The boy was seventeen. Viewed superficially, he was a product of the prevailing consumer society — a boy of shopping centers, football games, and automotive mobility. But the boy also had an inner life. He liked reading a lot, particularly works like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and other mythologies and fantasies. So, when the boy’s mother announced one day that the family would be travelling to Norway for the summer, the boy was thrilled. His imagination soared as he envisioned mystic encounters with ethereal beings in a foreign land. Of course, the boy’s mother was more pragmatic: her intent was to strengthen her family’s fast unwinding cultural ties to the old country as her three sons acculturated to melting-pot America. Yet the effect on both the mother and her sons was similar as they came to journey deeply into the Norwegian forest, deeply into tradition, deeply into history. And to meet Ragna.
The trip was an expensive one for the widowed mother – a mother who worked at menial jobs by day, studied drafting at night, and yet managed to more than adequately feed and nurture her underappreciative brood. But the trip was destined to be made for the simple reason that the mother’s will was steadfast, a trait that the boy did not appreciate then, but learned to admire and even attempted to emulate in the years that followed.
The key to affording the trip – which lasted nearly three months — was, of course, frugality. Food was purchased in stores. Restaurant dining was a rarity. Accommodations were with relatives and friends. Sleep, for the boy, was on an inflatable blue mattress whose faint plastic odor and over-buoyancy still cling to his memory like a tattered blanket of youth. The major expense was the rental of a car – an old gray stick-shift Volvo with springy seats that vastly accentuated each bump in the road (of which there were many); a car the boy wanted desperately to drive, but to which wish the mother rarely consented. With suitcases and trunks aloft, it was a vagabond crew that plied the rural byways of Norway that summer.
The trip started in Oslo, but the family soon headed north – past the copper-green lake Mjøsa and over the Dovre Mountains. In a couple of days, they were at Trondheim, past which the Norwegian nation became extremely thin, tucked between the North Sea on the west, and the mountainous boundary with Sweden to the east. Another day’s touring brought the family to the boy’s grandparents’ farm, in a heavily forested region about fifty miles below the Arctic Circle. Here they stayed for several weeks.
As it happened, just when the family arrived, the grandfather had become excited by the appearance of hordes of salmon in the nearby Namsen River. “Come with me right away! We have to set our nets! There’s no time to lose!” were the first words the boy heard from his grandfather. So he and his brothers piled into the grandfather’s car and rode to the river, stopping at a shore-side pool where the silver-scaled fish splashed and frolicked in the water, releasing, as they leapt above the waterline, cascades of reflective colors – blue, gold and violet as well as silver — that bewildered the boy’s eyes.
Expertly, the grandfather threaded several of his handmade nets. “Here,” he said “tie these nets to the posts next to the pier.” And the boys, who only minutes before had known nothing about salmon fishing, were immersed in an antique ritual that would provide ample repast in the days to come. It did not take long to catch the fish, and soon the boy was holding an enormous salmon. There was a nuance of mythology about the incident the boy thought, as he imagined himself a miniature Thor, holding on to a salmon-shaped Loki trying to escape his grasp. It was an abrupt transition into another world.
With that exigency past, the company returned to the farm, which was nestled in a valley between a bog and the forest, a setting that, in the long summer twilight (of course, in that latitude it never got completely dark) provided an environment rife with primeval imagery. The farmhouse itself exuded a cheery intimacy – bright and homey against the backdrop of splendid mountains and stately spruce. While Grandmother cooked a robust dinner of meat and the inevitable potatoes that were a part of every Nordic meal, the boy had an opportunity to explore the house. In particular, he immersed himself in his grandfather’s unique library of ancient and local history.
In the background, an antique radio was broadcasting a Grieg symphony, a quintessentially appropriate delight that added significantly to the boy’s sense of mystery. With the edge of the forest only yards away from the windows of the farmhouse, it was hard not to imagine all manner of troll and elf hiding in the shadows, ready to spring forth the moment one averted one’s gaze.
Aural effects, too, added to the enveloping mystery of the place, where the combination of gently sloping mountains and the thick boreal woodland gave every distant sound a muted quality, as if it came from another world. The boy from the plains marveled at his newfound knowledge that even loud sounds could contain within them aspects of profound silence.
The boy’s grandparents, he observed, were, in their character, much like their environment. Stoic and hardy, wizened and strong, they exuded a spirit of sad assurance that was at once comforting and a little frightening. Although they were loving and generous, the boy could sense within them an inner conversation with a wisdom too deep to be imparted by mere words.
In the days to come, the boy gradually acclimated to farm life – watching the cows, tending the potato patch, and exploring the old barn and other outbuildings. On occasion, the boy’s grandfather, who had for many years been a forest ranger and knew the surrounding landscape and terrain intimately, would take his grandchildren to visit his favorite haunts: clearings in the woods where the sun shone with a merry warmth that charmed the soul, or rocky ledges where pristine air filled the lungs with pure joy. He told stories of his ancestors who had lived in the area centuries before, and of the secretive Laplanders who tended their reindeer herds in the mountain meadows nearby. Once, he took the entire family to a secluded cabin on the other side of a large lake, across which he insisted on rowing without help, his muscles still sinewy and strong at age seventy-five.
But, as if this environment were not remote enough for the boy from the prairies, his mother was planning trips deeper yet into the hinterland to visit other relatives situated, sometimes, at the ends of miles of unpaved road at the foot of unnamed mountains. These relatives, the boy recalled, were pleased to invite the group into their homes for coffee and cake, where they and the mother discussed old times and events. Most interesting for the boy were the stories about the events of World War II, when the country had been occupied – and in many cases terrorized – by the Nazis. The boy’s father had, in fact, been a partisan in those days, with a price on his head, risking a trip to a concentration camp, or worse, had he been caught.
After some weeks of these peregrinations, the boy’s mother said, “It’s time to visit Ragna.” The boy had heard about Ragna, of course; she was the boys’ great-aunt who at that time lived in a retirement home but for all of her life before that had resided at a very isolated farm on the gentle slope of a mountain. The homestead was quaint in the essence – a farmhouse with a sodded roof where goats might stay all afternoon munching on green grass; cold springs bubbling forth where milk, butter and other foodstuffs might be kept cool; dark pine forests where foxes and wolves lurked in the shade. Electricity and running water were, of course, nonexistent.
Ragna had never married, but had stayed on the farm and helped her parents until at last they died and she was alone – and not just alone, but utterly alone, miles from any neighbors and friends. She kept on as she had always done, during the day occupied with the normal chores on the farm, and in the evenings enjoying her favorite pastimes of knitting and crocheting, and so passing her time until diabetes and old age dictated that she could no longer stay. One day, when she was in her early 80s, her niece and nephew took her away to her new home. One can only wonder how she felt as she gazed for the last time on the fields where she had played as a girl, said goodbye to her brothers and sisters as they moved to America or the city, and labored with her parents to eke a meager living.
The evening that the boy, his mother, and brothers went to visit Ragna was cool and fall-like. The mountains and forests seemed unusually somber, the boy thought, as the Volvo approached the retirement home. Quietly, the family got out of the car, slipped into the brick building, went past the front desk, and found Ragna’s room. The door was open and everyone entered, pulling some empty chairs from the hallway to sit next to her.
The first thing the boy noticed about his great-aunt was her thin, white hair, frail as a wispy cloud in an azure summer sky. Her hair floated above a face etched in wrinkles but serene in mien, an amalgam of contrasts that perplexed the boy’s unsophisticated mind. With eyes as blue as the glint of a glacier, she gazed at the family through an antique pair of glasses perched at the tip of her nose. Her lips were thin, and while she never fully smiled, she sometimes flashed a knowing grin. She spoke in a vintage Norwegian dialect that was even then not current, full of melodious backcountry diphthongs, filling the air like the lay of an ancient minstrel. Ragna was an anachronism even in her own time, a stoic daughter of another age; she represented, in short, the furthest the boy had been removed from modernity in his entire life, or for that matter the rest of his life to come.
Ragna’s arms were muscular, reflecting the strenuous requirements of a deeply rural existence. Her hands were smooth and shiny with age, alternately red and purple, covered here and there with small band-aids. The boy’s mother later explained that Ragna’s deteriorating eyesight and poor coordination had caused her occasionally to stick herself with her needles as she did her knitting and crocheting.
Ragna took the boy’s hand and held it as the group continued to talk. The boy was not displeased, but as the minutes went on and Ragna did not release her grip, he became a bit uneasy. He glanced at his mother, who, with a knowing look and an almost imperceptible nod, seemed to say, It’s OK; everything is fine. The boy did not resist as Ragna continued to hold and sometimes stroke his hand.
The group stayed for perhaps an hour, the mother doing most of the communicating since she was the one most able to comprehend Ragna’s speech. For nearly the entire hour Ragna held the boy’s hand. Finally, the mother indicated that it was time to go. As everyone gave Ragna a last hug, the boy noticed a special look in his mother’s eye. He understood that the look conveyed a final goodbye.
The group slipped out of the home as quietly as they had come in. They got into the car and drove off, the eternal forest soon eclipsing all sight of the room and building from which they had emerged.
The boy did not understand then, nor did he understand for many years thereafter, that he had just been profoundly blessed.