In the kitchen of a chateau we visited in France last summer, there was an enormous collection of shiny copper pots. There must have been thirty of them, polished to perfection, placed on shelves above a huge ancient sink.
“What happened to the copper pots that used to be in your mom’s kitchen?” I asked my husband, Håkan, who was standing next to me.
“I don’t know, they probably went to different places.”
“These pots remind me of Märta’s, that’s all. I was just curious,” I answered.
Märta, Håkan’s mom, had at least six copper pots on top of her kitchen cabinets at Timmerdalen 15. The pots were always there, catching the sunlight in the summer, reflecting the electric light in the winter. Once in a great while, Märta would take them down to be polished. When she finished, she would put them back exactly as they had been. The placement of nearly all the decorative objects at Timmerdalen 15 remained forever the same; only woven or perishable decor, such as tablecloths, table settings, and flowers, was subject to change.
The kitchen table, to the left of the front door, was wedged into a special nook between the outside door and the kitchen. There were brown tiles on the kitchen counter and on the wall. The beige corded phone hung on the wall, next to the window closest to the sink. When talking on the phone, Märta would often lean her elbows on the counter and peer either under the cabinets that divided the kitchen work space from the kitchen table, or out the window at her bird feeder. There was a dented off-white bread bin that stayed on the kitchen counter, as did a grey speckled teapot with a dark brown stripe at the base and a red flower border just above. In the cabinet above the fridge were the all-important trays for serving biscuits. The biscuits themselves could be found in either the tins in that same cabinet or in the freezer, arranged by variety.
In the dining room was the white dining table, considerably more elegant than the kitchen table, but still comfortable to sit at, thanks to the stripy green cushions on the white wooden chairs. They were proper cushions, the kind that is built into the chair, not the type that attaches with strings. There was always a runner on this table, as there was on the kitchen table, each anchored by either a begonia or, in the case of the dining table, the occasional vase of flowers. Above the dining table was a painting, in cheerful pastels, of flowers waving in the wind. This was the most modern picture in the house, and had been given to Sven and Märta by their adult children. Håkan is the youngest of six, and his oldest sister is older than my mom. When I first met Håkan’s parents, Håkan was nineteen, but Sven and Märta had been retired for many years.
To the left of the dining table was the tall white side cabinet, with a brass heart strung on a red ribbon hanging from one of the handles. This cabinet contained, among other things, the current selections of liquor, the fine but usable silver, and the cloth napkins. Beyond the cabinet was the sitting room, with huge windows overlooking the gentle slope down to the very small lake at the bottom of the hill. There were begonias all along the windowsills: pink, white, and purple. When it was sunny, Märta would drop the blinds to preserve the colours of the low velvet chairs and the high-backed, green velvet settee. The sitting room was used only rarely, on special occasions. During Christmas, it hosted the Christmas tree, put up every year on Christmas Eve. At the far end of the sitting room was a highly lacquered wooden roll-top desk. The desk hadn’t been used for its original purpose in years; the writing board served instead as a place to display framed photographs of the family. One especially large picture portrayed three generations of the family– Sven and Märta, their children, and their grandchildren. Håkan was maybe 16 when that picture was taken. If I had met Håkan in time to be in that picture, I would have been the only one of the eighteen with brown eyes. The roll-top desk came into its own during Christmas, when the photos were pushed back to make room for a bowl of clementines, a wooden bowl full of mixed nuts requiring the included nutcracker, and a glass dish full of candy, often knäck, a delicious homemade toffee presented in tiny, brightly-coloured paper cases. It felt somewhat illicit to raid the desk, and if you happened upon someone who had just been to the desk, particularly if you were on the way there yourself, you would grin at your fellow smuggler secretively.
To the right of the front door was a very small hall containing a three-in-one shoe, coat, and hat rack. A mirror hung in that hall, and at its base, on top of a small chest of drawers, was a china plate where Märta kept her keys and a lipstick. Past the hall was a small pine staircase that led down to the TV room. Several pairs of antlers hung on the wall to the right of the staircase; some had belonged to moose, some to deer. Sven’s chair was closest to the foot of the staircase. Sven had broken his hip in a bad car accident when Håkan was a baby, requiring months in hospital and a full-body cast. He had ended up with a fused hip and an addiction to morphine. He quit the morphine soon after leaving the hospital, and he did the best he possibly could with his hip, but it still caused him more pain then he ever admitted. His TV chair was a dark brown leather recliner, placed close to the TV as Sven was rather deaf, probably from the amount of shooting he had done during years of moose and deer hunting. Opposite Sven’s chair was a velvet sofa with embroidered cushions. Märta would sit in the far corner of that sofa, closest to the table lamp, and knit while she watched TV. To Märta’s right was a big red leather chair that I often favoured when visiting. Next to Sven’s chair was another comfortable chair that Håkan generally chose. The sofa and chairs were separated by a low coffee table with yet another woven runner, this one held in place by a wooden fruit bowl that usually offered a few ripe bananas and apples or clementines. Behind Sven’s chair was the wood-burning fireplace, used on certain winter afternoons. To the left of the fireplace hung many of Sven’s orienteering and skiing medals. Hardcover books in built-in bookcases lined the back wall of the room, behind the red leather chair. A rarely-used room to the right of the fireplace served as an extra guest room or office.
To the left of the fireplace was another short pine staircase that descended to the finished basement level of the house. The focal point of the basement, in my opinion, was the small sauna that certified Timmerdalen as a proper Swedish villa. To get to the sauna, one had to walk past the washer, the dryer, and the enormous loom Märta used to weave table runners and colourful rag rugs. A freezer filled with moose meat, dried wild mushrooms, and berries stood to the left of the sauna room. There was at least one more huge freezer, containing similar provisions, in the room that led to the lower level of the garage. That room was where Märta hung laundry if she wasn’t able to hang it outside. It was also where Sven had done his candle-making project. Homemade candles are a Swedish Christmas tradition for some families, and Sven had decided that the process of dipping one candle at a time was inexact and inefficient, so he had designed several racks to make many identical candles at a time.
I was sometimes sent to get eggs from the very small pantry in the basement. Märta usually bought eggs from the egg man in flat open cartons of twenty-four. She would have a pleasant chat with the egg man when he came, and when he left, she would tell me about how things were going for him. Conserves and wine were also kept in the pantry. One evening, after being dispatched to fetch another bottle of wine, Sven had bumped his head forcefully on the low ceiling at the top of the basement stairs. This story was often retold with great mirth when Håkan’s siblings came to dinner.
By the time I was eight, I had lived in at least eleven different houses. My mom bought a small yellow house next to a graveyard when I was nine, and because I lived there for more than a year, it felt like my first true home. At eleven, I moved with my mom, my brother, and my sister, into a bigger yellow house, the childhood home of my second stepfather, where I would live until graduating from high school at seventeen. Even during those “settled” years in the big yellow house, I would sometimes come home to find that the piano had been moved from one wall to another, or that the heavy oak sideboard in the dining room was now in the back hall. I had three different bedrooms during my six years in the big yellow house.
I went to Sven and Märta’s many times in the early years of my relationship with Håkan, and during that time, no furniture ever moved. Walking into Timmerdalen 15, knowing that everything would be exactly as it had been the last time I was there, was immeasurably soothing. Not only was the furniture unchanging, the people were also very consistent.
I knew almost immediately that I had Märta’s seal of approval as a match for her youngest son. Märta was a professional mother who, when I met her, had also been a grandmother for thirteen years. My guess is that she sensed immediately that I could use an extra grandmother, and she stepped right into that role. Whenever Håkan and I were at Timmerdalen, I would try to help Märta in the kitchen as best I could, which wasn’t much considering my complete lack of cooking experience. Mostly I would do simple tasks, like setting the table or chopping vegetables, and I would listen happily to her stories. Sometimes Märta would tell me about the troubles various people were having in town, but I liked it best when Märta told stories about the past. As a young girl, Märta had once bicycled for well over two hours to visit cousins. She had helped her father with his shoe shop after her mother had died at a young age. Märta had seen the trains of Norwegian refugees roll slowly through Ed, her home town, which is near the Norwegian border, when the Nazis had invaded Norway. She told stories of the more recent past as well—of working for an unusual but talented chef at his destination restaurant, of stocking the freezers with fresh moose meat after hunts, of trips to cabins in Norway with Håkan and his best friend when there was so much snow that the cabin would have to be shovelled out. Sometimes she would interrupt a story with a quick stage whisper. “Look, come over here, there’s a bullfinch at the bird feeder! Do you see it? Oh, there he goes, into the bushes…”
Märta speaks very limited English, and the Swedish language does not include the “th” sound found at the end of my first name, Beth. Märta practiced diligently however, and after a few months she had mastered the sound, at least in its position at the end of my name. From then on Märta always called me “Beth,” rather than “Bet,” the common Swedish substitution. Even when the rest of Håkan’s family adopted the nickname “Bettan” for me, a nickname I’m quite fond of, Märta modified it to “Bethan.”
Every time Håkan and I walked through the door of Timmerdalen 15 for a weekend, Märta was right there to greet us, often wearing her apron, and give us each a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She would fuss over us with clear delight, and we would be offered coffee or a meal, depending on the time of day. If coffee was chosen, it would be served in either 1970’s porcelain—speckled gray with an orange and brown striped ring at the top of each cup—or dainty white porcelain cups with a small pink flower motif. Both sets had matching saucers. Märta would place at least two types of biscuits into a wooden or metal tray lined with a colourful woven cloth, and we would all sit at the kitchen table and chat. Sven would invariably take an extra biscuit, and Märta would scold him, as he had diabetes and was meant to keep his sugar consumption low. Håkan and I would fall back easily into the rhythm of his parents’ home.
It was more difficult to tell how Sven felt about me. When I first met him, Sven was mostly deaf in one ear and completely blind in one eye. He was in what must have been constant pain from the myriad injuries he had incurred in various ways. The worst pain probably came from his hip, but Sven refused to succumb to the pain. Every day he would take the family dog, a beautiful Swedish hunting dog named Bricka, out for long walks if the ground was bare, or out cross-country skiing if there was snow cover. Sven had been a very strong athlete as a young man, and had worked outdoors throughout his life. It was clear that he had no plans to let his body prevent him from exercising outdoors.
Sven had enormous difficulty understanding me when I spoke to him. Like Märta, he spoke very limited English, and when I first arrived in Sweden, I didn’t speak Swedish. I learned Swedish quickly, but I never lost my strong American accent. Between my accent and my female voice, which probably fell just in the range of his hearing loss, the cards were clearly stacked against him understanding me when I spoke. Sven and I had determination in common, however, and I would occasionally persevere until we had successfully communicated, but we fell into a pattern of mostly just smiling and nodding at each other.
There were a few times that I felt more certain that Sven had welcomed me as part of the family. One Christmas, after the big Swedish julbord lunch, everyone in the house retired to the TV room downstairs to rest. We all began watching the film “The Sound of Music.” Around the time that Maria and the children go to perform and make their first escape attempt, Märta, Håkan, and the other family members that were visiting went upstairs to begin tidying up and preparing for the light evening meal. Sven was particularly fond of sopranos, and he gave no indication of leaving his recliner while Julie Andrews was singing. I have loved “The Sound of Music” since I first saw it years ago, and I couldn’t tear myself away from the TV set. The two of us, Sven in his brown leather chair and me in my red leather chair, stayed and watched until the Von Trapps had eluded the Nazis for good and were about to cross the border into Switzerland. As the credits rolled, Håkan came down to fetch us for dinner. Sven and I nodded meaningfully to each other on our way up the stairs.
One winter weekend I asked Håkan if I could try cross-country skiing. My mom had occasionally taken us out in Vermont, and I had even owned a pair of cross-country skis as a teenager. Håkan found a pair of Märta’s old skis that would suit me, and I borrowed boots from her as well, although her feet were a bit smaller than mine. Sven and Håkan waxed all the skis with the exact right wax for the weather, Håkan and I made some sandwiches, and Märta fixed us a thermos with warm rosehip soup (a Swedish winter tradition). Sven, Håkan, and I piled into the car and drove to a good trail. After we had all put our skis on, Håkan gave me a quick refresher course in basic cross-country technique and attempted to offer me some pointers. Then we were off.
When we stopped to have our snacks, Sven spoke directly to me, something he did very seldom. “You’re pretty good at this,” he said bemusedly.
“Thanks,” I said, filled with pride. Coming from Sven, “pretty good” was a serious compliment. “It’s fun.”
“You should cross-country ski more often.”
Small moments like those indicated that Sven had accepted me, but I still didn’t feel I knew him nearly as well as I knew Märta.
It wasn’t until much later that I would catch a glimpse of Sven at his most authentic. Several years after Håkan and I were married, Sven suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to speak without enormous difficulty. Märta did her best to care for him at home for many years, but eventually it became too great a task for her, and Sven was moved to an old-age home close by. By the time he left Timmerdalen, Sven was walking very little and often needed a wheelchair. He was a proud man, and he preferred for us to visit with him in the spacious and sunny front room of the old-age home rather than in his own small room. Märta or Håkan would roll him in to the common room, and we would all sit and drink coffee that Märta had brought in a thermos and eat biscuits that she had prepared in one of her trays, usually the dark yellow metal one. On one particular occasion, our son Sam, then around two years old, had brought his bright pink tube with him. The pink tube was about a foot long when compressed, but when elongated, it doubled in size. It was about an inch in diameter and hollow on the inside. Sam liked to stretch it out quickly to hear the peculiar sound it made. The tube was also flexible and could be formed into many different shapes. There happened to be a microphone in a stand in the front room that day, as there had recently been a little sing-along for the residents of the home. Sam climbed up onto the chair in front of the microphone, got out his pink tube, and started to perform. He sang through the tube, turned it into a guitar and strummed it, and stretched and contracted it several times. Sven’s eyes lit up with pure joy, and he began to clap along. Encouraged, Sam carried on, singing quite tunelessly but with great enthusiasm. I stole a look at Sven, who looked happier than I could ever remember seeing him before. His physical pain and his mental discipline had been cast aside, and he had given himself over completely to the moment. On that sunny afternoon I knew for certain that Sven loved his grandson. I reckoned that some of that love spilled over and included me.
In “The Poverty Clinic,” (The New Yorker, March 21, 2011) Paul Tough describes the positive correlation between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and adult illness. He writes about a researcher at McGill University, Michael Meaney, who has found that “early adversity actually alters the chemistry of DNA in the brain, through a process called methylation” (p. 30). The methylation process essentially stops “the brain from properly regulating its response to stress” (p. 30). The good news is that Tough also reports on research that has found that the process of methylation can be counteracted or diminished if those who have suffered the trauma are nurtured.
My own score on the ACE test is between four and five points (each adverse childhood experience counts as one point, and there are ten questions). Tough discusses one study where subjects reported a score of zero. A childhood without adversity is like a mirage to me—so inviting, yet so hazy that it is hard to believe it could really exist. I was seventeen, in my senior year of high school in the U.S., when I first met Håkan. I left home the summer I turned eighteen, and a few months later I met Sven and Märta for the first time. I choose to believe now that I was still young enough at the time for all the weekends I spent at Timmerdalen to have significantly reduced my own levels of methylation. All those mornings sitting around the kitchen table with the white plastic thermos full of coffee, all those afternoons walking on the wooded hills just outside Sven and Märta’s home, all those evenings lounging in front of the TV watching the news, they all helped to chip away at the effects of my own childhood.
The only adversity I ever experienced at Timmerdalen 15 was the difficulty of figuring out what was appropriate to wear, and when one was meant to shower and change, when there were large family gatherings. I encountered this protocol issue with some regularity. Håkan has five older brothers and sisters, and the family liked to get together often, especially at holidays. But in truth, regardless of my sartorial angst, those dinners and holiday just served to further counteract my methylation. Holidays were especially wonderful because of the richness of the family traditions. During our early years together, Håkan and I spent a few Christmases with his parents and often with some of his brothers and sisters as well. Christmas for Håkan’s family was no small event; preparations started a full month ahead of the day itself. Märta would gather a special sort of moss to put around the bases of the four Advent candles in the shiny brass holder. On the first day of Advent, she would light the first candle. She would then light the appropriate number of candles for the following weeks at every mealtime. The height of the candles in relation to each other candle had to achieve a certain angle for her to feel that it looked proper. If the angle was wrong, she would let individual candles burn until the angle had been restored.
Midway through the Christmas season, on December 13th, most Swedes, Håkan’s family included, celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day. At Timmerdalen 15, that meant Märta would bake lussekatter, a traditional sweet bun flavoured with saffron and studded with a few raisins. Märta was very skilled in the kitchen, and her lussekatter were delicious. I loved the exotic smell of saffron, a spice I had never encountered before my first Lucia celebration. Throughout the holiday season, from the first of Advent until after Christmas, Märta would keep the roll-top desk in the dining room well-stocked with nuts, dates, clementines, and candy.
We saw Sven a couple more times after that visit in the sunny common room. He passed away a few weeks before what would have been his ninetieth birthday. Håkan and I moved to England about a year after our son was born, and our visits to Märta became annual or even biannual. I wasn’t good at keeping in touch with Märta. I am reasonably fluent in Swedish, but I rely heavily on visual input, and I still pace and break out in a sweat whenever I speak Swedish on the telephone. Märta has become very forgetful, and when we do see her now, she tells one story almost exclusively, the story of how she met Sven. Märta had been working at a kiosk by one of the two gorgeous lakes in Ed. Sven had paid her for a locker, changed into his swimming costume, stepped out onto the high diving board, and executed a perfect dive. Märta has a dreamy look when she tells that story, and it is clear that that moment determined the entire future course of her life. That moment is real to her in a way that the present no longer is.
I am sure that I will never be able to tell Märta how much she has meant to me. I have not yet even said “I love you” to her, and it is doubtful that I ever will. Affection is generally expressed with actions rather than words in Håkan’s family, and I am not quite brave enough to deviate from that norm.
There are no copper pots yet in my kitchen, but for the past several Christmases I have maintained an Advent candle set. I take good care to ensure that the angle the flames make to each other is correct, rotating the candles as needed, and burning one for longer if they have gotten out of synch. Håkan has mastered the art of baking lussekatter, and we celebrate Saint Lucia’s day every year. And last year, for the first time, I cleared off the top of the chest in our family room, placed a Christmas table runner on it, and arranged bowls of clementines, dates, and candy on top. I kept the bowls filled, much to our children’s delight. The kids don’t usually have free access to candy, and our daughter, Nina, was curious about the sudden change in policy.
“Why have you put out all those sweeties, Mum?” she asked.
“Your grandmother and grandfather kept a bowl of sweets like this in their house, where Pappa used to live, during the Christmas season. I always liked the tradition, so now we’re keeping one out too,” I told her.
Nina nodded sagely, then cut to the chase. “Can I have a sweet?”
“You sure can, honey,” I said.