The Big House
You could at least have left the aspen where it was," Grandmother Augusta remarked dryly when she saw the great changes that had transformed the Big House after my parents had finished their renovations.
Indeed, the weeping aspen cramped in the corner between the veranda and the house had vanished, and with it the venerable cherry tree. And the flower beds with their fancy fences grouped around the giant pink-flowered hawthorn in the center of the courtyard, they too were gone.
In their place well-trimmed lawns followed the curves of the graveled paths and filled the space between the hawthorn and the circular driveway. Only the Virginia creeper and the caprifolium, hiding every inch of the old house, were left to garland the windows. Tall and deeply recessed into the thick walls, they divided vertically i nto two sections, both opening inward over the wide sills, allowing the sea-scented air to flow freely through. Inside the house the heavy furnit ure and the antimacassars were gone. The new look of the rooms was tasteful and elegant. Carefully chosen antique chairs, tables , and sofas were scattered sparingly through the rooms, and in blue-and-gold drawing room a huge polar bear skin sprawled in front of the fireplace.
Wood fires heated the whole house in winter. Each room was with its own heating unit, the kakelugn, an enlarged chimney flue of heat-absorbing tiles glazed on the outside, reaching from floor to ceiling. Once or twice daily during the chill winter, fires were lit in the firebox about a foot from the floor. When they burned down, dampers and shutters were tightly closed upon the glowing embers, and the heated tiles released their stored warmth into the room slowly and evenly.
Old Man Eriksson answered for the supply of wood that kept the heating system going. Occupational wear and tear and the passage of the years had bowed and gnarled his bony frame. He spent his days in the woodshed behind the annex, cutting the wood, which he trundled to the house on a squeaky wheelbarrow. Like a bearded faun, he lived among the emblems of his life, his sawhorse, his bucksaw, and his ax, and the smell of sawdust and snuff pervaded his person.
We loved to play around old Eriksson in the woodshed. Occa sionally he would allow us to take a pinch of snuff from his ancient silver box, and we would sneeze and giggle at the violent effect. He would regale us with extraordinary tales of fairies and trolls as with slow strokes his knotted arm sent the saw slicing through the wood. And as the sawdust fell from his blade in rhythmic cascades, so his words fell softly upon our ears to the accompaniment of the sounds of saw and ax, words about the things the old man dreamed of.
In the Big House kerosene lamps of all sizes and designs provided the illumination. Mother liked brightness. Small lamps stood on shelves in passages and halls, tall ones lit up dark corners, and large ones hanging from the ceiling on wrought-iron chains shed their glow in places of concentrated activity. Three months of "white nights" is the special gift of the high latitudes in the summer, and while they last, scarcely any other illumination is needed. But when the days shortened and midwinter darkness set in, with less than six hours of daylight, the housemaid would come tiptoeing through the house at dusk to light the lamps. The next morning saw them all lined up in the pantry, like a company on fatigue duty, to be filled and tended, a special art that Mother imparted personally to every new maid.
Squat, tough, and muscle-bound, the drawer of water to the Big House drove his team to the well a mile out in the field. He hand- pumped the water into his large iron-girdled barrel, tapped it into pails carried dangling from a yoke, and poured it into the potbellied storage vats by the kitchen door on the back porch.
Laundry was done at Svensksund every third or fourth month. In the course of three laborious days and one night, a dozen farm women gathered at the laundry house, where they rubbed huge piles of linen, steeped it in boiling lye water, and then rinsed it in the clear water down at the creek. With rubber aprons tightly tied around their middles and tiny puffed sleeves adorning powerful red arms, they worked amid mountains of soapy foam. They made the steeping into a grand night. Young girls came to help, and young boys came to party. And there was dancing on flagstones and cud dling in the corners in the dim light of the lanterns, while the wheezy accordion played folk tunes. Suddenly, the music broke into the wild rhythm of a polka. Feet stomped, skirts swung high, and the air was steamy with sweat, lye water, and coffee. Finally, stretched and mangled, the linen was restored to the shelves of Mother's spacious walk-in closet. And for several days the smell of sweet fresh air lingered around the closet.
Emma Grundelius, short and round, came to Svensksund so long ago that the year had been forgotten. Her voluminous skirts, gath ered around her middle, touched the floor with every step she took. Her skin was slightly shriveled like an autumn leaf, and soft blond down covered her upper lip. In the winter Emma set up the loom in the sunniest room of the annex. Ebba and I also took our turns lending the prettily carved shuttle through the warp. At first our feet got badly tangled in the treadles, but soon we learned to do as the other women did and kicked off our shoes to paddle away in our stocking feet, one-tap-tap, two-tap-tap. A piece of red thread marked the end of each person's contribution. This, naturally, promoted competition, but none of us, not even Mother, could match the speed of Emma's shuttle and quick tap-taps, producing yards upon yards of toweling with bright red borders.
Life at the Big House brought us close to the work on the farm and to its people, who, like us, were dependent on its success. A bearded foreman carried out Father's commands, but the large ledgers were Father's personal concern, assignable to no one, every meticulous entry imprinted with a broad gold nib in his own precise hand.
Father was one of those early risers who come quickly awake from deep sleep to meet head on the dawn of the new day. His feet tucked into tall boots, cane in hand, he strode forth before breakfast On his regular first tour of stables and fields to tackle the day's problems, to size up the weather and its probabilities.
The farm was Father's life. From it he drew his inspiration, upon it he based all his ambitions. The welfare of his own family and of the people who worked on it, the soil, the crops, the changing seasons provided the substance of his existence.
When the first Christmas was being celebrated at the Big House, Grandmaman Wendela was with us. Father sat at the end of the dining room table. At his feet stood three large clothesbaskets, all empty. The mounds of parcels they had contained, wrapped in brown paper and adorned with splashes of red sealing wax, had only a few minutes earlier been sent sliding across the table to their excited recipients.
"That's all!" said Father, looking at me. "Now you and Ebba take Grandmaman to the Green Room and stay there till I call you."
This was odd. Was there another surprise? For whom? For Grandmaman?
Finally, in the Green Room, we heard Father's voice echoing through the house. Unable to contain my curiosity, I darted to a side door, but before I could get a glimpse of anything, it was un ceremoniously slammed in my face. I raced back to join the others, and at last the door opened. I squeezed through and ran into the dining room. In the middle of the room stood two ponies, one a bay, the other piebald, brown and white. A groom led them by their halters. A maid dutifully collected a small smoking mound in a dustpan.
Impossible to believe! Were they real? For us—were they for us? Imagine being the real owner of a real horse!
The move to the Big House brought a marked improvement in the relationship between Father and Mother. For Mother it inaugurated a complete change in status. Now she was the mistress of Svensksund, a position that carried with it new demands upon her talents of organization and widening responsibilities, and a closer sharing of the work with Father.
Mother recognized the challenge. She quickly accepted it and scored success after success. She showed excellent taste in all that she undertook, from decorating a room to giving parties with elegance and grace. Now her wit and vivacity came into full bloom. Under her skilled management Svensksund acquired a reputation for gaiety and hospitality.
Mother's success put her in an easier frame of mind and she became more appreciative of Father's care and solicitude. Although she may not have been capable of a fully valid response to a love so deep and all-pervasive as Father's, the improved relationship never theless created a font from which each drew healing drafts of toler ance and affection.
And so it seemed that these happy years at Svensksund were destined to continue unendingly into the future.
It seemed ridiculous to hire a governess before Ebba was old enough to take lessons, so it was decided that I should acquire my first learning in the parish elementary school. For the first time I was brought together with children outside my own world. A faint odor of unaired rooms foreign to me clung to their clothing. Certainly a meeting of the spirits took place between the tomboy child from Svensksund and the teacher. Miss Bjork was a hunchback who breathed with a slightly wheezy sound. Smiling encouragement, she dispensed her teachings of arithmetic, spelling, sewing, and knitting with detached serenity.
When Ebba was old enough for lessons, the search for a suitable governess began, and brought Nanny Nilsson into our lives. Nanny met our ill-concealed curiosity with equanimity and passed Mother's critical linguistic test in French with worldly nonchalance. She was an attractive young woman with large questioning eyes and a finely molded hooked nose. This was her best feature, and she made especially good use of it when enacting dramatic charades. She was unaware of or simply ignored the imperfections of the rest of her figure, which suffered from a body too long and legs too short.
Nanny adapted herself to life at Svensksund with surprising facility. She played up to Mother's wit and to Father's ingrained habits with sympathy and understanding. With a mixture of discipline and camaraderie, she won our obedience. She played with us, and joined with good spirit in our wild rides behind the ponies.
Fortunately, Nanny was still with us when, several years later, Father suddenly became ill with a bleeding ulcer. The family for tune had been in decline for some time, causing him much worry and anxiety. No one knew then that there was any connection between stomach ulcers and nervous stress. The treatment consisted of strict diet and rest. For weeks Father had to lie on his back to be tended like a child and was allowed to drink only milk and water, which he sipped through a glass straw.
A tall, good-looking nurse of undoubted ability took over the reins of the entire household. And in the clash of wills between Mother, outraged at having her authority usurped in her own house, and Sister Esther, whose governing principle—the patient's care and well-being above all—was unassailable, Nanny emerged as the discreet peacemaker and adjuster of countless controversies.
How far the nurse went in alienating Father's affections no one but the three involved ever knew.
As a result of the enforced immobility, Father contracted phlebitis in both legs. Thus Mother's fervent hopes of getting rid of Sister Esther quickly were dashed, and the household was obliged to gird itself for an indeterminate period of tension and anxiety. Father lay helpless, weak and worried. Perhaps it would have been impossible for him to do anything but submit to Sister Esther's skillful ministrations and to accept meekly her insistence upon his rigid isolation.
When, after three months, Father at last got back on his feet, the progress of our education had reached a point requiring a decision that was to bring about significant changes in our family life. Nanny had reached the limit of her teaching capacity. Losing her was a blow. When the holidays were over, in her stead came a middle-aged spinster with frizzy blond hair and a pointed nose, who was to coach us for entry the next fall into a finishing school in Stockholm.
Whether by intuition or by deduction, Miss Palmquist soon sized up the situation. Sister Esther was gone and Father was not happy. Miss Palmquist made the inexcusable error of showing too plainly her pity for Father and her disapproval of Mother. Moreover, she entertained certain unconventional social ideas that she impressed upon me with convincing logic during special lessons. Liberty, equality, and brotherhood—these were stirring words. The contrast between these notions and the traditional patriarchism in which I had been raised seemed strangely seductive. My parents' constant warning against snobbish and condescending behavior only supported my receptiveness.
Miss Palmquist's teachings, along with the metamorphosis I was experiencing with the onset of puberty, resulted in my first violent crush. The object was a fair stalwart young farmhand with a glint in his blue eyes. I wrote impassioned messages never meant for delivery and hid them among the flowers on my balcony, never imagining they would fall into Mother's hands.
The flabbergasting discovery of the notes took my parents off balance. The simple explanation of the natural biological drive escaped them, and their rejection of the shocking infatuation explained nothing. To be thought bad was a new and dreadful experience that weighed heavily upon my spirit. Yet this first serious controversy between us plainly proved that the rarer the errors, the less grievous and sustained the aftereffects.
The event spelled the end of Miss Palmquist. Possibly Mother Was influenced by her own unhappy experiences with governesses when, in a moment of exaggerated ire, she labeled her "the socialistic vampire." The dismissal took the poor woman by surprise and she left under a cloud of ill-concealed hostility.
In the autumn Mother established herself in a small apartment in Stockholm and Ebba and I went to school. Two years later I successfully passed my final examinations. In the autumn Mother and Ebba returned to Stockholm without me.
I was delighted to be home with Father, proud to be the grown-up daughter of the house. I was thrilled to take Mother's place at the dining room table opposite Father. Every morning throughout their married life Mother had tossed across the table to Father his soft-boiled egg, and with virtuoso agility he caught it whole. I did not care to trespass, however, on this parental ritual.
While summer lingered through the golden days of September, Father showed his delight at having me with him in a thousand ways. We went together on extensive tours across the fields. He tried haltingly, for he did not easily reveal his inner thoughts and feelings, to explain to me the bond that tied him so closely to this land. He spoke of the importance of proper fertilization, of the farmer's gold embedded in the huge pile of strong-smelling manure outside the stables, of the rotation of the crops and what it meant to growth. And thus he tacitly imparted to me his hopes that I would be his successor. But there was lots of time...
One evening we were sitting together in the Green Room when the question that I had been thinking about, of going to Stockholm for the winter months, suddenly popped out.
Father looked at me and a deep sadness clouded his eyes. The shock of guilt made me obstinate. "But I'll be back with you again in the spring," I told him quickly, and the smile with which I tried to soften my words must have been a bleak imitation.
"You don't want to stay with me any longer." It was a statement, not a question. He had difficulty with the words.
"Yes, but ..." I could not finish the stupid sentence.
For a long time Father hid his face behind the newspaper. He shifted his long legs and turned the page. Finally he said, and his speech was slow and deliberate, "Of course—of course you must go— if you wish...."
My haste to pack was almost obscene. But all I felt was relief at not having to stay at Svensksund all through the long winter, grateful for the freedom gained. I would go back into the big world, have fun, and then return for good. There was lots of time.
As the carriage taking me to the train began to move I waved gaily to father. I heard him say, "Good-bye, my girl!"
I saw that his cheeks were wet. With his hand raised, he stood there motionless, until finally the turn of the road hid him from view.
A month later Father came to Stockholm to visit us and to see to business. His train came in late and he had some meetings to attend, so he decided to stay the night at a downtown hotel. Early in the morning he suffered a massive stomach hemorrhage. The night clerk found him sprawled on his bed unconscious, his hand fallen from the bell, his dark blood soaked into the white sheets.
Desperate efforts were made over him, but the doctors were unable to stop the bleeding. They decided on an operation as a last resort. After a hushed and unbearable wait, we saw Father, gasping for breath, being wheeled out of the operating room. Early the next morning my Father died.
Mother, Ebba, and I returned to a dark and empty Svensksund. Once again funeral flowers and freshly cut spruce boughs spread their heavy fragrance through the house. The people came and stood silently. They followed him to the grave. Afterward they dispersed in small straggling groups and went away, and we were left to meet the great change.
In Father's room off the hall a faint scent of eau de quinine and tobacco still lingered. His large desk stood there, a relic from a closed episode. Once the head with the plans and the perspective was gone, the people and the beasts of Svensksund labored without coordination. Father's name no longer stood as the necessary guarantee for the purposeful planning and execution of the tasks. The resources of Svensksund dwindled, the foundation gave way.
Father's will contained a touching personal message to Mother, no binding demand, but a last plea reflecting his concern about his daughters' future and about the preservation of Svensksund: "Don't sell!" And the document, written in his strong clear hand, remains in mute evidence of all his dashed hopes, his unfulfilled dreams.
Whatever great capacities Mother possessed, she was not the type of person to accept a challenge of this kind and create out of it a life's work, exulting in its great odds. Out of the debris of Svensks und she pieced together a sufficient amount of money and household goods to establish for us a new home in a small flat on a back street in a residential area of Stockholm. And may this be her monument.