Let’s begin with the rainbow, even though, in an ideal world, it would probably come at the end:
It has been a wet summer, worst in twenty-eight years. Mud and gloom. The old family farm, Fjederholt, empty for most of a decade, grows damper and mousier by the minute.
“Remarkable,” say the curious neighbors, “that it hasn’t all fallen down.”
Fjederholt: the name’s meaning can only be surmised by looking 450 years back at archaic spellings in dusty church records. “Cattle grove,” decided my grandfather, the amateur historian. Maybe so, but by the time my ancestors settled in a century and a half ago, it would have been a name more aspirational than true, as years of felling had reduced this part of Western Denmark to a swath of ragged, sandy moor. The trees that stand here now had been planted since, by wool-clad men and women who bent their backs to summon forth this homestead. Delicate, hopeful groves of beech, spruce and linden designed to protect farm and field from a relentless western wind.
Back then this traditional “U” of house flanked on either side by long, slender, red brick barns would have seemed efficient and cozy, with lowing cows and snuffling pigs providing a basso continuo to the rise and fall of horse hooves or tractors, as dictated by the era.
Now those barns, with dangerously bowing walls and moss-covered roofs, squat defensive and forlorn, and the house, once comfortably steeped in the scent of chicken stock and dried flowers, stews in a suffocating soup of mildew and sour soot left to seep through unused chimneys for a century. Once-tentative trees have become giants whose black arms block all but the most determined rays of the northern sun, creating a shadowy tangle of green darkness that threatens to overwhelm the whole affair. There is still beauty in the wild raspberries and sun in the fields beyond, but the buildings have become a gloomy and dusty museum to a break-back time best left unglorified.
Then suddenly—hurra!—comes the great-great granddaughter, the prodigal namesake, the sixth generation, with husband and two tow-heads in tow.
“We thought you’d been lost to America forever,” but no!
Windows are opened, carpet thrown out, walls pulled down, brush cut back. The extended family gathers for a feast in the old living room, with brick dust from the fallen walls still coloring the framed portraits of their childhood red. The violin, tonight, will go unplayed as will the old musical saw in the corner. No one here knows Eidelweis. But among these twenty-five people there is laughter and love enough to fill the room, the whole musty house.
And just at twilight, the rainbow appears: Double. Emphatic. It ends in a field just there, turning white cows iridescent in its light.
“You should almost come and see this, it’s so nice.”
And then, because we’re Danish—because this is what we have in common—we stand there, quietly, taking in this sight of almost unbearable beauty, whose source is known to all, but spoken of by none: the patriarch, gone just over a year. This sign, it must be his.
My mother exhales into a chair and looks at the shelf before her.
“Sometimes I wonder,” she says, “whether Bedstemor and Bedstefar are looking down at us, and what they’re thinking.”
Mom, the daughter-in-law in this situation, is an old-stock New England Unitarian we-turn-into-grass kind of person. In thirty-four years I have never heard her suggest that anyone, anywhere might be “looking down.” Not her upright forefathers, not even her own mother.
“I wonder if they’re just happy we’re here, or do they ever feel sorry for leaving us with all this?”
I look at the shelf, a fairly flimsy affair, coming apart in places, and not what I would consider an heirloom to ignite spiritual reconsideration. It holds, among other things, a few silly teacups and figurines, a collection of outdated encyclopedias, four gigantic, disconnected speakers, one reel to reel player with its chords tangled in a messy up-do, boxes of cassette tapes and vinyl, some of which might be considered ironic enough to land space in a hipster record shop (but mostly just bad). The nicest thing is a ceramic punch bowl my father brought back from a young man’s adventure to Russia.
Mom and I intend to empty this shelf without actually throwing anything away. Over the next week, while my parents are visiting, we will move from room to room with the same goal. And, in years to come, we (or I, or whoever) will likely move out to the full-to-brimming barns where the collections get more ancient (but not more valuable)…assuming the walls don’t cave in first.
As my mom and I contemplate the furniture, my dad, the fifth generation descendent in this situation, is in the kitchen puttering in preparation of a morning tea break. In a moment he will emerge with his cup and some variation of bread-sugar-butter. Denmark, for him, has become a place to indulge in second and third helpings of foods he was not allowed as a child. His fondest memories of this place are reserved for the elders who sprinkled his dark bread with sugar. At the mere mention of pastry he devolves into the shyly smiling six year old pictured on the out-of-tune piano in the living room. It’s cute. And extremely irritating.
“What about these books, Dad? Can you look through them while you’re eating?”
Dad has never been one to make rash decisions. That boy on the piano probably knew, without saying, that he did not want to pursue the hard life of a farmer. Even then he had cleaned enough stalls, hoed enough beets, drowned enough barn kittens to know that his heart would never be in it. It’s just not in his blood.
“Now just take it easy!” he says for perhaps the fifth time today, his voice pitched with varying degrees of frustration and fear. I’m the one making the request this time, but he is mostly afraid of my mother, whom he sees as holding a ruthless American disregard for the past. To his credit, he will eventually agree to throw out the polka records, but he will not be forced into it, for helvede!
My grandfather, who collected the things on this shelf, didn’t really want to be a farmer either. He wasn’t very good at it—prone to leaving broken down tractors in the field through the winter. Nonetheless, he bore the cross, and expected his first-born son to do the same. Because that’s what you do when you have roots. You plant them in the earth or the whole tree dies.
So it was not until much later in life, buoyed by the changing times and some flight of imagination that my dad gained the courage to admit to himself, and his father, that he would be the one to walk away. That he would leave the long days and pigs doomed to slaughter and build a life of comfort somewhere else. Maybe in town, or in Copenhagen, or in America—who knows! In any case, he would be the one to break the chain at Fjederholt.
Well, weaken it. Or, you know, maybe at least repurpose it. Turn it into two apartments? A summer house? Or maybe, someday, a bed and breakfast. Or simply hold on long enough to pass it to his daughters.
“Now just take it easy! There’s nothing wrong with that vase!”
In the last twenty years of his life, my grandfather untethered himself from his rusting tractor and took up writing. As he scribbled away through his 70s and 80s, each member of the family began to recieve an almost-annual gift of words bound into various self-published sheathes: local histories, poetry in the Vestjysk dialect, fiction and family geneology. While we all displayed the assembled collection on our shelves, I’m not sure how many of those books were ever actually read. Certainly mine were not.
When we move to the farm, I make it my goal to give them a try. The first book I pick up is a collection of family letters, including this one, four pages in, written by my great-great grandmother, Sidsel, to her daughter.
Fjederholt, February 4, 1895
I thought I would send a little letter to you on your Birthday and wish you Congratulations and may God be with you and grant unto you what serves you best. Do not forget to pray to God, that he may give you what best serves your Soul and Body, and that we must carry our Fates with Patience.
Last year I could not have imagined that you would be at the Aadum Parish farm this Year, and Grandmother dead, and Helene in Herning, and I am alone with a strange Girl. We have made dough and now shall bake. I have waited for a Letter from you in vain, but it’s just as well, as long as you are healthy.
I just hope it does not go badly with your Leg in the hard Frost, I expect you have received the slippers. Helene has become very good at sewing.
We are waiting for a letter to hear how it is going with Mrs. Schjoerring. She is probably not better, but probably not dead yet either? I think it must be very hard for the Priest that she is not home…
It may be late by the time you get this Letter, but time is short for we have baked today. I think we have good Bread. Thank God. It is so hard in the Winter. Our farm is full of Snow and we have too little Water for all the Pigs and Cows.
Friendly Greetings from Father and Mother
This book stays by my bed for the rest of our time in Denmark, but I never make it much farther than page four. For some reason I just don’t have a pressing need to know the details of this story. All I can think about is the fact that I’m the period at the end of the last sentence, and I don’t know what to write next.
This morning we are up early, chasing a mouse.
While it bides its time in an inaccessible corner behind a bookshelf, my husband gets an oven mitt, trashcan and broom. We recruit our four year old to stand guard at one likely escape route.
My family and I have been here for three months now. Every morning while the girls are at nursery school, drawing on the primal parts of their blonde brains that must hold some ancestral memory of Danish, my husband and I are ripping things apart: first a brick wall, still blackened by a wood-fired cook stove that came out eighty years ago; then the wall-to-wall carpet demanded by my stylish grandmother at a time when it filled the pages of her magazines; finally, the bramble in the backyard.
The time has gone quickly and already we are beginning the countdown to Christmas when our “family sabbatical” ends and we return to the States. There, I know, all this ruminating on roots will fade into the background as we are enveloped by life-as-we-know-it and more immediate branches of the family tree. We have never intended to stay, as staying would mean prioritizing the dead: My mother’s warm kitchen traded in for the hearthside company of my great-great grandmother’s ghost. Real-life carpentry lessons from Dad in exchange for a bench carved by long-ago hands. Still, it’s a transaction we are contemplating with increasing seriousness as this house becomes, once again, a home.
This weekend the floors are to be sanded: beautiful old pine boards, lacquered into oblivion before their burial beneath the aforementioned carpet. But first, there is one last strip of carpet that needs to come up, and it is trapped under that heavy set of shelves, which we have at last emptied into boxes. As the girls ride their scooters around the living room (one benefit of living in a house under construction), my husband and I start in on the shimmy-push-pull. Right away we see the rats’ nest: a pile of carpet fiber, wallpaper strips and a gaudy hair bow left by our eldest daughter when we visited a year ago. Then we see the rat, dead for several months by the look of it. And then, the mouse. A not-dead mouse, whose will to live must be immense, given how much hot pink poison is peppered here. This is the mouse now hiding behind the shelf.
“If you see him, just stomp on the floor as hard as you can,” I tell my daughter. She likes this and takes up her position with gusto. My husband readies his broom and commences the battle.
Swoosh! “There’s his head, his head!!!” Stomp! Stomp! “Oh no! He’s there, there!” Stomp! Swoosh. The two year old gets excited and wants to help. “There! You got him? No!” And he’s gone. Tonight, whoever stays up late will hear his victory scratching in the walls.
“Give up,” it says. “You will never win.”
He’s right, of course. Unless we choose to make the permanent and heroic, or perhaps foolhardy, leap into the past, we will never win back Fjederholt.
A week ago I set eight mousetraps, baited with raisins, across one stretch of kitchen floor. In the morning, each raisin had been carefully removed, with not a trace of its cheeky consumer. The week before that I rigged a ridiculous contraption: a bucket full of water with a spinning dowel across the rim, the goal being to lure the mouse onto the dowel with the prospect of peanut butter and then– roll, plop, goodnight! Again, nothing. A month from now, when we leave Fjederholt, this intrepid little mouse and his offspring will recommence the more-or-less uninterrupted orgy they’ve enjoyed for the last ten years. Next time someone visits, there will be more mice, more poop, more rats’ nests laced with lost hair things.
Why do we do this? Why do we stand up to time and try to reclaim a past that is not at all glorious? The story, here, is one of scarcity and thanking God when the bread deigns to rise. And beautiful floors or not, unless this house has constant attention, at some point, its systems will fail, the roof will blow off, the walls will crumble.
But the unspoken rule around here is that no one aks “why” or “to what end.” Not my father who visits but has no dreams returning to the life he consciously left. Not his siblings, all of whom live modern lives in other parts of Denmark. Not me. If my daughters, the seventh generation descendants in this situation, were old enough to ask, they might be able to get away with it. But the answer would terrify them. Like it terrifies me. Because the answer to “why” is “you.” You will have to decide when to sever the physical link to your ancestors and to Denmark. Unless you don’t.
Our family’s Fate, it seems, is to slog along as a lineage of geneology-minded romantics who cherish roots, in theory, but lack the patience to tend them. Our ties to this difficult patch of earth have persevered, coaxed along by decades of love and guilt, but how long will it take to pull them up, if that is the inevitable end? Is it possible for anyone – anyone truly entangled – to achieve a painless yank?
I think of history’s emmigrants: the second sons, all the daughters, the landless adventurers who suffered early and left without looking back. By contrast we are the lucky ones, we with our hands gripping the ground. But is the Fate we must carry with Patience, simply a longer, drawn out suffering? Are we doomed to stand by helplessly and watch as our roots wither one-by-one, and the tree dies passively, a slow and bloodless death?
Back inside, after the rainbow has faded with the evening light, the living generations of my extended family sit jovially around a long flotilla of mix and match tables, sharing food and stories from the past. The not-so-old elders in this situation, my father’s brothers and sisters, are already waking up with aching backs and necks which, rightly or not, they trace to a childhood spent hunched too long over rows of beets and potatoes. Still, tonight, in this place of their births, spirits are high. Someone raises a glass to the renovation in progress.
“Skål!” someone thanks us for hosting. “Skål!”
The grandchildren make successful bids for soda as their parents load plates with homemade bread and ham.
These are people—aunts, uncles, cousins—who I have grown up knowing mostly from afar. It’s odd now, and elating, to play host to them here, in a place where I am the relative stranger. But it does not matter, really, who plays this part. It is only by a random shifting and sifting of life and birth that I am the one planting myself in this kitchen, at the stove where my grandmother once stood, and in doing so, if only for this evening, this brief interlude, I have become the conduit for the past, and the magnet that draws these kindred spirits together. It could be any of us. But it is me.