The Attic

Behind the huge door of my grandparents’ apartment building, a world of mystery, adventure and excitement lay hidden. From the outside, the majestic, white, three-story building appeared calm and peaceful with its undisturbed row of leaded windows. However, as soon as I heard the large and heavy wooden door close behind me, leaving the busy street noises out, I knew I had entered an unknown territory ready for me to explore.

There, at the bottom of the staircase, my journey began. As I was climbing the stairs, the sweet and mellow smell of fresh pipe tobacco and newly hand rolled cigars welcomed me even before my grandmother did. The aroma that I knew so well came from the tobacco shop on the ground floor.

My first stop was the tall hallway that seemed endless as the stairs continued their climb towards higher grounds. After the formal greeting with one of the natives, my grandmother, I dashed by her through the double doors that led to the living room. Here, my goal was to get to the big chestnut brown leather couch, where the other native, my grandfather, took his late afternoon nap. But in order to get there I had to jump from one Oriental rug to the next, thus securing myself from the waters in between. I felt the heat from the roaring fireplace, and it was with great contentment that I rested for a little while in the bosom of a brown leather chair.

As I was scanning the room, my eyes fell upon the large wooden desk, where a small family of brass ducks had settled down, and everywhere, on the desk as well as hanging on the walls, were pipes, telling me stories without the mouths they had visited. My favorite one was the long pipe with the pretty pipe head made of hand painted china. The scene showed a pasture with roaming deer, which made me believe the pipe had belonged to a hunter. As the twilight fell upon the room, I looked across it to see the other staircase that lead to the upper boundaries.

Before I could start the dangerous part of my journey, I had to join my grandparents in the large dining room for supper. The dining room table could hold at least twenty people and still allow them adequate room for dining. I was placed on the bench along one side of the table against the wall. Across from me, a row of single chairs were lining the other side of the table, and grandmother sat in the one across from me. There, in between us, at the end of the table, grandfather prevailed, only competing with the grand looking gentleman on the painting above him. From the kitchen an aroma of curry and mango chutney travelled down through the long hall, passing several bedrooms on its way to the dining room, where it would tickle my nose and water my mouth as well as mingle with my desire to seek adventures on the third floor.

Time for bed! Which route should I choose? The one through the entry hallway or the one through the living room? Challenging myself, I chose the trail through the living room, where, at the top of the stairs, I knew danger lurked in the shape of a sinister looking painting of death. The scene showed Death coming to visit a sick person in bed.

Once I had passed this obstacle, I was safe and sound in my room with the door securely shut behind me. Here, I could rest for the night, well knowing that on this very floor was the attic, the ultimate frontier to explore. As soon as I lay down, tucked into my own queen size bed, my mind started wandering into the attic, a preferred action over actually entering the premises. The grandfather clock across the room ate the time away, and over by the windows, voices crept through the panes, then exploded in a roar or a howl, making me slide further down under the comforter, even though I knew of the restaurant across the street. Falling asleep, I envisioned the attic where I knew only snakes ruled. One of grandfather’s greater pleasures was to get a snakeskin from the attic and then tell us about its capture in Indonesia. The biggest one I saw was at least a dozen meters long and very capable of devouring a human child.

Maybe one day I would be bold enough and have the courage to fulfill my innermost desire: to plant my feet in the attic, at least when accompanied by my grandmother – and in broad daylight! It never did happen, though, and every time I think of this majestic, white, three-story building, I wonder what was hidden in the attic.

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Choice

 

 

Ingeborg looks in the mirror and sees a young woman in a white summer dress caressing her ankles, draping her body like a soft breeze.

“He loves me, he loves me not,” repeats through her head, “he will have me, he will not.”

She feels dizzy with emotion and stumbles a little to sit down. At the leaded window, on the second floor, she looks out to watch the comings and goings of the town citizens. Soon, he will show up in his Sunday finest to pay a visit.

How lovely the day is, she notices, with cotton clouds on a velvet blue sky, with spring leaves from the linden trees making a faint sound like soft rain.

People are celebrating the end of WWI, and men and women are eager to marry, to settle down, and to start a family. Erik is on his way to ask for her hand in marriage.

Her thoughts drift away from the present to the past and to the future. Last Sunday, Paul, in his perfectly tailored blue suit, lighting up his pale grey eyes, showed up to ask for her hand in marriage and she wanted to say yes on the spot, but her father postponed their reply. She knows her father is leaning towards Erik who as the heir of a tobacco empire is able to secure the right future for her. Erik’s father is a millionaire from selling fine cigars.

Paul, on the other hand, is the son of the local draper who by suiting up the bourgeoisie in town makes a decent living, but according to her father, cigars burn up faster than fancy suits.

Ingeborg looks at her hands. She looks at the lines inside her left hand, and especially at the two short lines right below her little finger: one line for each of the two men in her life. How is it possible to choose one over the other? Both good-looking and decent fellows and both of strong families with a love for her. Why then does she prefer Paul for Erik? Why is he more attractive?

Outside her window she observes the florist carrying a bouquet of peonies in a multitude of red hues and by instinct she knows they are for her from Erik. On her dresser, the white lilies from Paul in the hand-blown blue vase project their large heads towards her. She senses their dignity and sensibility.

With the war behind them an appetite for life has returned and she is happy to see her parents more relaxed and ready to move on. True, that Denmark was not as impacted by the war as most countries in Europe, but still, her parents were worried about her uncle and her cousins who went to fight in the trenches. Her uncle was badly hurt and one cousin died on the field. Thank God, her younger brothers were too young to fight.

Now, she feels the effervescence of happiness rise from her gut through her breasts and lighting up her smile with a breath of excitement. She is witnessing an important time in her life and she feels animated. She wants this now to continue: with two suitors desiring her, she feels of the surge of power within her.

The doorbell sounds. The peonies are delivered. She must choose between Erik and Paul. Looking into the future she lives in grandeur with Erik, supported by a healthy size staff; she travels to Ostindia to live on a tobacco farm among indigenous people; and she becomes part of the elite in her town of Odense. With Paul, on the other hand, she develops her passion for fashion design, she lives a comfortable life in her hometown, and she’s with the man she loves.

Getting up from her chair she walks to the dresser. The lilies nod in her direction and intuitively, she brushes a few hair strands away from her face. Paul is gentle and considerate. His demeanor is that of a musician who plays his instrument with love. He is a coveted bachelor, adored by many women in town. And his eyes are on her. Erik is strong and impetuous. The son of a millionaire whose task it is to continue the wealth. A secure future of adventure and opportunity awaits with him.

Through the window, a glimpse of Erik, striding in a charcoal suit, scarlet handkerchief in his breast pocket, makes her heart jump. He’s at their front door before she knows it, another chime from the doorbell. It’ll take him a few moments to climb the stairs and to chat with her parents. She passes the mirror and almost smiles. At least, she will savor this moment, this moment of all eyes on her and then, she and her father will negotiate.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Letter

Dear Mrs. M,

It is so wonderful here – the other day we climbed a mountain, by car, through steep turns on narrow roads having the East Coast below us, deep, deep down on the one side and the ominous mountain rising majestically on the other side. We drove through the jungle with ancient palm trees with twining orchids and other vines, and where big, black apes with pink old-man faces played on the road, while screaming, colorful parrots flew among huge (as big as small birds) multicolored butterflies.

We looked down into a big crater from where large sulfur puffs were rising, and we went to a “cannibal market” far into the mountains, where a tribe, The Bataks, were practicing cannibalism only a few years ago. Today, only the wildest of them will eat humans in secret, but it gave me the chills to walk around their market with Erik, looking at their interesting and home-made wares knowing that I was surrounded only by former cannibals!

In a way, they look harmless but on the other hand, they are not very friendly to the “whites” and sometimes they set fire to the tobacco fields. I did see one major fire that the Bataks had started and it was interesting to witness how the natives – Javanese, Chinese, Bengalese, etc. – put out the fire by hitting on it with large palm leaves.

Everything is very primitive here – we are behind at least a hundred years in regards to comfort and convenience. Now, I must finish and I send you and your family warm regards.

Sincerely yours,

Inge

 

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Erik and Paul

On the ship going to Sumatra, Inge hung out with her good friend, Martha. She was happy to have someone to talk to and that Martha was there to listen. So much to say and so little time before the ship would arrive in Singapore (?).

“I’m leaving Paul behind, you know,” Inge plunged right in.

“Do you love him?” Martha asked.

“Yes, I do, as much as I love Erik, it’s just that life with him would be different, more predictable, and in town, tied down to his restaurant. With Erik, you never know. And now, I’m on my way to Sumatra to meet with Erik and become his wife.”

“I know what you mean. It’s sensible to marry the established one, but it’s thrilling to marry Mr. Bad Boy. and you don’t have to worry; Erik has inherited a fortune,” Martha smiled.

“It’s not the money. it’s him. He’s like a child, he’s my boy, and I love that. I want someone to look after, someone to take care of. It makes me happy,” Inge explained.

“Would the ladies care for a drink?” it came from a server in a white jacket with golden buttons.

“I’ll have a Manhattan, chilled, no cherry,” Inge said. Martha nodded, she would, too.

“Right away,” the server smiled and turned around.

“Ah, what a beautiful sunset, the sky is all clear tonight,” Martha sighed, “I can’t say how much I enjoy being here with you, Inge, and without our men – sometimes, I think we should just move in together!”

“Agree, and instead of having our own children, we could adopt them, – that would be lovely,” Inge laughed.

“But instead, we’re on our way to our men, out there in Asia somewhere, far away from what we know and cherish in our own small town of Odense,” Martha concluded.

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Den Gamle Kro

Den Gamle Kro (The Old Inn) was bought and created by Erik Stokkebye, Inge’s husband, in 1937 and owned until 1948. Here is a link to that restaurant of today:

http://www.dengamlekro.eu/9-historie.html

Two other restaurants they owned, created and designed:

http://www.underlindetraet.dk/forside.aspx

and

http://www.sortebrokro.dk/om-sortebro-kro/historien

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SIBLINGS

SIBLINGS

My grandmother’s four children, my father and his three sisters in the 1960’s. They have all transitioned. A generation gone. But together again. I knew them well. I’m one of them. Forever. Until we meet again.

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On her death bed

“I chose him, because life with him seemed like an adventure,” it came like a mere whisper out of her very dry mouth.

“Do you want some water, grandma?” I asked.

“He had me come all the way to Sumatra from little Denmark, and he was so good-looking!”

She sipped a little of the water.

“Feel better?” I said.

“The trip out there on the huge ship took forever, but I…” she closed her eyes and dosed off.

I loved my grandmother, not because of her strength but because of her adventurous spirit. She seemed to attack life, to savor it, no matter what. I wish I had been with her to Sumatra.

But all I knew of her time out there was through the objects in her house and through the stories she told.

They brought back a snake skin. And it lay rolled up on the mantelpiece, the snake’s eyes staring at you. Sometimes my grandfather would unroll it and show the length of it to my brother and I. And then he loved to talk about the skin without a head that was several meters long, the length of a tall tree, that was stored in the attic.  I didn’t like to go into the attic. I didn’t even like to think about it when I lay sleeping in the big bed next to my brother, not far from the attic.

I was already occupied with the long shadows that fell through the room through the window blinds, and I was listening to the loud drunk voices from the tavern across the way. Falling asleep, I always saw figures, one very tall and skinny, the other, short and fat. The tick tock of the grandfather clock never failed to put me to sleep. Now, I have the clock.

“I would have stayed with my other suitor in town,” a faint whisper said. I looked at my grandmother, and she was at it again. Picking up the thread of her life’s choice; to either go to her one suitor on Sumatra, or to stay with her other suitor in town, she was faced with the choice of her life.

“What would have happened if you had stayed?” I asked.

“Different children, and no you,” she smiled at me.

Right. That’s crazy, I thought.

“You’re my spitting image; I may not have had a spitting image of me,” she said wryly.

Even though I was her son’s daughter, she was right; I was more like her than my own mother’s daughter.

As I grew older, I resembled her more and more, not only via my looks, but also via my spirit and via my attitude. The earth is round and so are our lives. Round and round we go.

She’s been dead now for twenty years, and I’m fifty. I miss her and want to write her story.

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‘Klods Hans’, my grandmother’s arts and crafts store for 30 years

Image

My grandmother started her own boutique in 1946, right after the second world war. Her store was right next to Hans Christian Andersen’s house in the city of Odense in Denmark. She sold arts and crafts, like hand-made dolls dressed in regional folk costumes, knitted sweaters, paper cut-outs, mobiles, Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, and the Danish Christmas figure: Nisse, lots of them on the second floor of her store, which became her Jule Loft (Christmas Attic).

She was a savvy business woman and catered to the many visitors coming to Hans Christian Andersen’s museum, and she hired me for three summers while I finished my secondary schooling. There I met many Americans, visiting. Now, I work with visitors in America (Calistoga, California), and many are from Europe and also, Denmark. This is how the world turns.

I was spoon fed with hans Christian Andersen and his fairy tales, and I studied him and many other literary giants from Scandinavia at Cal Berkeley and UW. In my art, I am inspired by Hans Christian Andersen. I am giving back to my grandmother as I write about her.

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Min farmors historie

min farmor

My paternal grandmother with whom I relate more than with my mother and whose story I want to tell is talking through me, as I am her and she is me. She married into wealth but was never a trophy wife. She had her clear opinions and ideas and she was a business woman. She travelled to Sumatra from Denmark as a young twenty-something woman on a ship through the Suez Channel and around India. She was married in Medan, Sumatra and had her first child there. She was a Danish jew as was her husband, both born of jewish mothers.

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