The Pathos of Iceby Janice D. Soderling
My Swedish mother and Spanish father met at the conservatory in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. Both were students of Segovia.
Papá came from Alcudia de Carlet. A monochrome photograph of his uniformed father hung on our living room wall. Papá sometimes lifted me to the gilded, oval frame and told me that my abuelo had been a brave man.
Our apartment in Madrid was small and crowded. The only Swedish I knew then was from the lullabies my mother sang when she put me to bed, sitting on a chair near my cot, frowning and smoothing her long, blond hair away from her forehead. One song had a mournful tune but it made me laugh, because I knew what it meant. When the troll mother puts her small trolls to bed, she ties them tight by their tails.
I squirmed and flopped to stay awake so she would not leave me alone in the small dark room. Sometimes she would grow exasperated and nip my bottom saying, "Go to sleep now, you little troll. I need to work on my tremolo."
I don't remember much else from that time, except a sense of constant tension, and the distant bells of San Ginés that were a kind of comfort, and Papá's heavy chin stubble when he paused in his practice of Lágrima to kiss me good-night, his long delicate fingers quickly resuming their deliberate promenade up and down the fretboard.
My clearest memories begin the winter I was six. Madrid was exceptionally cold. The streets were full of uniformed soldiers; all carried weapons. We were in the taxi, ready to leave for the train station, when we heard the sound of gunfire. Three young men came running into the cobblestoned courtyard, closely pursued by the Guardias. Mamá gasped and covered my eyes with both her hands. "Don't look," she said. I heard the sharp crack of a rifle, another, yet another.
Not until the soldiers had inspected our papers and let us pass, not until we were well underway did she remove her hands, whispering, "Hurry, hurry." My father was in the front seat with the driver. The street leading to the train station was cordoned off. The detour delayed us even more. At the station other soldiers with heavy guns were milling about and we were stopped to show our documents. We climbed into the coach at the last minute, two old porters handing up our boxes and suitcases and food hampers and my mother's guitar. My father, I noticed later, had not brought his. Mother carried Aña who was only a few months old.
The train gave a jerk and began slowly to move. From the compartment window, I saw two tall ladies in furs standing on the platform, their breath rose like the steamy snorts of horses. They were waving good-bye, but not to us. I waved back anyway, saying "Adios, Madrid." Mamá grimaced and said, "Madrid, adios." I was shivering, from the chill in the compartment and from the excitement of nearly missing the train. Mamá put a hand on my forehead and said she thought I had a little fever and should try to sleep.
I woke up during the snail-like progress of the train passing through the gauge changer at the French border. I remember especially the lengthy silences between my parents as we wended north.
The journey took more than two days and two nights with a long midnight stopover in Copenhagen on the last night. The air in the waiting room was thick with cigarette smoke. My father added to the haze, lighting one cigarette after another, each new one from the tip of the old. Mamá spread a flannel blanket over the carry-bag where Aña was sleeping. She stretched me out on the hard wooden bench and covered my face with her scarf which smelled of her musky perfume. Holding my hand, she sang softly until I fell asleep. That is my last memory of her singing for me.
I don't remember anything else until the morning I woke up in a high-ceilinged room with long maroon drapes at the windows. My mother stood at the end of the bed, pinching my toes and smiling, telling me to get up and look at the Christmas tree she had decorated for me. We were in the small town where she grew up, a village of colorful wooden houses fronting the brackish Baltic Sea.
She led me sleepy and stumbling to another high-ceilinged room where a fire was blazing in the fireplace. A little spruce was decorated with strings of Swedish flags and straw ornaments and small candles. She poured us both a cup of hot chocolate and spooned whipped cream on top, uncovered a plate of saffron buns and ginger snaps. She was laughing and humming and seemed happier than for a long time. She told me she had made some of the tree ornaments herself when she was my age, pointing to them and naming them with unfamiliar words. When I asked about Papá, she lost her enthusiasm, said he was tired and wanted to sleep. Later in the afternoon there were presents under the tree that I opened when an amazing darkness fell over the white snow and Mamá lit the candles on the tree. I remember a red plastic monkey that climbed up and down a string.
There was no other Christmas celebration. I understood from the talk between my parents that my grandmother had just died. I was not sad because I did not know her. A few days after the funeral Papá wanted to go home. Mother wanted to stay on for a while, saying the Madrid conservatory was closed for the holidays, and she hadn't been home for years, and the trip had cost so much they might as well enjoy it. Always their quarrels about money.
Mimi and I quarrel a lot, but never about money. We have always had enough, more than enough. Our two boys—Jeanpierre, twelve and André, ten—are spoiled rotten. I want them to have good memories of their childhood.
A lot of people dressed in black came and went in the days after the funeral. Later the house became very quiet. My grandfather, who was a busy man, went away. Mamá cried a lot.
One morning at breakfast she and Papá were speaking in loud voices about my father's friend Franco—tu amigo Franco—both ignoring Uncle Stig's attempts to calm them down until he banged his fist on the table. He said we should go for a drive instead of sitting indoors moping and arguing. It hadn't been so cold in fifty years, the roads were ploughed and sanded, the countryside was beautiful, we should get out and enjoy it. Of course I don't remember his words of so many years ago; I've pieced together an understanding of that day from low-voiced adult conversations overheard later. I remember my parents shouting in Spanish though and what happened afterward.
My father couldn't ski or ice skate—he knew nothing about winter. In fact, he was seeing deep snow for the first time in his life. But he could drive a car and he responded enthusiastically—gracias, gracias—when Uncle Stig finished talking and tossed him the car keys. Papá laughed and leaned over to kiss my mother, but she pushed him away.
She looked through the bureaus and found warm clothes and footwear for all of us. When we walked down the long path to the garage, snow squeaked underfoot like mice at night in the wall beside my bed in Madrid. There seemed to be a halo around the sun. A flock of cedar waxwings rose from the apple orchard as we passed. I turned to admire the icicles longer than my arm glittering on the eaves of Grandfather's big house, the house where I would grow up.
Papá drove. I sat in the back seat. Aña slept beside me in her pink carry-bag, a plastic bottle of formula propped in one corner. In those days, there were no child safety seats or car belts. Mother pointed out landmarks from her childhood: That's where I went to school, Juan, look over there, I used to go sledding on that hill. She pointed to a moose cow and her calf emerging from the forest. I was happy to hear her laughing so loudly. She didn't laugh often, not then, not later.
The country landscape was overwhelming, I have never seen such a winter since; every bush was gracefully filigreed by hoarfrost, the sky a brilliant blue, the fences almost covered by drifting snow. The tall trees loomed like giant animals. I thought of the plastic dinosaurs in my toy box in Madrid.
The road ran alongside a lake dotted with ice shanties. We stopped to watch. "Those men out there," explained my mother, half-turned and speaking only to me, "are fishermen. They are sitting by holes drilled through thick ice. Do you see the fish flopping?" I nodded. Then she pointed across the glittering expanse of ice. "When I was a girl," she said, "families drove right across the ice to that island."
She had hardly finished saying so when Papá—poor foreigner, poor fool—brashly, impulsively wheeled us past the parked cars lined up at the lake edge, drove out onto the ice, saying, "Let's go there now," and my mother began screaming, "No, no, tonto, do you want to kill us all? Go back." The car skidded out of control, whirling in circles, just missing one of the startled fishermen. I was laughing because of the giddy thrill in the pit of my stomach as the car careened. Somehow Papá got the car off the ice and back on land. Pale and trembling, he turned off the motor. I saw a group of men with angry faces coming our way.
Mother said, "You fool, the ice is not thick enough to drive on in December." Though obviously it had been. "You could have killed us all. And those fishermen out there too, if the ice had begun to break up. You don't know where the risky parts are, where the undercurrent runs and makes the ice thin and dangerous. Whatever made you do such a stupid thing?"
Papá covered his face with his hands, repeating sí, tonto de capirote, sí, tonto útil. It is a terrible thing for a child to see his father weep and call himself a prize fool and a stooge.
The angry men had reached our car by then. Peering through the windows, clenched fists waving, they perhaps recognized my mother. She shook her head at them and motioned them away. They hesitated at the sight of the weeping man, exchanged looks, then disbanded slowly to resume their positions at the ice holes. After a while my father stopped sobbing and got out. He slammed the car door and with difficulty started wading the knee-deep snow up an embankment to the plowed road. I watched him go—in my memory, bent and dejected, but that might be a later embellishment. At the top, he turned with a lingering backward gaze, like Boabdil. That was the last time I saw his face, until today, in the record shop here in Menton where we vacation every August.
The slam of the car door woke Aña who began to whimper, then cry loudly. Mother reached back and lifted her into the front seat, rocking her without a word. I was afraid to speak.
When Aña quieted down, Mother drove us home. Though I watched carefully, I didn't see Papá on the road.
The three of us remained in Sweden, our tails tied together tight in that silent big house with the high ceilings and thick velvet drapes, the dining room with its crystal chandeliers and long mahogany table, the music room with the piano where Aña learned to play passably well, the featherbeds, the ornate tile-stoves.
Mother taught music at the secondary school and kept house for my grandfather and her bachelor brother, Stig. Grandfather was away most of the time; he was a riksdagsman, a member of the parliament, and even when he was home he stayed mostly in his study working, rising early and going to bed late. Sometimes he would pat me absently on the head and call me Stig. He died and I hardly noticed his absence.
I never heard my mother play her guitar again. Her mood was always winter, the harsh, gray, sharp-edged winter of my childhood.
Mimi sings sometimes when she thinks no one is listening. She sang for the boys, when they were infants. I would stand out of sight near the open door, listening to her tender berceuse. It made me happy to hear her. Sometimes, though I felt so happy, I wanted to weep.
I inherited no musical talent. I chose to be a mining engineer like Uncle Stig. It was a wise vocational choice. For twenty years I have managed our offices in Paris, the headquarters of our prospecting operations.
I don't know how I found out—or did I dream it—?that my father returned the following summer and Mother refused to see him or let him see us. This was after the stillborn birth of my brother.
Children adapt. I learned the language. My name became Jan instead of Juan. Aña became Anna. Mamá became Mor. I soon wrote only the maternal part of my family name, eliminating that of my father. It was easier than explaining.
It was a strange experience at the music shop today to run across that recording. I knew immediately that I was looking at my father. My old name and his young face, my young face too. According to the cover blurb, it was a remastering of his final LP, one released just after his death. I noted that he died the year I entered the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. The year before my mother had died of cancer, like her mother before her. I doubt anyone thought to notify him. Did anyone even have an address? As far as I know there was never an official divorce.
I looked at the young face smiling up from the photograph and remembered the car careening in circles. And how I laughed at the thrill swirling in the pit of my stomach when he pushed me in the playground swing, higher and higher. The furred ladies waving. My mother screaming, you fool. Angry men running, across the ice, across the cobblestones. Gunfire in the narrow, crooked streets.
According to the cover blurb, he was re-discovered by the public long after he died. He spent his last years in miserable poverty. He had been a drunkard, a recluse, but—again according to the blurb—now had cult status. I stared at my young face. Papá.
The shop owner urged me to buy. "You will regret it," he said, "if you don't. The man was a genius, a virtuoso. Such pathos, such sorrow in every chord." Fish flopping on the ice. Papá in tears, hiding his face, repeating sí, tonto útil.