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THE MIDSUMMER SUN

 

 

Sometime around four o’clock in the morning, I awoke in my bunk in the cottage to the call of gulls from the rocky islands in the bay. A single gull raised a staccato call and waited on others to join in. As the twilight of the northern night briefly fought back, the silence returned until a whole colony of gulls raucously began to coax the sun out over the water from where it rose above the inland pine groves and farm fields. I dozed off and didn’t awake again until around six-thirty, when the farmer up the road returned on his tractor from milking his cows in a nearby pasture. Shortly thereafter our neighbor walked, whistling, through our clearing on his way back from swimming in the bay. I sleepily sat up in my bunk and pulled open the shimmering yellow curtain into the sleeping nook my sister and I shared.

Perhaps I was eleven, but it could have been any summer during our early years on the coast, before the cottage gained indoor plumbing and bedrooms with doors and more farmers began to sell off meadows and pastures to city dwellers. The cottage had two sleeping nooks, a single main room of around two hundred square feet with a table, linen cabinet, and spare bed, and a kitchen barely wide enough to turn around in. Like many cottage owners, my family started the morning with a short swim that people called a morgondopp or morning dip. I got out of my bunk, slipped into my bathing suit and yellow robe, and set out with my parents and sister for the bay. 

 

A path the width of a push mower led through the meadow beyond the pine grove, though early each summer when the grasses grew back knee-high my mother made the first cut with a scythe. We quickly reached the stone wall that separated our property from that of my mother’s cousin Sigrid’s family and stepped onto the dirt road. Sigrid had already taken her swim and scents of coffee drifted from the open door of her tiny red cottage. 

Summers on the coast were short and windy, with temperatures that rarely climbed into the low seventies. As we reached the open shore, a cold wind swept inland from the sea and I pulled the hood of my robe over my head. 

“It’s not that cold, is it,” my father half-asked, half-declared from behind me. He wore only swim trunks and Camilla hadn’t bothered to tie her robe. 

“Breakfast will taste better after a swim,” my mother cheerfully added. 

My breakfast, I thought, tasted fine enough after I had swished well water and toothpaste in my mouth and walked behind the lilac bush to spit. Yet hardiness was a prime measure of character on the coast and people of character swam eagerly in frigid morning waters. I shivered often to prove my worth. 

An unspoken etiquette guided the use of the beach in the early morning, ensuring that swimmers could enjoy the bay in solitude and skinny-dip if desired. A cordon of reeds obscured the inner bay from view of the upper shore and we walked tentatively across the grass, ready to backtrack if on nearing the path through the reeds we saw a swimmer already in the water. On occasions when we turned back, we tried to wait long enough at the edge of the trees to give the swimmer time to get out of the water and put on a swimsuit or robe, but not so long as to risk having the person appear from the path to see us waiting. Once we reached the beach, I placed my robe on a boulder, walked waist-deep into the water and took a dozen strokes, enough for my family not to deride my swim. Then I got out and sat down on the boulder and drew the sleeves of my robe over my knuckles. The sun already stood high over the bay and as my family slowly swam toward shore, the gulls soared over the islands and two swans fed with their cygnets around the jumble of rocks in the shallows. 

         

Half an hour later, the four of us sat in sweaters eating breakfast around the picnic table on the southern side of the cottage. The rays of the morning sun spun through my hair and the lingering chill in my body made them feel even warmer. A distant tractor hummed, our neighbor whistled in his yard, and a rich steam of coffee drifted across my face from my mother’s cup. In that moment, I could almost believe that breakfast tasted better after a swim.

 

The Swedish coast mostly fronts the sea with glacially-smoothed bedrock knolls and islands. But as it moves south from the Norwegian border, it gradually loses its ruggedness and turns into a flatland of meadows and marshes, inlets and sandy bays. For centuries, the sparing inhabitants of the coastal lands around our cottage had eked out a meager living by farming, fishing, and grazing livestock on salt-marsh meadows and inland heaths. My grandfather had first heard of the area from a customer in his tailor shop, who had told him that farmers and fishermen rented out rooms to city guests over the summer. After boarding his family with a fisherman for a few summers, in the late 1940s, when my mother was in her early teens, he bought a cow pasture and built a one-room cottage with an outhouse two dozen paces from the door. My mother’s older sister and cousin’s families eventually built cottages nearby, as did a few other families from my mother’s hometown. 

After my mother had moved to the United States with my father, my grandfather deeded the cottage to her to make sure that she always had a home of her own in Sweden. Before returning to the city for the week, on Sunday afternoons in summer he had often sat around the picnic table on the patio talking with neighboring farmers and fishermen while my grandmother and young mother served coffee. Like other locals, Arvid, the farmer up the road, rarely said more than a situation required. Each time Camilla and I entered his barn to sit in the hayloft or pet the piglets, he simply nodded while raising his hand to the rim of his cap and with a smile said, Ja’så, “Oh,” it’s you, and then silently returned to work. Unlike him, on seeing us arrive at her cottage, my Aunt Emma exclaimed, “Oh, my little friends, what perfect timing! I was just about to put on the coffee.” Whether they said much or little, wherever I went, relatives and people my mother had known since childhood greeted me.

“Those are Brite’s daughters. Brite Andersson. Stig’s girl,” someone would introduce Camilla and me to a local or cottage owner we hadn’t met before, referring to my mother by her maiden name.

“Brite’s girls. You don’t say? What an honor. Visitors all the way from America.” Even during my family’s years in Sweden, people referred to us as Amerikaborna, residents of America. Everyone I met quickly established the rightness of my presence by their esteem for my grandfather and memories of my mother as a girl, and by my family’s decision to leave Sweden, the deep roots we had dug up but not severed.

By the time of my childhood, the coast around the cottage had attracted a growing trickle of summer visitors and a farmer had opened a kiosk and small campground up the road. But the place remained a backwater, where farmers plied dirt roads in old tractors to reach boulder-studded cow pastures and gathered seaweed from bays to fertilize small fields of wheat and oat. To the south of our bay, homes clustered around the harbor of a fishing village where we bought mackerel, herring, and cod. A black-and-white light tower watched steadily over the water beyond. Though I thought of it as a wild place, the coast, I can see today, cradled me in a shelter embedded as much in its familiar arrangement of stone walls, farm fields, and cottages as in its open waters, rocky islands, and pine groves. 

 

Our days at the cottage had an easy routine. In the mornings, Camilla and I bicycled to the kiosk for bread, butter, or other basic items or walked to the farm for milk and then helped with the myriad of tasks that life at the cottage seemed to require: weeding, sweeping, pruning, scrubbing socks and shirts, repainting picnic tables, doors, and trim, drawing up well water, and trimming a cluster of pines that if allowed to grow too tall could shade the clearing where a second picnic table caught the afternoon sun on the western side of the cottage. In the afternoons, we visited the farm and the cottages of relatives and neighbors, rowed around the bay, fished, bicycled, and wandered the meadow stalking hares with homemade bows and arrows that we whittled from sticks. Whether we did chores or played, every few hours my mother appeared on the stoop with a tray of coffee, two glasses of juice, and a platter of pastry and cookies. 

 

As soon as the clouds parted, our neighbors in nearby cottages put on bathing suits and sought shelter from the wind behind walls, hedges, and colorful cloth partitions erected with wooden stakes in the grass. For hours they soaked up the sun, rising only to make coffee. Drinking coffee was a deeply ingrained social ritual in Sweden and when the factories and workplaces idled for the month-long summer holiday, frequent invitations to coffee gatherings flowed between the cottages. Neighbors were invited a day or two in advance, but since few cottages had telephones, more distant visitors received open invitations and often showed up unannounced. They checked the evening forecast and, if the next day promised sun, drove to the coast and arrived at the cottage around noon. My mother’s brother and cousin, father’s sister, and other relatives came with their families, as did old friends of my parents and Camilla’s and my classmates and their parents. 

 

Since most of our relatives lived a few hours away, open invitations to visit the cottage included the offer to stay overnight. Many of the women in my extended family had a direct, efficient manner of speaking. Unlike their quieter and more tentative husbands, they expressed definite views on acceptable ways of thinking and being. Yet in situations where they risked appearing to want to draw attention or impose, they grew deferential and evasive. 

 

Overnight guests arrived with a bag of toothbrushes and nightshirts in their trunk, but when my mother greeted them in the clearing and expressed her hope that they had come to stay the night, they equivocated. Except for lunch and the first round of coffee, for each added invitation to a meal that my mother extended they either accepted with the statement that they soon had to leave or declined on the first offer only to equivocate and eventually relent when my mother continued to insist they stay. By evening they had stayed for lunch, two rounds of coffee, dinner, and tea and sandwiches. My mother again invited them to stay the night, at which point they demurred a final time before retrieving the bag of toothbrushes from their trunk. 

 

Like my mother, my female relatives excelled at offering effusive compliments and disclaimers, and expressing modesty and politeness.

 

“Oh, what a beautiful dress, where on earth did you get it?” Upon greeting her cousin Lisa, my mother admired a sundress whose bold colors I suspected she didn’t like.

 

“This old rag? You must be kidding, it was too cheap to resist.” Lisa gave the dress a haphazard pat.

 

“But, what lovely colors,” my mother insisted, to which Lisa retorted, “Goodness, no! They make me look deathly pale.”

 

No one wanted to risk appearing arrogant by uttering a simple thank you in response to a compliment. Since etiquette required that a speaker restate a refuted compliment more forcefully, I gathered from watching my mother and relatives that self-deprecation could garner people the affirmation they didn’t seem to think they should want. Whether others admired my clothes or invited me to stay for coffee, I wondered if I could fully trust that they actually meant what they said. 

 

When relatives of my mother’s visited the cottage, my Aunt Emma’s family joined us for dinner and coffee, as occasionally also did Sigrid’s family and other close neighbors. We strung together picnic and folding tables in the clearing and, as expected of a proper hostess, my mother served platters of pastry, roll cake, several kinds of cookies, and a cake layered with fresh strawberries, vanilla sauce, and whipped cream. After sitting down at the table, guests waited for her to pass each platter around and then took from the platters in a prescribed order and made sure not to sample each kind of cookie. First to be eaten was a slice of pastry and then a thick cracker, or scorpa, and next a slice of roll cake followed by the cookies, with pale or plain cookies eaten before cookies with jam or chocolate and anything with a crème filling eaten last. Finally, my mother served the cake. 

 

Though expectations were more relaxed with close relatives, coffee gatherings tested the etiquette of a child. Had I taken a chocolate-dipped oat crisp before a pale farmer’s cookie, after our guests had left my mother reminded me of the order in which to take from the platters. Had I blurted out my love of anything chocolate, she suggested that our guests might now feel obligated to bake a chocolate cake the next time my family visited, and had I excitedly spoken of a recent outing she indicated that my boasting could have made my cousins envious. Instead of reproaches, her comments took the form of instructions accompanied by reminders of the importance of considering other peoples’ feelings.  

 

My mother must have wanted our guests to know that she could raise her children with proper Swedish etiquette, even in America. Yet she fretted as much over her own etiquette as she did over Camilla’s and mine. She kept the cupboards and root cellar well stocked to prepare elegant meals and desserts on short notice for unexpected guests. But whether our guests stayed only for coffee or overnight, after they had left she would wonder out loud if she should have served a nicer cake or had said something she shouldn’t have. She would slowly shake her head and conclude, her voice nearly breaking, “They might think we don’t care about them.” 

 

Year after year, my relatives tended the same homes and cottages and gathered for birthdays, holidays, and coffee in the summer sun. Unlike them, my family continued to move between Long Island and Gothenburg and to often return to Sweden only for the summer. “If only we could stay in a single place,” my mother would sigh and say. She must have envied the rootedness of her relatives’ lives. Yet she also often told Camilla and me that we should want something more from life. She didn’t say this in speaking of anyone’s life in particular. Nor did she suggest what the something more that we should want might be, though I implicitly understood that, years earlier, she and my father had moved to America in search of it. At the cottage, my mother preserved the ties that had anchored her as a child and passed these on to my sister and me. Each coffee gathering seemed a chance not only to uphold the expectations of a proper hostess, but to make up for something she feared she never could, I often think: the guilt of having moved away.

Several afternoons a week, I set out alone on my bicycle along the winding roads that led inland from the cottage. Having originated as horse-and-wagon trails, the roads were narrow enough that on the rare occasion a car approached I got off my bicycle and stepped to the side. I rode a familiar loop, my gaze sweeping across fields, farms, and pastures until I reached a birch grove, leaned my bicycle against a stone wall, and unpacked a picnic under a few airy crowns. Half an hour or so later, I turned shoreward and followed a rutted tractor trail that ran along the upper beach back toward our bay. The bell on my handlebars let out a chorus of soft rings as I bumped across cobble-laden ruts and grasses and finally dropped my bicycle by the reeds. As I sat down on a boulder, with each incoming swell, a drape of surf rippled a few feet up the sands and then slipped in a translucent glaze back toward the bay.

 

By mid-August, the Midsummer sun no longer lit up the night and the short northern summer began to draw to a close. Our relatives and other cottage owners prepared to return to their homes in the city, and we to Long Island. Late into the evenings, people walked and bicycled to and from the shore, savoring the last of summer’s easy days.

 

Tjo-hej! “Is anyone home in the cottage?” My heart leapt in joy each time I heard my aunt call out as she, her husband Erik, and my grown cousin Birgit walked into the clearing. Our two families often got together for long bicycle rides and excursions to pick berries and picnic in inland forests. On hearing Emma’s voice, my mother quickly put on the coffee. For frequent visitors such as her sister’s family, she served only pastry and a few store-bought cookies, and rarely a cake. Before long, I sat down across from my aunt at the picnic table. Nineteen years older than my mother, Emma had elegant waves of shoulder-length hair and fine wrinkles that abundant laughter and sunshine had left around her eyes. She also had a knack for self-deprecating humor and as soon as she started to speak Camilla and I glanced at each other in anticipation.

 

“If you only knew how scared I was last night,” she leaned back in her chair one evening and said in a low confiding tone. She and Erik had built their cottage on a small hillside overlooking the beach, where it caught the brunt of seaside winds. Pine branches had scraped against the wall all night and dropped cones with thuds onto the roof. 

 

“What about Erik and Birgit, weren’t they there?” my mother asked. 

 

“What help would they have been?” Emma said with a chuckle, then added, “well, some comfort it was to have them.” She shuddered as she spoke of Erik’s plans to return home on Sunday evening to his factory job, while Birgit returned to her work in a school in Gothenburg. My aunt had another week of vacation and wanted to stay at the cottage, but when alone didn’t dare to fall asleep in the dark and often lay awake until the first light of dawn. 

 

“It’s unbelievable, that one can be so afraid,” she concluded with a light slap of her shin. 

 

My mother looked affectionately at her sister and laughed, as did we all.

 

Emma shamelessly admitted to feeling afraid, cold, full of doubt, and much else that my parents rarely spoke of, and that I therefore suspected I shouldn’t feel. “Goodness forbid, how awfully cold! I’m sure glad to do without that,” she would say on hearing that Camilla and I had taken a morning swim. Occasionally, when the two of us arrived on our bicycles at her cottage, she let us talk for a few minutes before suggesting that it was time for us to ride on, a clear signal that we had come at an inappropriate time. I trusted her not to invite us to stay for coffee unless she wanted us present. 

 

As they did many evenings, my mother, Emma, and Birgit pulled out their knitting and spoke of lapses in etiquette, worries, and gaffs that seemed humorous in hindsight, the needles stopping in midair each time the laughter erupted. My father and Erik said little, but sometimes broke into such hearty guffaws that they had to take off their glasses and wipe their eyes. Everyone’s laughter seemed a lot like mine, coming not at Emma’s or the storyteller’s expense but from the shared recognition of a vulnerability, embarrassment, or other deeply authentic feeling to which each of us could relate. Eventually, my mother leaned back in her chair, swept her hair behind her ear, and said, “Have I told you?” She paused and looked expectantly around the table before continuing. 

 

“One morning earlier this summer, Arvid asked if I wanted a load of manure for my fruit trees and berries.” 

 

“Which, of course, you did,” Birgit said.

 

“Of course. So Arvid said he’d drive the manure down, and that was all. Then he got back on his tractor and left.” 

 

Miscommunications with Arvid and other locals whose sparing speech and regional dialect many city dwellers found hard to decipher were a recurring source of stories around the coffee table. At least once a week, Arvid stopped his tractor in front of the cottage and stood in his overalls on the patio talking with my mother while rocking gently back and forth on the worn heels of his clogs. He rarely said much, mainly nodding and responding to my mother’s comments with a nja’a or ja’a. But he always ended his visit with, “Everything alright here, then?” I understood that he had stopped by to check on my family and knew that, even without my mother asking, he would continue checking on the cottage and tend to anything that needed tending after we left for the summer.

         

Now, my mother explained that she had assumed Arvid would return with the manure later that day and had set the table for coffee to serve in appreciation. Then she had gotten out a pitchfork and waited. 

         

“Let me guess, he never came!” Emma exclaimed.

         

“Exactly! For the past two months, every time he’s stopped by to talk, I’ve wondered if he’s forgotten about my manure.”

         

“But, of course, you couldn’t ask,” Birgit said. 

         

My mother nodded. Asking outright, I knew, would have risked implying a criticism since it suggested that Arvid should have already delivered the manure or at least clearly communicated when he would. 

         

“Oh, what a fool I was,” my mother finally said and shook her head. Then her voice softened and she continued, “Wouldn’t you know, the other day when he stopped by, he finally mentioned the manure. He said he’d spread it after we left, when conditions in the soil were just right.”

         

“And there you were, thinking he’d forgotten,” Emma softly said. 

         

My mother nodded but remained silent, as did we all.

         

As dusk gradually thickened between the trunks, we drew our sweaters close and my mother, Emma, and Birgit put away their knitting. Many evenings, a misfortune involving a relative or some other delicate topic unexpectedly arose out of a story around the table. At a time when few people divorced, several years earlier my Uncle Bertil’s first wife had moved out with the couple’s two young children, causing a small scandal in my grandparents’ social circle. An adored aunt of my mother’s had never fully recovered her spirits after losing her only child, a grown daughter, in a car accident. An employee at the factory where Erik worked disappeared for weeks at a time on alcoholic binges, then returned, promising not to disappear again. As the voices around the table grew hushed, my mother would sadly shake her head, look at her sister, and say in a tone of empathy I didn’t often hear on Long Island, “Emma, don’t you think, it’s never easy to know,” by which I knew she meant that one could never fully understand another’s situation from the outside.

         

One evening when the conversation skirted old family memories and friends, my mother recalled with teary eyes how years earlier the father of one of her closest girlhood friends had cosigned a loan to help an employee in his small shop and ended up losing his business, home, and everything he owned. Another evening her voice broke as she spoke of how an old German shepherd in her childhood neighborhood had lain down on the railroad tracks to wait for an oncoming train when sensing its time had come. I listened spellbound to the revelations and the tenderness that moved under them, not daring to shift in my chair for fear of disrupting the closeness we all shared.

         

As the western sky slowly turned a light lavender and blue, tinted in rose above the crowns of the pines, my mother cleared the coffee and we moved inside and set the table with fruits, chocolates, and sodas, the traditional closing to an evening gathering. Soon thereafter, Camilla and I were sent to bed. With only a thin curtain separating me from the stories and laughter, I lay awake until I heard Emma exclaim for the second time, “Holy moly, how late it is!” My mother feigned surprise at the comment and, insisting that her guests couldn’t possibly leave so soon, invited her sister to take another chocolate. Blissfully long, the Swedish leave-taking ritual could easily last for half an hour or more. Yet on the third attempt to leave, the guest always prevailed. I tried to fall asleep before then, snug in my lower bunk as the laughter of my parents and relatives spun a cocoon around me. 

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