Someone else's memento
When it was time for my widowed father to move to an old people’s home, I had to clean out his house. Starting with his desk, I soon found an old-fashioned fountain pen carelessly tucked into a drawer. The pen brought back fond memories of my Norwegian grandmother Astrid. I remembered how intrigued I had been by her writing desk, a secretaire made of light brown birchwood with small drawers in front. Spending a long time looking at a miniature glass bottle of black ink and the fountain pen neatly placed next to each other, I could smell the ink. I knew the pen made a scraping sound when grandmother used it. So I would touch the pen tentatively with my grandmother standing just behind me. There was stationery on the secretaire, ready for letter-writing, white envelopes with colourful foreign stamps, and a little plaster effigy of the Virgin Mary in her blue dress and sad eyes. On top of the secretaire were two black-and-white photographs in gilded frames: one of grandmother and grandfather as a tender young couple sitting close together on a park bench, and the other one of their son, my father, when he was a school boy wearing a sailor’s suit. They all looked unrecognizable to me. When I knew her, she was a plump and prudent white-haired lady, but grandmother used to be a striking beauty, full of cheeky pranks, when she was growing up in Oslo at the turn of the previous century.
Soon after my tenth birthday, I was visiting my grandmother and as usual went up to her secretaire. It was just the two of us in the flat that afternoon. In hindsight I realize that my grandmother might well have found this a good moment to tell me about one of her most cherished memories. In the centre of her secretaire lay an old-fashioned silver-plated fountain pen I had not seen before. ‘Martha’ was engraved on it in elegant cursive. As I lifted the pen, my grandmother said, ’This is my sister Martha’s pen.’
Born towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were three of them: Karin, Astrid and Martha growing up in Ullevålsveien in Oslo. Their father Oscar, a schoolteacher, was jovial and committed to his family. Though not poor, they did not have a lot of money. Still, my grandmother liked to tell me, Oscar used to say: ’Well, at least we have enough money for a bottle of champagne!’ One Christmas he bought identical fountain pens for each one of his daughters. The pens were meant to be used for their diary writing. Avid diarists, the sisters were documenting every detail in their life from mundane routine to sudden sensations. Not that they kept their daily entries secret: they greatly enjoyed reading aloud to each other, sometimes comparing the same event. One such event took place in October 1905, when the momentous dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway finally became a fact. Now, at long last, Norway was an independent country with its own government – they were not ruled from Sweden anymore. Norway was even going to get its own Royal family, imported from Denmark. It would take many years before the sisters understood the full implications of all this: it was a turning point that grandmother would tell me about with great emotion, many times. Back then the sisters did get a strong sense of liberation that spread into every corner of the country. When independence was declared, there were boisterous celebrations in the streets. All of a sudden lots of red-blue-and-white flags were raised everywhere, waving proudly in the wind. On Karl Johan’s gate, Oslo’s main street, the sisters were walking between their parents holding hands in a big crowd of exalted people, who were dancing and running and shouting and singing at the top of their voices: ‘Yes, we love this country’, the national anthem. The singing was accompanied by a band of drummers and trumpeters moving into a fanfare, over and over again. Later that night the whole family watched, from the balcony outside their living room, fireworks cascading all over the city. As soon as the fireworks went out, each sister described the event in her diary.
With the new fountain pens, diary writing and reading aloud became a nightly ritual before the sisters went to bed. Sometimes they even read from each other’s diaries – they were that close. Mostly Astrid would read from Martha’s diary, as Martha was the youngest. Astrid and Martha were only one year apart, and as they looked alike with high foreheads and expressive blue eyes, they were often taken to be twins. Both had inherited their father’s warmth, while Karin was more reserved like their mother. As the years went by, the little party of three sisters kept enjoying being together, writing, reading and chatting about school, friends, eventually novels they read, and, giggling about boys. Behind the door of the bedroom that Astrid and Martha shared, they would exchange confidences once Karin had left for her own bedroom. Being the oldest, and possibly their parents’ favourite, she had a room of her own.
It was a happy home which they all took for granted, the way one does, and perhaps should do. Yet sooner or later disaster strikes. In 1918, the Spanish flu spread like wildfire across Europe, and also hit Norway. Young adults, especially, got very ill. Many died of pneumonia. My grandmother recalled the total terror she felt the day both her sisters came home sick, and put themselves to bed with a high fever. The next day their mother got sick, and, soon their father succumbed. Astrid was panicking as she ran between sickbeds with glasses of water, changing sheets and trying to get her family to eat just a little. The city was quiet. Even in the middle of the day no-one was outside. The only sound Astrid would hear through the drawn curtains into the dark rooms, was the clicking of a solitary horse pulling a hearse. Several times a day these chilling carriages would pass by. Astrid was exhausted as she did not get much sleep, and was in a constant state of fright. Would she get sick? Why was she the only one who did not get sick? Would she be the only one left of her family? After almost a week her parents started to feel better, and so did Karin. But not Martha. She became weaker, had difficulty breathing and one night she started to fade away. In the early hours of the morning, Astrid was sitting next to her, holding her hand, when she felt that Martha’s hand had gone cold. And so Martha’s painful breathing stopped.
With the Spanish flu over, it was possible to travel again. Astrid, who was now in her mid-twenties, wanted to learn more French. She went by train to Paris, and then on to the city of Tours, located by the Loire river. She had an interest in Catholicism and the French esprit, more than anyone she knew. While working at a publisher’s office in Oslo, she had saved enough money for the journey and a month’s stay in Tours. A voracious reader for as long as she could remember, the job at the publisher’s had suited her, as she got to read more books than ever.
In Tours, Astrid was enlivened by her French lessons and walks along the river. It was an unusually beautiful spring, or so she thought, never having seen a French city in springtime splendour before. Though the pain over Martha’s death was still there, she starting to thrive. One morning as she entered the breakfast room in the small pension where she was staying, there was a new guest at a table by the window. Astrid had to make an effort not to stare at this dapper young man whose accent, when he ordered his café au lait, revealed that he was not French either. They nodded politely, but slightly guarded, to each other across the room. Having finished his breakfast first, the young man rose and on his way out of the room, he went up to Astrid and introduced himself: his name was Carl, and he was a Swedish doctor on a short holiday, also taking some French lessons. A few days later, he told her he would be delighted if she would join him on his morning walk. They fell into an easy companionship, and soon discovered shared interests in French and Russian literature, the theatre and the arts. As the spring progressed, with cherry trees in blossom along the river where they walked together every morning, they found themselves in love.
It would be a couple of years before they were married, in a simple ceremony in Oslo, and able to move to a flat in Stockholm. The wedding was simple – the marriage was not accepted by Carl’s family. None of them attended. Astrid was not good enough, they thought, for two reasons: she was Norwegian, and she did not bring a fortune. Having lost their money, Carl’s family had expected, more or less required, him to marry well, as that would restore the family’s position and make their life easy and pleasurable again. But Carl insisted on marrying for love, not money. As for Astrid, the feeling of fulfilment that Carl had evoked in her, had begun to wane after that incident in Stockholm when Carl was going to introduce her to his parents and two sisters over coffee. They were all at home in the big seven-room flat on Östermalm, the fashionable part of the city, aware about Carl’s news. Now the coffee with cookies was laid out by the maid in the dining room. She withdrew discreetly as Carl and Astrid entered. They waited nervously, but no one came to greet them. No one came to welcome Astrid into Carl’s family.
Moving to Stockholm was thus a mixed blessing for Astrid. While she was looking forward to living with Carl, she was humiliated by his family’s dismissal of her. It would continue for the duration of their fifty years. Her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law would eventually come to visit, but she never saw her father-in-law. He was something of a domestic tyrant, making life miserable for the rest of his family as well, until he died in his early eighties, almost twenty years after Astrid and Carl’s wedding..
When it was time for Astrid to pack for her move to Stockholm, her mother took out Martha’s fountain pen from a box of Martha’s belongings that she had kept. Astrid had been tormented by her sister’s death until she met Carl, when the grief had started to subside. Now the loss came back to her with a pang and she wept with her mother. Still, there was a reassurance in the idea of bringing Martha’s pen to Stockholm. It made Astrid remember not only the tragedy, but also how much fun they used to have as sisters when they were growing up. Once settled as a wife of a doctor in Stockholm, Astrid took the pen to a jeweller and asked him to plate it with silver and engrave her sister’s name on it. It was a good way to honour her sister, she felt. After all, the pen was rather worn by then, having been amply used, and you had to know that it carried a special meaning to see anything remarkable. It did not work particularly well for writing anymore. But to Astrid it spoke volumes, becoming her totem for luck.
As the years passed into the 1940s and the Second World War, Norway was occupied by the Germans. This was obviously most stressful, not only for Carl who was working as a doctor for the Swedish army, but also for Astrid, who still remembered vividly the day Norway gained independence from Sweden in 1905. Now, after only a few decades of freedom her country of birth was once more occupied. With her parents and sisters and friends still in Oslo, Astrid was living in constant worry. She wanted to help, so she joined the Norwegian resistance movement working from Stockholm. This entailed taking care of, and offering food and a bed, to refugees from Norway – she neither knew nor asked who they were. Her most dangerous mission was to go by train from Stockholm to Oslo with a big sum of money inside the lining of her hat. At the border, the train stopped and the border police entered. Asking her if she had ’anything to declare’ they saw a chic lady wearing a suit and matching hat, greeting them politely. They then went on. Astrid was thinking that she had been this lucky because she carried Martha’s pen in her handbag.
Having safely handed over the money to her contact in Oslo, she went back to Stockholm as quickly as she could. She then put back Martha’s pen in its place on the secretaire. And there it would stay, untouched, as far as I know, until more than twenty years later when she thought I was old enough to hear the story of the pen, and the story of her beloved sister Martha who had died young in the Spanish flu.
The next time I saw the pen, it was when I was cleaning out my father’s house. It was almost a century after Martha’s death, and several decades after my grandmother’s.
This was a difficult task, evoking all kinds of memories, happy and sad, recent ones and also from a long time ago. It occurred to me that not all memories the objects evoked were mine. Many of them were someone else’s memories that I only knew about second-hand, like Martha’s fountain pen. But what do you do with someone else’s mementos, as strong and significant as they might have been then, a long time ago? How long do you save a pen with a broken nib – an unwriting pen – even if it is silver-plated, and bears the name of a loved one whom no-one has met in a hundred years?
Helena Wulff is a Swedish anthropologist, professor at Stockholm University. Her research interests are in expressive cultural form and aesthetics, based on a wide range of studies of the social worlds of literary production, writing, dance and visual culture. Currently, she is engaged in a study of migrant writing in Sweden. Among her recent publications are the monograph Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature (2017) and the edited volume The Anthropologist as Writer: Genres and Contexts in the Twenty-First Century (2016). She is an advisor at OtherwiseMag