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EPILOGUE: 

THE LANDSCAPE OF HOME

 

 

Memories of forgotten landscapes, I have read, often surface in times of disorientation and loss. One July day at the age of thirty-eight, two years after my divorce, memories of my childhood summers on the Swedish coast led me back to the cottage for the first time in two decades. Despite my recent onset of longing for the coast, I approached my trip largely like a tourist planning a visit to a foreign country. I bought a guidebook to Sweden, read about the country’s history, culture, and fauna, and drew up a list of sights to visit within a day’s drive of the coast. Then I stepped into the cottage and felt so at home that I could scarcely believe I had ever left the place. In my room, my brown bedspread had faded in the sun and the weave-paper on the walls frayed lightly at the seams. As sunlight filtered between the gnarled branches of the old plum tree out the window, I sank down on my bed and traced the warm threads of a frayed seam with my finger.

         

Like the cottage and coast, I expected to experience few sentiments on seeing my relatives, with whom I had barely had any contact since the age of eighteen. Yet that evening, my Aunt Emma knocked on the door with my cousin Birgit in tow. Except for added gray hairs and wrinkles around her suntanned face, Emma looked exactly as I remembered. “Oh, dear child!” she exclaimed as she stepped into the cottage and drew me into an embrace. A primal joy surged inside me. Emma was nearly ninety, and I had made it back to see her. My mother’s cousin Lisa later grew teary-eyed at the sight of me. The cottage and pine grove, familiar voices and laughter cradled me in a belonging I didn’t need to create from scratch. That belonging would draw me back to Sweden for several years to come.

         

The following summer, I spent over a month alone at the cottage. Without noticing, each time I returned, I slipped back into the rituals of my childhood summers. At home in Minnesota, I only drank coffee in the mornings. At the cottage, several times a day I sat with my cup on the stoop or at the picnic table in the clearing. I took a sip, closed my eyes to the sun, and recalled myself as a child of only yesterday, sitting over coffee around the same table with my parents, building Stone Age camps with Camilla in needle-strewn grottos in the woods, and walking the shore late into the evening with relatives and family friends. I ached with longing to step back into the past and recapture what I had left behind. The longing didn’t initially make sense. Before returning to Sweden, I had barely thought of the coast in decades.

         

During my second visit, after a week on the coast, I drove to Gothenburg to walk around. I strolled up and down the Avenue, amazed that I had once called a city with such quaint, colorful old buildings home. Occasionally I would pass a street corner, building, or plaza and suddenly stop, overcome by a conviction that I had stepped into a memory I couldn’t retrieve. Or I would vaguely recall homes and hangouts, but not know where these buildings and boulders were, nor fully trust the hazy images that I conjured up of them. Soon I started to feel a compelling need to relocate each place I recalled, to know for sure that I had truly lived the life I remembered.

         

One day during my third visit to the cottage, I searched for the house that my family had rented for nine months at the bottom of a steep street on the southern outskirts of the city. What drew me in memory wasn’t mainly the house, but recollections of a boulder on a rocky ridge above. At moments I could nearly feel the rock firm under my soles, the breeze slipping across my face. My family rarely spoke of the past and I didn’t want to ask my parents or Camilla if they recalled the name of the street. Instead, I searched a city map for the names of neighborhoods that struck a chord and drove around hoping to recognize a street or building. In over an hour of driving, I didn’t see any familiar landmarks. But eventually I recalled that when walking to and from school I had crossed a large road that led toward the city, which only a few roads on my map did from the southern outskirts. I drove back toward the city until I located one of them, turned around, and when I continued to not recognize any buildings or cross streets got off the road to check the map again. 

         

As I approached a side street at an intersection, I suddenly recognized a small yellow apartment building. Our former home, I knew, lay only a few blocks away. I soon drove past it and began to wind up the street. I still didn’t entirely know if the pavement would end at the top and almost didn’t want to continue up the hill for fear that the memory that had brought me this far would prove unreliable after all. As the valley below receded in my rearview mirror, I clutched the steering wheel and arched my back in hopes of seeing the pavement end. When it finally did and I spotted a still-used path into the woods, relief rippled through my gut. I parked by the curb and, a few minutes later, stepped onto the open rock. The breeze rushed through my hair and an instinctive recognition stopped me in my tracks. I had known exactly what the place would feel like, despite not being able to clearly conjure up its image. I slowly cut a path toward the boulder, my every step seeming to return me to a buried core inside.

         

After returning to the ridge top, memories of those nine months began to appear with startling clarity. I gradually returned to one former home and hangout after another in the city, each place unlocking more memories. Whether they brought fierce sorrows or joys, as my memories grew more trustworthy and real, I felt more alive than I could recall in years, even decades. Like the cottage and coast, the places I had cherished in the city had nurtured deep feelings of grounding. They had mattered far more than the actual time I had spent in them.

         

Three years after my first return to Sweden, I lived alone in the cottage for several months one fall and early winter. One morning while strolling the Avenue, the colorful buildings didn’t look as quaint as they had before. Instead, I saw the drabness of aging kiosks and trams and the litter on the sidewalks. Litter had been virtually unheard of in Sweden in my childhood and the sight of it jarred me. When I entered the shopping mall with a McDonald’s by the canal, I thought not of evenings with friends but of how the mall near my home in Minnesota looked more appealing, and how I disliked malls whether in the United States or Sweden. My reactions that morning baffled me, but I soon understood that I had started to encounter the city mainly through my familiar adult sensibilities, and not the sentiments evoked by a recollected childhood. Before long, I began attuning to news stories of criminal gangs, muggings, and growing class divisions in Swedish society, signs of the fraying of the safe, orderly, egalitarian society that may never actually have existed as completely as in my childhood memory.  

 

Nearly every day at the cottage during my longer stay, I walked the shore in the hour before dusk. I reveled in the rawness and twilight, the bare boulders and birches and seaweed-scented drizzle. For years before visiting Sweden, I had wandered the rocky shores of Lake Superior, a two-hour drive north of my home, with something akin to obsession. Every now and then when I picked up the scent of pine or felt a cold wind tear through my hair, an ancestral feeling of shelter nearly stopped me in my tracks. The shore’s dark, angular ledges bore little resemblance to the smooth-backed outcrops of western Sweden, but they too belonged to a rocky, wind-bitten northern landscape, implicitly bridging the distance between my present and my past. Gradually I sensed how fine the line can be between the places we inherit and the places we choose.

         

Each time I returned from the cottage to my home in Minnesota, for the next few months my visit sated my longing for Sweden. Then my mind again began to spin across the Atlantic and I started to plan another trip. Since most Swedes are fairly proficient in English, during my first visit to the cottage I only spoke Swedish with older relatives. After two decades of not speaking the language, each time I strung together a jagged sentence or two, a stranger seemed to have taken over my voice. I grew a bit more fluent for each subsequent visit, but continued to only think in English. During my longer stay at the cottage, however, I began to routinely think in Swedish when shopping and speaking with Swedes and to become more comfortable moving back and forth between the two languages. 

         

Though I still found it hard to engage in deeper reflection in Swedish, I also began to recall in greater detail past conversations in the language with family and friends. Once or twice a week I spoke on the phone with my mother in the United States. As we spoke of relatives, shops, cafés, and destinations for bicycle rides and weekend drives, I automatically began to use a few Swedish sentences. She occasionally reciprocated with an English phrase or two. For years I had guarded my distance from her, blaming her for my family’s moves. Yet as we each reached out in the other’s language, I noticed that I felt closer to her. Language became a portal into a deeper fount of not only memory, but intimacy.

         

The following summer, when I again returned to Sweden, my stay overlapped for several days with my parents’ annual visit to the cottage. Sometime after I had left Sweden for good, my parents had stopped trimming the pines that sheltered the grassy clearing where the picnic table caught the afternoon sun. A scrappy grove had nearly swallowed the grass. One morning, my parents and I decided to trim a few trees. My father felled a dead trunk in the woods while my mother and I trimmed branches around the edge of the clearing with a large bow saw. As we pulled the saw back and forth, my mother looked eager and youthful in her faded denim shorts, yellow tee, and swaying ponytail of silver-streaked hair. Together we dragged a large branch with a crown of dead needles onto the grass. 

         

My mother released the branch onto the ground, straightened her back, and said, “Here you and I are trimming the pines, just like my mother and I used to. It’s amazing how life always comes full circle.” As she turned to go inside to put on the coffee, I realized how little I knew about her, and longed to know her better.

         

Growing up, each time my family left relatives, friends, and familiar places, I sensed that we were leaving nothing behind that couldn’t be reclaimed in a few months or year or two. I didn’t understand our loss as being an actual one. Now, the more I gradually understood what I had once left behind in Sweden, the more I understood the magnitude of what my mother had lost in moving to America, the security and belonging that leaving a trusted home country, family, and friends had deprived her of. In the evenings, the two of us often walked the shore in the hour before dusk, following the tractor trail south toward the cow pasture. Shortly before reaching the pasture, we passed a wooden house with a shed facing the sea.

         

“That’s Fisher Kalle’s house, where my family boarded before the cottage was built.” My mother stopped one evening and looked at the house and said.

         

I remembered Fisher Kalle from my childhood, when as an old man he had bicycled the dirt roads in faded overalls and a cap selling his day’s catch from a wooden box. But I had rarely ever heard my mother speak of her past and hadn’t known that her family had boarded in that particular house. After standing in silence for a while, my mother told me that on weekend evenings boarders from the city had gathered with locals on the cobblestone yard in front of the house to eat lobster and dance to fiddle music. Once the cottage had been built, aunts, uncles, and family friends had arrived from the city to visit nearly every weekend. Together, they had spent their days on the beach and drinking endless rounds of coffee in the clearing.

         

I silently listened, nodding but not wanting to speak for fear of interrupting the unexpected closeness that flowed between us. 

         

“Oh, what fun we all had! If you only knew how we laughed!” My mother exclaimed. 

         

As I glanced over at her, her face flushed with a happiness I had rarely suspected her of knowing. On future walks, I started to ask her about her early life and her memories of my grandparents and relatives. The more I learned about her, the more I sensed that memories similar to those that had drawn me back to the cottage had also kept her returning to Sweden during my childhood. My mother, I realized, wasn’t only my mother, but a woman shaped by sensibilities and longings not much different from my own. My respect and affection for her grew. Gradually, a new closeness emerged between us.

As my visits to Sweden gave me back more of what I had left behind, over time my desire to return to the country waned. My longing for Sweden, I ultimately understood, wasn’t mainly a longing for the country or the past, but for the deep feeling of intimacy and shelter that my recollections of relatives, friends, and trusted places held. I hadn’t fully risked believing in such rootedness as an adult, but had intuitively sensed that I could begin to restore my faith in it by remembering the place where I had known it most generously as a child.

 

 

I sometimes wonder how my own life, or that of my family, would have looked today had I not returned to Long Island at the age of eighteen. Yet had I stayed in Sweden, I might have eventually longed for America instead. Long Island could have drawn me with memories of a place where my mother greeted me with warm bread in the kitchen when I came up the steps from school and my family spent evenings together in a home of its own. Each place, in its own way, holds memories that help me feel more settled and whole. Yet who, I still sometimes wonder, would I have become and what kind of family and home would I have known had I grown up either in Sweden or the United States, but not both?

         

I recently drove north from my home in Minnesota and followed a trail through a pine stand onto a rocky outcrop at the edge of Lake Superior. A cluster of harebells bobbed in the breeze from a crevice in the rock. A few silky lavender bells had reached the height of bloom. Another bell had faded and shriveled, and a third just begun to open. As I sat looking out at the water, the swaying bells, scents of pine, and firmness of the rock under my palms reminded me of Sweden. The feeling of home for which I yearn, I know today, lies in a place of deep belonging within, a fullness of memory, experience, and sentiment that I can carry across an ocean, and across time. For a few moments, the bells hung perfectly still in the air. Then the breeze returned and they began to sway atop their supple stems again.

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