Not long ago, an acquaintance walked into my entryway and stared at a photograph I had taken of my daughter holding her pet hamster. “Is that guy dead?” she asked me.
I suddenly felt very, very uncomfortable.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, unsure whether to feel embarrassed or ashamed. I picked both.
She looked at it for a long, uncomfortable moment before announcing: “That is sooooo Scandinavian.”
I had no idea what she meant, but since I’m 100% Norwegian, I figured she might be on to something. It was time to investigate.
I have relatives who swim daily in the ocean off the coast of Oslo, and run around their mountain cabin naked in the middle of winter–no doubt after a good dose of Aquavit. I can assure you that this is not what it was like for me in my childhood home. My parents are the sort that drink a thimble-full of red wine for medicinal reasons, and comport themselves in a dignified manner at all times. I think I’ve heard them raise their voices three or four times in my entire life.
Growing up, I was carted off to Junior Sons of Norway on Saturdays, where I learned the Norwegian national anthem–which I can be easily enticed to sing, with great enthusiasm–and Min Hatt, Den Har Tre Kanter (My Hat, It Has Three Corners, a deep and lyrical song, as you ca imagine). I was fed Lutefisk (fish soaked in lye) once a year, and taught to say grace in Norwegian whenever we excavated the dining room table and broke out the china.
I associate my ethnic roots with a palate-numbing dose of pickled herring, passed like treasure in a tiny, silver-rimmed dish at Christmas dinner. In fact, Christmas arrived with a long list of Scandinavian things I can’t and/or won’t eat: Swedish meatballs, fruit soup, lefse, herring, rice pudding. (Sorry, Mom. I love you.) My mother would hide an almond in the rice pudding, and whoever found it got an extra present on Christmas Eve. I loved this tradition, but despised rice pudding. I would shove a spoonful around on my plate, and if I couldn’t find a nut, try to reorganize it in a polite way which simulated ingesting an honorable amount.
But I think it goes much deeper. Those Norwegian immigrants were unflinching, hardworking, stoic powerhouses in the face of the adversity and desolation of the Plains. In fact, my name was plucked from Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, a chronicle of Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest. I have visited his house multiple times, read articles, and listened attentively to stories about him, but I have never, ever been able to make myself read the book. Here’s why: from Wikipedia, “The novel depicts snow storms, locusts, poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grow up in a new land.” What’s more, I heard my namesake has a paralyzing case agoraphobia.
“Is it true Beret goes crazy in the book?” I asked my mother. “Why would you name me after a character like that?”
There was a quiet pause.
“She really pulls it together in the second book,” my mother said, finally.