Wednesday, July 04, 2018


Inspired by Tilly Culme-Seymour's book Island Summers - Memories of a Norwegian Childhood, I'm including this piece I wrote about my grandmother (Mormor literally means mother's mother in Norwegian) in 2004. She was a phenomenal woman, both glamorous and groovy, and I miss her:

That's my glamorous grandmother, cigarette in hand, on the right.

Mormor, my grandmother, lived in the house just up the hill from ours in the summer, along the sometimes treacherous stony path, where you had to hop from rock to rock in your bare feet so that you wouldn't stub your toe or step on a thistle. Half way up the hill was a little oak tree with happy green leaves and a little bell which hung on a branch extending over the rocky path. To this bell, someone had tied a piece of muslin that read RING. Brilliant that it meant the same in English and Norwegian. Brilliant especially for my father who was irritated beyond belief when a conversation went on in Norwegian when he was in the room, despite the fact he was the only member of the family who couldn't speak the language. 

Every morning at about half past seven, we would see Mormor in her yellow towelling robe, large black cat-eyed sunglasses, hair wrapped in a colorful scarf, toothbrush in hand, walking through the trees and the dappled sunlight on her way to the sea for her morning swim. Sometimes we'd go with her, in our bare feet and our bathing costumes, down the sandy little road with the little stones in it, past the shoemaker's house with the ugly bronze deer, past the little red house where we'd turn left onto the rough sea grass which paved the way to our jetty. Or brygge. Mormor would walk up onto the little wooden deck, kneel down and pull up the thermometer which was dangling on a string into the ocean, lift up her glasses so that she could scrutinize it and announce to everyone "seisten grader." It was always sixteen degrees (which is about 62 degrees fahrenheit) but sometimes on good days she'd shout out with glee "uff o mei, nitten og hal" ("oh my goodness, nineteen and a half" - 67 degrees) because that was hot! Mormor would disrobe and disappear down the steps that led into the ocean, flinging herself into the cold sea, putting her face in the water and splash splash splashing her legs both to propel herself out and, i think, to warm her chilled bones. She'd then turn round and with a brisk breast stroke come back to the jetty to grab her toothbrush and do a quick seawater gargle. She swore by this "I never have a cold," she would say in her ridiculously upper class English accent, "because I gargle in the fjord." She would never wear a bathing suit either, only if there were lots of people around. My whole Norwegian family love to be naked; it's probably where I get it from.

My brother and I were never as brave as my grandmother, preferring to deliberate until the very last minute before dipping a tenuous toe into the cold sea. We used the cold as an excuse, the jelly fish, everything we could, but, as we didn't have a shower or a bath in the summer house, this was the only "wash" we'd get and, we were told endlessly, it's the way it's done in Norway. My father told us the only way to do it was to dive in, thus rendering the shock more quick -- total imersion as opposed to one tortured body part after another. I remember the shock of hitting that icy water and the immediate frantic swimming and then the sense of incredible triumph as one's body became acclimatized.

Later we would walk up the hill to see my grandmother and she'd be sitting out in the sun, usually in a brightly colored bikini, halter neck tied behind her back, for maximum tanning, her feet in a footbath a large cup of strong tea and a piece of toast and marmalade on the table next to her, barking instructions to Bestefar, my good-natured grandfather, who was usually up some tree or other, cutting off branches to her specifications. I just adored my grandmother. She was the coolest woman I'd ever known. Chic and well-educated, with a penchant for wonderfully eccentric clothes ("It's the summer house!") she could speak at least five languages fluently, and would quote great gobs of Shakespeare when given half a chance. She could fish, she could sew and she made the absolute best beef stroganoff I have ever tasted in my life. To this day I remember the way her secret ingredient, tomato puree, mixed with the sour cream and the beef juices to create the most incredibly delicate flavor. In fact, at my cousin Mathilde's christening, Dee and I snuck into her kitchen at least ten times before lunch to steal small teaspoonfuls of that delicious liquid.

The Oslo fjord is dotted with little granite islands which extend the length of the coast line. South of Oslo and Drammen is Norway's oldest town, Tonsberg and off the coast just south of this little shipping town is a small group of islands, the largest being Tjome. About 12 miles long and three miles wide, this is the island where many Oslo residents spend their summers, and it is dotted with little red and yellow and white wooden summer houses, each with a lovely Norwegian flag outside. It seems that the whole of Oslo comes to Tjome in the summer, rather like the Bostonians and the Cape. Every morning a whole flotilla of little boats goes out fishing, or sunbathing or for a picnic on one of the little islands and this is where we spent all of the nostalgic summers of childhood.


Z said...

How lovely - you bring her alive again.

tedsmum said...

You know this should be in your

RCA said...

great post!