Friday, November 18, 2005

Afraid of the dark

My grandmother died when I was seven years old. I had met her once that I could remember: an old woman at the hospital in Oslo. She had a weak heart, and the whole family had been stuffed into the 8-seater Volkswagen to drive down to Oslo in a hurry and visit her. I threw up more than once on that trip, both my parents smoked and my older sisters were knitting, chatting and complaining about the stops needed for me to puke.

That whole trip burned into my memory, but only in weird, broken freeze-frames. I must have been perhap 5-6 years old, and I still remember the smell of the car, teasing my sister who was trying the count the stitches of her knitting, the curlers my mother and sister had put into my hair in order to make me look nice. I was the ugly child, and they wanted to show the relatives in Oslo that I could be cute - with just a little bit of work. I lost a tooth, and got five krone for it, after leaving it in a glass of water over night. We visited some of my mother's aunts, and I got a large, lovely doll with a wonderful purple dress, one I was told to treat carefully and gently. I think her name was Magdalena. My younger sister finished that poor thing off 10 years later.

And in all of this, all I remember of my grandmother was a small, old woman in a hospital bed. She gave me a necklace, a string of wooden pearls. It's the only present I remember to have received from any of my grandparents, and I think those pearls are somewhere in my drawers still. She made very little impression on me, except as a curiosity, the pearls a souvenir from the journey to grandmother, kept to remind myself that I was there, I saw her, she was real.

Grandmother died not long after. She is buried at the same graveyard where her husband rests, and now also my father and one uncle. This meant that the funeral had to be somewhere close, and it was natural that the center of the whole event was her house, which today belongs to my mother and one of her sisters. A lot of people I had never met before and would never meet again were there: she came from a large family, and her in-laws were numerous as well. And so I met uncles who were not my uncles, but those of my mother.

One of them was very good with children. No, this is not a bad story, it is not about abuse or perversion. He was good with children. He loved being with us, the brood running around in that large wild garden around my grandmother's house, and he loved telling stories. I fell in love with him immediately. And in the shadows of the cherry trees he told about trolls and witches, about wolves and bears, about ghosts and the little people. I was fascinated, taken up with his stories, my mind was wide open and my imagination like a sponge. When he left I was unhappy, despite coming from a family of excellent story-tellers he was better. Perhaps that is why I recognized his mastery? It is a nice thought, that I was a discerning consumer of stories at 7. I am not sure though, it may have been just an adult who took time to be with the children while everybody else were grieving and arguing over the inheritance.

After he left, I could no longer be out in the dark. Until that moment the dark had never scared me. Suddenly it was filled with shapes lingering just beyond what I could see. There was life everywhere around me, potential events, things to fear but also to explore. The dark had been populated. My parents were livid with anger at that uncle. I defended him - already then I defended the stories. I told them it was not the stories that had scared me, but the context: the funeral, the dark garden, the isolation from the other adults. That much is certain: at seven years old I was willing to defend the stories that had populated my universe with mystery rather than put blame on any one single thing for my own problems.

I remembered this story today because of the warnings against the newest Harry Potter movie. It seems like children can be traumatised by the movie. I guess they can. But children can be as easily traumatised by loving, well-meaning uncles who choose to spend time caring about the forgotten horde while the others fight and cry. Or they can be traumatised by the fighting and the crying. Or by a mysterious far-away death and a coffin surrounded by grief. Are we to outlaw them all: Uncles, grandmothers, death, funerals, grief and well-told stories?

I am no longer afraid of the dark. I have faced the demons my imagination conjured for me, fought through the maze and seen that there is a way out. There may be new demons, but none of them come from my uncle's stories. I miss that. I wish what waits in my metaphorical dark was that lovely, that exciting and that simple.

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