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MOTHER COUNTRY 

 

To create a partition between the living room and main entrance hall of our home on Long Island, my mother had once taken a ceramics class and made dozens of large earthen-hued rings with squiggles and ribbons floating in their midsts. The pieces hung on vertical steel wires in a tall iron frame and had swirls of forest-green glaze and sprinkles of coarse grains of sand. My family’s renters during the summers and the years we spent in Sweden included college students and families with young children and dogs with wagging tails. We often returned home to find ceramic squiggles and rings missing from the frame. The sculpture grew sparser and sparser over the years, one piece of shattered hope after another falling to the floor.

         

After two and a half years in Sweden, at the age of sixteen I returned back to the same home, school, and neighborhood on Long Island and automatically tried to slip back into the life I had left behind, but couldn’t. I put away my buttons, bought tight Levi’s and makeup, and each morning stood in front of the mirror tugging at my hair under the blow-drier to entice a few more strands over my earlobes. My resolve to remain true to the person I had become in the city faded as quickly as the memory of the friends who had inspired it. I started twelfth grade, rejoining the class that I had once begun kindergarten with, and sat with my former friends at the lunch table in school. But my former friends and I no longer had much in common and instead I eventually made a few casual friendships among classmates I hadn’t known before.

         

After school and on weekend evenings, my friends and I often gathered in cars by the beach to sit and talk while listening to the Doors, Led Zeppelin, and the Who. Out the window, mottled young gulls squawked on the pavement or loafed on driftwood logs on the sands. I longed to get out of the car, roll up my jeans, and walk along the water with the cold surf caressing my ankles, or to slosh through the mudflats of the natural harbor to my back in a low tide searching for the holes of steamer clams and then sinking my fingers into the muck to reach the hard shells below—to touch something elemental both beyond and within myself. I could have wandered the roads from home to watch ducks, gulls, and geese feed in the marshy backwaters of the harbor’s shallow inner reaches or walked east for miles along the beach, pocketing jingle shells and sun-bleached sand dollars with petallike patterns of breathing pores. But after years of finding my place on city streets, wooded trails, and rocky outcrops, I felt disconcertingly exposed on suburban roads, open beaches, and tidal flats. A boulder by a small marshy inlet shielded from the road by a few trees became my only natural haven.

 

For months in the afternoon, I returned home from school to find my mother trimming shrubbery or weeding, washing windows, scrubbing floors, and repainting rooms, or sorting through boxes of books, old clothes, and knickknacks in the basement, trying to restore our home and yard to their former state. She carried up box after box to refill  one closet and cabinet after another. “We live like nomads" or "If only one could have a real home,” she would occasionally sigh and say at the sight of me approaching. Though she didn’t specifically direct her comments at me, I understood that she wanted sympathy but I didn’t know what to say. I also understood that our house on Long Island wasn’t the real home for which she yearned.

         

In Sweden, Camilla and I had mostly spoken Swedish at home. On Long Island, we again came up the kitchen steps in the afternoon and continued speaking English. My mother interrupted and told us to switch into Swedish.

         

“You spoke Swedish at home in Sweden. I don’t understand, why can’t you here?” my mother said one afternoon when we again spoke English.

         

“Mom, we’re not in Sweden.” Camilla replied matter-of-factly with a shrug. 

         

“We may not be in Sweden. But we’re Swedish, and so we speak Swedish.” My mother shook her head.

         

When asked to speak Swedish, Camilla and I sometimes switched languages but most of the time we continued to speak English. After a second or third request, my mother let our language go and the conversation moved on. I spoke English rapidly and my mother’s responses came with a short delay and sometimes only partially related to what I said. I assumed that she had chosen to ignore me. In reality, after two and a half years of only speaking Swedish, she may not always have fully understood me and asked me to switch languages partly in hopes that we could communicate more clearly and not, as I saw it at the time, to force me to surrender my will to hers. Occasionally I restated a few English sentences in Swedish and she responded with greater engagement. I became more willing to listen. But much of the time, we continued to talk past each other in different languages and I believed that she had little interest in hearing me. She may have thought the same about me, language a chasm in both word and sentiment that no one recognized or knew how to bridge.

       

In Sweden, by the time Camilla and I entered the kitchen in the morning, my mother had often already left for work or if still at home sat drinking coffee in the living room. Either way, she left us to pour our own cereal at the counter. After our return to Long Island, she again met us in the kitchen with a table set for breakfast. Camilla, too, had exchanged the fly-button jeans she had worn in Sweden for tight Levi’s and once again begun to blow-dry her hair and wear makeup. My sister’s and my sudden change in dress and appearance must have confused my mother nearly as much as it did me, a sign of the assimilation that could change us all, if we didn’t watch out. On mornings when my mother considered our clothing too tight, our makeup too heavy, or our Long Island drawl too pronounced, she told us that we should have enough character to want to be different from our peers. Occasionally she said we looked like rabble. Camilla rolled her eyes and then sat down at the table and cheerfully began to talk about her day. I ate in silence, inwardly fuming at my mother’s comments.  

         

My mother and I had rarely argued in Sweden, but began to do so frequently after our return to Long Island. One afternoon when I came up the kitchen steps and she again told me to speak Swedish, rage rose like steam under pressure in my chest. I refused to switch languages and left the kitchen with a slam of the door. I didn’t know where my explosive anger had come from and had reached halfway across the living room when my mother came up behind me, took a firm hold of my wrist, and said “In this house we speak Swedish. Do you understand?” 

         

She soon released her grip and as I silently continued toward the closed door into the hall between the bedrooms I heard her say in a voice that sounded more disappointed than angry, “I simply don’t care about you anymore.” Even though speaking alone to me, she used the plural Swedish word for you instead of the singular, indirectly encompassing my sister too. I sensed that she spoke in frustration. But also that in refusing to switch languages I had displayed a disloyalty that made me less fully her daughter than when I spoke Swedish, and when we lived in Sweden. As I reached the door and put my hand on the knob, I turned to look back and saw her standing in the middle of the room slowly shaking her head while gazing down at the floor, her shoulders slumped into the old oversized sweater she wore for extra warmth inside in winter.  

         

“I can’t stand living like this,” she said. Her voice was soft with a despair that seemed far greater than anything my refusal to speak Swedish could have brought on, I imagine today a tangle of loss that included a job, city, friends, and relatives she loved, and the future she had wanted for us all in Sweden. My Swedish relatives accompanied even vague expressions of dissatisfaction with jobs, homes, or other life circumstances with statements that suggested one shouldn’t complain, but instead should be grateful for what one had. My mother made such statements too, when not speaking from despair. To not gracefully accept one’s lot in life suggested a lack of willpower, and a culturally unacceptable belief in the importance of one’s own wishes. Yet as my mother too must have, I felt trapped by a life that seemed impervious to my own wishes and had buried my feelings until they erupted in rage at the slightest provocation.

         

My parents, too, argued far more frequently on Long Island than they had in Sweden, their arguments often drawing in my sister and me in defense of one parent or the other. Yet the same confusion and loss that tore us apart daily instinctively drew us into a need for togetherness that hadn’t existed in the same way in Sweden. An hour or so after we had all fought, my mother would cheerfully announce it time for coffee. My father would stoke the wood-burning stove and Camilla and I would each sit down on a piece of remnant rug on the hearth. Before long my mother appeared from the kitchen carrying a tray with a pot of coffee and four ice cream sundaes in long-stemmed glasses, three flavors with homemade hot fudge sauce, quartered bananas, and freshly whipped cream sprinkled with m&m’s. As the stove warmed my back, our spoons clinked with unstated amends against the sides of our bowls.  

         

On weekend afternoons, we sometimes packed a picnic and piled extra sweaters onto the backseat of the car and drove east to a park where trails looped along sandy bluffs overlooking the water. Early in winter, storm waves crashed across the narrow beach below and ate into the base of the bluffs. Here and there along the trails, caverns of soil had slid down the hillside and oaks clung by their roots to the edge of the cliffs. We walked for a while atop the bluffs, then descended to the beach and sat on a driftwood log cradling cups of steaming coffee and cocoa while munching on sandwiches and pastries. In those moments, our harmony felt as complete as did our division at other times.

         

Many weekend nights after hanging out with friends, I came home after my family had already gone to bed. On reaching the top of the kitchen steps, I saw a note on the counter in my mother’s neat handwriting saying that a surprise awaited me in the refrigerator. No similar notes had lain on the counter late at night for me in Gothenburg. On a shelf in the refrigerator, a slice of homemade chocolate cake with a thick layer of swirled ganache or of a moist yellow cake with a buttery almond topping stood on a floral dish beside a glass of milk and bowl of whipped cream, each covered in plastic wrap to preserve its freshness. While my family slept, I sat down on the floor in front of the space heater in the kitchen to savor my cake and milk.

 

Twice a day the tide moved in and out of the harbor, draining islands of salt marsh cordgrass and then flooding them with oxygen-rich waters. One early evening in late winter, I sat on the boulder by the marsh looking out at broken reeds that jabbed their broken stalks into the air as the moon moved behind a thin cover of clouds. My mother and I had argued again and she had told me leave and not return home. She had said the same a few times before and each time I had returned late in the evening and silently gone to bed. This time I had decided I wanted a break from the fighting and wouldn’t return home, at least not for a few days. After half an hour of sitting on the boulder, I walked up the road to the drug store and called my friend Jane from a payphone and asked her to pick me up. 

         

“Hope you’re hungry. My mom’s making us sandwiches,” my friend said as I got into her car. 

         

Ten minutes later, I stepped inside a cedar shingle house with a dented screen door and sank into a chair in front of a plate of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the kitchen table. As Jane sat down beside me, her mother poured the milk, clenching a cigarette between her lips while nagging her son to take out the garbage. Her hair feathered back in waves like Jane’s, but in an artificially blonde shade instead of brown, and she wore her Levi’s and low-cut tee as tight as my friend and I did.

         

“You can stay with us as long as you want,” Mrs. Morris said before I had even asked.

         

“Yeah, man, I practically live here.” Jane’s boyfriend John leaned back against the counter and played drums in the air to the sound of Led Zeppelin breaking into Kashmir from the stereo in the living room, where John slept on the sofa. Nobody asked me why I needed a place to stay, as I knew they wouldn’t; just as I knew that if I wanted to tell them they would listen, nod, and say “geez,” “shit man,” “fuckin’ bummer,” or “you know we’re always here for you,” something deep and superficial all at once. Unlike the hugs and heart-to-hearts of my friends in the city, they expressed interest and concern in emotionally rich phrases that functioned like a code. Their friendship felt reassuringly unencumbered.

         

“Hey, does Kashmir really exist?” Jane’s younger brother wondered while pulling the sliding door closed after taking out the garbage. I said I thought it existed, as did Jane, but neither of us knew where. John shook his head, “It’s just a place in a song.” But I had heard the name before and was trying to figure out where when I suddenly felt my mind lurch back and retrieve an image it couldn’t bring into focus.

         

“It’s a mountain region in Asia, somewhere by India,” I said.

         

“Really? How the fuck do you know?” John sounded impressed, probably less by my geographical knowledge than by my presumed insight into Zeppelin lyrics.

         

“I just know, that’s all.” The memory that told me where Kashmir was refused to clear, but it came from Peter’s bedroom in the city, where my friends and I had sat over tea discussing colonialism when Anders had spoken of the British Empire in India. I finished my sandwich and let the conversation go on, a distant string of words that I no longer fully heard. 

         

Two hours later, after hanging out in my friend’s room, Mrs. Morris, Jane, and I again sat talking at the kitchen table before going to bed. Suddenly, a knock came from the front door. When Mrs. Morris opened, I heard my mother ask if I was there and then announce that she had come to take me home. Camilla must have told her where I had probably gone. As I rose from the table, humiliation burned in my chest. My mother had deprived me of my decision to not return home. But I had suspected that she might come for me, though not that evening. As I watched her silently wait by the door, I saw her darting, determined eyes and lost the desire to stand my ground. Somewhere in my mind, even if not in my heart, I knew that she had come not only out of anger but care. She didn’t plan to release me to a place she didn’t trust, even for a night. I also knew that, even though it was late, when we got home she would make ice cream sundaes. My father would add a log to the stove. Camilla would tell a story from her day and I would sit in my usual place on the hearth, steadied by the small rituals of home. I brushed past my mother, got in the car, leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes.

         

As the days lengthened into early spring, the oaks on the hillside shed the dead leaves that had clung, trembling, to the lower branches all winter. Pollen from catkins began to coat my bedroom window in a yellow dust and my mother eventually filled the stoneware pot by the main entrance with flowering forsythia branches from bushes along the driveway. In late winter, my parents had spoken with Camilla and me about the possibility that we would move back to Sweden over the summer. I had considered it futile to try to figure out whether we actually would. One early evening now, they told us that we would definitely move. My father was in his mid-fifties, several years older than my mother, and planned to build a kitchen, bedroom, and bath in the basement to live in while the upstairs of the house was rented out. My mother, sister, and I would move to Sweden, where he would join us after either finding a job in Gothenburg or taking early retirement. 

         

My mother must have believed that we all would have better futures in Sweden and known that as Camilla and I grew older the window for us to move back to Sweden as a family would eventually close. Yet by now she had joined a recently formed weaving group on Long Island and started to meet other women who shared her interest in the fiber arts, including a Swedish woman with two teenaged children. I suspect in hindsight that she may not have wanted to pack up the house and move again so soon, any more than my father wanted to live apart from his family. My mother planned to live in the cottage and for Camilla to rent a basement room in a house in which we had once lived in the city, where my sister would begin gymnasium. I would attend a public residential school that provided free room and board for students who hadn’t finished gymnasium a few hours inland of Gothenburg. Having been accepted to the state university near our home on Long Island for the fall, I didn’t want to move. If I had to move, I wanted to live in Gothenburg and rejoin my former gymnasium class. Yet Swedish gymnasiums didn’t recognize coursework from U.S. high schools and my parents didn’t want Camilla and me to rent an apartment on our own in the city.

         

On hearing that we would definitely move, I silently walked out the door and down the street to the harbor. The news of the move didn’t really upset me. I had suspected that my family would soon move again and hadn’t actually envisioned going to college. With the tide low, I made my way across a thick mat of reeds and looked out at the harbor and the sandy spit that reached for the bluffs to the west. Thin currents of water-warmed air slipped across my face and, as the horizon slowly began to darken, the sallow islands of the marsh lay leaden in the water, awaiting the turning of the tide. 

 

My new school in Sweden lay on the outskirts of a small city on the southwestern hillsides of the country’s second largest lake, an eighty mile-long ditch of water that never reached more than twenty miles wide. A medieval trading hub, the city had a small downtown with a library and a few museums and shop-lined streets. In addition to gymnasium equivalency programs, my school offered a few specialized courses of study, including an exchange program with a U.S. college. Though I also made friends among my Swedish peers, I soon gravitated toward the visiting American students, mostly college juniors and seniors of Swedish descent. In the evenings, my new friends and I played volleyball in the gym, wandered the paths of a nearby park, and sat in the dorms talking and eating sliced-up Snicker’s bars, peanut butter, and other treats that arrived in care packages from their families. 

         

My friends often spoke of their college majors and career plans, the lives they had in America and the futures they hoped for. Though I was a few years younger, they asked me, too, about my interests and plans. Having changed homes and schools five times in the past four years, I hadn’t really thought it worth trying to figure out what I wanted from the future. Yet I knew that I had little interest in spending two years studying math, science, and Swedish grammar, which obtaining the equivalent of a gymnasium degree required. Over the course of several months, I began to consider returning to Long Island the following fall to live with my father and attend the nearby university. With no need to complete the gymnasium curriculum, I could switch into a one-year program that the school offered on developing countries, a subject that had piqued my interest during conversations with my former friends in the city.  

         

One or two weekends a month, Camilla and I visited my mother at the cottage. We arrived together on Friday evening after meeting in Gothenburg and taking the train to a small city south of the cottage and then continuing by bus. My mother cheerfully met us with a flashlight at the bus stop along the road and a few minutes later we stepped inside the cottage to a table set with oven-warmed bread, tea, and a salad or soufflé. By now, my mother had expanded and remodeled the cottage with an indoor bath and three small bedrooms and furnished it with rugs, chairs, and tables inherited from my grandmother, and with dishes, vases, and other items shipped over from Long Island. Hand-crocheted curtains adorned the windows and potted plants crowded the sills. My room was barely large enough for a slender bed and closet, but it had a tan weave-paper on the walls and a cream-colored rug, brown bedspread, and pine ceiling lamp and night table, the only décor for a room I ever chose as a child. As I continued to visit that year, the cottage came to feel not only like a summer place, but a real home, the only such home I had known in Sweden.

         

After dinner on Friday evenings, my mother, Camilla, and I sat around the coffee table, catching each other up on our lives. My mother had joined a weaving group, bought a spinning wheel, and taken a part-time job in Gothenburg, where she stayed overnight one or two evenings a week with my sister. As she and I had each settled into our separate lives, our interactions had grown less charged. Since the cottage still had no telephone, other than when I visited, I mainly spoke with her once a week on a phone in the hallway of my dorm building, when she called me from a payphone by the kiosk up the road. After saying goodbye and hanging up I often lingered for a few moments by the phone, my hand warming the dangling cord as I faced the wall with the receiver still to my ear.

         

When at the cottage, I went for long walks on the shore. The land had bared itself for winter and along the bay bushy spikes swayed atop the naked stems of the reeds. One morning after howling winds had pummeled the trees all night, I put on boots and walked to the bay. The roiling sea had started to withdraw, strewing the upper beach with thick heaps of kelp and fine webs of burgundy seaweed. I scanned the webs for mussel shells and periwinkles to pocket, my boots sinking deep into the muck as my thoughts ambled gently around the future. By the time I finally walked back to the cottage, I knew without articulating the words in my mind that I wanted to return to Long Island the following fall to live with my father and go to college.

         

A few weeks later, during my next visit to the cottage, I told my mother of my decision. My mother responded that we had moved to Sweden for good and said no more. But the next morning when I entered the kitchen, she told me in a voice that seemed to hold not only acceptance but respect that, if I was sure of my decision, she would write my father to let him know of my plan. My decision to return to Long Island made me feel grown up and in charge of my life. For the first time I could remember, I actually wanted to move, all the while I suspected that deep down I didn’t really know in which country I belonged. Over the next few months, I increasingly worried that once I returned to Long Island home would feel like it was in Sweden. Only in the final few weeks before my move did I finally begin to believe in my decision again.

 

One evening a few weeks before my flight, my mother and I walked south on the rutted tractor trail that ran along the stone wall that separated the inland farms, cottages, and fields from the shore. The wall gently dipped and rose as it moved toward a cow pasture, its stones draped in clambering vines of honeysuckle, blackberry, and rose. After about fifteen minutes we approached an outcrop that overlooked the islands in the bay and stepped onto a broad back of rock. The sun hung low over the water and the bay lay nearly perfectly still. My mother turned her face with a smile to the sun, closed her eyes, and then said, “Isn’t there something special about the air here?” 

         

Unlike the stale, soaked air of an August evening on Long Island, the air on the shore that evening felt pale and light, imperceptible on the skin in stillness. 

         

“She’s right,” I thought. “The air feels great.” Yet I read her comment, as I had countless like it before, as an attempt to get me to concede that everything in Sweden, even the air, was better than in America.

         

“It’s the absence of humidity,” I said curtly. “Besides, it’s only around sixty. The air on Long Island feels exactly the same in fall.”

         

My mother had only wanted to share her delight in the evening with me. But as I saw it, to say that the air in Sweden felt great would have meant to admit that maybe I had made the wrong choice in deciding to return to Long Island. 

         

“Do you remember when you were little and we used to wade out to the islands,” my mother said after a brief silence, nodding her head in the direction of the bay. At least once a summer, my mother, sister, and I had waded out between the boulders until we could no longer touch the bottom and then swam to reach the innermost of the islands, my mother paddling with her right hand while holding a bag with a coffee thermos and pastries above the water in her left. We heaved ourselves ashore as the gulls squawked and dove around us and then sat down in a sheltered dip, unpacked our picnic, and watched the gulls settle back onto their nests.

         

“I do remember,” I said, “all those barnacle-studded rocks lurking in the kelp.”

         

“And diving gulls, what a racket.” My mother chuckled. “Still, those were good times, weren’t they?”

         

I nodded.

         

My mother would spend two more years living in the cottage, until Camilla finished gymnasium and decided to return to Long Island to attend college too. With both of her children settling in the U.S., my mother reluctantly moved back to Long Island with my sister, and other than summer visits to the cottage never lived in Sweden again. Only decades later did I wonder what my decision to leave Sweden had meant not only for me, but my family and her.

         

In the final weeks before my flight, my mother wrote lists to tell me in which basement boxes on Long Island I could find linens, irons, and pots and where to shop affordably for assorted foods and household items. She expressed her care in her attention to practical details, and in serving stuffed cabbage rolls, smoked mackerel with crème fraîche and dill, and my other favorite Swedish dishes. The afternoon before my flight, she entered my room with a jar of blackberry preserves for me to take to Long Island. She, Camilla, and I had made the preserves the previous fall from berries that we had picked along the stone walls.

         

“I really hope things go well for you now. You’ll be missed here,” she said while handing me the jar. Moisture glistened in her eyes. Longing welled up from my heart, but the tears caught in my throat and I choked them down. Once she had closed the door, I sat on my bed with the jar in my hand, gazing out the window as tears rolled down my face.

         

That evening the two of us walked silently along the shore, each having chosen home in a different place. As the sun set into a slender line of fish-scale clouds over the water, the sky briefly shone in a brilliant crimson and pink. Slowly the bay began to darken and we made our way across the grasses and turned inland past a pine grove onto a dirt road. There on the horizon in the darkness at the end of the road, the early autumn moon rose bright and full over the pale stubble of a cut field, a solitary gray cloud streaking across its face. I couldn’t recall ever having seen such a large, luminous moon.

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