The title is a reference to the poem Sea Fever by John Masefield.
I am currently taking a summer writing class with Beth Kempton online. This piece was written after one of her guided meditations. For those of you who may not know, my father died in 2010 after a seven year battle with brain cancer.
I Must Go Down to the Sea Again
all of us (save him) in a circle on the damp sand I read both sonnets, his favorite and mine (a matched pair) as the sun set. Each of us took out a handful of ashes, and I went last. I had read that sometimes the wind can blow ashes into your face, and though I liked the idea of breathing him in, I wanted to set him free here — this place we loved, our holy place. The water was frigid, but I waded out up to my waist my jeans heavy and clinging, to rinse out the glass jar.
Here you go, Daddy, here you are — how we loved to find starfish, seaglass, rocks with holes — how we loved this place together.
A week later, just before leaving town, we stopped at the beach one last time. At my feet, the tiniest, smoothest rock with a perfect hole right through.
How I’d love to return — someday — swim down deep, sun breaking through the water, and see him sparkling all around me.
Since David and I returned from our grand European tour, we’ve been living in my childhood home, with my mother and the family dog, Pip. While I know moving back in with your parents isn’t exactly on everyone’s late-twenties bucket list, it’s really been lovely. For one thing, I think something about losing a parent at a relatively young age (in my case, I was twenty when my dad died) shifts the way I think about my family. Even if most of the time we’re just doing regular stuff like watching TV together, going for a walk, or running errands, I really value my time with my mother.
Also, as any of you who know my in real life are already deeply aware, I am absolutely passionately obsessed with my dog, Pip. You know how some parents worry that they’ll finally cave and get a puppy, and then their kids will lose interest? Yeah, I’m not that kid. Pip is thirteen years old and I still think (know) that he is the greatest animal on the planet.
While we’re here, I’m doing a hodge-podge of home and personal projects while applying to jobs (no luck yet, but I’m not exactly rushing), and most importantly, David is working very hard to try to finish his doctoral dissertation. It is all that lies between him and his PhD, and y’all, it is a lot of work. He’s in his office most of the day and has Skype meetings with his advisor regularly. Living at home has allowed us the luxury of time : David has lots to focus on his work, and I have lots to take care of projects and decompress from the world’s most stressful job. I loved my time at the domestic violence shelter/rape crisis center/human trafficking service center but, I mean, as you can guess from the workplace, it was extremely high stress.
So here we are, living a calm and cozy life that feels a bit like a break from real life (but, I must always remind myself, is in fact a real life). I read a lot, I try to cook all the meals and keep the house tidy, and I daydream and worry far too much about what our future holds.
On that note, I’ve got to go tidy the family room and do the dishes. And perhaps have a cup of tea while I’m at it…
Another post written by my wonderful husband, David!
Here’s some backstory: in the late 1800’s, Sweden was desperately poor. Many children, particularly those who weren’t first-borns, could not hope for a good future in their home country. So, many left: about a quarter of Sweden’s population emigrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This often divided families, and for family members who stayed behind, it was as though their émigré sons, daughters, brothers, or sisters had died. Most people in Sweden today know that they have some ancestors who emigrated, but not many are in touch with the American cousins descended from those ancestors. Many Swedes are curious about these cousins, though. There’s even a popular Swedish reality TV show in which Americans with Swedish roots compete to win trips to Sweden and find their long-lost relatives!
We’re lucky that we didn’t have to become reality TV stars to get in touch with my Swedish third- and fourth-cousins. My paternal great-great-grandfather was one of those younger sons who left Sweden in the late 19th century, in 1889 at the age of fifteen with his older brother. He was from the southernmost peninsula of Sweden, a region called Skåne (SKOH-nah). He eventually settled in Tekoa, Washington; his youngest daughter, Helena, was my great-great aunt. When Helena was little her father would tell her about the home he had left behind, a big house called Dalsjögården (DAHL-fwah-gor-don). When she grew up, Helena talked often about what she would do and whom she would visit “when I go to Sweden” – so much that her husband finally just said “Enough! We’re going!” and bought them tickets. Helena was able to get in touch with some of her cousins in Sweden and visit Dalsjögården; she even recognized some of the boulders and old roads in the forest nearby from her father’s descriptions. Years later, when my parents were planning a pre-parenthood trip to Europe, Helena insisted they look up “the Swedes” and visit them. After another twenty years, my folks took me and my sister there to visit, and now I’ve had the pleasure of introducing Laura to them…
On the way to Sweden, though, we spent a day in Copenhagen, and it doesn’t seem fair to leave that out of the story completely. The big event was a walking tour of the city by a free tour company called Sandeman’s – walking tours seem to be our preferred form of big-city excitement. And the Sandeman tour company is worth looking up in major European cities, the tours are excellent and, officially, free, although it’s considered polite to tip the guide $10-20 per person. We learned about the founding of Copenhagen by Bishop Absalon (who is often pictured carrying both a bishop’s staff and a sword), famous battles against the Swedes, the Danish language, the life of Hans Christian Andersen, and the Danish royal family (the queen, by the way, is known for having painted the illustrations in the Danish edition of the Lord of the Rings). One of our favorite stops of the day came just after the end of the tour, when we wandered to a lovely Anglican church called St. Alban’s out near the citadel and the statue of the little mermaid. (Laura’s note : we also learned that Copenhagen burned to the ground twice. The second time they had tried to apply their lesson learned by installing a fancy water-pump and assigning fire watchers to watch from towers of churches and other tall buildings. Well, a fire watcher spotted the beginning of the second fire — and then they found that no one could find the key to the fancy water-pump, so the city burned down a second time anyway. Whoops.)
We also learned, though this was not part of the tour, that 7-11’s in Copenhagen have very good free Wi-Fi and surprisingly tasty chocolate croissants.
above water statue 😛
in the harbor
The next day we took an early train to Hässleholm, the Swedish city nearest to the small towns where my relatives live. Or rather, we tried to take a train to Hässleholm – it turned out that after we left on one train from Copenhagen we were supposed to transfer to a different train in Malmö, which we did not do and thus took a beautiful ride 40 miles out of our way along the wide sound separating Denmark and Sweden. Fortunately, Laura realized something was wrong and proved it to me with Google Maps just in time for us to backtrack and arrive in Hässleholm by 6. We then went to dinner at Birgita and Pelle’s beautiful home in the woods with Karin, Tore, and Hillevi. (Karin, Pelle, and Hillevi, for the record, are my third cousins once removed; they are descended from Martin’s sister Johanna, who stayed behind in Skåne). After that, Tore and Hillevi took us home to stay with them in Bjärnum (BYEHR-num).
Tore and Hillevi were two of the first Swedish relatives I ever met, because they have both visited my family in the U.S. several times. Tore is a member of a Swedish Lutheran big band called Röke Blås (ROKE-eh-blahs) that got its start in the town of Röke near Bjärnum – he plays the trumpet. That band has toured in the U.S. ten times over the past few decades, and some of the tours have brought them near enough to Washington that Tore and Hillevi made side-trips to see relatives there, including us. Hillevi has an encyclopedic knowledge of family history, and the first night that we stayed with them she shared some documents and bits of knowledge she had recently obtained about the history of her side of the family, the side that stayed behind in Sweden when Martin and his brother emigrated in 1889. We stayed up a little while talking about family history; she and Tore both recommended a famous series called The Emigrants (Vilhelm Moberg) that tells the story of several Swedish families in North America. (Laura’s note : Ingrid, Linnéa, and Johannes recommended this series as well so I bought the eBooks. It is now several weeks later and I am nearly through book three. They’re fantastic!)
The next morning we met another member of the family: Hillevi and Tore’s well-behaved robot lawnmower, which we saw trundling around outside while we were eating breakfast.
The day was quite full: we visited Dalsjögården (the old family home where Martin lived and Helena visited), took a walk around the lake nearby, met Hillevi and Tore’s daughter Emma and her husband Lasse for lunch, went out for waffles with Bengt, Viveka, and Hans, and attended a string quintet concert in a very old church near Hillevi’s hometown.
Dalsjögården, the old family home
David and Bengt
Tore and Hillevi
The next day we met moose. It turns out that this is a popular thing to do in Southern Sweden: not far from Bjärnum is a place called “Älgsafari,” where tourists (many of them German) come to take a train ride through the woods to say hello to a dozen very tame, very beautiful, moose.
After that we had fika (similar to afternoon tea) with the family of Greta, another one of Hillevi and Tore’s daughters. Then we went back to Bjärnum to rest for an hour or two before the big event of the evening, a barbecue at the home of another set of cousins, the Ivarssons: Ingrid, Stellan, Johannes (who was staying there with his wife Linnéa), and Erik (though Erik was not home for the summer).
Johannes, Ingrid, Bengt
David, Ingrid, Johannes, Linnéa, Stellan, Laura
The Ivarssons live by a lake called Humlesjö (HOOM-leh-fwah – the name translates to “hops lake,” as in the flower used to flavor fancy beers). Their home is a restored farmouse, painted Swedish red, with a back patio that makes it very convenient for parties. They had been hard at work all day preparing food, the centerpiece being a delicious platter of grilled meats: pork, lamb, steak, and… moose (it looked tasty, but we didn’t have any – too soon!). Since we were staying with the Ivarssons for the next two nights, we didn’t leave when the party was over, but sat up and talked with them for an hour or two until past midnight. The main topic of conversation was the Swedish welfare system, which is much sturdier than the American one and makes us a bit envious. It’s not perfect, and people do take advantage of it, but it seems to serve them well.
The next morning (not too early) we went for a swim in the lake, had lunch, and then stayed behind while the Ivarssons went to the graduation party of Stellan’s niece. While they were out, Laura and I took a walk around the lake and generally relaxed until they returned after dinner. In the evening, before we were all driven in by mosquitoes, we played a stick-throwing lawn game called Kubb. Laura’s team won, but only because the mosquitoes helped by guiding their sticks through the air – I saw them, I swear.
(Laura’s note : David is just bitter, and my team was just better.)
The next morning, our last full day in Sweden, Laura and I rode with Johannes and Linnéa back to Helsingborg (HEL-sing-bor-yuh), where they live. Before going to their apartment, we stopped at the Museum of Failure downtown – a tiny one-room museum whose director is, according to Johannes, a “PR genius” because he managed to get the museum written up in so many big newspapers and magazines. The museum is dedicated to products, especially tech products, that failed spectacularly, many in the last couple of decades. Some of them were familiar to us, like Laser discs and Segways. Others were bizarre. Seeing them gives you the same feeling as seeing depictions of the future in old science fiction movies: electric face-rejuvenation masks, hula chairs, and all the rest were part of imaginary futures dreamed up by the unlucky (or dishonest) entrepreneurs who hoped to make money from them. Before you leave the museum, there’s a place where you’re supposed to write down and post your own favorite personal failure. We didn’t write any down, but we read a few of the ones in English; one of our favorites was, “I asked a one-legged man why he was limping.” Oops!
We went to Johannes and Linnea’s apartment, and Linnéa and Laura cooked an excellent lasagna for our last dinner in Sweden. The next morning we toured Helsingborg with Johannes for a couple of hours before our train to the Copenhagen airport. We miss you, Skåne!
My dad didn’t often write me letters — we usually spoke on the phone (and for the vast majority of our lives together, we lived in the same place, so why would we write letters?). But when I was a freshman in college, I left my parents a card under their pillow(s) when I went back to school after visiting for Thanksgiving. (I almost always left my parents little notes, from when I was a kid — one of “my things.”) It was a Thanksgiving letter, telling how grateful I was to them for so many reasons, and how much I loved them. And my dad, rather than just phoning me, wrote me a letter in reply.
In the letter, he tells me how much joy I have brought to him and to my mother, starting from before I was born. He writes that he is proud of me, and that he loves me very much, and that he doesn’t know anyone more beautiful than I am. He reminisces about the moment that he learned I was going to be a girl, about my kindergarten play, about Glee Club concerts I sang in. I was just barely nineteen when he wrote me this letter, and already he was so proud of me. He writes that he could not imagine having a greater daughter. All the usuals, I am sure, for letters written to children by their adoring parents. But that doesn’t make this letter any less valuable to me, because I know that it represents my father’s adoring love for me, and in a universe of parents loving their children, I know that my father’s love for me remains unique and precious.
That letter still lives, inside a little plastic bag, in the big, beautiful wooden jewelry box that my parents gave me for my seventeenth birthday, in my childhood bedroom. And I have photocopies of it tucked around my apartment, and digital copies on my phone and my computer. When the conversation question “what is the most precious item you own” comes up, I think immediately of that letter (and am immediately glad that there are multiple physical & digital copies of it — none of that grabbing it before running out of a burning building nonsense for me).
And some mornings it is cold and I’ve just finished a novel and I’m on my second, now-cold cup of tea and I open the computer file and reread it, and feel my eyes fill up with tears again. And I quietly thank my nineteen-year-old self for writing my parents that card, and I quietly thank my wonderful father for writing and mailing that letter, but mostly, I thank him for loving me so much that I can still feel it today, six years to the day from when he passed away.