The Sand Doesn’t Leave The Hourglass

When my eagerly-awaited daughter was less than a month old, she arranged her face into an expression I had seen before.

“Look at her,” I said to my husband.  “She is the spitting image of your mother.”

“That’s almost spooky,” he agreed.  “How could she duplicate that so exactly?”

We both laughed.  Over the next several months, Nina’s occasional resemblance to her paternal grandmother continued to astound us.  It was a peculiar sensation to gaze at my daughter and see my mother-in-law, rather than any of my own features, but I just added that to the list of surprises Nina had already brought my way.

***

Many wives intentionally keep their mother-in-laws at a safe distance, but I met Märta when I moved from the U.S. to Sweden at the tender age of eighteen, and I spent considerable amounts of time in her home both before and after marrying my husband, Håkan.  With an ocean between myself and my moms and dads, I was suffering from a lack of parenting; after successfully raising six children, Märta provided extra mothering instinctually.  Our needs and talents matched.

During the first several years of my membership in the family, Märta did not let a coffee break pass without offering at least two sorts of homemade biscuit, often presented with accompanying homemade cinnamon buns.  On days when Märta wanted to make a simple lunch, she made omelettes with cream sauces based on wild mushrooms.  A no-fuss dinner at my in-laws’ could be comprised of moose medallions, potatoes, and a green salad; the difficulty level of Märta’s meals went up from that baseline, culminating in the feasts that she produced for holidays.  Märta even coordinated the table service with the meal.  If fish was on the menu, she chose the plates illustrated with various types of seafood and the accompanying dainty green wine glasses.

When she wasn’t cooking or baking, Märta shopped, hung laundry, sang in the church choir, took part in Save the Children events, and chatted on the phone or on the street to family and friends.  She sat down in the afternoon only at coffee breaks, for the occasional game of canasta, or if there was a significant sporting event on television, such as any sport involving skis at any level, or balls at the national level.

At breakfast, and just after the afternoon coffee, Märta and Sven, Håkan’s dad, listened to the radio.  Märta had very clear likes and dislikes, and sometimes held forth in favour of or in opposition to the people or events mentioned by the newsreaders.  Just after the news, the state radio station often played a popular song.  When my husband was in his early twenties, he was enamoured of a Swedish singer whose voice was distinctive but often slightly off-key.  Märta could not bear this singer, and huffed in disgust whenever his song was chosen to start the post-news set.

Märta’s opinions extended even to animals.  My father-in-law had spent most of his working life in the service of Sweden’s largest foresting company.  For many years he had been based at a large country home, Bosjön, that the company owned.  While living there, one of Sven’s tasks was to ensure the yearly moose hunting quota was met.  This meant that, beyond and above the moose he wanted to shoot to feed his own family, Sven needed to do his bit to shoot whatever moose were leftover from the regional quota.  Moose hunting relies heavily on moose dogs, so the family owned several of these.  Sven also hunted deer, rabbits, and birds, all requiring different dogs.  Many of my husband’s childhood pictures feature various hunting dogs.

By the time I met them, my parents-in-law were both retired, and the country house they had lived in was two houses in the past, but Sven still kept one moose dog, a dignified black and white huntress called Bricka.  Märta was fond of Bricka, but still kept the memory of a beagle the family had owned, Bess, closest to her heart.  Cats, however, held no appeal whatsoever for Märta, not even as mousers—that’s what terriers were for.

When we went to visit, I sometimes accompanied Märta on her trips into town.  My in-laws had re-settled in the town they grew up in, a small village of several thousand on the west side of Sweden.  Each visit to the high street with Märta was punctuated by friendly hellos to her fellow villagers and animated conversations with shopkeepers.  Märta liked to introduce me as her American daughter-in-law, after which her conversant and I would exchange smiles.  Sometimes Märta told me more about the people we had just run into when we had walked away: “Oh, that’s Mary; she’s having terrible trouble with her husband at the moment.  He had an operation, for his heart, but he’s not recovering well…  Isn’t that shopkeeper lovely?  I’m so glad he opened up his shop.  He gets the best fruit and vegetables, and he and his wife are so hard-working.”

A few years after my husband and I married, Sven suffered a major stroke that left him significantly disabled.  As time passed and it became clear that Sven would never regain his previous level of health, Märta, whom I had always known as optimistic and outgoing, began to have spells of worry and sadness, and, by necessity as Sven’s primary carer, she became more housebound.

It was a family joke, even before Sven’s stroke, that Märta could not keep her sons straight.  She had four, two of whom were identical twins, so it was not surprising that some confusion would develop.  The twins’ names were muddled with some regularity, my husband was called by his oldest brother’s name on occasion, and even my name, Beth, had sometimes been mixed with Bess, the name of the gone-but-not-forgotten beagle.  Not long after Sven’s stroke, Märta began taking selenium tablets.

“I’m taking these little pills now,” she would say at breakfast when my husband and I were visiting, which happened less often since Sven’s stroke, because guests, even very familiar, helpful guests, placed an additional strain on Märta.  “They’re meant to improve my memory.  The problem is, I keep forgetting to take them.”

We would all smile, and my husband, who is the youngest (by a distance) of Märta’s four sons, would say, “So that’s why I end up being called every other brother’s name before you get to mine.  You have to remember your pills more often, Mamma.”

After a few years, the physical strain of caring for Sven became too much for Märta.  Sven moved to a care home, and after some years there, he passed away.  Märta moved to an apartment overlooking the village square, and became rapidly more forgetful.  My husband’s older brothers and sisters took turns visiting Märta, and slowly took over her affairs—her banking, her doctor’s appointments, and when it became clear that Märta could no longer cook safely for herself, her meals.

We had moved to London not long before Sven’s passing.  My husband was able to justify occasional trips to Sweden through his work, but the kids and I were only able to see Märta once a year.  Three years ago, Märta made a request: she wanted to have a meal with all of her grown children.  Her children were happy to oblige; a fine restaurant close to Märta’s home was chosen, and Märta, all the siblings and their partners, and our two children spent a sunny afternoon partaking of lovingly prepared Swedish food and relishing each other’s company.  Two years ago, the same restaurant served as the gathering place, but Märta was running a fever; while the afternoon was pleasant, an undercurrent of concern ran through it.

Last year the siblings booked the lunch at another restaurant in Märta’s village.  Our party was seated in the conservatory.  One side of the table, the side Märta happened to be seated at, had to contend with a bit of glare from the sunshine coming through the glass roof.  We could chalk some of Märta’s increased confusion up to the altered visual circumstances—it is harder to recognize people with the sun in your eyes—but all of us knew that wasn’t really the problem.  Not only did Märta often seem unsure of who she was talking to, she also did not recall what she had talked about.  When she asked our children for the third time if they had been swimming outside yet that year, my husband and I exchanged glances.  Our kids grew up in England, and their Swedish is yet to be truly fluent, so they were unfazed by the redundancy as they struggled to both understand and answer each time the question was posed.  I was grateful that the kids were both not skilled enough and not brazen enough to tell Farmor that she was repeating herself.

This year the siblings planned whole-group get-togethers that did not include Märta; it was tacitly agreed that a meal with such a large group would cost her more than she would gain from it. We scheduled our annual family trip to include a lunch with all of my husband’s brothers and one of his two sisters a few hours north of Märta’s home, in the part of Sweden where four of the six siblings own houses, and booked our usual two nights in the self-service apartments in Märta’s village. During the car journey south, I asked the children, now ten and seven, to turn off their screens for a moment.

“Listen kids, this is important,” I commenced. “We’re about to visit Farmor. Farmor is quite old now, nearly ninety, and she has become very forgetful. She probably won’t remember your names, and even if you tell her, she may not be sure who you are. She may say the same thing over and over. This isn’t her fault; it just ends up that way for some people when they get to be that age. So you still need to be polite, OK? It’s important to respect our elders.”

“Yes, Mum,” Nina said seriously. Sam, our son, nodded his head gravely.

“So even if Farmor asks what your name is four times, each time you need to answer as if she hasn’t asked you before.  Don’t say ‘You already asked me that,'” my husband, who consistently speaks Swedish to the children, added in English. Both children sat up straight, listening with particular attention to what must be critical information to have necessitated presentation in English.

“Got it,” Sam said. This time Nina nodded, wide-eyed.

We called two hours before arriving at Märta’s flat, but when we appeared in her doorway, she was nonetheless surprised to see us.

“Are you here!” she exclaimed, smiling. “I had no idea you were coming!”

Anyone who has ever offered advice knows that it is far easier to give than to follow. “We called you from the road, Mamma,” my husband said. “And I know it’s written on your calendar.”

“Oh, I didn’t remember that you had called. How good to see you! And what are these children’s names?”

“I’m Sam,” Sam replied.

“And I’m Nina. Nina Louise Elvira. You’re Elvira too,” Nina said helpfully.

“That’s right, Märta Elvira, after my mother, her first name was Elvira.  She died when I was only your age,” Märta added wistfully. “Tuberculosis.”

After a faraway moment, Märta returned, and saw that Nina was still standing in front of her. “Aren’t you pretty,” Märta said, placing her hands on Nina’s shoulders.

Nina grinned bashfully.

“We thought we would go out for dinner,” Håkan said.  “To the Thai restaurant just around the corner.”

“Thai? Is there a Thai restaurant here now?”

“Yes, around the corner, you went there with one of the twins.  There used to be a pizzeria there.”

“Oh, the pizzeria.  Is there a Thai restaurant there now?  I didn’t realize.”

Märta put on her tweed jacket and Håkan took her arm.  The stairs leading down from Märta’s apartment are made of black marble, with slight dips in the middle from many generations of footfalls, and the staircase turns; at its most narrow, even Nina could not fit her entire foot on a stair.  For the past few years, each time we have taken Märta up or down those stairs, I have held my breath.  We completed the staircase descent without incident, and started walking slowly towards the restaurant.

To Nina’s delight, she was seated across from Märta at dinner, with me to her right and Sam on my other side.  My husband sat on Märta’s left.  Märta had left her glasses at home, and was flummoxed by the menu, so we selected a mild chicken curry for her.  Nina, who likes to be “food twins” with people, picked the same dish.

“We eat same, chicken!” Nina told Märta, in broken Swedish, with great animation.

Märta regarded Nina, bemused. “Have you started school yet?”

Nina wiggled in her seat with pleasure at being asked a question. “Yes, I am Year Two… Well, Pappa, how do you say ‘I am about to start Year Three’?”

My husband provided her with the Swedish translation, which Nina replicated to the best of her ability. “Sam Year Six,” she added, puffing up with pride that her brother was about to start his last year at primary school.

“Do you like school?” Märta asked.

“Yes.  Pappa, how do you say ‘I like literacy the best’?”

My husband again filled his role as translator, and Nina repeated him.

“Year Three first year Key Stage Two,” Nina elaborated, combining Swedish and English.

Märta smiled at Nina, but turned to Håkan. “I can’t understand what she’s saying,” Märta admitted.

“She’s mixing Swedish and English, so that doesn’t make it easier, but basically she’s telling you about school.”

“She’s very enthusiastic,” Märta said.

“That she is,” my husband concurred.

“And the boy, what’s his name again?”

“Samuel. Sam.”

Sam leaned forward and waved.

“He’s lovely,” Märta said approvingly.

“Thank you, we think so too. They’re good kids,” I said.

The rest of the evening continued in the same vein. Nina did her utmost to communicate with Märta, asking for frequent translation assistance. My husband and I ran interference on Nina’s efforts at conversation and made small talk. Sam focussed on eating as much of his Thai yellow curry with grapes and pineapple as he could manage. Märta listened to Nina indulgently, asked several more times what years the children were in at school and what their names were, and brought up a few of her familiar themes.

For the past three years, Märta had perseverated on certain topics, returning to some several times an hour, and to others less frequently. Dogs were low-repetition, but the theme was one of the more challenging because of the great discrepancy between desire and possibility.

“I would like to have a dog.  It gets very lonely, being by myself all the time. There are those people that come,” Märta said, referring to the care workers that came briefly twice a day, “but a dog would be good company.”

My husband and I looked at each other, thinking of how completely impossible it would be for Märta to care for even the smallest dog given her limitations.

“A moose dog, they are wonderful dogs,” Märta said dreamily.

My husband laughed. “Mamma, you can’t have a moose dog, it would pull you of your feet in a second.”

Again Märta snapped back to the present. “I know I can’t have a moose dog. But do you remember all the dogs we’ve had over the years? There was Puck, and then there was Bess, the beagle…”

“Puck was a great dog,” my husband said. “Do you remember when he ran the moose into the lake?”

Märta laughed. “Yes, that didn’t end well for the moose. At Bosjön there were always puppies, do you remember?”

Bosjön was the country house Märta and Sven had lived in when Sven was working for the forestry company. The house had served as a venue for dinners with important guests, as the childhood home for most of my husband’s siblings, and even, on rare occasions, as a holding space for the village dead. The family had eaten fish from the nearby lake, moose and deer from the forest, and mushrooms and berries from the land.

“I was three when we left Bosjön, Mamma. I don’t remember very much from there.”

“Were you so little? Oh, Bosjön was special. I was always so busy, but it was exciting.”

“We had dog, Enzo, ten days,” Nina volunteered in clear, although grammatically broken, Swedish.

“Do you have a dog?” Märta asked, surprised.

“No, we were watching a friend’s dog for a couple of weeks,” my husband clarified. “A terrier.”

“That’s nice,” Märta said to Nina.  Nina beamed.

After the meal, we walked Märta home, then retired to our lodging.

“You did such a great job talking to Farmor,” I said to Nina. “I have never seen you speak that much Swedish.”

“I like Farmor. She’s cute.”

“Cute?”

“Yeah, she’s just so short, and she’s got so many wrinkles, and she’s just, well, she’s cute!” Nina explained.

I thought of all I knew about Märta’s life, and I remembered the woman she had been before Sven’s stroke. To think of that vibrant, opinionated, energetic woman, who had endured considerable hardship, worked tirelessly, yet loved nothing more than laughing at a good story, as “cute” seemed to diminish Märta to nearly unrecognizable. “Cute,” furthermore, struck me as verging on disrespectful. But I tried to consider Nina’s perspective. I recalled my own great-grandmothers, who had been about the same age as Märta was now when I was Nina’s age. When I knew them, I had never seen past their silver hair, slow movements, and thick glasses to the women they had been, just as Nina only saw Märta as she was now, rather than as she had been. I would not have called my great-grandmothers “cute” though, as I did not spend enough time with them to feel the closeness that “cute” requires. Although it rubbed me the wrong way, “cute” was actually a good thing.

“Hmm, cute, OK,” I said. “Sleep tight now, sweetie.”

“Will we see Farmor tomorrow?”

“Yes, we’re going to cook dinner at her place tomorrow.”

“Yay!” Nina exclaimed.

The following afternoon, after a trip to the supermarket, we walked up to Märta’s flat. Märta opened the door with the same amazed expression as on the previous day.

“Is it you! I didn’t know you were coming!”

“Hello Mamma. We left you a note, didn’t you see it, saying we would be here and we would fix dinner,” my husband reminded Märta gently.

“How good to see you!”

Märta took each child’s face in her hands in turn. After they were greeted, the kids went to watch TV in the sitting room. Håkan set to work in the kitchen, and I sat at the kitchen table with Märta.

“Look at him,” Märta said, gazing with wonder at Håkan, who was hard at work chopping vegetables. “Does he make dinner at home too?”

“He does, on weekends. He’s a good cook. He’s not the only son of yours that knows his way around the kitchen- Hans is quite a chef as well.”

“Is he? Well, they certainly didn’t inherit that from their father. Sven, he couldn’t cook at all.”

“I remember. But he was good at other things.”

“That’s him there,” Märta said, pointing to a black and white photo in a simple frame next to the kitchen table. I recognized Sven instantly, although in the picture, Sven was far younger than he had been when I first met him: his hair still dark, his face unweathered, his features handsome and determined.  It struck me that Märta, although she “knew” me enough to feel warmly towards me, could not place me in her family history. I had already accepted that my name was no longer accessible, but to be disassociated in her memory from my father-in-law, whom I had known and loved, plucked the string of loss sharply.

“I talk to him during the day,” Märta continued. “I tell him what’s happening in the village square. I think about our lives sometimes, and I think how lucky we were that Sven was able to do what he loved for work. When we were at Bosjön, he made his living doing what came naturally to him- hunting, looking after the forest. I’m so glad it turned out like that.”

I nodded, and we both fell backwards in time, thinking of Sven in our separate ways, until my husband brought us back to the present by asking where Märta kept her salad bowls. I rose to lay the dining table, then returned to my seat opposite Märta in the kitchen.

“He’s still cooking,” Märta said, newly impressed by Håkan’s efforts.

“Nearly done now, Mamma.”

“I’m not sure what he’s making. Fish, I think.”

“Salmon with sweet chilli sauce,” Håkan repeated patiently.

“Have you seen my begonias?” Märta asked me, gesturing towards the flowering plants adorning the kitchen windowsill beside the picture of Sven.

I knew what story the begonia comment led to, and I readied myself to listen to it again.

“They’re lovely,” I said, honestly.  Märta had kept begonias for all the years I had known her; cheerful, colourful small plants with white, pink and red flowers.

“A woman came up to me in the square and took me by the arm one day.  ‘Are those your begonias in the window?’ she asked me, almost whispering.  I didn’t know the woman, I hadn’t seen her before, but she must have really liked my flowers to ask me.  ‘Yes,’ I told her, ‘Those are mine.’  ‘They’re beautiful!’ the woman said, holding my arm. ‘What are they called?’ ‘They’re begonias,’ I told her.  She thanked me, and went away.”

So far, the story matched previous tellings.  “She must have really liked your begonias,” I commented.  “Maybe she wanted to buy some herself, so it’s good that you told her what they were called.”

I assumed the thread would end there, as it had many times before, but I was wrong.

“I wish I had thought to tell the woman to come up for some cuttings,” Märta said.  “I could have easily given her cuttings.  But I didn’t know who she was, and I didn’t see her again.  I’ve thought about her many times since that day, how she took my arm and asked about my flowers.”

This new ending made the anecdote still more poignant.  In the original recounting, the emphasis seemed to be on the pride Märta took in tending the begonias well, but now the weight was on the missed connection.  It mattered that Märta had not known the woman, and that the woman had made a particular effort to approach Märta, but what gnawed at Märta the most was that she had not helped the woman as much as she could have.  I thought of Märta’s prodigious talents in the kitchen, and how, one afternoon before Sven’s stroke, Märta had spent several hours patiently demonstrating to me how best to bake the moist, delicious cinnamon buns that were a staple of the family coffee breaks.  For Märta, the pleasure derived from  sharing her skills was nearly as great, and perhaps even greater, than the pleasure gained from putting them to use for her own benefit.

“Dinner is served,” Håkan announced, and the kids tore themselves away from the TV and joined the adults at the table.  I spent the meal worrying about how Märta would find the children’s table manners; at restaurants the kids normally exhibited self-control, but at home they sometimes ignored my requests to consistently use cutlery.  To my relief, Märta let their occasional minor infractions pass unnoticed, and dinner was completed without major table manner violations.

After dinner, my husband left to run a couple of short errands for Märta.  The kids resumed watching TV, and I began washing up.  After resting for a few moments at the kitchen table, Märta rose stiffly and fetched a dish towel.

“I may as well dry, that way it will be all finished,” she said.

“No, no, you can just sit down, your knee could surely use the rest,” I protested.

“I like to be helpful.  That’s what I like the most about the senior center; they give us work to do.  We actually help in the kitchen, we don’t just sit around.”

I relented.  Märta stood beside me, picking the rinsed dishes out of the dish rack.

“Have you been swimming yet this year?” Märta asked, revisiting the topic she preferred above all others.

“No, I haven’t, it hasn’t really been warm enough this year.”

“I remember when I was young; it used to be a competition, to see who could go in the water first.  It was so cold!  I can’t imagine getting into such cold water now.”

“Did you like swimming as a child?” I asked.

“I loved it.  My father taught me.  My mother, she died when I was very young,” Märta said.

I was hit again by the feeling of disconnect that occurred whenever Märta told me something I had known for many years as though I were a stranger.  “Yes,” I said, nodding.

“But my father felt it was important for all of us to learn how to swim.  And it is very important for children, if they should ever be in a situation where they need to swim; they need to feel they can.  If they can’t swim, they may panic, and that’s the worst thing you can do in the water.”

“That’s true.  I’m glad my kids feel comfortable in the water.  Did you like swimming more than your brothers and sisters?”

“Well, my father, he would hold us up in the water.  I remember how it felt, his arms under my middle, when I was first learning.  Barbro, she was so independent, she didn’t really take to swimming.  She never did learn properly.  I don’t see Barbro often enough,” Märta mused.

I held my tongue.  Of Märta’s four siblings, I was certain that at least three had passed away, and it seemed entirely possible that Märta was the only living sibling.

“I would like to meet her again.  I would like to see Barbro.  I would ask her if she finally learned to swim.”  Märta smiled, envisaging the conversation in her mind.

“That was good of your dad to teach all of you,” I said, steering the conversation back towards more solid ground.  “Where was that?”

“It was right there in Lilla Le,” Märta said, referring to the lake visible from her small balcony.  “I went swimming there, perhaps last summer, but it wasn’t like I thought it would be.”

“No?”

“No.  It was too cold.  I couldn’t relax in the water.  I didn’t really swim.”

“That’s too bad.  Maybe you could try swimming indoors somewhere?” I asked, regretting the suggestion even before I had finished the sentence.  Where would Märta swim?  There was no suitable indoor swimming pool in her little village.  Even if the logistics could be managed, I suspected that what Märta truly wanted was to not to swim in the present, but to swim in the past, as she had when she was a girl, when her father had held her up, when she had been one of the first kids in town to brave the icy lake water in the early Swedish spring.  The contrast between Märta’s nearly 90-year old body, aching and unsteady, and the body of her youth, floating easily through the water, was stark.

The apartment door opened and closed.  Håkan entered the kitchen.  “Mamma, what are you doing standing up?” he asked, solicitously.  “Sit down and rest.  Let us take care of this.”

Märta made no effort to protest, and returned to her seat at the kitchen table beside the picture of Sven.

Back at our lodgings, when the kids had finally succumbed to sleep, I settled myself on the couch with a cup of tea.  I asked Håkan, “Is Märta’s sister Barbro still alive?”

Håkan answered without looking, while watching the sports on TV.  “Yes, I believe she is.  It’s just her and Mamma left now.  Why?”

“Märta was talking about her this evening.  She said she would like to see Barbro again.”

Håkan raised his eyebrows.  “Really?”

“She said that while you were out.  Which one is Barbro, is she the slightly odd one that lived in the forest?”

“No, that’s Gun.  I don’t think you ever met Barbro.”

“The only one I met was Kalle.”

“Ah.  How did you end up talking about Barbro?”

“We were talking about swimming again.  But this time Märta told me that her dad had taught all of them to swim, all except Barbro, who was too independent.”

Håkan laughed.  “That sounds about right.”

“Do you think it would be possible to get Märta to the hydrotherapy pool your dad went to sometimes after his stroke?  What town was that in?”

“That was in Nal, but I don’t think it’s operational now.”

“There probably isn’t another one anywhere close by?”

“No, the nearest would be Uddevalla, and that would be a schlep.”

“She just seems to miss swimming so much.”

Håkan turned away from the sports, and looked straight at me.  “Beth, it’s hard to tell if she really misses swimming, or if it’s just the way her mind works now.  It’s like a broken record.”

“Her mental needle does seem stuck on the ‘first one in the water’ track, that’s true.”

Håkan nodded and resumed watching TV.  I sipped my tea and wondered why Märta’s swirling sense of time was so disconcerting.  Sven’s path through his last years had been so different; even after his stroke rendered speaking enormously difficult for him, his mind had remained sharp.  Sven knew exactly who I was, and who his grandchildren were, the last time I saw him.  Märta, however, could no longer retrieve that information, and that inability, more than all the other changes that had come with senility, caused me to mourn her loss, although she was still present.  It seemed petty and selfish to care about being known, but a relationship is built, to a great extent, on a foundation of shared memories; without them, two people may be friendly with each other, but not close.  I no longer figured in any cohesive memory for Märta.  Her strongest recall was for events that had happened during the first few decades of her life, well before my husband had been born.  I could still learn more about Märta, and my children would form memories of this visit, but the opposite did not hold true, and that was not easy to sit with.

The following morning we packed our suitcases and left our self-catering apartment.  We drove the short distance to the village square, and the four of us trundled up the worn marble stairs to say goodbye to Märta.  Although we had left another note in the kitchen, our arrival was again an unexpected pleasure.  Håkan and I had agreed beforehand that we would stay only briefly, as we had the long drive to the airport ahead of us, so when Märta, who had been resting in her room before we showed up, asked if we wanted coffee, Håkan declined.  Relieved of that task, Märta made her way slowly to the chair closest to the TV and settled herself in it carefully.  We chatted for a few minutes, then the community nurse called out from the doorway.

“Hello Märta!  It’s Marcus!”

“Oh hello!” Märta replied, then turned to us and said sotto voce, “This is the young man who comes sometimes, he is just wonderful, so kind and cheerful.”

Marcus entered the sitting room.  “Hi there,” he said to us. “Märta didn’t say that you would be here this morning, I could have left her medicines for you to give to her.”

“We wrote it down on the notebook in the kitchen, but don’t worry, we’re just stopping by on our way out of town,” my husband said.

Marcus introduced himself to the children, then went to Märta and took her hand.  “How lovely to have visitors! Now Märta, have you had your breakfast this morning?”

Märta looked at Marcus while her mind searched for the answer.  “No, I don’t think I have,” she finally replied.

“Shall I fix something?  Maybe your favourite prawn cocktail sandwich?”

“Yes,” Märta said, visibly relieved, “Yes, I would like that.”

“And perhaps a cup of coffee to go with it?”

“Yes, that sounds good.”

A tidal wave of guilt washed over me.  It was after 10 o’clock, we had been at Märta’s for ten minutes, and we had not checked to see if she had eaten.  Our refusal of coffee, and our failure to start some brewing and offer something to accompany it, suddenly felt almost criminally negligent.

“I can fix the coffee,” Håkan volunteered.

Markus brushed off Håkan’s offer breezily.  “Oh, you carry on talking; I’ll have it done in a tick.  But before I do that, I have some pills for you, Märta.”

“Oh, my pills.  I like to joke with him, I ask him if he can’t find some that are tastier,” Märta said in our direction.

Markus smiled at her fondly.  “She has a good sense of humour, your mamma,” he said to Håkan.

Märta took the medicine, and Markus repaired to the kitchen, as did Håkan, despite Markus’s dismissal of Håkan’s offer to help.

Märta turned the small white pills over in her hand.  “I don’t really know what these are for,” she confided to me.  “Since my fall a couple of years ago, my head hasn’t been quite right.  They may be for that.”

I wasn’t sure what the medicine was for either, but it tugged at my heart to hear Märta hope aloud that it may be medicine that would restore order in her mind.

Håkan and Markus presented Märta with coffee and a sandwich respectively.  Markus wished us safe travels, took leave of Märta, and quietly let himself out of the flat.

“That is such a nice young man.  It’s not always him that comes, but I’m happy when it is,” Märta said, nibbling at her sandwich half-heartedly.

When we had finished our coffee and quickly washed the dishes, the time came to set off for the airport.

“Well, Mamma,”  Håkan said, standing by Märta and resting his hand on her shoulder.  She laid a hand over his.

“Yes.  How wonderful it has been to see you, and the children.  What are their names again?”

“Sam,” Sam declared.

“And Nina,” Nina added, pronouncing her name with extra emphasis on the second syllable, in a continued effort to assimilate.

“Come here,” Märta said to Nina.  Nina obliged, and stood before Märta, pleased to be singled out.  “You are so adorable,”  Märta said.  Nina smiled from ear to ear, and shrugged her shoulders with the false modesty of a seven-year old.

As departure loomed, the possible finality of the goodbyes struck me with still more force than it had the previous year, and I asked Håkan to take a picture of me with Märta and the children.  Märta and I took the back row, with Märta holding Nina’s shoulders, and me holding Sam’s.  Nina, for once, posed without sticking out her tongue or pulling a silly face.  After a couple shots with my camera, Håkan and I switched places, and I took a few shots of the four of them.  Then it was time for hugs.  Sam was first in line; he said goodbye matter-of-factly, returned Märta’s hug, then walked out to the landing, ready for the next stage of our journey.   Nina, although two years younger, understood the emotional aspect of farewell more deeply, and one embrace was not sufficient for her.

“Goodbye Farmor,” Nina said, in her best Swedish, after giving Märta a second squeeze.

“Goodbye little friend,” Märta said, with the slight lisp she reserved for those she loved best.  “Come back and see me again soon, will you?”

“I will…”  Nina said hesitantly.  She turned to me, and asked in English, “When, Mum?  When will we be back?  Christmas? Next summer?”

“Probably not before next summer, sweetie,” I answered apologetically.

“How do you say ‘next summer’ in Swedish?”

Håkan translated.  Nina repeated the words to Märta, then went to join Sam just outside the open door.  I was next.  Märta clasped my hands in hers and looked me in the eye.  “So good to see you,” she said.

“And so good to see you.  Take care of yourself, Märta.  See you next summer.”  We hugged, and it dawned on me that, while the details of who I was and where I fit in historically were fuzzy at best,  Märta’s affection for me was clear and intact, as was my affection for her.  I joined the children on the landing, then led them slowly down the winding stairs, leaving Håkan to say farewell in private.

We settled ourselves into the rental car and left Märta’s village, passing the ancient white stone church and its cemetery, where Sven had been laid to rest, on our way out of town.

***

Since gaining the ability to express her own ideas, around the age of five, Nina has maintained steadfastly that she will neither marry nor bear children.  I’ve wondered, vaguely, what it is about marriage and motherhood that makes her so adamantly opposed to both of these states.  Perhaps because of my reluctance to hear her defend her position, stemming from my (hopefully) misguided fear that her case rests on my inadequacies as a wife and mother, I have never pressed the point.  I point out, when she states that she will remain single and childless, that were it not for her parents’ love for each other, she would not exist, and I mention that she and her brother have brought joy beyond measure into my life, but I tell her that I respect her right to her own destiny, and if that destiny does not include a husband or children, then so be it.

When we were about halfway to the airport, Nina piped up from the backseat.

“I like Farmor,” she said.

“That’s good, sweetie.  Farmor is lovely, and she likes you too,” I said.

“I know she does.  Would you like to have grandchildren some day?”

Despite wanting to seem impartial, I felt I should answer Nina as truthfully as possible.  “I want you to follow your own path, but if that path included children, I would be over the moon to be a grandmother someday.”

“I want you to have the chance to be a grandma.  I want to have two children, a girl and a boy,” Nina said firmly.

I said a quick and silent prayer that I would live long enough to hold those future grandchildren, should they materialize, once in my arms.

“That sounds wonderful, Nina.  I would love to see your children.”

Nina smiled, satisfied, then started an animated conversation with her brother.  I smiled too, gazing at my little girl, and catching a glimpse of her grandmother in the set of her chin.

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4 Responses to The Sand Doesn’t Leave The Hourglass

  1. chickenshitz says:

    Beth, this is beautiful!

  2. Editor B says:

    Touching yet also harrowing, and very sensitively observed.

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