a hill to squirt off at a nearby farm. I’m still catching my breath, leaning against a pillar in the choir loft, when I peer down to see a procession.

A thick, inching sea of rich bunad colors seeps into the chapel’s all-white interior. Figure upon figure, couple upon couple, family upon family file in gracefully, cautiously, as if someone had told them the floor was made of the thinnest sheet of glass.

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There are mostly heavy black wool skirts that swish almost to the floor, barely exposing the occasional edge of white stocking, which meets the black shoes. On the front of the shoes, ornate, pilgrim-like silver buckles.

credit: artemesia1

In some of the many regional versions of bunad, the skirt fronts, as the bodices, are gathered into the waistline with the smallest pleats—dozens of pin-tucked pleats—that make architecture out of wool. They’re encrusted with clusters of embroidered flowers, the sheen of which looks like jewels in the early afternoon light coming in through the high windows.

Everywhere there are balloons of starched white linen sleeves tapering to lace-trimmed cuffs and, on some women, wrist wreaths of silver coins which tinkle and glint, the sunlight flitting on their surface. There are brooches, some larger than your palm, clasped at the top of the bodice near the collar. Some women wear small hats, wool and embroidered too, without brims and close to the shape of the head and in the same color as their dress, tied under the chin with ample satin bows.

And there are small handbags made of matching wool with iridescent embroidery, affixed to a silver chain draped at the waistline.

There are dresses, a dozen among hundred, maybe, that aren’t black or deep red, but are bright cornflower blue.

The men look like they’ve arrived on the last commuter train from Brigadoon: velvet knickers, embroidered vests, white linen shirts, black leprechaun shoes. Some children, just a handful, are there, too.

One mom indiscreetly yanks her Karl-Andreas or Anders-Håvard to attention, and directs him into the pew next to her as she tugs down the bottom of his red vest and re-tucks the bunched hem of his starched shirt.  He’s sullen. Thirteen. Has spent the morning bailing hay or milking his own goat, I fantasize.  Or skateboarding, my inner realist corrects me.

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Here is old Norway, but again contemporary, now-a-day Norway, History and The Present, in all its splendid finery and well-mannered neighborliness waiting reverently for a høy tid.

My organist has traded in smelly lycra bike shorts for full bunad regalia himself, and ashamed that I’m just in my best cream silk suit and heels, I slip behind a marble pillar.  At the same moment, the organ opens up all pipes announcing Sigrid’s arrival.  The groom, vigorous-looking with muscles everywhere, (even in his jaw, which he’s clenching, like his fists), waits at the altar.

Sigrid, also blonde, is fresh and freckled, poised in a simply-cut white satin gown.  She proceeds up the aisle: a cool, tall glass of milk. I’m staring at her while I take a deep breath and begin singing: “Kjaerlighet, varmeste ord på jord. . .”  Love, the warmest word on earth.

credit: andersmadsen

When the ceremony ends, the new couple clambers up into a handsome horse-drawn carriage which, trailed by other horse-drawn carriages carrying parts of their bunad entourage, clops over the rolling hills of Østfold toward Sigrid’s family estate.  The parents who’ve invited me to sing, Solvor and Lars, lean down from their carriage to give me road directions, complicated automobile ones, I’m told. It’s much more direct over the fields.  I’m in a tailored suit with stiletto pumps, driving a motor vehicle with a CD player and automatic windows.  I’ve obviously missed a road sign and driven into the middle of the wrong century.

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This family farm’s got to have its own zip code. Lars escorts me up to a crest beyond the limits of the groomed property that radiates outward from the central manor house, and there points to a place on the horizon that I’m sure must be Sweden.

“It’s just the easternmost edge of the property,” he smiles softly.  Then he swings his arm in a full arc in the other direction and, those specks over there?  Those prominent mountains several kilometers away?  “Also the edge of the family domain.” It’s deep green the entire expanse of it, abruptly tree-rich in spots, deliciously farmable in general. Lars seems too soft-spoken to own a whole county.

credit: woophy

“It’s my husband’s family’s soil, too, you know,” I tell Lars. “Aamodt, Haakon. Thorkildsen, Christian. Farmers going way, way back. Do you know the names?”

“Then,” Lars reaches down and pokes his finger into the earth, drilling it softly, pinching and rolling its brownness in his fingertips like he’s testing its character, “Somewhere not more than a century or so ago, we were family, your husband and I.”

Back at the manor house people are starting to arrive, leaping down from buggies, off of single horses or out of Volvos. Solvor wants me to see the house, and doesn’t hesitate to escort me, room by room, through its every antique corner.  The place is a fortress with massive oak staircases flanked by oak banisters so big you’d need two hands to grab the circumference, leaded-pane windows dating back 300 years, lustrous floors of wide, worn planks bulleted in place by chocolate-colored dowels, hand-tufted carpets brought from Sweden and hand-woven linens from Denmark.  Huge family portraits with their oily sheen on pallid, stern visages line the walls above a stone fireplace that cuts a garage-sized hole in the front salon.  Everywhere I turn there are signs of The Hunt, and rounding a bend a bit too frivolously, I nearly lose an eye on a low-hanging reindeer antler.

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The men look ready for a barn raising, but tonight they’re only reinforcing the orchestra pavilion in the courtyard, and moving into rows the long, decorated banquette tables where wine, breads and dried meats are already being laid by a troop of diligent women. I’m handed a pewter platter of cured venison and a wooden trough of sculpted pickles and radishes to put on a table somewhere and make myself inconspicuous (in my twentieth century silk suit and patent leather stilettos) by being industrious like every last body around me.

Suddenly, the farm’s cutting loose. There’s the metallic commotion of cow bell ringing and wild whooping, everyone around me chanting something in unison, something that’s accelerating, something that has us all stamping our feet and clapping our hands at once.  I dive in full-throttle, although I end up almost falling over when I jab all 4-inches of my  stilettos into black-brown farm soil.

The bride and groom have arrived.

A large woman, Inger, red-headed and white-toothed, clinches her fleshy arm around my shoulder and shoves a glass of wine in my hand, hollering and stamping still.  Since I don’t drink, I wrap my arm around the shoulder of the next guy, Ingemar, white-haired and red-cheeked, do a little holler and a light stamp, and shove the glass into his hand.  He downs it in one hearty swig like water, establishing the drinking blueprint for the rest of the night.

People stay primarily sober for at least the first two hours of the four-hour dinner for two-hundred guests, a spread of gelled vegetable aspic, smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and sour cream with dill, crab and coriander salad, cucumber salad in a light vinaigrette, lamb, and tender little new potatoes, all served in a grand hall downstairs in the central house. I sit on the middle table, not far from Lars and Solvor, who are poised under an enormous stuffed black bear head that looks like it’s belting a high note.

credit: US Gen Web

After dinner and under a sky of polished cobalt, we all dance and sing like barefoot children.  Really like barefoot children, because somewhere between the hired band’s Johann Strauss and Bee Gees, I’ve kicked off my shoes like everyone one else.  Has grass ever felt so cool?  Has the moon ever been so close? Have I ever not lived here, not loved these people, not wanted to sing at every single one of their weddings?

Around four in the morning I watch the delicate, black shadows of horse-drawn carriages tiptoe over the far ridges, disappearing in a rising sun: spiders crawling into a flame.  Motors cough and hum, the trumpet player Hermann is packing it in, the lead singer Nils drops another empty Aquavit bottle onto a pile of many other empty Aquavit bottles.  Its “cli-shink” makes the mottled cat dart under a cleared banquette table.  Solvor comes at me from behind and, putting one arm around my waist, strokes my hair, and draws my head to her shoulder.  A mother’s touch. A new sisters’ pact.

credit: woophy

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Holmenkollen Kapell and T.V.

On another night, it snowed heavily over Oslo, but I was toasty inside. I stood in the fully restored Holmenkollen kappell, a stave church high overlooking the Oslofjord, an important historic landmark built entirely of wood and lit with candles that night so it glowed like a jewel box.

The chapel was packed to SRO capacity. From where I stood at the microphone on stage, who did I see seated front and center? My family. And behind them, Bente, Jan Åke, Børre, Pia, and a whole pod of friends from church and from our island of Nesøya and from Randall’s work. Family, too.

There, as soloist with Norway’s beloved Big Chief Jazz Band, we did a program of American spirituals – When the Saints Go Marching In, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, All Night All Day – and then American holiday favorites – Chestnuts, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas. We got the whole audience swaying and singing along.

 

The founder of Big Chief became my agent and as a means of launching what he hoped would be a concert tour of Norway and Sweden, he got us a spot on the Sunday evening talk and talent show called “Wesenstund.”  That morning at church, our congregation was patting me on the back, wishing me the best.

“Make us proud,” Stein Håvard nodded at me.

“Don’t wear pearls. No jazz in them,” advised Trond.

Lykke til!” Karin said, smiling, her thumbs up for “good luck.”

Ah, those miniscule 15 minutes of fame. I had a total blast singing my heart out with Big Chief, kept a tape of the broadcast, and have watched it exactly once with my parents, who looked both amused and proud.  My great-great grandchildren, if I’m so lucky, will one day find the whole recording an inconceivable, riotous hoot.

There was a moment that evening right before show time when I was alone waiting in my tiny dressing room at the NRK studios, after makeup and hair and tech people had done their preliminary rounds and all the members of Big Chief had patted “lykke til” on my back and gone out a side door for one last smoke.  I sat on a black naugahyde adjustable bar stool in front of one of those mirrors with white bulbs all around, sat there watching my backstage television prompter up in the corner, waiting for Gru to knock on my door with a two-minute signal, watching myself mouthing the texts for two songs we’d only decided on two hours earlier when we’d done light and mike checks.

It was there and all at once that I was oddly in another far-away dressing room. It was that other New York dressing room where there was a big band overture signaling a second act. I was in a green robe and body mike and had just gotten off an odd backstage phone call with Randall when he’d told me that the offer to move to Oslo was real, and it was imminent. I was pulling on my platinum ‘40’s wig and shoving my feet into my heels, trembling a little bit, but not for stage fright.   And though I should have been mouthing texts and mentally going through choreography, in that moment I was mouthing to myself in a low, dreading mumble, “Norway?”

“To minutter igjen,” Gru chirped, leaning into the door.  She smiled from behind her rectangular violet-rimmed glasses, giving me the two-minute signal.

And now my whole chest cramped with such a vice grip of gratitude I was out of breath when I stood up in my blue suede heels, stroking flat the wrinkled blue velvet on my thighs, shaking my shoulders under my red slik blouse to loosen things up, humming up and down the scale to warm my chords.  I walked through that shadowy, curtainy darkness every stage person knows so well, thinking the whole time of my little family, my my kind husband and our three beautiful children all  lined up in front of the television on their knees and in their jammies, watching impatiently through the first parts of this Norwegian talk show – Norwegian they now actually understood word for word. Giggling. Shuushing. Eyes wide. Chubby faces. Somehow slightly reverent. Waiting to see their Mamma sing.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Velkommen til Lofoten

Randall’s work routinely invited employees and their partners on occasional trips somewhere in Scandinavia. The most memorable of these for me was to the dramatic beauty of the Lofoten Islands north of the Arctic Circle.  It wasn’t, however, the dramatic beauty of those picturesque black blades of angry granite shooting out of the silver plate of sea that made the trip memorable. There was other drama awaiting us.

Before we board for the intended six hour hydrofoil ride from the mainland to the islands, a crew member with a cleft chin, missing teeth, and a closely cropped red beard announces casually that this will be a rough ride.  North Sea. Midwinter. Choppy waters. Brace yourselves. Grimly, mechanically, the crew is moving about, battening down hatches, slamming doors shut, unbolting and then belting life jackets and life preservers.

Norwegians, for all their virtues, will not hear that any thing is supposedly rough or hard. Because, naturally, they are what’s rough, they are the thing that’s hardy. Everyone on board is elbowing the next person as if to say, “This chap said what? Ho-ho! Bring on rough.

Oskar and Mette, our friends, are seated right behind us.  While the engines rumble and the vessel jerks and crunches into position, these two are sharing snacks from their hand luggage, giggling, chortling. There are other friends of ours everywhere we look, too, lusty, hunky-dory travelers, who ignore the engine grinding into full ear-slamming throttle and the muffled crew member’s advice over the intercom: We’re heading out. Best to be seated. Waters are especially lively with the wind coming down from the northwest.  We’ll be heading straight into it. Please sit down.  Really.

So these Norwegians, not wanting to be told this might test their Norwegianness, reluctantly find their seats.  A few guys are slapping backs and sniggering, rolling their eyes like high school seniors who’ve just been told by the squirrely substitute teacher to return to their seats and listen to the lecture like all the other nerds.  They’re just about on their cushions when, in the space of 0.3 seconds, the vessel lurches from a perfect stand-still to mach speed and I’m slammed into the headrest, cheeks fluttering, gums exposed. A collective Whuuoooh rises like a wave from the passengers and out my little porthole to the left I see we’re slicing like a power saw through a deeply grooved and teethy horizon, gun metal razors spitting silver shavings every direction into the air.

With each hump of air we sail over, we’re airborne, a good half-foot above our seats.  I’m whehing and aaahing and ooohing like everyone else, flopping wildly up and out of  and slapping back down into my seat.  At first this is so funny.  We all move like synchronized swimmers, hair flying, limbs rubbery. It’s carnival time.  But the roller coaster’s not ending like any predictable amusement park ride.  It doesn’t let up at all, in fact. It gets worse.  We’re strapped on the back of some rabid cosmic bronco, all hundred or so of us, being randomly whacked and thrashed until our jaws are unhinging, our heads on the verge of being snapped off.

The mood gets heavy.  Only a weak laugh or two – Ha. Ho. Ha-ha. – just a couple of diehard one-liners from a log-throwing type back there in the corner.  And then instantaneous and complete cricket chirp.

Chirp.

Chirp.

Chirp.

And the rhythmic slosh of ocean slapping metal.

Slosh. Whish. Whoosh. Slosh. Whish. Whoosh.

“Oh, Lord,” I hear Oskar mumble, “Make me pass out soon.”

And then the scene gets juicy.  From the silent spaces between the whish-whooshes of the steely walls of our vessels cutting the steelier wall of ocean, someone hurls.  Someone hurls in that hacking, open-throated, intensity that cracks the tomb and immediately fills the air with the raw sting of bile.  We are quiet, so quiet, so deathly quiet, and the chopping of the water keeps mocking, kershlocking our insides.

I can ride this, like labor pains I can ride this, yes, and ride it through, ride it out, I can, I know I can, yes, ride this, riiiiide.  But my whole interior feels whoosh-sloshed and my brain is whishing soupily in my skull.  Someone grunts “I need air,” and a bunch of people follow his drunk-like tread out through the ship’s back door and to a small deck. Randall, who’s to my right sitting chipper and looking in the pink, nods to me, motioning that he’ll go around to see if anyone needs help.  So like him to be impervious and pleasant, even when slamming and violently gyroscoping through the lowest bowels of Odin’s wrath.

Mette and Oskar are still behind me, groaning and grousing, and all at once Oskar, (who’s a big guy with friendly jowls and a thick neck), projectile vomits.  Something damp lands on the back of my ear.  “Oh, come on, Oskar.  Do you have to be so loud?” Mette is still friendly though she chides him. After all, they are newlyweds. I happen to have sung at their wedding just a few months earlier, and therefore feel a certain investment in their marital bliss. Do you need a piece of gum, I would say? A Tic Tac? In other circumstances, yeah, but for now, forget it, I can’t as much as move my hand to open my bag to get them anything if I had it to offer help in the first place, but I do manage to turn halfway and wink, I believe, wink spritely while I feel an ochre-toned sludgeness glurping from my lower limbs up through my torso, spreading like rancid greenish pancake batter across my whole being, up, out, upward, outward toward my esophagus and tingling toward my trachea. My jaw goes totally slack. I schlurbble something bubbly from my lips toward Mette, caught as I am in that haf-winky-turn, unable to rotate my shoulders back toward my seat, afraid to move at all, and so I watch helplessly at Mette, whose got her hands wrapped around her head and her head between her knees and her knees drawn up to her chest, and is now rocking softly. Not a sound comes from her.  And Oskar’s friendly jowls have gone Alfred Hitchcocky; they’ve melted into moroseness the shade of recycled cooking oil.  Mette’s hair, I see, has been in the line of Oskar’s fire. But she’s oblivious.  She will not yet lose patience with her puking new husband. For this moment, they’re doing splendidly.

So I turn away and pin myself to my porthole, begging inwardly for Oskar to at least keep his vomit within his own aisle.

The red-beareded crew member is striding by, casually doling out these tidy, pint-sized white bags.  He’s just riding this Perfect Storm, this fellow, riding it like you ride a parade float on freshly spread asphalt. Cruisin’.  He hands me a bag and I smile in thanks, but I sense my lips have been replaced by those from a horny toad and I’m coming undone, becoming amphibious.  Focus, focusConcentrate, concentrate. Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale. . .

Out my porthole is the horizon, so cruelly removed, so placid way out there, so unconcerned, conceited, so stuck up, that horizon.  I drill my glare right into its line and start Lamaze breathing. I am becoming one with the horizon.  It is in me.  I, in it.

Horizon.

Horizen. Zen.

Ohmmm.

Is that Oskar softly crying?

My back is turned from the grisly scene where I know everyone’s hacking, groaning, buckled over and falling sideways into seats, legs slumped in all directions or curled into the fetal position.  Someone’s spread eagle on the grimy Astroturf floor, her fur coat speckled with someone else’s (I assume Oskar’s?) fluids. More people are heading outside, trudging over the limbs of the vomit-coated victim in the middle of the floor.  Each time the vessel takes air, she’s a couple of centimeters or more off the floor, and then comes thumping back down again limply.  Barely a whimper.

I need to escape Oskar The Spewer, so I rise from my seat like an arthritic head of state, ready to address my executioners, eyes closed, shuffling blindly toward air. Along the vessel’s railing outside there’s a line up of rear ends above half-buckled knees.  A couple of bodies are even on their knees, arms strung through the railing, grips loose or clenched, heads tucked into the chest.

Per Olav, tall, barrel-chested, normally gregarious enough to do rollicking Elvis impersonations at company dinners, stands in the middle of the crouching cluster where he’s letting out a low, sonorous Gregorian chant of a growl.  His lips are chalky.  His eyes are sunken and red. His pockets are bulging with crisp white vomit bags. Then in one movement his head’s in one of those bags he holds with two lifeless fingers, he’s convulsing twice, filling the bag, and then he throws the thing into the wake like a trucker throws his twelfth cigarette. “Jeg haaaaaater Lofoten!” (I hate Lofoten) he yells, a mucusy gurgle lubricating each vowel.

The woman next to him isn’t so well prepared and, with a half cry, vomits, too, but into thin air.  Into thick air.  The chunks and juice make a swirling, fireworks kind of pattern and drop on the chest of the pasty-looking man to her right.  Neither she nor the man as much as flinches.

I return to the tangy interior and, eyes half closed, finger my way to my seat. Back in deep meditation, I’m in the most perilous mindset, feeling smug, convinced I might actually end up being one of the superior two or three übercreatures here who survives intact, without spilling or splitting my gut. I’m all calm, all peaceful now, and by sheer force of will I’m hummy-dumming something to my frontal lobe while my eyes, blinkless, channel the sea gods.  A small circle of my forehead is melding with the cool, steady glass of my porthole window, and I see nothing, know nothing but the steady, perfect serenity of the horizon.  I am that line.  I am the line. I am a line. I am in line. Line. Line.  Line.

Then the unthinkable happens.  A tap-tap-tap on my shoulder.  My teeth I grit so tightly I can’t speak, can’t respond, and though I do not want to turn – no, I can not turn, glued as my skull is to the glass – I’m chronically polite.  I turn.  The way people freshly set in neck braces turn, I turn.  I tuuuuuurn my head while peeeeeeeling my eyes off my line. And here: Randall’s blue eyes. “So. . . how you doing?” he whispers sympathetically, leaning close to me. His tenderness undoes me.

That he’s able to rip out and open one of those white bags in time to catch the perfect upward arc of my vomit, remains to this day a moment of matrimonial wonder.  And he never even winces when that eruption comes with the same sound and force you get when you rip a whole gymnasium’s carpet off of super adhesive on cement. He extends me a scented moist towelette.

Six virulently fetid hours later, the world stops beating us up, the sky settles down, the hydrofoil shudders into harbor. I smack my lips, drag my trembling fingers through my sweaty hair, and look around to see that every last one of us (but Randall) has just stepped out of the ring with The Destroyer.  Folks have bruises and abrasions, clothes are torn and soiled, hair is plastered into gummy, geometric shapes, someone actually has a gash on his face and Anita, dear Anita, Randall’s assistant, has broken her ankle.

The huddled masses yearning to breathe free stagger into the linoleum-tiled entry port at Lofoten Islands.  I am relieved to see Mette and Oskar limping together, even if the young husband is leaning heavily on the young wife, and the wife is looking with disgust in the other direction while handing husband his wadded sweatshirt, which he takes in one hand as if barely coming out of full anesthesia, and uses like a towel to wipe off the last drips of bile clinging to his chin.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Vi er Norske!

Dalton Haakon Bradford. We chose the name for our baby because Dalton, as you’ve gathered, is my maiden name. And Haakon  (pronounced similarly to “hoe cone”, but that’s where similarity ends), is one of those big names of Norwegian royalty, much like Charles or George in England, Louis and Philip in France. It happens, for instance, to also be the name of the current Norwegian crown prince, Haakon Magnus.

Royal lineage, however, has nothing to do with why we wanted that name for our Viking baby.  Personal lineage has.  Haakon is an important name from Randall’s maternal line.  In the year of 1856, Haakon Aamodt, Randall’s great grandfather and the youngest branch of at least a dozen generations of farming family from the county of Østfold, Norway, joined the Mormon church.  Summarily kicked out of the King’s Royal Navy, he did what thousands of European Mormons of that time were doing.  He took himself a wife, Julia Josephine, and emigrated to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Although you might not believe this, we knew nothing of Haakon’s story until we’d lived in Norway over a year.  It’s then we got a letter from Randall’s oldest sister, who had more or less inherited the matriarchal and family history responsibility when their mother, Shirley, had passed away suddenly less than a year before we’d been offered the job in Oslo. Shirley had been a charitable, humble, self-effacing person who shared few of the details of her upbringing, and even fewer of her extended family history.  And so we all understood only that her heritage was vaguely Scandinavian, but the details ended there.

So it came as a surprise when this oldest sister put two and two together and discovered that their mother Shirley was only three generations removed from a small community right in the middle of the endless rolling farmland of the county of Østfold, less than an hour’s drive from our doorstep which was a few minutes west of Oslo.  It seemed that Shirley’s father, Albert Aamodt, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Haakon and Julia.  Haakon’s father was Christian Torkildsen who lived on one of the many Aamodt farms in Østofld and, as was the way then, took the name of the farm, Aamodt.  Our research told us that preceding Christian, there were ten consistently linked generations from that one corner of Østfold.  In other words, the Aamodt line is Østfold.

We figured it was a good place to start looking for family.  So we packed up the kids and took off one day in search of the first church with a graveyard in that county.  Not only did we find that, but a nice older couple out for a stroll that afternoon pointed us right in the direction of the largest Aamodt farm where they promised us the owner would love to chat.  He was quite interested in genealogy himself.

An hour later I was playing with the children on ancient wooden farm equipment surrounded by goats and cows while Randall waved at me through kitchen windows. Inside, he was seated next to the family’s long pine farm table where he and other Aamodts shared glasses of cider pressed from their local apples. This American son talked family matters with these Norwegian sons.

All these generations, and there Randall stood, right on Haakon’s very patch of natal soil. Serendipity, a professional stroke of luck, and we believe Shirley’s quiet celestial lobbying had landed us, an American family of five, less than an hour from the roots of Randall’s family tree.  Using Haakon’s name for our child born in his country, a country Haakon never set eye on again after emigrating for his faith from the verdant fjords to a chalky expanse of an unknown desert, was our small way of gratefully closing the family circle.

Dalton Haakon Bradford.  The string of firm, double-syllabled titles seemed to fit his dense, big-boned build.  A strong, heavily-connected appellation for a strong, heavy boy.

But the Norwegian government would have nothing to do with it.

After submitting the name to the civil registry, we got a note back saying Haakon was great, but Dalton?

Nei, det er ikke lov.

Not allowed.  Our choice was “unacceptable.”

Unacceptable?

Unusual, maybe. I could accept that.  But unacceptable?  Pshaw.

We read on. There were several points detailed in the nice shiny brochure they’d enclosed which outlined which names one must avoid in Norway.  I recall some vague guideline about not giving a child a name that would be “disadvantageous” to him in adulthood.  Here, I suspected they were thinking of Chastity Bono, Moon Unit or Dweezle Zappa, and any number of American mashups meant to evoke father, mother, eye color and astrological sign in one fell swoop.

Marvellabluvirgo. For instance.

Furthermore, the pamphlet instructed us, the parents were not to use as a given name the mother’s maiden name (our first infraction), nor any last name for that matter, to avoid doubling up on names when one marries. Messing up the genealogy charts and stuff.  An Olson Olson. A Carlson Carlson. Marvellabluvirgo Marvellabluvirgo.

Oh, the effrontery.

But wait! You’re thinking, (as we were), that Dalton was, 1) a boy, so he would not, given the tradition, take on the married name of his Norwegian bride with the family name of Dalton and become a freakish and stuttering Dalton Dalton, and, 2) the name Dalton is not Norwegian in the first place, so the chances were less than zero that there would be someone in this vast country named –

Randall whipped up the phone and brandished his finest, most professional Norwegian which was by now and in this moment of frustration, polished and gushing at full force like a 300 meter Norwegian waterfall after thaw.

“This is the Norwegian Civil Registry. I’m Snorre at the office of Name Laws. May I help you?

“Yes. Good day, Snorre. I’d like to name my baby.  What I want.”

“Let’s see. . .are you Norwegian citizens?”

“Nope. Neither is the baby. We’re temporary residents in your lovely country. So of course we can’t be subject to your Name Laws.”

“Let’s see. . .let me transfer you to my colleague.”

“Hello, this is Odd.”

“Hello, Odd.  I am Randall.  Neither my newborn baby nor my wife nor I are Norwegian citizens and we want to name this baby what we want.  We’ve decided on Dalton Haakon. Is his going to present any problems for your office, your country, King Harald and Queen Sonja? And if it does, what if I name him anyway? You going to confiscate him?”

(Goodwill snicker.)

No snicker back.

“Actually, Randall, in order to receive a Norwegian birth certificate, you have to comply with our Name Laws. If you do not comply, no certificate.  No certificate? No passport.  And your son is then officially illegitimate.”

“Alrightee, Odd. May I speak with your supervisor?”

“Hello, this is Hrothgar, office of Name Laws.  You might want to consider putting your son’s second name, Haakon, first, and just putting Dalton second.  This is a good compromise, don’t you think? According to this footnote, you can, in fact, use a family name as a second name. But not as a first.”

“No, Hrothgar,” Randall said, “I think not. My baby.  My name. No compromise.”

“Then I’m afraid I can’t help you. We at Norway’s Name Law office want to protect your child.  If one day your son marries someone Norwegian with the last name Dalton—”

“Time out, time out, Hrothgar!  First, help me understand, would you please, how many people with the last name of Dalton are currently living in Norway?”

Pause. Computer click-click-click sounds.

“There are. . .hmmm. . . six.  I see there is. . .um.. . one Dalton on an island off the southwestern coast.  And one Dalton. . .let’s see. . .yes. . . northeast of Hammerfest near the Arctic Circle and–”

“Right.  Okay, so what’s the probability of this little baby Dalton Bradford one day marrying one of these Daltons and then crashing Norway’s entire genealogical data system by taking her name and becoming Dalton Dalton?”

Silence.

“Well. . . Randall. . . there is still the other issue.”

“The other issue?”

“We just can’t be sure that Dalton is an acceptable first name.  I’ve checked, and it’s nowhere on our Acceptable Names list.  It is normally a last name, your wife’s last name, am I not right?”

“Hrothgar, may I speak with your supervisor?”

“Hello, this is Beowulf.  You are calling about the Name Laws, aren’t you?”

“Right, yes. Okay listen. Dalton is a fully acceptable first and last name. And to make everyone happy, I’ll personally see to it that our son not marry a Someone Dalton from the Polar ice cap. In fact, I won’t even let him date anyone from there.  Can we just name our baby what we want?”

“For this exception, Randall, you will need to provide a letter of intercession from your native government. Then, you will have to be able to show proof that this name Dalton is acceptable.  Solid, tangible proof.”

So did you know that you can, if you really have to, receive via Fed Ex Express vintage bubble gum cards of the New Orleans Saints football player, Dalton Hilliard? A CD cover featuring Dalton Baldwin as accompanist? And title pages of every last one of Dalton Trumbo’s screenplays?

A fortune for all that plus a paltry bribe of one packet of El Paso Taco seasoning for an Embassy affiliate, and we got the obsequious letter begging for the right to name our baby as we, and as his great-great intervening Norwegian grandfather who must have been smiling somewhere, wished.

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Viking Mother

Although I’ve escorted my readers to a certain chronological spot in this story, the spot that welcomed Luc William to Versailles and introduced me to mothering in France, I can’t resist looping back to Norway for a post or two. That was the spot, as you remember, that welcomed Dalton Haakon to Oslo and introduced me to mothering in Norway. There, a new me was birthed. Please meet Melissa the Viking Mother:

From Global Mom: A Memoir

Nursing baby Dalton meant doing so every other hour on the hour around the clock.  This child was draining fluids from every inch of my being including my uvula, so my doctor suggested that rather than switch to formula (which was unnatural, so of course vociferously discouraged in Norway), I rent a pump.

Increase lactation, he said.

Churn some serious cream.

This pump I got must have been a design joint venture between Hummer and Hoover.  It sat like an idling dune buggy on our kitchen floor and when I strapped it on, I had to buckle myself to a piece of heavy furniture to keep from being yanked across the room.  It could have sucked the chrome off a trailer hitch, as could have Dalton.  After only a couple of months, I was almost ready to stop the nursing/vacuuming experiment because I noticed all my internal organs had been rearranged and pulled to the surface. (When I did eventually wean him, Dalton went straight to reindeer steaks, if that gives you an idea of what kind of appetite we were dealing with.)

Thankfully, I had my barselgruppe, a typically Norwegian wonder that is an essential component of being a viking mother. Barsel is a word for birth, and your barsel group is a support community for those first months of a baby’s life or forever.  When Dalton was born, the state registered me along with five other freshly delivered mothers from my immediate geographic surroundings to be part of a support group led by a nurse/social worker who specialized in postnatal adjustment, family counseling and facets of early childhood education.

Every month in the nurse’s station of Nesøya Skole down our street on the island, we mothers met with our supervising worker named Gunnil and shared snacks and stories while discussing our babies and ourselves.  Was little Morton sleeping? Was darling Kerstin on solids yet? Was Melissa’s breast pump available to take a spin around the block or to vacuum out someone’s garage? We kept this up for a year and then, as was often the case with these groups, ours took on a life of its own and we met independently at one of our homes, a corner café, or walking out along the fjord.  It wasn’t uncommon in Norwegian culture to keep these barsel friends for life. Lots of women I knew attended the marriages of the babies, now fully grown, whose births had brought their moms together.

One day at barselgruppe, we discussed milk.

One of the mothers just had too much of it, she said. Constantly leaking all over the place, very annoying and inconvenient, not to mention messy and embarrassing, she sighed. So Gunnil suggested this mother bag all the extra milk her baby didn’t consume, and take those bags to the melkebank , the local annex of the hospital created expressly (no pun intended) for this purpose.

That mother had a slight build, but was ample in maternally strategic places.  She sat right next to a lanky brunette, naturally beautiful in jeans from about 1974, with capable large-knuckled hands that had milky unpolished nails.  Her manner was cool and solid, like a big deep ceramic basin of setting mascarpone.

When I then mentioned I was becoming totally drained emotionally from being so totally drained mammarily, someone in the circle suggested I go to the melkebank.  If there were deposits, there were withdrawals.

For dried up women.  Like me.

“Maybe I’ll take my extra milk there,” another mother said. “I’m constantly soaking my shirts.”

“And I’ve got too much, too,” the mother sitting to my right added. “Mornings, my bed is drenched.”

“Me, too!” a first-time mother of twins exclaimed.

“You know, with all my three babies it’s been the same story,” the brunette basin of mascarpone interjected, curling her long legs up under her hips on the couch.  “I make more milk than my father’s cows did.  And that milk fed us five children when I was growing up.  I’ve got cow DNA.”

Laughter and sisterly eye-winking all around the room.  But for me.

Because right then is when I started feeling about as succulent as the last potato chip in the bag, no more use to my hungry baby than a couple of medium-sized, plastic-wrapped, year-old fortune cookies. Without the fortune.

“Maybe you need to eat more,” suggested Gunnil, motioning to a piece of chocolate cake.

“Some foods help stimulate production,” a woman said, taking a big bite of the gooey dark confection.

“Foods like chocolate, I hope?” I asked, and bit deep into my piece of cake brought this time, as last time and like the time before, by the deep cheese brunette. I had noticed she always brought rich things like dense brownies and carrot cake and creamy toffee bars, so not only was she apparently our barselgruppe’s crowned Dairy Queen, but she was the Treat Goddess to boot.

Maybe I had a mild case of milk envy. But you understand that I was, as I’ve told you, doing all I could but was still not quite able to keep the milk wagon stocked for Dalton. My mommy ego was growing concave.

“Funny,” Miss Treat Goddess Milky Way spoke up softly, “I’ve never donated to the melkebank.  All this extra milk, you know, I just keep it in my freezer.”

“In your freezer?” the mother of twins, also helping herself to a second piece of cake, nearly laughed. “Why in your freezer?”

“Because it has so many uses.”

Gunnil, putting aside her cake and licking her fingers, reached for her notepad and pen to take notes. “Uses? For example?”

“Well. . .” Ms. Lactose smiled as golden as a cube of chilled butter, “It’s good, for example, for treating pink eye.”

“Yes, I’ve heard this,” Gunnil jotted a note. “Full of antibacterial properties.”

“And for softening cracked skin,” Yogurt Gal told us, those lean hands looking smoother than I’d noticed before.

I downed three big mouthfuls of cake.

“Yes, it’s rich in emollients,” Gunnil was nodding around the circle, hoping we were all listening to this perfect example.

“But really,” our Lady of La Leche said, “I don’t use it so much for all that.”

“Oh?” the mother of twins said, licking her lips.

“Oh?” the mother to my right wiped crumbs from her chin.

“Oh?” I swallowed my fifth bite.

“Then how do you use all your extra milk?” Gunnil’s pen was waiting.

“I use it all in my baking,” Curdle Girl said, perky as a dollop of whipped cream. “Another piece, Melissa?”

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Julestemning

Christmas in Norway.

Three words, and my bones go all cheese fonduey.

That’s  because there is, even in my memory, a special spirit to a Norwegian Christmas.  With New Jersey’s jingle jangle still in my head, Norway’s quiet spirit caught me off guard the first Christmas we lived on our island.  And during all the Christmases that followed, I felt slowed down, whoa-ed down. Again and again and again.

Christmas in Norway is synonymous with making music, and since singing was my job, I did a lot of it during the holidays.  Where did I sing, with whom and what? Let’s just say the range was eclectic.   “Chestnuts Roasting” and other American standards with a jazz band in Holmenkollen kappell, a restored stave church high overlooking the Oslo fjord. The “Messiah” with an electronic keyboard run by a generator in a dilapidated barn hidden deep in the mountains. (I was offered an ankle length military uniform coat from an audience member, which I accepted so I could sing the soprano solos without getting whiplash from my teeth-chattering.) Scandinavian folk tunes with traditional instruments surrounded by candlelight in a stark Lutheran church. Spirituals with trumpets, sax and drums on Norway’s answer to The Tonight Snow.   “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a screen test for a national T.V. commercial.  Brahms with full orchestra and viola descant in a sumptuous opera house.  Simple hymns with our Mormon congregation’s small and struggling yet achingly sincere choir.

Then there was that most unforgettable of Christmases: The Viking Birth. That’s when I sang out five-kilo Dalton Haakon on a high note of “Amazing Grace”:

“And grace my fears relieeeeeeeeeeeeved.”

And grace sure did.

This post will be the last that focuses on our Norway years contained in the first few chapters of Global Mom, A Memoir, coming to you in January.  The next posts about Global Mom will introduce you to France, or more specifically to Versailles, where we first landed straight from our Nordic island isolation.

Versailles of the Sun King. Of the famous château.  And of our son, our petit prince, Luc William.  And of the not-so-famous château where he was born.

Then I’ll give you a good long look at Paris.

Then Munich. The City of Monks. Our Monastery Years.

Then Singapore. With flash-backs to Hong Kong.

Then Switzerland. With flash-backs to Vienna.

And much of the craggy, glossy, pitch dark, shimmering terrain in between.

So sit back.  It’s October wherever you are in the world.

But right now in Global Mom it’s December.

My attempt at a hand drawn family Christmas portrait one of our last years in Norway.

Global Mom, A Memoir

JULESTEMNING

Bente calls me at 5:30 a.m. Whispering in Norwegian, she tells me to hurry – run!— to the T.V. to catch the broadcast.  My friend has no idea what she’s asking.  I’m almost nine months pregnant, which means running resembles a slo-mo animation of global plate tectonics, my pelvis held together by what feels like no more than three shredded rubber bands.  But I waddle obediently down the stairs and dump my fertile self into the sofa.

Sitting breathless and alone in the darkness, I watch. In total stillness, the program illumines. It is one long, still moment until this crescent of blonde girls dressed in floor-length white gowns and with wreaths and burning candles atop their heads begins singing:

Night walks with heavy steps. . .

Shadows are brooding. . .

In every room so hushed. . .

Whispering like wings. . .

Santa Lucia.  This is the darkest night of the year. And in Norwegian, that means darkness of the underside of the blackest inkiest black.  Something about that thick backdrop makes my anticipation for this moment and for this season more intense,  intimate.  I’m awaiting the Christ child’s birth, awaiting the Bradford child’s birth. The Unknowns; one under the taut skin of my belly, the other under the night skin of the world, and this slow awakening happening in the sphere of my body, in the land of Norway.

Baby rump gyrates up under a rib.  A knee there.  A foot print there.  A head grinding relentlessly like a street dancer spinning on my bladder.  Now he’s rhythmically filing his toenails on my lowest left rib while he hiccups the effects of last night’s spiced lentil soup.  I push down with the heel of my hand. The lump bulges right back again, defiantly. Can he hear the television? Because he’s pulled a lever on his recliner so he can spread eagle from my pancreas to my esophagus. I’m stretchy both in skin and in soul.

Bente has prepped me about Santa Lucia.  “If you want to really get Julestemning, you must watch the performance live or at least on the live broadcast from Stockholm.”

Julestemning is an untranslatable expression, but every Norwegian knows what it means.  Closest thing we have in English is “Christmas spirit.”  But used in English, it conjures up for me at least images of neon pulsing robotically waving snowmen in shopping malls, the slosh of musak in the dairy aisle of your supermarket.  Andy Williams rapping “Ole Saint Nick.”

In Norway, that spirit is different. Deep as the darkness.  Fresh as snowfall in the nighttime.  I hadn’t understood the term, really, when just a few weeks earlier at a Norwegian friend’s house their young adult daughter was on the phone from California. She was there doing a year-long exchange in the land of The O.C., cooler than anything, you’d think. But from her end of the line I could hear she was sucking back tears, sobbing to her family, “Det er ikke Julsestemningnen her enda!” (There’s no Christmas spirit here yet!)

But now I begin to understand. In our basement, in the dark, low in sofa, high in pregnant, I watch the television glow with angel girls singing about the heavy tread of darkness and the pending light, singing with innocence, their faces almost iridescent with the sweet liquid warmth of a musical sunrise, and I’m lulled, nearly half-dozing. Before I can tug on the corner of the blanket that has slipped off my shoulder, I realize I’m draining tears from both eyes.  Crying, for hormones’ sake!  Punch drunk on Julestemning.

Bente, my formidable friend of the predawn phone call, has gifted me with something priceless in that phone call.  She and her family are, in every respect, our tutors in things Norwegian.  This holds true particularly when it comes to holidays and music. Here, she tutors me in Christmas:

“You begin,” Bente’s bright blue eyes widen enthusiastically, “with a thorough Christmas cleaning.”

This means, I learn, on-your-hands-and-knees scrub down of every inch of pine, including the ceiling.  Polishing windows with vinegar and lemon. Beating rugs and bedding and mattresses and bushes.  Flossing your banister. Tipping over the fridge.  Wiping under it.  Picking lint out of the wiry element on the backside of your appliances.  With a Q-tip.

“Then you’re ready for Christmas curtains,” Bente’s adorably girlish Swedish sister-in-law Pia schools me. She is also smiling.

“Curtains” means taking down all your everyday window treatments. Washing them, folding them, storing them in plastic bags you’ve sucked the air out of. And replacing them with flouncy fabric in red and green. Holly berries, candy canes, bows, polar bears, trolls.

“So, where do you pick up these curtains?” I am decidedly curtain challenged, except for stage curtains, which I’d never sewn or laundered.

“Pick them up?  Oh no. You buy the fabric. You sew them.”

“Sew? Curtains? For all your windows?  For every Christmas?”

Was this even legal?

“And after that, you do the syv sorter,” Bente adds, still smiling.  She is tall, has four tall children, and they all have peachy complexions with bright, winning smiles. I conclude it’s a national mandate.

Syv sorter means making seven different sorts of Christmas cookies all in the course of one day. (And there are prescribed sorts, I was to learn, of which Pillsbury ready-bake is not one, you sluggards.) Real Norwegians like Bente are born to do seven sorts in a day and from scratch.  But they are also born with peachy complexions, winning smiles, skis on their feet, a hockey stick in their fist, and something in their constitution that lets them slurp the teensy eggs out of the tails of raw shrimp.  And still smile.

“And don’t forget kransekake,” Pia wants to explain to me, her dimples softening the blow.  By now I’m feverishly scribbling notes. “You start with hand-ground almonds and powdered sugar and — you want to borrow my moulds?” She hands me her cast iron ring moulds for the traditional stacked wreath cake, then pulls me aside. “You can actually buy the dough ready made.” She lowers her voice, “But not a word.”

I’d never seen darling blonde Pia look stern.  This time, she’s glowering.

At Bente’s, we all gather for Christmas Eve.  We have come in our best clothing (Bente and Pia’s children are in Sunday best and opulent traditional Norwegian costume) because, as Christian, Bente’s oldest has told us, this evening will be “litt høytidlig.”

A bit solemn. Formal.  Reverent.

I gather this is code for. Please, pants with belts. Drawstrings and elasticized ankles turned away at the door.  (And you will forever be labeled, “Bumpkin.” )

We gather around Bente’s table set with a great-great-grandmother’s crystal, heirloom silver, china handed down generations. There are candles. There is an order to things, a program. A first course followed by a song.  Another course.  Another song.  There are pewter warming plates and hand-tatted linens from another great-grandmother. The menu includes substantial fare; traditional white sausage, delicately boiled potatoes, steamed Brussel sprouts and caramel pudding right before the crowning treat: stacked rings of the kransekake, each ascending ring decorated with small Norwegian flags.

No paper plates, even Chinette. No feet propped on the coffee table.  No root beer floats in mismatched Jets and Yankees mugs. Not a single popcorn ball, corn dog or Jell-o salad. Nothing of that sort anywhere from the Arctic circle all the way down to the southern border that Christmas Eve.

Just a guess.  But one I’d stake my life on.

LANGBORDET

Given that Christmas in Norway means gathering, we buy a huge table.  This particular three-meter plateau of pine has room for twelve, and we have twelve traditional curved farm chairs made and painted to match.  In a pinch, there is room for fourteen.  Sixteen, if everyone dines armlessly.

Even with the table as talisman, I never really fully master the Norwegian Christmas.  Maybe because it takes much longer than five years to do so. Maybe because I do not really master so very much domestically, if you must know the truth.  I do get all the traditional decorations, serve mounds of fish in every possible state at every one of my gatherings, make vat upon vat of something called gløgg, an onomatopoetically named cider that Norwegians consume with or without alcohol. (But mostly with.  And with lots).

I even perfect my own recipe for gingerbread, the very mortar of any true Norwegian Christmas.  I learn all the local songs about the art and lure of gingerbread-baking. I sing them with my children and add choreography I can still pull off today if you put a kransekake mould to my head. One year, I made enough gingerbread dough to re-shingle our roof.  Then loaded it in my car and took it to church where two dozen children built a scale model of Machu Picchu, looked like. Machu Picchu with shiny green gum drops and red striped fences all around.

In the course of our Norway years, I scrape off the biggest scabs of the vestiges of a crusty old feminism that had preached disdain for all things — for every thing — domestic.  I shimmied out of that brittle role model while also squeezing sideways past The Good Norwegian Housewife one.  (I never, for instance, tipped or Q-tipped my fridge. Never once).  But I took a swan dive into the one domestic task I liked:  Food preparation. Food preparation, specifically, that gets people together. I gave up Gloria Steinem for Rachel Ray and traded in Bella Abzug for Julia Childs.

In fact, I now see that in some ways I at least subconsciously took Mrs. Julia Childs as a muse, a model.  Many years after leaving Norway, after Childs’ death, I saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian which featured her huge meat cleaver-scarred Norwegian farm table. She said it had been the heart of her home.  She even had similar curved farm chairs to mine. Or better, I did to hers. And they were all collected during the time she’d lived in Oslo with her husband, Paul.

Hmm. She’d also lived twice in France.

And once in Germany.

And along the east coast of the U.S.

Now I’ve got you thinking we’re nearly identical, Mrs. Childs and I.

But besides the fact that I am not six feet tall, do not have an arsenal of kitchen knives, have never in my life made a boeuf bourguignon nor, lets be honest, a single pot roast, and besides the tiny fact I’m neither genius nor legend, there is one feature of our lives, of my life and the life of Mrs. Childs, that does not match.

Children.

She had none.

I was bursting with my third.

Which was  good.

But given the paragraphs below,  hard.

**

TROLLS

From my journal:

This year has marked the kids’ surge in growth of all kinds.  Parker’s making great headway with his Norwegian, managing to converse like a native with his little first grade buddies and participating in the church  program with a major speaking part.  Wise Man #1.  And at school for the Christmas program he’s Troll #1. 

Is the universe trying to tell me something?

Parker as a troll in his class Christmas spectacle at Nesøya Skole. The lip liner should be given special credit.

He’s lost teeth right in front so he epitomizes the gangly six-and-a-half-year-old, wild about his sport club, crazy about his weekly swimming classes. Claire has refined a large repertoire of native folk songs which she hollers and croons at all times and in all places.  Both children are sturdy and active,  joyous reminders to us of the vibrancy and hope of childhood.  I can drone on and on about their energy and bright minds, how Claire loves all things theatrical, how Parker has a penchant for memorizing long texts.  Actually, it’s a little creepy, his ability to memorize.  According to his teachers, they’ve never seen the likes. He has something like a perfect aural memory.

But. But. Adjusting to the whole local school thing has been hard work for him. For us all.  HARD.  Parker’s teachers have been terrific—kind, flexible, patient—and the school’s principal, Sigrid, has been an absolute wonder. She’s called me in to conference with her every week—a schedule that will spread out to once a month, we plan—just to make a team out of home and school in order to assure this boy, this first non-Norwegian child they’ve ever had, has a good experience in the school, in Norway.  

So here goes: I came close to crying in yesterday’s conference.  As Sigrid was expressing her concerns about Parker’s behavior (and his four teachers around the table were describing how disruptive he can sometimes be in class, erratic, uncontainable, sometimes explosive), I felt that salty wave climbing my throat.  Times like this I’m convinced that it would have been better for everybody had I stuck with full-time theater, had we not moved to a foreign country, and had I let child care professionals duke it out over this child.  It’s all so tiring.  So deflating.

Point is, I have little natural talent for domesticity, for mothering.  All my other talents, (that short list that’s steadily getting shorter) have no application at home. I can love, love a lot, but that love doesn’t seem to be the pill for Parker.  So while I am listening to the Norwegian terms for this boy — “strong character”, “unchanneled energy”, “sensitive” — I don’t say it out loud but my internal voice is blaring on loudspeaker, “This is too much for me!  This here? It’s nowhere in my skill set!!” 

Well, bless her heart, Sigrid reached across to me when I guess she saw my eyes drop to the table top, and she put her hand on mine;  “Think”, she said, “of the adventure we’d all miss without his powerful presence in our lives!” 

I managed a smile then. But hearing her words now in my mind makes we weep with confused but sweet gratitude for this boy.

And writing those words many years later pierces me straight through.

On Decmeber 29th, approximately 5:30 a.m., I called Bente.  I whispered, “Han er kommet.”

He, our baby boy, has come.

And with that arrival, the arrival of number three, a second son, the dark winter skies confirmed that there was now even less of a chance of turning back from being the worthless and incompetent mother I was wholly convinced I already was.

Darkness shall take flight soon

From earth’s valley.

So she speaks

Wonderful words to us:

A new day will rise again

From the rosy sky. . .

Sankta Lucia! Sankta Lucia!

 

Our three Norwegians.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Global Mom: Barnepark

Another excerpt from the forthcoming book, Global Mom, A Memoir.

Here, I have been advised by my new Norwegian friend, Johanne, to enroll our two barna (children) at our local branch of barnepark, Norway’s ubiquitous outdoor preschool. This is early January, an American’s season for hibernation, hunkering down.  But this is Norway, where weather is only the poorest excuse for escaping.

Besides, after a full week in this new country, I’m already  feeling compelled to go native.

I’ll let my children go first.

Norway, view from our window, 1994

**

Global Mom, A Memoir.

Norwegian Wood, January, 1994

Before petitioning the barnepark, as Johanna had suggested, I first set up a stealth surveillance post. Atop a hill and from behind a pine tree close to Blakstad barnepark, I  hunched behind my steering wheel, warm in my down sleeping bag and earmuffs.  Parker and Claire wore their hats and coats and were wrapped in a massive feather comforter while they read books to each other in the backseat.  I dissected the social experiment playing itself out before me.

Photo credit: Flickr

From this outpost, I spied a trio of red-suited adults (only later did I discover that they were women) standing sentinel amid fifteen to twenty or so small bodies that played in hip-high snow and chased snowflakes with their tongues. The women in red stood there, removed from the activity in the snow.   Unless there was real trouble like the random child stuck head first in a snow bank, limbs flailing wildly for help, the women stood far away, stamping their boots every so often, clouds of breath rising from their faces.  Occasionally, they would sip from thermoses or slap their mittened hands on their thighs. This same silent movie repeated itself all morning long, the sun never really rising very far into the sky, dusk a constant backdrop on those limpid midwinter days.

Photo credit: Flickr

At midday, and with the ring of a hand-held bell, all the children would gather into a small wooden barrack for an hour. After the hour, they emerged again. Repeat of silent movie. All afternoon. I would later learn that this was the pattern, day in and day out, sleet, hail, snow, hell or high water, all year long, for three years of these children’s lives.

And everyone in Norway did this?  Everyone?

Just watching the ice slides made me choke on my swig of peppermint tea from my big green Land’s End thermos. Some of those kids were whizzing so fast down slides packed so hard with gray ice, they looked like upholstered torpedoes shooting out of polished marble barrels.

Claire Bradford, Blakstad barnepark, January 1994

One tiny figure in particular (to whom we still refer today as Hannah the Human Bullet) seized my attention.  She might have been three, but a small three.  Her snowsuit was red as was her little knitted cap that looked just like a strawberry, green twig stem and all.  From where I huddled in my unmarked car, I could just make out her mounds of cheeks; two buffed pinkish apples in a grocer’s crate.  She was either intrepid or on Phen-Phen.  Circuit after circuit, she hiked the slick path to the top of a handmade precipice where she flopped herself prostrate, planted her mittens to get some traction, and like a teensy pebble out of a sling shot, exploded down the steep incline.  Sometimes she landed on her belly.  Sometimes on her back.  Always, she caught some air. No one, least of all Hannah, seemed to flinch at the peril, the astronomical potential for lawsuits, the sure threat of injury.  I, on the other hand, was left winded and jittery just keeping up with her above my dashboard.

Photo credit: Flickr

Kids were roaming about, gluey noses scarlet with cold, all those clouds of breath hanging over their heads like empty thought bubbles in a comic strip. The tall red suited adults only piped up every half hour or son, maybe, while all the children kept doing normal kid-in-snow things like pelting each other with snowballs, grabbing the littler guy’s shovel, constructing elaborate fort and tunnel systems.

When they were whonked over the noggin or got stuck in the frozen tire swing, no one came rushing with theatrical rescues and apologies for the misery of it all.  No one came most of the time, in fact.  Generally, a tall person’s hooded head raised itself a bit, I would hear the faint holler, probably reciting a rule, and the child maneuvered itself to safety or self-consolation.  Once or twice a big person split up a knotted wrangle of clawing cubs, barking in about four syllables something that shut down the scuffle like a lid over fire.

This?  No-sir-ee-sir, my two would never survive.

Photo credit: Flickr

I had raised Parker and Claire — my treasures, my snoogly-wooglies — to be softies. Like me.  Accomodating, even obliging, sensitive.  Freaked by speed.  This Nordic system, as I watched it agape and gasping, would make them hardy, that’s for sure.  But in the process it would give me a heart attack. Putting them here would be like tossing them into a doggoned menagerie, I shuddered, more of a farm, even, than any well-organized playpen.  I second-guessed myself.  I second-guessed the Norwegians.  I was back to second-guessing Norway as a whole.

Parker, Norway, 1994

After a couple of days of playing driver’s seat anthropologist from an unmarked Saab, I slipped into my best jeans which I tucked into my fancy red cowboy boots, a big hit when I’d worn them in New York City, and they made me immediately identifiable as The Girl From Utah.  I pulled on a padded but flattering and therefore actually not so padded and therefore totally useless down parka, and checked my foreign newcomer smile in the mirror while drilling my Norwegian lines. I’d written them out phonetically while Johanna had coached me over the phone. With a prayer in my heart and one bundled child on each hand, I waddled gingerly all the way down the slope to the Blakstad barnepark barrack.

Mother on a snow stroll with children in tow
Note the attempt at a flattering pose. . .

It might have occurred to you that the soles of cowboy boots are meant to slip easily in and out of stirrups, an advantage while roping calves in rodeos.  The relative slickness of the soles helps cowgirls slide in and out of stirrups with ease, even elegance, so they can win big trophies and custom-made chaps.  But this engineering factoid never crossed my mind before I stepped out onto my first Norwegian iceberg.  Lesson learned? Aerodynamically designed boot toes and high-gloss soles are no help on a 70˚ angle of black ice.

Parker, Norway, 1994

Slush-splattered, a massive bruise forming on my left hip and limping lightly, we arrived.  I’d timed our entrance for noon, knowing this was the children’s lunchtime, a prime opportunity to beg for dagbarn plasser.  A few whacks on the wooden door and a very tall, attractive brunette woman wearing several layers of woolen sweaters under a lumpy red snowsuit unzipped to and gathered at her waist, opened to me.  Her pronounced, flushed cheekbones pointed right to her broad, sympathetic smile.  Behind her shoulder I caught sight of a spartan but cozy interior filled with a whole picnic table of ruddy-cheeked children, most of them toe-headed, leaning over small bundles of what must have been sack lunches.

In silence they examined their strange, shivering visitors.

Blakstad barnepark, Norway, January 1994

Two other blonde women, also in half-zipped red jump suits, appeared to be manning the lunch break.  The interior looked so soothing after the piercing cold outside. Claire, shy and clingy in new situations, was gripping my brittle fingers so desperately I thought they’d break. And both children really needed a toilet.  I was afraid.  Afraid for them.  Afraid for me.  My feet were searing with pain. My rump was soggy and sore. I searched inwardly for my first line.  This is where my years as an actress kicked in, shoving me through stage fright.

The woman waited, smiling.

I was frozen on all levels.

I licked my lips to defrost them, but they remained immobile.

Out of a mouth that felt like two stacked Goodyear radials I forced a smile and the following in halting Norwegian:

“Good day.  Sorry that I disturb.  We are Americans.  We inhabit house not far.  We freeze.  Have you dagbarn?”

Tall, gentle tante Britt, as I later learned was her name, responded in Norwegian-For-The-Learning-And-Hearing-Impaired, and drew me at once into the barrack and into a wobbly but warm conversation.  All this was done while the two blondes, (whom I was later to know as tante Eva and tante Anna) invited Parker and Claire over to sit on a bench and sing nursery songs with the others while I beat my hands back to life.  They smiled, my two, a bit stiff with fear of separation and all-eyes-on-us self-conciousness.  But that lasted less than five minutes.

Picnic time, Blakstad barnepark, Norway, January 1994

My hands began thawing. The palms started itching like crazy.  I watched my two wriggle into a place between other children on the bench. Claire’s cheeks a flaming shade of fuchsia, Parker’s bangs matted and angular after he tugged off his thin American beanie.  A spot in my lower torso felt ignited, heat-filled, by the sight of my two crammed in between a girl, maybe four, and another, not much older. The first sat next to Claire and secretly put her hand on Claire’s thigh, smiling, whispering something Claire of course could not understand, but to which Claire nodded a bit sideways.  This is where that torso hot spot took quiet flame.  I honestly felt warmer. My eyes must have been defrosting, I knew this, because they were leaking down both cheeks.

But my fingers remained concrete.  I never did get blood to them, in fact, but I nevertheless managed to sign, in runic alphabet, the sheet of paper that admitted our two as dagbarn the next morning.

Parker Bradford at barnepark

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Global Mom: Snow Angels

As promised, a short teaser for Global Mom.

This comes from early in the book, soon after we have moved from the Bright Lights of Broadway to the Northern Lights of Norway.  Randall has been invited with his new team at work to attend a week of the Olympic Games in Lillehammer.  I am with four-year-old Parker and two-year-old Claire, holed up in a snug wooden home in the mountains west of Oslo.  There, I’m learning two basics for becoming Norwegian:

Snow and Speech.

***

This, from my journal:

I spent over two hours shoveling snow in the middle of a major snowstorm this morning.  While Parker and Claire stared on from the safe warmth of the house, their rosy faces pushed against the window next to the front door, I snorted and huffed away like a rabid mastodon packed into neck-to-ankle lycra.  The craziest thing about this is that everyone else on the street was doing the same thing, although perhaps not in lycra. Not a one of us exchanged as much as a greeting, and in silent, sober duty we jammed our shovels, heaved the weight, and moved mountains.  Half sissy, half Sisyphus, I clenched my jaw, doing my part to build neighborly solidarity. 

As another meter of snow fell (and we all knew another two more were forecast for that night), we scooped and piled, scooped and piled for a couple of hours at least.  Our monuments grew much taller than the tallest man I could spy at the bottom of our hill, digging and lobbing in the unbroken rhythm of jab-heave-heave-hurl, jab-heave-heave-hurl.

I’m not sure exactly what it is yet that I am learning in this new lifestyle, but I think it has something to do with discovering the inherent significance buried in the mundane. I’ll keep digging.

Photo credit: UK Telegraph

Sometime after that storm blew over, the sun shone brightly for an exceptional six days straight. This was just long enough to cause a crisis when the ice started to thaw. One morning, I found that the entryway ceiling was streaming in several synchronized tributaries onto the floor.  Seems I’d been distracted by snow removal from the shoulder down, and hadn’t noted the glacier accumulating on the roof.

I should have known to climb on the roof and shovel off the weight, my tall neighbor from the bottom of the road announced flatly as he took to the roof in two long strides (the snow was so high it met the bottom edge of the rafters) and, in a dozen or so brusque gestures, attacked the slushy beast with a pick and spade.  A couple of muscular kicks with the toe of his hunting boots and my roof was dripless.

“Always clear the roof”, he offered in an accent I now recognized as coming from northern Norway, and he stabbed the shovel into a snow mound before leaning his bony elbow on the pick.  “Next time the whole roof could fall right on your children and—” he made a fierce sound like a polar bear winning at Go Fish.

You can bet that after every storm that followed I was the first from my neighborhood to shimmy up the drain pipe: The Shoveler on the Roof.

This was at about the same time Randall was on something euphemistically called a regional business retreat at the Olympic Games.  He called often from Lillehammer, feeding me with color commentary and cultural play-by-plays, always spilling over with details about this high-pitched initiation into the Norwegian spirit. At noon, he’d be yelling to me over the explosions of cheering spectators right and left; at midnight, he’d whisper like a spy, reporting dispassionately below the rowdy drinking choruses gurgling in the background on whoever was at that moment spread out cold under the table.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I took copious notes.  I envisioned the scenes.  Breathlessly, I’d pummel him with questions and prod him for more.  And I hung a bit, I’m embarrassed but not too proud to admit, on those calls. There was a big world out there.

Not that I wasn’t keeping very busy in my small world at home.  I used that week to invite over a steady string of little friends—Jesper, Eirik, Knut, Karolina, Per-Ole, Louisa—to the Bradford house.  Bringing Norwegian under our roof in galloping, knee-high form was, as I’d hoped it would be, better then Berlitz. I was the half-mute kneeling hostess, crawling everywhere the conversation went, hungrily watching the kids’ lips, mouthing sounds with my brows furrowed, questioning kiddies on every expression, every turn of phrase.  I tell you, I never want to know what those children told their own parents about that new mother who mostly crawled and wrote down every word they said. Because most of the time they’d  look at me with their noses crunched in a bundle, and say, “So. . .you’re not Norwegian, are you? Because you do speak a little weird, you know that?”

That tots who couldn’t even pull on their own mittens could spew flawless phrases like that in Norwegian kept me on my knees.  I was their humble boot-licker.

Photo credit: Kim Rormark

During a few of those uncharacteristically sunny hours in early February, I hosted our own preschool Olympics.  With ten guests I staged an activity that left my whole backside plastered with snow that fell off in slabs when I lurched into the house to grab Randall’s telephone call. I’d been in the yard with a dozen children making snow angels. I was pooped. The sun was fading (it was almost two o’clock, dusk in a Norwegian winter), which meant we’d soon be coming inside.  The very thought of undressing the whole fleet of mushy astronauts made my spine go floppy but my jaw go rigid.

“You wouldn’t believe it, sweetheart” Randall laughed, “but there are trolls everywhere here. Huge troll statues, little troll dolls, troll sweatshirts, troll oven-mits, troll bumper stickers. It’s a total troll-o-rama.  Wish you could see the poor guy we saw in head-to-toe troll gear grilling meatballs. Incredible!”

I tried to conjure the picture.  Jesper needed to go to the toilet and had to be totally undressed.  Hard, with a phone pinched between ear and shoulder.

Randall kept feeding me images:

“And we just passed the biggest ice sculpture I’ve ever seen.  Solid ice.  Gorgeous. Mammoth. A Viking ship.  Or a polar bear or something, I think.”

“Not a troll?” I asked, unzipping Jesper who now lies flat on his back on my kitchen floor, and I don’t have the Norwegian words for, “Me your slave?”, and I’m tugging at his rock solid Cherox snow boots so I can then pull off a couple of layers so he can now waddle, dripping a trail of snow, to the toilet.

“No, a moose, maybe.  Anyway, I’m thinking winter’s not so bad here after all if you can do it like this every time:  the press, the cameras, the celebrities, the perfect blue skies.  I guess—“

I couldn’t’ make out the rest of his words for all the noise on his end.

“Where are you?  What’s all the yelling?” I wondered as I adjusted the phone in hand, mopping up Jesper’s mush tracks with a rag under my foot, all the while keeping an eye on the happy scene of several very sweet angels indeed, including my two, flapping and chortling outside on a mantle of diamonds.

Randall was on someone’s cell at the ice hockey rink where he was sitting only rows—“only rows, honey!”— behind Hilary Clinton, who’d swung through Norway to support the U.S. hockey team.

Up to that point I was smiling, though sweating, on my end of the conversation.  But in an instant something stung and deeply.  The collision in my mind of those two scenes–the Olympic, versus the Neighborhood Games—pinched a nerve in me.  Just then, the hockey team made a goal and pandemonium from that end of the line covered the silence on my end.

Jesper was now standing forlorn in the kitchen doorway.  His below-the-waist bareness and wide open stare said he needed toilet paper.

“Mel?  Hon? You still there?  Hey, I got you a great sweater. Please tell the kids I’ll bring them back real troll hair.”  (Laughter.  A roar for a missed goal.) “Honey?. . . Mel?”

Some moments say more than one can grasp in the instant they strike. This was one of those moments.  There I was in bigger-than-life Norway, the momentary focal point of the globe. Important people were discussing important things; and even if they weren’t, at least they were discussing something.  It was then that I feared what loomed on the horizon: that our two geographies, Randall’s and Melissa’s, would from thenceforth be cloven down the middle, distinctly and necessarily disjointed. Just like the bucket seats of our very first, poor student car, a V.W. bug: Driver (gear shift, and) Passenger. Instead of sharing that joint adventure with Randall, I was afraid I’d only get the adventure second hand, across a gear shift or through the irritating filter of a cell phone exchange. Instead of being there, I was here.

“Thanks, sweetheart, for the sweater,” I said. And I meant it.

But he hadn’t heard my words over the hockey rink bedlam.  The Finns had just made a goal.  And I was busy handing a roll of toilet paper to Jesper.

“Well, can’t hear you so well,” Randall yelled,  “So if you can hear me, Thanks, hon.  I miss you here!

Click.

On the raw pine floor, a puddle of snowmelt spread in a dark pool round my boots.  Lillehammer was only two hours’ drive away.  But impossibly far from my world where tottering, snow-encased trolls were now lined up outside along the floor-to-ceiling kitchen window smashing their pug noses and smearing slime on a frosty pane that barely muffled the new music of Norwegian banter.

Photo credit: norskogarchiv notam02

I watched a row of children, soft faces pressed to transparency, mouths and nostrils expelling little gusts of spirit that clung to glass like ragged circles of moist gauze.  Their shrieks and pantomime jarred my stupor, and I waved back as they turned into the sunlight, plopping into their custom angel prints.  It was only then I noticed this amazing thing: Parker and Claire,  heads bobbing naturally while their mouths spoke simple Norwegian phrases, mixing in with these others from whom they are virtually indistinguishable, those small bodies weaving in and out of light and shadows.

Like all births, the births of my two were at once common and astounding events, universal and unique. Now I knew I needed to turn my focus to the everyday protracted labor of rebirthing them—these two,  these extremely important people — into a new world.

Actually, no.

What I first needed was to turn my focus to boiling a dozen hot dogs.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.