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PROLOGUE:

THE SWEDISH COAST

Two decades after I left Sweden for good at the age of eighteen, I sat in the backseat of my parents’ sun-faded orange Saab heading south toward the cottage where I had spent my childhood summers on the Swedish coast. While my mother drove, my father gazed out the window from the passenger seat and told me that the coast had become a popular summer destination, a Swedish Riviera of sorts. “You might hardly recognize the place,” he concluded. I pictured the once-slumbering landscape of rocky bays, small farms, and fishing villages dotted with the neon-signed hotels, restaurants, and gift shops of the eastern United States seaboard, relieved to know that the unexpected longing that had drawn me back to Sweden would soon fade.

         

My parents parents had picked me up after my flight from Minneapolis at the airport in Gothenburg, an hour and a half’s drive north of the cottage. This summer, like most summers, they had returned to Sweden from their home on Long Island. As we drove south from the city, spruce forests gradually gave way to an open landscape of farm fields and cow pastures, scattered groves and settlements. To the east, forested highlands stretched inland while to the west the shallow, brackish waters of the Kattegat Sea reached toward the Jutland Peninsula of Denmark. My mother eventually turned off the highway onto the narrow coastal road that wound the final few miles toward the cottage. 

         

As the air sweetened with the scents of seaweed, I straightened out of my slouch, rolled down the rear window, and looked out on a familiar landscape of stone walls, red barns, and small clusters of aspen, birch, and pine. Pavement now covered the dirt roads on which my childhood soles had grown thickly callused and colorful wooden cottages and year-round homes had sprung up on a few former meadows and farm fields. A small red-painted store had replaced the kiosk where I had stood on an upturned milk crate on Saturday mornings, warming a coin in my hand while leaning my head through the window to choose candies from bins on the counter. 

       

Looking out the car window, I could see that the place had indeed changed. But not with the eyesores I had envisioned. The metal door handle with its rusty sandpaper-like nubs began to grow sticky in my palm. Soon the car turned through a break in the stone wall into a small grassy clearing in front of the cottage. I got out as soon as it had stopped. The cottage hunkered low under the pines. A few gnarled apple, pear, and plum trees that my grandfather had planted still bore fruit along the stone wall and the stocky pine in whose crown I had often sat looking out at the sea swayed in the breeze. 

         

I had rarely thought of the cottage in two decades and expected to return to it almost like a stranger, for the place to stir little sentiment in spite of my recent onset of longing for it. Yet on stepping inside the door, I set eyes on a coffee table, sofa, and chairs with wooden legs and rims carved with leaves and flowers, two worm-holed bureaus with secret compartments and writing leaves, an old chest, mirror with a gold-painted rim, and china cabinet with glass doors with keys. The familiar furnishing inherited from my grandparents’ home in the city stood where they had when I had last left the place. An instinctive feeling of home nearly sucked the breath from my lungs. 

         

An hour later, I set out for the shore. The winding trail through the pine grove at the end of the road had fallen out of use, but I searched between the trunks for the old opening and walked stooping under the branches. A few minutes later I burst back into the luminous light of the northern summer and stopped at the edge of the trees. Young birches and rowans nestled amid the shoulders of the pines and scattered heathers dappled dips of sand. Beyond, a swath of knee-high grasses reached toward a cordon of wild roses and reeds that bounded the small bay with its two rocky islands, jumble of boulders, and gently rippling waters. The shore looked exactly as I suddenly knew it always had, though I suspect a photograph would have shown that the reeds and wild roses had grown more plentiful than before. I slipped it on like an old sweater and couldn’t remember the last time any place had felt as compelling and clear.

 

My parents had moved to the U.S. from Sweden in the early 1960s and built a house in the rapidly growing suburbs of Long Island, where my father had found work teaching history at a newly opened state university. Not knowing how long they planned to stay in the U.S., they wanted my younger sister Camilla and me to grow up Swedish and to visit and live in the country often enough to ensure that we settled there as adults. My mother, sister, and I spent our summers at my maternal grandparents’ cottage on the coast, where my father joined us for a month or so. The year that I turned eight, my family moved to Gothenburg for a little over two years before returning to Long Island. Three years after our return, we again moved to Gothenburg, for two and a half years renting furnished places in and around the city before moving back to our house on Long Island.

         

The house hid halfway down a hillside of oaks, with a long, steep driveway that measured the distance between my family and the outside world. My family spent many weekends and evenings perfecting its rooms and yard. While my parents made bookshelves, lampshades, rugs, curtains, concrete walkways, and stone retaining walls, Camilla and I weeded, raked, swept, and ran after buckets and brushes. Together we crawled across a nearby beach gathering pebbles into carloads of buckets to create a decorative border along the patio and scoured garage sales for chairs, tables, and lamps to refinish. Our home felt solid and well lived-in, each rug, chair, and shrub positioned with forethought and care. 

         

Inside and out, it bore the imprint of our shared labor and devotion, and of our unstated hope that if only we nurtured it, it would grant us the rootedness for which we longed. Yet as we continued to both lovingly tend it and leave it for months and years at a time to return to Sweden, the house held both our hopes and our ambivalence, a testament, I think today, to my parents’ yearning to put down roots but not settle or fully belong. Home in America, as I implicitly understood it, consisted of a lovingly tended house, but not a place of ultimate belonging.

         

When I was seventeen, my mother, sister, and I made a third move back to Sweden, where my father planned to eventually join us. Our move was my fifth change in home and schools in as many years. I didn’t understand why my parents couldn’t decide once and for all where to settle, but sensed that my mother’s ties to her home country ran far deeper than my father’s. While returning for good to Sweden remained an ultimate hope for both my parents, for my mother losing the shelter of an ancestral landscape, language, and family created a chasm that no devotion to a home or new friendships on Long Island could bridge.

         

My parents intended our final move to Sweden to be for good. But at the age of eighteen, I returned to Long Island. I was the only member of my family born in the United States and considered myself more American than Swedish. I also wanted to choose, instead of inherit, which country to belong to, not yet knowing I could do both. I gradually let my Swedish language fall into disuse and scarcely thought of the country I had left behind. When I occasionally did, I couldn’t conjure up clear images of the friends and relatives I had known or the neighborhoods I had called home. Sweden, I told myself, was my parents’ country, and the United States my country. 

         

Eventually I left Long Island, married, and a few years later moved for work to Minnesota, a state with many Swedish descendants. I initially worried that I might be tempted to seek out my Swedish roots, but wasn’t. A decade later, my marriage ended and, one after another, the assumptions on which I had built a sense of identity, home, and belonging unraveled. As feelings of rootlessness threatened to overwhelm me, memories of my childhood summers on the Swedish coast began to surface like forgotten fairytales. I could scarcely believe I had once been the eager, trusting girl in my memories, running barefoot through meadows and pine groves, netting baby eels and crabs amid the boulders of the bay, and falling asleep in a bunk to the laughter of relatives as my parents’ voices flowed with a lightheartedness I rarely heard in America. The purity of my memories surprised me. Years of buried longing must have quietly honed them. 

         

I began to long for pines, boulder-strewn bays, and the sweet scent of seaweed drifting through the breeze. At first, I didn’t understand how I could long for a place I had nearly forgotten about. I tried to ward my longing off by telling myself that I could see rocky bays and pine groves in northern Minnesota too. Instead, each time I drove north, I would pick up the scent of sun-warmed needles, feel a cold wind rush through my hair, or see reindeer lichen in the forest or harebells on rocky lakeside outcrops and think of Sweden. I couldn’t stop my longing from gathering force. An intuitively trusted place, the Swedish coast remained untainted by the shattered faith of my recent life. It beckoned me with memories of a joy and stillness I had forgotten I could know.

 

Knowing that nostalgia often thrives on the distortions of an unchecked memory, I decided that I could try to get rid of mine by returning to Sweden and seeing for myself that the place held little for me in the present. I could revisit Sweden once and then again leave the country behind. I booked a flight for a ten-day trip and made light of the decision, all the while sensing it was the most instinctively compelling decision I had made in years.

         

“How does it feel to finally be going home?” Camilla asked over the phone the evening before my flight. She still spoke Swedish and visited Sweden, and like my mother and father she automatically used the word “home” to refer to the country. To me, the word sounded hollow and insulting and I ignored the question. That night, however, I dreamt that my plane plummeted into the Atlantic. Death didn’t frighten me in the dream, but the thought of dying before making it back to Sweden did. As the plane descended into the ocean, I awoke with the sudden realization that I envied the rest of my family, speaking both languages and traveling between the two countries, knowing home as a primal and enduring place of belonging and not only a house that could be lost or left behind.

 

Now, as I left the shelter of the pines and began to walk toward the bay, I knew in the firmness of my every step that I had returned to a place I had never stopped belonging to. I reached the path through the wild roses and reeds and left my clogs by the same sandy hump of rock as I had nearly every summer day as a child. Then I stepped into the bay and began to gleefully splash small arcs of water into the air with my toes. “Wow,” I thought, “I can’t believe this is actually me; that I can feel this happy and free.” I barely dared to stop splashing for fear the feeling would shatter. Yet how, I wondered, could I feel this way in a place I hadn’t even wanted to return to. 

         

The evening before my return to Minnesota, I sat on a boulder looking out at the bay at the tail end of a storm. The two rocky islands lay like whalebacks in the water, submerged along all but slender ridges by the waves. A colony of gulls had long nested on their backs. As a burst of sunshine pierced the clouds, the gulls stood serene as virgin snow out of the reach of the waves, facing the wind in pin-drop silence. The larger island glowed in an ethereal whitish gray and its smaller relation in pale rose, while the gulls formed a thick, undulating white line against the indigo sky. No landscape that I could recall had ever felt as unexpectedly intimate, and as readily mine.

         

I looked out at the islands and began to surrender to a primitive instinct that sought to draw me back to a forgotten home country, language, and part of memory and self that I could no longer know myself without. Over the next five years I would make five more visits to Sweden. Staying anywhere from weeks to months, I walked the shore, saw relatives, and searched the city for former homes and hangouts, piecing together my family’s comings and goings between Long Island, Gothenburg, and the cottage. As I looked out at the bay a final time now, a gull climbed fluently into the air. Its gleaming white form soared up and down, back and around over the islands, nothing but the invisible current and instinct to keep it from falling from the sky.

Note: To respect others’ privacy, I have changed the names and slightly modified the identities of some people in The Midsummer Sun writings.

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