Every half-decade, I flew 3758 miles from Baltimore to Oslo, to hjemmelandet, to my birth home. Once there, I took public transportation from the airport to the post-war suburbs where my great aunt and uncle lived. At first, it was a bus. As the years passed, high-speed rail to center city and a transfer to the newly built, sleek subway line made the last leg of the trip faster, smoother, modern. When the line was new, their stop was the last. Then, with each visit, the chart on the cavernous cement tunnel walls grew longer, like a horizontal version of the height chart I kept for my daughter on the doorway molding behind the kitchen door. Once, I missed the exit and had to double back after marveling at the new glassy high-rise apartments at the (then) end of the line.
On my last visit while they were both still alive and largely mobile, sometime in the early 1970s, we sat in the living room in the middle of June. The sun that time of year hangs on the horizon, egg yolk yellow ringed in tangerine, dipping into the horizon before rising again just past midnight. My great aunt sat with her back to the window, crooked back as straight as she could manage against the chair. Her gray curly hair framed an increasingly wrinkled face. Each visit, I marveled at how old they were getting, how they had shrunk, how curved her back had become as osteoporosis set in. But her eyes – they were just as I remembered. I’d concentrate on looking her straight in the eyes, pretending nothing had changed since the last visit and the one before that all the way back to the first time I had left, a mere child.
We covered the usual territory, picking up where we had left off as if no more than a week or a month had passed, not five years. They had worried about me. They just knew from the news reports covering the riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination that America in general and Baltimore in particular were dangerous places. I wasn’t surprised that they believed fervently where I lived was a dangerous hell on earth. Each visit, I would explain that I didn’t live in that part of Baltimore. When my great uncle peppered me with questions about unemployment, racism and poverty, I sighed and said I couldn’t disagree or offer any solution. He’d make sweeping assessments and policy pronouncements as he cut the crusty bakery bread with the precision of the machinist he had been into straight, perfect and equal slices despite the tremor in his hands.
This visit, we were eating the open face sandwiches my great aunt prepared with the bread when my great uncle stopped mid-bite.
“I almost forgot to tell you,” he said, putting down the slice with the shrimp and lemon slice on Boston lettuce. His hand shook and some of the tiny crustaceans slid off and onto the floor. “Faen,” he added, which is a multi-purpose Norwegian swear word he flavored all conversations with. He bent over and picked up the spilled topping with his paper napkin before continuing. “Do you remember Sonya?” he asked. “She lived across the street. She made the papers. Joined one of those German terrorist groups and got caught with a car bomb.”
On the first day of school, Sonya and I walked hand-in-hand through the big iron gate into the playground. I have a black and white picture of the two of us still. We’re wearing matching dresses and big bows in our hair, standing under the flagpole with the Norwegian flag fluttering in the wind above us. Her hair is short and blonde, mine black and in braids. She looks pure Aryan, tall, like she belonged. Me, not so much. I wanted that hair, that height, those icy blue eyes.
Sometimes I even wanted her living arrangement. She shared an apartment with four other girls the same age, something that seemed like one long sleepover to me. Instead of parents, she had two ‘aunts’ who lived in the apartment with them.
One breezy summer day between first grade and second, we rode our bikes to the playground. Hers was blue and beat up and mine was bright apple red, shiny and new. We worked the seesaw for a while. Sonya, being taller and heavier, came down with a thud while I, shorter and more compact, struggled to push against her weight. Then we spun around on the merry-go-round until we both collapsed in a heap on the grass, dizzy and exhausted, laughing.
Then Sonya turned serious.
“What’s it like to live with your mother?” she asked me. She was sitting cross-legged in the grass, her pleated skirt exposing a scabbed knee over dusty, graying knee-highs. Her blue eyes met my brown ones until I looked down, breaking the connection.
“Where’s your mama?” I asked. I’d never considered the details of Sonya’s living arrangements. I must have assumed that some people lived with a parent, some with both parents and some with multiple ‘aunts.’ It had never occurred to me that it was unusual. Instead, I thought it would be fun to have a group of girls around the same age sharing rooms.
“In Kirkenes,” she said. I knew that was far north, past the Arctic Circle, on the icy border with Russia – a place that this time of year saw only daylight and in winter only darkness. Until the war, it had been accessible only via a slow, meandering mail boat that dipped in an out of the many fjords along the coast. Then, when the Germans came, Russian prisoners painstakingly laid rails and dug roads pointing northward.
“What’s she doing up there?” It was a natural question. I didn’t know anyone who lived so far north. Can’t say I’ve met any since either. That was frozen tundra, the magical land of the midnight sun, populated in my imagination by Sami and reindeer.
“She works there. She’s a nurse. She said she couldn’t take me with her,” Sonya explained. Arrangements such as hers, I would come to know, were common for unmarried mothers. The ‘aunts’ weren’t aunts but government social workers, trained and paid to create the illusion of family life for disadvantaged children.
“Are you lonely? Do you miss her?” I asked, stupidly. She cried for a while and then wiped her eyes on her sleeve. She left a smudge of dirt on her cheekbone. Those cheekbones! So high and sharp. I handed her one of the handkerchief my great aunt had embroidered with my name. It smelled faintly of rose linen water. I had allergies and usually remembered to stuff one in my pocket. She removed the dirt and carefully folded the linen before handing it back.
Over the course of that summer, and the next, we spent a lot of time together. Sometimes, we rode those bikes. Other times, we read books on a blanket. In winter, we skied in the fields behind the apartment building where now the rapid transit line runs. She didn’t bring up our mothers again and it was just as well with me.
Then came third grade. Some of the girls formed cliques. I kept mostly to myself, with my head in a book. That is, when I wasn’t hanging around with Sonya. At recess time, the two of us would rush out together with a jump rope, leaving the other girls to their gossip and games.
We ate lunch on a long wood table with benches. Usually Sonya and I sat across from one another at the end of the table, as far away from our female classmates as possible. One day, nearing the end of the school year, when the days grew longer and the smell of the mud under melting snow heralded spring, I caught the rest of the girls giggling as we slid into our accustomed place. Kari, the most popular girl in the group, kept looking at Sonya, and back at her friends while laughing. Sonya rolled her eyes at me as if to say ignore them.
When we were done eating, Sonya and I gathered our trays and headed for the cafeteria exit. Kari rushed up behind us. I saw the impact coming before Sonya felt it. Kari’s elbow slammed into Sonya’s side, sending her tray flying and the rest of her milk over the front of her blue blouse.
“Tyskerunge!” Kari shouted. “German bastard! Your mother is a whore!” Then she slapped Sonya across the face, leaving an ugly red mark on the porcelain skin under those cheekbones.
Sonya began crying as she stooped to pick up the tray. I looked around for help, for a teacher to pull Kari aside and make her apologize. But the one member of the kitchen staff behind the tray collection counter stood silently at his post. I bent down to help Sonya.
“Are you one too?” It was Kari again. The rest of the girls had circled us.
I was confused. I had a vague idea of what a whore was, and what a bastard was. Putting it all together, I correctly concluded that we were being accused of having German fathers.
“No!” I looked down at Sonya, who was still crying and holding her hand across her cheek. “And she doesn’t even have a father,” I shouted.
“Yes, she does. He’s a German bastard.” Kari placed her hands on her hips and added, “My mother told me all about it.”
I looked from Kari down to Sonya and back again, confused.
“It’s true,” Sonya said, looking up at me. Her blue eyes were rimmed in red.
“Oh,” I managed, “I didn’t know.” I must have felt foolish for not understanding something as basic as that everyone has a father, absent or not. I looked at Sonya and at the other girls and at that moment I wanted nothing more than to belong.
The bell rang, breaking up the gathering. I left Sonya with her tray and her soiled blouse and her red cheek and headed back to the classroom, following at the heels of Kari, never glancing back. Sonya must have made it to her classroom, but I can’t be sure. I heard later that she moved up to Kirkenes with her mother, but I never saw her again.
Anniken Davenport holds a Masters of Writing from Johns Hopkins with a dual fiction and nonfiction concentration. Born in Oslo, Norway to a Norwegian mother and a Turkish father, she immigrated to the United States as a child. Her native language is Norwegian, but she writes in English, largely about the post-second world war experience. She abhors the lie that is post-modernism.
© 2015, Anniken Davenport