Mom says you were always somewhat of a mystery. I didn’t see what was so mysterious, you had a perfectly normal old-woman’s voice (though you spoke with a bit of a lisp and sometimes slowed as if to hide a stutter) and in the picture on my nightstand you had ordinary gray-blue hair with big, iron-wrought curls and a terribly ordinary floral-patterned dress. You smiled as one does for photos, politely, not too wide, your eyes were grey and not the kind that leaves sparks on photo-paper. You had the usual wrinkles, your nose was unremarkable, you were holding an average-colored cat in your average-sized lap.
Now, when I’m all grown, I do find it strange that I know what your voice sounded like. I only ever knew you in pictures, after all. And though it might be perfectly natural for a small boy who has just been relocated to a new reality to practice the unfamiliar language by talking to the great-aunt who left his mother her house upon her death, I suppose it is quite uncommon for the departed great-aunts to partake in conversation.
You always did.
You helped me when I couldn’t find the words.
«Jeg har gått på ski …» I said, «… i trærne?»
«Mellom trærne.» I could hear a smile in your voice, I took it to mean that my Norwegian was not too bad, or that you approved of me skiing between trees in the woods.
You corrected me when I forgot the new rules.
«I dag var Rebel …» I would say, and you interrupted: «Andreas. Broren din heter Andreas»
It was not an easy thing to remember, that my brother’s name had changed. Andreas was such a different name from the one he used to have, soft and melodious. My own new name was easier. Arne had the same number of syllables as Riot, it was a common name, but the sound of it was not too unfamiliar.
You told stories, too.
You told me that the Donald Duck magazines in my room had once belonged to my mother. She had not been allowed to read such things in her own home, but when she visited you – and she did every chance she got – you made sure there were as much non-religious reading material as possible available to her. There were boxes in the attic, you told me, with classics I should read when I got older. Books that would help me think.
You told me about the toboggan in the basement, and asked if I didn’t think Andreas would like it if I rode with him down the slope behind the house. When I told you of his intense cries of pure, ecstatic joy, you laughed and said that you’d heard him. You complimented med for riding with him for hours, for being an excellent big brother and for the first time, I took pride in that.
You told me that a young german soldier, no more than a child, poor thing, had drowned himself in the small pond a kilometer or so into the woods out of desperate home-sickness. His spirit still lurks there, you said. If you swim in that pond, he might drag you to the bottom to get company in the cold dark.
A girl drowned in that pond, years later. Mom said the clay bottom was quick, but I had no doubt the german soldier now had a girlfriend. I never went near that pond.
There were stories you didn’t tell, though. In the attic were boxes of books, but also of papers, and diaries, and letters, and sketchbooks. In every sketchbook there was at least one drawing of my mom, the oldest ones showing her as a small child, the newest a young woman. There were no sketchbooks after that. Did you stop drawing when my mom stopped coming to visit? Or did something happen to make her leave the country and you leave your drawings? There were other things you drew as often as her – a dog for, judging by my mothers appearance in those books – ten or twelve years, our house, aunt
Margit, an ageing woman I did not know, the view from my bedroom window. I studied those sketches, and then I tried to copy them and the actual view at once. You taught me to draw like that, showing me how to turn life into lines and shadows and colours.
You taught me to burn letters. I found yours, neatly tied together with ribbon (the ones from my mom), string or a rubber band. When I got old enough to read cursive, I did.
There were letters from my grandmother. She implored you to come back into the flock of the Lord’s sheep ‘cause He is thy shepherd and if you didn’t you would be flayed and skinned and boiled and eaten. They could almost be mistaken for sisterly concern and care, her letters. Only in every third or so did she let bitterness slip in.
«Father has begun to leak. I hope you enjoy your carefree, sinful life, knowing that I do all your chores and perform all your duties. Sometimes I think you left the church only to have them reject you, that you plan to repent the moment they are both dead. Well, Jesus may forgive you, but I never will!»
«Everybody asked about you at the funeral. How could you not come home to say goodbye to the woman who birthed you? For you, that goodbye is final, after all. You will never see the glories of His gardens.
I had no answer for them. I am so ashamed of you!»
Then, suddenly, there was a change of tone. Now she was the one going to hell, being punished for sins she could not regret as she had no idea what she had done to offend her Lord. It took several letters before I understood that she was pregnant, and that she felt too old for it, ashamed, probably, to show the world that she still had a sex-life. She wrote seven letters in the space of three weeks, the last one thanking her sister for her offer. She had decided to tell everyone, including her husband, that her doctor had sent her away to a resting home. She would arrive at her sisters house the following Monday.
As I write this, it dawns on me: You were her mail-box. Had she had internet-access, she would have started an anonymous blog like this one, taking advice from strangers. It would probably have been easier on her, but back in 1963 she had none to turn to but you. And you must have loved her. Had anyone threatened me with half as much sulfur and bile I would never have had the courage to let them into my house.
I don’t know anything about her stay, except it happened. She thanked you for your counsel and your love afterwards, and she said she knew you were not completely lost – you could still be a tool for the Lord so He could not have given up on you and then neither would she. Instead, she would be like Abraham – trusting her child to the Lord’s mercy. She would potentially sacrifice her youngest daughter, a child so pure she did not cry at night, for her sister’s chance at salvation.
Aunt Solvor – you must have been a bloody saint to agree to babysit your niece when that was how your sister asked you for the favour.
But babysit you did. The first letter about practicalities concerning her visit included bottle-feeding and she was to stay for a week. After that, most of the letters were about visits just ended or visits to come. The Jesus is thy shepherd-parts dwindled into dutiful end remarks with no heart nor soul to them.
There were letters from your friend Sarah, who lived in Trondheim with a husband and three kids. She hardly wrote anything about what happened in her life, presumably because nothing ever happened in her life. Instead, she discussed politics with you, and you obviously disagreed quite a lot. She was shocked that you did not see the dangers of colour-tv nor how Elvis could be a menace to society. She bemoaned the Labor Party’s outright majority in Parliament and tried to talk you into joining her in the ranks of the conservatives. She obviously has no more success than my grandmother has in convincing you to join the legions of the Lord.
There were letters from your friend Jonathan who was a helmsman and then a chief mate, then a captain. His letters were action-stories, there were dramatic storms and crooks in strange cities, lazy greek sailors and hard-working black dock-boys, a stay in a terrible hospital when he and the ship’s doc had both gotten sick, in his last letter the saving of boat refugees.
There was a letter from a refugee with a vietnamese-sounding name, thanking you for your gift.
There were letters from youngsters and grown-ups who had once been children in your care.
There were love-letters.
And there were letters from my mother. Beginning with the «I love you and Jesus loves you too»- note she wrote when she was five, she wrote monthly, sometimes weekly, until you died. She was so happy that you loved the china figurines she bought for your birthday and for Christmas for years. She thanked you for your kind words, your invitations, your birthday-present, your advice, your attempt to calm her mother down, the piano.
What aunt buys a piano for her niece?
She learned to play I have a joy and Beautiful Savior, then Beethoven and Bach. She was not allowed to practice more than an hour daily, and never on Sundays. She did not believe the danger her mother warned of were real, how could music to praise the Lord take her away from Him? Music and prayer feels the same, she wrote.
Then she closed up. From the time she was eleven, she refers to «events» and «gifts» and «conversations» without revealing them to curious eyes like mine. Jesus slowly disappears. In stead of prayers and meetings, comes walks in the woods and school, her father has «another episode», her mother «does it again». Then comes the code I would never have cracked had I not lived in your house. I am sure you remember how we played your records, after I lost my voice from constantly singing for Rebel. For Andreas. From about a weeks time after the day I rescued first the lamb-child and then my brother, the soundtrack of my childhood is Simon and Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane og Dusty Springfield.
«Kjære tante – bare du vet hvorfor jeg synes jeg ser tobakksplanter langs veien her», she wrote. «Only you know why i seem to see tobacco growing along the road.» By the first time I read that line, I had listen to The Tobacco Road a million times, I immediately saw the pictures painted in that song, the orphan growing up in a rusty shack, the desolated dusty road of life. I felt the ambiguousness of despising and disapproving of somewhere but still loving it because it was home. I guess she felt that way about her own family.
She asked on what walls the words of the prophets really were written, she said she had never seen a sub-way. I wondered if she longed more for the neon lights or the Sound of silence.
She said she believed she didn’t have a friend who felt at ease. I knew that not a soul not battered and not a dream not shattered and driven to it’s knees went along with that.
She wrote about brown leaves and how you were her city of angels. She said she had been to church and went down on her knees and the rest of the verse from California Dreamin’ played in my head so I knew she had only pretended to pray and that she dreamt of leaving.
Then she left.
To me, your music was old. Records in the age of cassette-players, folk and soul and rock in the reign of Samantha Fox and Bon Jovi. Looking back, it must have been very young music, the music of youngsters while you were middle-aged. Did you buy them for my mother? Or did you truly love the music of the hippie-rebellion? You must have been quite the rebel yourself, leaving your family and your religion, getting a profession, bringing your own bacon into your own home. Do you think mom named Rebel after you?