It’s early August. We are throwing a party tomorrow, in the yard behind my grandmother’s house in Hovdebygda, a village on the west coast of Norway. There will be barbecue and a bonfire by Hengebjørka, the Weeping Birch, a tree genetically predetermined to grow into a normal birch but manipulated by my grandfather into growing drooping branches. The manipulation is said to have involved digging out the roots and filling the gaps between them with stones before he shoveled back the dirt. I don’t know which parts of this are true.
As usual, Mormor’s children will tell tales and familiar anecdotes to us, their children and grandchildren. Mormor, my grandmother, will sit in our midst, disoriented, but delivering sharp one-liners. Someone will tell the story about the time when my mother was a kid and sat on the stoop in front of the house, while Mormor stood in the kitchen frying herring with a pair of old panties on her head to protect her blond perm from the steam. When my mother saw a man approaching on the road above the house, she ran inside, shouting, “Mor, Mor, take off your panties, a salesman is coming!”
Mormor likes that story. She also likes the one about the time her son came home with an American girlfriend who was shocked to find Mormor wandering topless in the kitchen before bedtime, massaging her breasts. The American mistook her delight in having a strong body for promiscuity—the same delight that makes her lean forward with a secretive smile and confess that she has breastfed more people than she has birthed. “Yes,” she says then, “I was a fine dairy cow.” Mormor is a master at spinning myths about herself, about the charismatic tomboy who played football and saved drunken men from drowning by carrying them to safety on her strong shoulders.
“I have such a perky ass, don’t you think?” she says, ignoring the doughy belly that mushrooms out above her hips. She likes to have her hands in what she calls clean dirt—in mud and meat and dough and grease—and feels particularly beautiful in ragged nightgowns and old T-shirts. One of her favorite words is stropl, a local dialect word that means something like bawdy.
Even now, as her mind deteriorates and her stories fragment and she no longer knows when or where she is, her tongue is razor sharp, her timing like a stand-up comic’s. And we can still get her to peel potatoes, polish silver, and iron clothes, tasks she has had in her hands for almost ninety years. While she works, we can lead her into stories about war and love and jealousy, factory work and farm life, stories populated by fragile men and fierce matriarchs.
Mormor has everything I look for in thinkers and storytellers: a bodily, jokey approach to knowledge; a good face; and a malleable but sincere relationship to time, place, and truth. Sometimes, I wonder if her senile origin myths might be the antidote to all the current ills of Europe and the US. Perhaps her demented logic, the way the past seeps into all the cracks of the present, eroding its sovereignty, is an example worth emulating, now that mainstream intellectuals once again are talking with total ease about national cultures in need of conservation, a rooted folk, and threats against our civilization.
Mormor grew up on the Aasen farm, a farm that plays a key role in Norwegian history. Our ancestor Ivar Aasen grew up there in the early 19th century before he went on to lay the foundation for Norway’s second written language, Nynorsk, or New Norwegian. Norway has two written languages: a dominant one, based on Danish, and Nynorsk, a fruit of the Norwegianness movement, which sought to find, create, and cultivate a national identity after the country’s emancipation from Denmark in 1814. Both languages are mandatory in school and public service, but Nynorsk is the underdog: elitist to some, outdated hick-speak to others.