In Isafjordur, the town where my mother was born and where she gave birth to my two older brothers, I pull my biking shoes out of my suitcase. They are heavy, with inflexible soles built to grip wide mountain bike pedals. Still flecked with red Moab dust, I carried them all the way from Denver so I could ride with Haldora Bjork, my cousin who has always felt more like a sister. She loves this village with all her heart. Only her bright spirit makes this visit possible. I feel haunted by this town, and I don’t know why. On a walk earlier in the day, my husband recognized the house where my mother was raised. It is painted a burnt yellow now. He wanted a closer look, but I turned away, frightened of nothing I could name. I can’t reconcile the three-dimensional house with the framed black and white photograph I stared at as a child, hoping for clues to my mother’s girlhood.
Dora leads us on our bikes to the old coast road—now replaced with a tunnel–between Isafjourdur and Bolingarvik. The untended pavement is riddled with deep cracks and slush patches. We ride around huge boulders and dodge small sharp rocks that have rained down from cliffs above. When cars still drove here, so many avalanches and rock slides pummeled the road that concrete shelters were erected. As we pedal under these bunkers, the pavement is smooth and wide, the air hushed.
A mile ahead, at a sharp curve, we pause. A cross and plaque serve as a memorial to the many people whose lives ended here. Salty mist lifts from the water, and the far-off rock faces of Hornstrandir glisten with snow. The cliff just above us holds color after color—black granite slabs sliced through with ochre, a ribbed hillside specked with green moss, the vertical streams of meltwater shining gray in north-facing grooves. Below, smooth round rocks heap at the water’s edge, contrasting with small islands of jagged stone.
Just outside Bolingarvik is a museum–two small black-timbered, turf-roofed buildings alongside an old boat winch and fish-drying rack. Peeking in the window of the little house, we see two pairs of shoes. One looks like it is made of fish skin, the other possibly of seal skin. Both are tiny and flimsy looking. I remember what my brother Finn said a few days earlier: in the old days, a journey was described by how many pairs of shoes would be worn out in the walk.
Dora exclaims, Can you imagine working outside in all kinds of weather in shoes like those?! Then she tells me: I had a friend who died not long ago. He was in his late nineties. I was talking to him once and he told me that of all the new technology in his lifetime, the best was rubber boots. The rubber boots changed his life the most.
As we bike back to her house, and for days after, I think of her friend, of all the changes he saw in one long life, a life lived walking the village streets my mother left behind, first for Reykjavik, then for the US.
Iceland, spelled in Icelandic, is Island, the plain English word “island.” But when Icelanders pronounce their country’s name, Island, it sounds different, Eesland, instead of island. “Island” spells “Island” means Iceland, my mother’s first home. As a child learning to love words, I ponder this oddity and the unpredictable nature of that far-away and mysterious place. Iceland is the land of fire and ice. It can explode like my mother does sometimes, in white-hot rage. And it has cold dark winters as bleak as my mother’s face on a November morning when she can’t get out of bed, when the effort of making breakfast for us before we go to school is too much.
It is the 1970s, and I am maybe seven. I watch a color tv documentary with my mother about the emergence—through four years of volcanic eruptions–of a new island, named Surtsey, off the southwest coast of Iceland. My mother was born and raised in village of Isafjordur that rests in the crook of a northern fjord. In her thirties, she moved to the US with my American dad and their combined family of five. I am her seventh child, one of two girls born to her after she became a foreigner, living just outside America’s capital city.
Usually when she watches tv, my mother’s hands are busy with knitting or needlepoint, her eyes glancing up at the screen as she works. But now, sitting in the basement of our five-bedroom house that she keeps “spic and span,” Mamma’s attention is rivetted, her chin resting on her palms as she leans toward the image of a hot ash explosion lifting over ocean water. This is unbelievable! She exclaims. There was nothing there, and now there is an island. A cooling gray river of lava, red underneath, flows slowly into the water and hardens with a crackling hiss, meeting the North Sea like a sworn enemy.
Under the water, subterranean vents continue to discharge magma that piles on top of itself in layers until it expands the land mass named for Sutr, a Norse fire giant. Surtsey began to form in 1963, and grew into a rounded mile of land where once there was only moving water. It is a slowly greening island, now eroded to half its original size. Surtsey holds a solitary place above the ocean; its only part-time residents are sea birds, seals, and scientists.
In fifth grade, in Mrs. Corkum’s class at Green Valley Elementary, each of us draws our own map of the world. Standing in her blue skirt, brown hair pulled back into a bun, our teacher holds a globe in her hands. I locate Iceland by looking for the white-painted oblong of Greenland at the top of the Atlantic, then finding the rough-edged island tucked below to its right, just outside of the arctic circle. The class is paying attention because we all like Mrs. Corkum–she is fair and talks to us like we are smart, almost grown-up. Class, when we draw our maps, continents that are small will look bigger, and some things that are big will look smaller. We are flattening something that is curved to fit it on our paper. The round world, represented flatly, is distorted. This feels true to me.
I pencil faint guide-lines, holding my hand next to a wooden ruler with a thin, metal edge bent at one corner. My map is bisected vertically by the Prime Meridian, which is intersected by the Equator, and by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. We draw Madagascar first, a fat ell-shape off the right-hand coast of Africa. I trace precise coastal shapes set within the grid of latitude and longitude. Starting with Madagascar, then working our way around the world, my class copies the world map one shape at a time. Tracing coastlines through meridian grids, pencil gripped too tightly, I recreate the world in the shape of islands.
Americans don’t even know where Iceland is! my mother complains. But I do. I know Iceland is a small, independent country that had democracy hundreds of years before America got its start. And I know about Leif Erikson–Mamma teaches me to say his name right, so it sounds like “Laif,” not like “leaf”. He was the first European to go to North America, in a sturdy Viking ship. Iceland is part of Scandinavia and also part of Europe. In Iceland, women know how to dress. They don’t go around to the stores in blue jeans, and they don’t have to be skinny or stupid to be pretty. Icelandic women are not like American women. They are one right way. Like me at ten, they know that they know a lot.
Iceland happens apart from me as I watch my mother’s back. She turns herself to the endless routine of cooking and cleaning, grocery shopping and cigarette smoking. She scrubs and she shines, always moving. A few months later, she seems to just sink into herself, the fiery island pummeled by scouring waves.
As I grow up, my mother’s language is like the water surrounding Iceland, chilling in its depth. Icelandic mystifies me, pulls my full attention to its musical cadence of words I don’t speak or understand. I see the surface of the language; images appear in my head when one of the few words I know float by. I can say “sael” for hello with a proper back-of-the-tongue click on the ell, and I say “bless” for goodbye, the polite beginning and ending. “Jaejae” is an all-purpose word of mild impatience that winds things up. Jaejae, says my mother as she inhales and stands up from the kitchen table, where a yellow ashtray rests half-full. I know she is getting ready to hang up the phone after talking to one of her Icelandic friends who also lives not far from us. The landline phone is anchored high to the wall, in the doorway to the dining room. It has a twisted cord long enough that Mamma can get up and look out the back door, toward the north, as she talks in her private language.
Every land form surrounded by water is a version of my mother’s home. I sit with the tip of my tongue drying in the air, tracing the shape of Madagascar. It is bigger than Iceland. It is warmer than Iceland. It is far away from Iceland. Iceland. Island. Eesland. The place I go in my mind where the air is always clear, where my mother is happy because she is in her real home. My Iceland is both far-away and more real than this America where childhood plods along, where I make the dreary winter walk to school while dreaming of riding a sure-footed Icelandic pony past moss-covered fields of ancient lava rocks.
But I am not there. I am not even all the way in America. I can’t be popular or all the way American or brash like a boy, so in fifth grade, I try to copy the world onto paper and make it look good, make it right. Over weeks, all of the continents appear, and finally, I add the dragon shape of Iceland. Sitting up in my wooden chair and setting my blue pencil down, I see a miniscule piece of the gigantic world, almost meaningless next to so many other place shapes. Surtsey is so tiny that even adding it as a dot would be wrong.
Our world maps are drawn on three separate sheets of paper that cover the surface of our small desks. After weeks of work, with new calluses on our index fingers, we carefully connect our pieces of flattened earth using invisible tape. My map looks how I want it to look, just right, pleasing to Mrs. Corkum and to me. It is hung in the school hallway alongside the worlds of my classmates, and every time I walk by, my eye goes straight to Iceland, confirming its existence. Even today, I can’t help but center the world and much of my imagination exactly there.
On this drab December day, heavy patches of snow shrink to reveal brown grass and gray pavement. I look away from the window and contemplate a photo of my oldest brother Issi’s wedding in Iceland in 1969. The bride’s parents stand in dark clothes with serious faces angled slightly down and away from the camera. My new sister in law, Arndis, wears a Cheshire grin and a lacy white dress hemmed well above her knees. My brother’s face is eager and thoughtful, hair cut short around his broad forehead. The buttons of his dark suit nearly burst with contained energy. My mother alone wears color—an emerald green dress and matching satin shoes. Her brunette hair is swirled into a luxurious bouffant, and a half smile plays on her lips. Tense beauty and unpredictable fire shine from this photo.
What was she thinking that day? At 43, she was mother to seven children and lived far from her island home. She traveled from Washington D.C. with only her youngest children–me and my four-year old sister—to attend two weddings. Just a few weeks after Issi’s small ceremony, my brother Finn had a big wedding. My sister and I gazed at this other bride, all elegance and grace in her satin gown. Her name, Alla, was easy to say and confirmed what we suspected, that she was everything. She hugged us and spoke to us with a clipped accent. During the reception, my sister and I drank our very own bottles of coca cola and ran shrieking down long hallways. These brides and my grown-up brothers were almost mythical beings to us, wild creatures living in the distant land that was my mother’s first home.
As clouds hang in the winter sky, I contemplate the stillness in Issi’s wedding photo, the retrained movement. Arndis wears a white veil, a soft fold of lace over her dark hair. Mamma’s green dress has a faint checkerboard sheen and long sleeves that widen, kimono-like, around her arms. Shining earrings dangle half way to her shoulders. A hint of tension in my mother’s fingertips suggests a delayed impulse to reach up and smooth her hair.
Was it on that trip, and in that green dress, that she taught me to cha cha? Did she kick off her shoes to dance in full, fluid motion? Her hips swayed as she counted for me, one-two, cha cha cha. I glued my eyes to her until my ears and feet started to work together in imitation. She swiveled toward me, then away again. Leaning over, she tugged my fingertips to the music until my feet began to listen. Then she dropped my hands and danced by herself in a cloud of perfumed happiness.
Forty-five years later, under the fairy lights at Denver’s Mercury Café dance floor, a partner asked me, do you cha cha?I don’t know, I replied. I do know that I was taught once. He led me in the cha cha, and I followed without thought or effort, my mother’s lesson still alive in the bottom of my feet. And though her ashes were scattered in the Gulf of Mexico years earlier, there was Mamma, sitting alone and resting her elbows on a small round table. Her lips were tinted mauve, and her eyebrows penciled into supple surprise. She looked at her bubbling diet coke, then back at me. In the music, I heard her tinkling laugh, the erupting happiness that sometimes made her cover her mouth with the back of her hand to hide her imperfect teeth. Soon, I was laughing, too, as I danced and danced.
Every time I make coffee on a cold afternoon, my mother stands next to me. We watch the first splash of boiling water dampen the paper cone and soften the grains of coffee. Our shared breath breathes in the winter aroma. We wait patiently to pour more water, tempering our eagerness.
And I see my mother, gone so long now, standing in my childhood’s turquoise kitchen. She is letting me “help” serve dessert at a dinner party. In the middle of the kitchen table, a round platter holds a ginger brown cake that has been dusted with a flurry of soft, white sugar. Mamma heats the silver coffee pot with scalding water then empties it again. Soon, the surge of hot coffee fills the gleaming container like the will to life. In the dining room, she pours its black heat into delicate cups, and tiny wisps of vapor rise over the winter tablecloth. Candle wax has overflowed into puddles on the fabric. I want to dip my fingers into its warmth and feel the wax form stiffly to my fingertips. But I don’t. Being Mamma’s helper means being allowed to watch her—close enough to touch her, but not moving at all.
A kettle sings fresh steam into our kitchens. The skin of my face tingles with my mother’s tension about how to make everything, always, just right.
And I miss her. The sadness drips, drips, drips. But I’m with her all the time. Every time I smell coffee, every time I doubt myself, and every time I cook a meal. I miss her food–fish cooked into so many different forms and flavors that it expands its skins, dives past its limits. I crave the long, white scar on her left elbow, marking where she fell onto an Icelandic country road from the over-sized frame of her brother’s bicycle. I seek out her mingled scents of cigarette smoke and Chanel perfume. I perceive in myself her outward gaze and her habitual remove.
I want her back, but she’s right here.
I see her everywhere when I go to Europe, in the dignified elegance of the dark-haired women who withstand the unflinching north wind, who wear wide silk scarves and line their lips in red. I see her small feet in every shoe store, and I watch her firmly set mouth as she considers something, then decides. I see my mother in the shape of every island. All fishing villages are hers. All forbidden romances are hers, and every mental illness.
A year ago, on the tram sliding into Edinburgh, my mind buzzed with excitement about a new city, about solitude, about seeing my son. And it washed over me like warm light, a zephyr, how much my mother loved me! I saw her sparkle of joy every time I showed up at her house with or without my little boys. I saw how happy it made her to see me and how far she came to be with me. I sat on that train and remembered the long dazzling years of her health and sobriety. I gave thanks for the hours of travel I’d taken on to savor a seafood extravaganza for my middle boy’s 24th birthday, just to have time together. And the tram floats along the track. Soon, Mom gets on and sits down next to me. She takes my hand and presses it to her heart. We sit quietly as roads and fields turn to old stone walls and a castle comes into view on the hillside.
We called our mother Mamma, not pronounced Momma in the American way, but mummah, as it sounded in Iceland, with a pause on the combined m’s. She forbade our calling her “Mommy,” the indignity of the American word implied by her mocking tone as she said it. When I was small, I only ever called our mother Mamma. The second syllable turns upward in my memory, holding the shape of a question, of hope and home.
When I was little, Iceland was the scent of sulfurous water that clung to my father’s skin after he returned from a trip there. My mother’s island home was the smell of smoked leg of lamb—a frozen red haunch wrapped in foil that had been smuggled past customs, then softly boiled to anchor our feast on Christmas Eve. Iceland was a dragon-shaped map on our dining room wall. And Iceland was the place that held my mother’s name, simply and crisply: Mamma.
So “Mamma” was the answer I gave when a neighbor in our DC suburb asked me my mother’s name. He re-introduced himself to her, and they laughed at my not knowing her real name. Embarrassed by my ignorance, my mother taught me, syllable by syllable, how to say her name properly. She wrote down every letter, and her handwriting, so elegant and even, was itself a lesson in correctness. She had me repeat her name over and over until it rolled off my tongue with sharp r’s and a crisp Icelandic rhythm. Most grown-ups, including my father, called her Ragna, using open vowels and mushy r’s. But I knew how to say her full name: Ragnhildur Gudrun Finnbjornsdottir Ellis.
Ragnhildur: Fighting Woman.
My mother fought incorrectness, both in pronunciation and in behavior. She fought the dulling ordinariness of American culture, with its casual manners and sloppy clothing. At night, through cycles of peacefulness and of combat, she simultaneously fought my father and alcohol, her berating voice rising and falling for hours. Then came the thump of her shoulder hitting the wall after my father shoved her hard and staggered to the front door and escape. She fought to hide the bruises, but showed them to me when I came out of my room to try to take care of her. Year in, and year out, she was Fighting Woman.
She fought hard for the steady sanity she gained in her sixties. Now that I can see the pattern of illness in her descendants, diagnoses lined up like breadcrumbs in the woods, I know she fought cyclical depression and psychosis. When I was growing up, I sometimes thought she was a monster. But the monsters were in her head, and, as strong as she was, she couldn’t defeat them.