Denmark has a sense of smallness, of boundedness. That was my initial impression as an American returning to a childhood home after forty years. The country consists of an archipelago of islands and a peninsula, Jutland, its largest land mass, that peaks above the continent, like a hand with a delicate wrist connecting it to the body. Ocean borders the land at all sides; the only country accessible by land via this narrow isthmus is Germany. In addition to the delimitation by water, a border of darkness closes in around the country during the long winter season. From November until March the sky is overcast and gray, a veil hiding the sun from view. This muted daylight yields to complete dark by early afternoon. The
Danes have adapted to the darkness by creating light and warmth in their interior, domestic spaces. The Danish word hyggelig means cordial, heartfelt, hospitable, suggesting cozy evenings indoors with good company, sheltered from the damp cold.
The Danes also cope with the northern winter by making the most of spring and summer. In beach clubs along the coast, nude segregated sunbathing decks exist for men and women, banks of bodies of all shapes and ages lying outside, taking in hours of sunshine with an occasional cooling swim in the interior ocean pool.
In the center of Copenhagen, a formal park called Kongens Have (King’s Garden) attracts families, couples, and friends who emerge from their dwellings on foot or by bike, laden with baskets. They spread out their blankets on the grass to make outdoor living rooms. I watched two prepubescent girls, blonde and chubby, wriggle out of their undergarments into bikinis with only the smallest towels wrapped around their bodies for cover, while my husband and I camped for a nap, jet-lagged and waiting to check into our hotel.
Despite the natural boundaries of sea and dark, the level landscape and omnipresent ocean create a distant horizon that carries the eye out as far as it can see. One can easily imagine this vista enticing the Danes out on their Viking voyages a thousand years ago, driven by ambition and the scarcity of farmland for its population. For a person returning to a childhood home, this vista draws out the soul and beseeches it to search out that other far away place, of lost homes, of past memories.
Denmark was the home of my mother’s ancestors. My mother’s maiden name was Hansen, a common Danish name. Yet, for me, Denmark represents my father, and holds memories of him and me when I was nine and ten years old. Those were years I identified with him, wore a cowgirl outfit with a cap pistol at each hip, and was, to my recollection, like those well-fed Danish girls, relatively free and unselfconscious.
Esso Chemical transferred my father to Denmark. It was the start of his international career, his first overseas job as project manager in charge of constructing a plastics factory in Roskilde. We moved to an unfinished house at the end of a street that began in town and ended in a country field. A half-hour commute from Copenhagen, Roskilde, the former capital of Denmark a thousand years ago, was reawakening as one of Denmark’s industrial centers. As I write this, I look up at a photograph I have pinned above my desk from those years. It is a 3 x 2-inch rectangle that shows my father and myself sitting on a banquette side by side in a restaurant. I am holding a chicken drumstick in my hand, smiling at the person across the table, my face turned slightly toward my father, but not looking directly at him. My inner elbow touches his; his face is turned toward mine. My father’s outside hand softly cups his left cheek. The sun streams through the stain-glassed window behind us and casts its light on my father, who is smiling at me as I, unaware, bask in his gaze.
This photograph depicts something about my years in Denmark. It captures one of those moments invisible to us when we were experiencing them, both because they were not in our literal view, as in this photograph, and because we were too young to grasp their significance. It proves that we can profit from experiences that are outside our awareness. It also signifies that my return to this country had something to do with reclaiming those years and the relationship with my father—that I needed to return to bring it all into focus apart from all that came later.
Roskilde seemed to suit my father perfectly, with his penchant for water and his inner dualism of rural life and industrial ambition. This was not so for my mother. Roskilde was still a provincial town in the 1960s, with very few English-speaking people. My mother, unable to speak Danish, must have been lonely there with no one to talk to but her young children. After a year in Roskilde, she asked my father to move closer to Copenhagen, so that she could be part of the expatriate community there. Charlottenlund, an affluent suburb of Copenhagen, became our next home.
The day after my husband and I arrived in Denmark, we made our first trip to Charlottenlund. We mounted our black rental bicycles and pulled out into the stream of fast-paced commuters biking into the center city. Women sat tall and upright on their bikes, wearing skirts and high heels, and pedaling so briskly that I found myself passed until I relaxed and picked up the pace. Men whisked by dressed in business suits, briefcases strapped across their chests or clipped onto the rear bike rack. We turned left off the bicycle highway to pass along Copenhagen’s large lakes, the Sankt Jorgens So, Peblinge So, and Sortedams So. A few joggers went by, and people walking their dogs. We travelled the breadth of the city, starting from the east, and reached the western district of Osterport (West City). There we turned onto a bustling commercial boulevard that headed north to the coastal suburbs. We cycled past the giant green beer bottle that marked the entrance to the Tuborg beer factory.
The Milanese man from whom we’d rented our bicycles had scoffed when we told him we were going to Charlottenlund. “There’s nothing there,” he said. “That’s where the fancy-pants live.”
“I used to live in Charlottenlund,” I explained, “and so we’re going to see the house where I grew up.” It hadn’t seemed fancy to me back then.
My mother had given me the name of the street where we’d lived: Prince Elvinsvej. We located the street on my husband’s ipad. Its pulsing green dot indicated that we were approaching our destination. The day was hot. The sky was blue and cloudless, and on our right the ocean glinted between the apartment buildings. I watched the street signs tick by on our left. When I saw the street sign Maglemosevej, I called out to my husband. This was not the street my mother had identified, but it flashed as familiar.
“That’s it! I remember now! Maglemosevej! We have to turn around!” I stopped and swung my bike around, not waiting for my husband.
“Are you sure?” my husband called, still pedaling ahead, reluctant to backtrack, not trusting the reliability of childhood memory.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure.” I dismounted and pulled my bicycle to the crosswalk and pressed the signal button to cross the street. And I was sure. The street’s name had risen up out of my forgotten memory, its sound rolling easily on my tongue. I remembered the black walnut tree in the backyard then, and the plum tree that dropped its dark purple fruit on the grass.
Marion Milner, in her book On Not Being Able to Paint, ponders the claim that painting is concerned with feelings about space. Space is emotionally laden, Milner says, when we consider it from the perspective of the young child who must reach for a mother’s arms. Space holds the feelings of being apart or united, of being hungry or replete. As much as painters grapple with color and line and form, distance and perspective, they are also capturing in paint early feelings of separation and togetherness.
I live in a watery enclave west of Boston, part of the Sudbury river watershed. What I’d never noticed until I returned from Denmark was how closely I had replicated the flat, open, water-soaked environment of that country in my adult surroundings. I had chosen a place that, without my realizing it, was physically similar to where I had grown up.
When my husband and I cycled down Maglemosevej, I spotted the house easily. Its red walls and black timbered framing were distinct and recognizable to me. Since no one was home, I peeked in the windows. I opened the side gate and took a quick stroll in the backyard. I walked around to the far side and looked up for my bedroom window. For the first time, I realized how the house resided in a well-to-do neighborhood.
Peering in the kitchen window, I remembered the smell of my mother cooking dog food for our new puppy. I saw in my mind’s eye the round table in the basement set for a tea party for all my stuffed animals. This was the year I jealously and repeatedly hid my younger sister’s blankie. I attended a French Catholic school where I wore a stiff and scratchy uniform—a woolen pleated skirt that pinched my middle and a thick linen sailor blouse covered by a navy-blue polyester pinafore. I pushed a boy out of a tree and he broke his arm. I snacked on bugles while reading and got a little chubby. I was in fourth grade.
These less pleasant memories, not difficult to recover, were not, I felt, what had motivated my return to Denmark. I had not come to unearth unhappiness, but to find something else, something I had loved and lost. Another memory arose. I remembered gathering a huge basket of yellow-green cherries from the scrubby forests of Roskilde. I brought them home for my mother, who mistook the cherries to be raw or poisonous and threw them away. I had always felt aggrieved that I never got to taste them. Did they symbolize what I was trying to find?
And so, on our next day in Denmark, my husband and I boarded the commuter train at Central Station in Copenhagen, bikes in tow. We arrived in Roskilde and headed off to the outskirts, where our map indicated we’d find Pristemarkevej, the other street where I’d once lived. We biked along a commercial strip lined with gas stations and small businesses. We found Pristemarkevej and turned left onto the street. Right away, at the second house, I told my husband to stop. “I think this is it,” I said, but without the conviction of the day before.
The house was red brick, modest, with a picture window at the front and the main door along the side. We took pictures, and then rode further up the street, passing identical brick homes along the way. I spotted a thatched roof farmhouse surrounded by a high stucco wall. Another brick home stood across from it, somewhat larger than the others, but still unpretentious. “This must be it,” I said, and took more pictures. The house was unoccupied, but turning to look at the farmhouse, I caught a glimpse of a boy at the window upstairs, watching us. He pulled away when I looked up. I stood by the gate and called out. The boy came down, and gestured that no one was home. I smiled, and explained my situation in English—“I used to live here!”
The boy shook his head, not understanding.
I waved goodbye, a gesture that belonged to my fondness for my old neighbors back then. We got on our bikes and rode to the end of the street, past open fields. We headed on toward the fjord and stopped for a swim. Afterward, we biked back toward town, taking a narrow sandy trail along the shoreline that wove in and out of the small dunes and then cut back into agricultural fields. As we bumped along on our bikes, we passed a small grove of trees. There, hanging in clusters, were the yellow cherries of my memory. I called out to my husband, “Stop! I found something!” I propped my bike against the tree trunk, plucked the cherries and ate them confidently. “Delicious!” I pronounced.
My husband followed suit, and the two of us chewed and spit out pits, laughing as juice dripping down our chins. Eating those cherries felt like I was being given back something I had loved, larger than the cherries, embracing a whole landscape. Now the physical and sensual enjoyment of finding, gathering, and eating them was tremendously enlivening. I thought to myself, See? I was right, they are good.
As she draws, Marion Milner asks herself if her refusal to follow the rules of a single observing eye and formal principles of perspective is a denial of her separateness in the world. She decides that no, it is not a retreat from this fact of existence. Rather, she finds that painting, when it is alive, creates a relation with objects that is based on other senses besides the sense of seeing, and allows that we are more mixed up with the external world than common sense or visual perspective allows. Milner concludes that painting “felt more like a search, a going backwards perhaps, but a going back to look for something, something that could have real value for adult life if only it could be recovered.”
The day I wrote about these cherries, I was talking to my college-age son on the phone. “Mom, remember that time you didn’t want me to make home-made tortillas?”
“No, I don’t remember that,” I replied. “Did I?”
“Yeah, you did,” my son insisted. “I think it was because we were having guests for dinner or something. Anyway, I went over to a friend’s house yesterday and we made them from scratch. They were easy and really good!”
He too had gone back to recover something that had been lost, something he could use going forward in his adult life.
On our last day in Denmark, my husband and I decided to visit my Charlottenlund home again and afterward go to a museum nearby. We paused at the house briefly. It had a neglected and empty feeling. We rode on.
The Ordrupgaard Museum was on a quiet residential street. The gravel crunched beneath our bikes as my husband and I rode up the drive. A gracious country estate stood before us, the former home of Wilhelm and Henny Hansen, avid art collectors at the turn of the twentieth century. Since the museum wasn’t open yet, we parked and locked our bikes and followed a path around the side of the house to a formal garden. An enormous oak tree shaded the garden’s south side. Clipped hedges bordered the pea stone walks and rose gardens. My husband wandered off to sketch, and I lay down under the tree and closed my eyes. The breeze lifted the leaves and they rustled softly, a summer sound, a childhood enchantment.
In paintings that depict domestic interiors—that are spare, architectural, monochrome, that draw the eye to lines suggestive of eternity, of wall and ceiling, of open doorways, that are barren of any evidence of nature—the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) creates an atmosphere of intimacy and contemplative expansiveness. It’s like when one hikes up a mountain and, with a sharp in-breath, takes in the silence and wilderness at the summit. A cupboard, a blue and white porcelain bowl feel evocative, like portraits of significance.
I came upon these paintings as a personal, shocking, exhilarating discovery. When my husband and I left to go back to the United States, I took home with me a new love—a painter and his paintings.
Rainer Maria Rilke was twenty-nine when he discovered Hammershoi’s paintings. Rilke was on his way to Sweden and stopped in Dusseldorf, Germany, for the International Art Exhibition. There he saw Hammershoi’s portrait of Ida, Hammershoi’s wife. It is one of Hammershoi’s few full-face portraits. In it, Ida wears a plain black dress and loose brown jacket. Apart from a gold wedding band, a grey feather in her hat is Ida’s only adornment. Her face glows, wistful and tender. Her eyes are pensive, turned inward. The light emanating from her face contrasts with the dark expanse of dress that forms a heavy triangle below. In her lap rest her two unclasped hands, their fingers furled, or maybe slightly clenched, ambiguous as to whether she has just let something go or is refusing to grasp on. The two empty hands and their separateness are suggestive. Our eye is drawn back to the painting’s brightest focus, her face. There we find the painting’s only vibrant color—a touch of rose on Ida’s lips and cheeks.
When Rilke arrived in Sweden, he made several trips to Copenhagen in order to see more of Hammershoi’s work. Skane, or southern Sweden, is visible from Copenhagen across the Oresund strait. For Rilke, it would have been a short ferry voyage. Nowadays, one can drive across by taking a bridge and tunnel thoroughfare that connects Copenhagen to Malmo, Sweden. From a distance, cars can be seen leaving Denmark and traveling along a bridge that goes right into the ocean. The bridge ends abruptly and the cars seem to vanish in a haze of reflecting light. Flying into Copenhagen, my husband and I observed this mystery during our descent.
Later we learned that this was the famous Oresundsbroen that links the two countries. Danes consider southern Sweden an easy weekend excursion; for us it had seemed a glistening path to the unknown.
Rilke never wrote the essay on Hammershoi as he’d intended. Instead Rilke travelled on to Paris, where he studied Cezanne’s paintings and named this latter painter, in 1906, as a formative influence on his poetry. In a letter of apology to Alfred Bramsen, his Danish host who had opened his private collection for Rilke’s viewing, Rilke wrote:
“There is no hurry, it seems to me. Hammershoi is not one of those artists that one needs to talk about quickly. His work is long and slow and at whatever moment one comes to grips with it, one will have ample occasion to speak of what is significant and essential in art.”
When I returned from Denmark, I went to the Fine Arts Library at Harvard University and took out art books on Hammershoi. I lugged the heavy books back and forth to my office and the Concord library, places where I like to write. I took them to bed with me and propped them up on pillows. I turned the pages and gazed at these paintings with satisfaction. It was as if Hammershoi’s paintings served as a bridge to my new self that came home from Denmark. I felt as though I was gathering pieces of my lost Danish childhood.
Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, the director of Ordrupgaard, says that Hammershoi’s paintings can be regarded as a series of existential statements. Hammershoi was interested in empty interior spaces and distilling the essence from a room or object, in a manner one would call poetic. The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, in his book The Poetics of Space, writes about the intimacy of roundness, the mystery of cupboards, the soul of the domestic interior.
Anna Freud, in a 1947 letter to her friend and colleague August Aichhorn, mourned not being able to return to Vienna, her childhood home. Her refusal to go back was mixed with grief and protest. Her father, Sigmund Freud, had died on September 23, 1939, and all four of her elderly aunts had died in concentration camps. She wrote:
“I would like so much for one to tell you of my father’s last weeks and days, and what it means for me to live without him. I would also like to tell you what leaving Vienna has meant to me and how strange it is to carry a past within oneself which can no longer be built upon.”
I was touched by how Anna Freud joined the loss of her father with that of her childhood home. I felt her pain of being unable to make the journey back, felt how a landscape and a home can be connected with one’s father. Even though my father died long after we left Denmark, looking back at those years now, I realize how much I felt myself as my father’s little girl back then, happy in his company.
Later, when we moved from Denmark to Holland, I left childhood for the teenage years. My parents started to fight and my father began to drink excessively. The girls, including me, shifted over to my mother’s side. My father became less known and more distant.
Can a painting capture these feelings? Hammershoi was a reserved man. He and his wife never had children. They lived a quiet life with the artist’s mother. In all my reading, there is very little mention of Hammershoi’s father.
It is strange how the unconscious works. When I first described Denmark’s landscape as looking like a hand, I thought that I was seeing something quite literal, an actual resemblance to a physical hand. Now, having come to this place in my writing, I realize that I’ve been contemplating hands and noting their appearance for some time. This preoccupation of mine is all about separation and togetherness. Holding hands is part of the story. Like the feelings of space in painting, hands—whether painted images, literary descriptions, or the flesh-and-blood real ones, embody primal feelings about being held and being apart.
When my father was dying, I was left alone with him while my sisters and stepmother went out to get lunch. My father had been sleeping, half in and half out of consciousness all day. In the silence of the room, he awoke. He asked me to prop him up against the pillow. I leaned over and slipped my arms around his chest and under his armpits, so that we were chest to chest, and then I heaved him up against the headboard. I sat back down, closer to him this time, right alongside him. He reached out for my hand and I grasped his in mine. His hand was warm and large and could still enfold mine in his.
He became surprisingly alert and lucid then, and started speaking as if the course of his life was passing through him. He spoke of his work, his love for his current wife and for his three daughters. He told me how he knew our mother loved all three of us, too. I heard him, but with only half an ear, because I was swept by a tremendous surge of feeling. It felt as if we were, as Milner might say, very mixed up with each other at that moment. We were pausing together at the threshold between my father’s life and his death. I felt as if he was giving me his love, and I was giving him mine, so that I could endure his death and so he could have me with him on his next passage. His hand holding mine was the conduit.
Almost a year has passed. It was August when my husband and I traveled to Denmark and spent a week there. Now it is May, and summer is approaching. Spring has been distinctly Scandinavian with overcast, raw, rainy days. Sunlight appears briefly, luxuriously, then is stolen away. I long for heat. I realize I’ve spent a year relinquishing my past afresh.
My younger son heard that I was writing about my childhood in Denmark and asked me to send him what I’d written. I did so with trepidation. I didn’t know if it would feel weird for him to read about his mom’s personal life. He called me up a few days after I emailed him my work in progress. I could hear a kind of crunch, crunch in the background. Probably, I thought, he was walking to dinner, one of his favorite times to call.
“I never knew this about you, Mom,” he said. “It made me realize how much I don’t know about your childhood. I like how you portrayed your character in the story. And I really like how you portrayed Dad. Your tag-a-long.”
My son helped me understand how important the character of my husband, the tag-a-long, was to my journey searching for my lost childhood home. In fairy tales, the seeker sets out alone, but companions join along the way. Without these companions, the quest would not succeed. These new relationships are in themselves part of achieving the goal. The seeker shares her dream with others. In my case, one such companion was my husband. Others were my sons, who now knew a little more about their mother. And, finally, Hammershoi. With his paintings, I didn’t return empty handed.
Since the only Hammershoi painting in public view in the United States was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I went there. I inquired at the visitor’s information center and was directed to Gallery 252 on the second floor. Coming up the wide marble staircase, I felt a sudden sadness come over me, as if I was about to say goodbye to a long lost love. Entering the gallery room, I glanced left. Tucked in a corner, in the shadow of a mahogany cabinet, hung Hammershoi’s Woman in an Interior, 1909. Just under two feet by two feet, the painting seemed small, dark, and a little forlorn. The green of the central paned window held the only color amongst somber browns and beiges of the interior. The painting was barren of material possessions. I felt a little disappointed.
Leaving the room, I moved next door. In this gallery, two of Cezanne’s paintings hung side by side. I was stunned by the thick vibrant dabs of paint. I felt a sudden visceral joy.
Cover image: Vilhelm Hammershøi “Gentofte Lake” (1903). Image from Wikimedia Commons.