Friday, December 01, 2006

Early Years

My mother Agnes and her sister Eva moved together after Agnes’ fiancé died of the Spanish flu in 1918. They were in their early thirties, quite good- looking, intelligent, and well educated. Agnes was the youngest but the most outgoing. She was counted for the ‘man’ in the house; the one who did the repairs and took care of practical things. She was a chemical engineer and worked as amanuensis at the Technical University of Denmark where she also taught chemistry for the entrance examination. Eva was a schoolteacher, not at all introverted but a little more in the background. They were well matched and it was extremely rare that they had an argument. When it happened it had the effect of an earthquake on me; the very foundation of my life seemed to crumble. But it did not even happen once a year. They had great sisterly affection for each other and had the same outlook on life. Both were freethinkers, open-minded for their time. During the years before I was born, in 1925, they had love affairs without being promiscuous. Eva would never tell me who her lovers had been, but I knew about two lovers that my mother had had after the death of her fiancé; both of them married men. The first was her boss at the Institute of Physical Chemistry, professor Brønsted; the second was my father.
She became pregnant in the summer of 1924. At that time it was rare, and generally looked down upon, for a single woman to be with child, but for my mother it was a source of happiness. She was not pining for a man, but to have a child was the fulfillment of her life, and she was in a position to take care of it. She went to her family and friends and told them all, and only her elderly aunt Johanne was less than positive about it.
The birth was not easy. My mother was then 38, and they had to use forceps to drag me out. But out I came, all in one piece; only mother had some complications and was not able to breast-feed.
Eva and Agnes had an apartment in the inner city of Copenhagen, near Kongens Nytorv, and here we stayed with our housekeeper miss Thomsen, or Totte, as I named her. Here I lived my first four years, and a few images have stayed in my memory. From the outings in Kongens Have, I remember holding my hand out of the baby carriage and letting the long grass by the side of the path slide in a steady stream under my hand, escape between my fingers, and flick back into an upright position.
And I recall the carpet sweeper, a contraption used much like a vacuum cleaner, but consisting of two rotating brushes in a casing. On this casing I stood, its vibrations tickling up through my legs, while I held on to the swaying handle as Totte pushed me back and forth over the red Afghan rug in the living room. The carpet sweeper was stored in a nook off the long dark hallway leading to the kitchen, next to the door to the toilet, whose pane of frosted glass let in a pale, comforting light. In this nook I took refuge on my way to the kitchen, generating here the courage to traverse the second half of the darkness.
Once, at night, there was a fire in the house just across the narrow street from our house, and I remember the heat and the excitement as I sat on my mother’s arm by the window.

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