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.
On a cold morning, Mamma makes oatmeal while my sister and I wait for the dusty ovals to soak up salty water and turn into food. Only Martha and I are eating this breakfast. Ruth and Kristin have left, Ruth to junior high school and Kristin at the forever-away high school. Martha and I go to Green Valley Elementary, across from and above the curved parkway outside our front yard. We can see our house from the school yard. Looking down through the chain link fence, our red brick house looks tiny. We can’t see school from our house, only the twin lines of cars snaking in different directions, and the steep concrete drain that sometimes gushes muddy rainwater into the low, paved creek bed.
My mother’s back is to us while she stirs the boiling oats. She looks big in her zip-up robe that hangs like a capital A from her shoulders down to her slipppered feet. She has smoothed her brown hair with a comb, and it lands exactly at the collar of her robe. Turning toward us, she has her cooking face on—cheeks pink, lips in a straight line, and concentration tugging her dark eyebrows together.
How do I know she is beautiful? Is it the way her eyes balance perfectly in her face? Those eyes that can be extra blue or extra green depending on the light? Is it how carefully she pulls herself together for the world, putting makeup on before she goes out to the grocery store? I know she is beautiful because she is my Mamma, and she takes care of me. She is special because she is Icelandic. I see how other people look at her, their smiles of admiration, or of envy.
In the kitchen, when she turns around and looks at us, her sixth and seventh children, the hungry girls of her second marriage, her smile brightens the air around us. My sister and I stop arguing and notice the sparkled air. Without any makeup, Mamma’s face looks easy and free. Her eyebrows let go of each other. She is all soft morning, the promise of warmth and fullness.
Breakfast is ready! She reaches to pull juice glasses from the cupboard. Martha and I have been distracted from our waiting by stirring the orange juice, concentrate slowly blending with water in the oblong Tupperware pitcher. Daddy lets us do this every time, telling us the two meanings of the word “concentrate.” He is at work or maybe asleep after a night shift.
Mamma gets tired of listening to us talk about the melting chunk of orange ice. We can argue about anything—who has had the best turn with the long-handled wooden spoon, who was right about whether there were any ice chunks left to stir or poke at, who wants to watch the thick orange goo melt to the bottom of the container or keep taking turns stirring. We argue about who gets the fanciest spoon, maybe a silver one from Iceland. That’s enough, Mamma says, patient today. She takes the pitcher we have argued over, snaps the plastic lid on top, and shakes it smooth, with no layers, no clumps.
She fills our glasses, and we drink greedily. The juice clears a sleepy taste from my mouth, paints my tongue bright for the day to come.
I fix my steaming bowl the special way Mamma once showed me, with a snow-layer sprinkle of sugar over the top. I lift the edges of the smooth oatmeal to dribble cold milk between it and the edges of the bowl. Melted sugar glistens on the surface as milk floats my breakfast like an island: it looks perfect. But by the time I have finished making it just right, it is stone cold. I don’t want it anymore. Mamma tells me to be careful, that if I don’t eat my breakfast, the wind will lift me up and carry me away like happens sometimes in Iceland when children don’t eat enough. I look up at her, startled, but she has turned away. I spoon a few bites into my mouth and swallow them with a tight throat, seeing myself stuck in a tree like a lost kite, wanting to get back down to the ground. After we put on our coats, she kisses us goodbye, and the two of us step outside into the chill air. I don’t understand my mother. She was telling a lie, Martha explains. The wind can’t be strong enough to blow us away. Maybe it can in Iceland, but not in America.
I snap back at her, I know that! I wasn’t scared! Silken relief wraps me in warmth. Martha lets me walk with her all the way to the corner of Catskill Avenue before she runs ahead. I wish I could be in third grade, and fast like she is, smart enough to not be scared by made-up stories.
Bird song echoes off a sandy hill behind the Indiana Dunes cottage and filters through the wood-framed window screen, waking me early on a June morning. High notes bounce off the moss-specked cinder block foundation, then rise along the chipped wood siding and skip over patched roof tiles to the brightening sky.
Woo woo woo wooooooo, ta ta ta ta ta! The bird trills again from the clothes line that runs like a curved track outside our bedroom window. The song sparrow announces that I am at my favorite place, the Dunes, a two-day drive from our brick house in Maryland, and a world away from the disappointments of first grade. At the Dunes, my mother’s cold winter sadness is forgotten. Her fights with Daddy never happened. At the Dunes, Mamma doesn’t stay up late crying or sleep through breakfast.
The cottage on the south shore of Lake Michigan sighs with the breath of my sleeping sisters, one in the bunk above me, and one in a single bed just across the room. I listen for waves, and hearing only birdsong know that this morning, the lake will be calm, clear as a mirror. Quietly, I push off the quilt that someone has pulled over me in the night. I tug off my nightgown and step into my swimsuit and a pair of shorts, then wrap a dry beach towel around my shoulders to keep off the morning chill. I tip-toe across the braided rag rug and onto the cool linoleum of the empty kitchen.
Through the second-story window, the lake spreads out before me, a fresh water ocean shining up at the sky, never ending. Down below, a thin line of gravel curls along the shore, shifting up and down in the shape of yesterday’s small waves. I see Mamma walking slowly by the water’s edge. She is compact and graceful, dark hair curling around her face as she steps slowly along the shore, looking down. One of her hands cups the crinoid fossils she is finding among the sandy pebbles. We call them “cronies,” and they look like Cheerios that have sat in the hot sun for weeks. They can be almost too small to see, or–rarely–as big as my thumb. They are rocks holding the shape of the stacked spines of water lilies that lived here so long ago that there were no people on earth yet, Daddy says; so long ago that the glaciers that melted to make this lake hadn’t frozen into place yet.
I stand in my bare feet and hear Daddy’s baritone coming up the stairs from Nanny’s kitchen. Nanny is his and all my aunts’ mother. She has her own small apartment downstairs and gets up very early in the morning. I go down the back stairs slowly, not wanting to wake my sisters or be seen by Daddy and Nanny, who sit at her small kitchen table, holding mugs in front of small plates of coffee cake. I don’t want to sneak, but I duck past Nanny’s window. I want to go to Mamma on the beach, to be with her inside her solitude.
I go to my mother, drawn to her peacefulness, to this chance to be alone with her. I run to her, soft sand flying under my feet. She looks up with a smile. We collide gently, and she wraps one strong arm around my shoulders. I press my head into her side, closing my eyes. Look, she says, I found three nice cronies, with holes all the way through! I walk slowly back with her along the water, wet sand cold under my feet. I feel helpful and quiet, looking down for cronies. Aren’t you hungry? She asks, as we approach the cottage. Suddenly I am. We walk up the stairs holding hands. We rinse our feet in the short plastic bucket, and wave good morning to Daddy and Nanny.
In our upstairs kitchen, Mamma scrambles eggs while I set the table. My big sisters wander in, sleepy, and sit down to look at the lake. A moment later, Daddy comes upstairs, refills his coffee and gives Mamma a kiss. After breakfast, we go back down to the shore, like returning pilgrims. I sit with my legs straight out in the water, my hands lifting wet sand that I dribble into small towers on my thighs. I dunk into the cold water, then lie on dry sand until the sun soothes my goosebumps and seeps down into my bones. All that day, I stay close to my mother.
Mamma is warm at the Dunes. Warm like the beach at mid-morning, like the shiny paint of her fingernails. Warm like the sandy hill rising to the woods; gentle like the tiny wavelets at the edge of the water before they moisten her feet. She is crystalline; blue-green as the lake, graced by summer. And I soak her in. She is such a woman as she is nowhere else, when she sits and looks out from the shore, studying the line of water and sky, the sailboat or the seagull, concentrating, almost forming the scene, as if it were her homeland harbor. It’s at the Indiana Dunes where Mamma feels most alive to me. It could be the morning air slowly moving tiny grains of sand over our footprints, or the smoothness of her face as the sunlight glances back to her from the white beach. Maybe it’s the speckled rocks or the flat green skipping stones that I place on the arm of her beach chair, for safekeeping.
My mother pulls the long cord of connected metal beads that hang to the right of the dining room drapes, long beige fabric panels patterned with forest vines. They overhang the sliding glass doors that open to the painted concrete steps of our back patio. Outside, maple leaves edged in gold hint at fall, and giant marigolds tip heavily toward the lawn. Only a few miles from our house in Maryland, Gerald Ford has announced his pardon of Richard Nixon.
Mamma lifts her hands one above the other and closes off the view of the back yard. Late Saturday morning, and I have come upstairs from watching tv alone. Only Mamma and I are home, giving the morning that forever feeling, stark, like when I was small and home with her all day. Daddy must be on a weekend shift at the Weather Bureau, and, at eight, I am either too young or too hesitant to be included in whatever my big sisters are doing this morning. I am bored. I’ve watched Lynda Carter grasp the magical Egyptian bracelet on her wrist and declare, Almighty Isis! And she spins around and around, unblurring into “Wonder Woman,” resplendent in a gold bathing suit, ready to do good. Mamma is wearing cleaning clothes, a cotton top and an old pair of old pants with mud stains on the knees from the summer’s vegetable garden. Her clothes telegraph that that she is not going out, no shopping or errands today, just a determination to get something done in this house.
She pulls a dining room chair in front of the closed drapes and stands up on it, then reaches her short arms up to where the curtains hang in a smooth-running track. What are you doing? I ask. These are dirty, so I am taking them down and washing them. Her Icelandic accent, even directed into the soft fabric, sounds sharp. How do curtains get dirty? I ask, but I know this is my father’s question. He might hold a cold can of Stroh’s as Mamma fills a bucket with soapy water, and opine The floor looks fine to me. Why wash it? Cleaning is something my mother prefers to do alone, if she can.
But she answers my question. They get dirty from dust, and from people pulling on them with dirty hands instead of opening them the right way, by pulling the cord. Mamma removes each metal hook from the top of the curtains and hands them to me to put on the dining room table. Keep them together, don’t drop them. Then she hugs the fabric panels close to her slim middle and walks with them downstairs to the laundry room.
The patio doors look naked and bereft, the rod like an accusing eyebrow over a blank stare. When I was little, I made a private world between the drapes and the panes of sliding glass. Invisible from inside the house, I could see out into the world but still be sheltered and warmed. But this Saturday I am twice as old as I was when the dining room’s leafy green plants were a jungle surrounding my other-world hiding place.
Later, still bored, I go to the basement laundry room. My sullen mood shifts to a desire to be helpful, so I heave the heavy, wet drapes out of the washing machine and stuff them into the black mouth of the electric dryer. I push the start button and walk away with my shoulders back, feeling grown up and responsible. An hour later, I am in my straightened room when I hear Mamma approach. Her feet land on the floor with the weight of a bureaucrat’s stamp. She is angry.
Arriving at my door, she asks, Did you touch the curtains? I nod. Come here, and look what you have done! I follow her into the dining room. The curtains are hanging in front of the glass doors again, but they look all wrong, shorter than they should be and puckered in places where they are supposed to be smooth. These never go in the dryer! They are ruined! The drapes hang six inches above where they usually meet the floor. I stand in front of her as she glares at me. A light film of perspiration shines her face. The drapes had been so pretty, the long brown fabric that I used to hide behind, pretending to climb the upward-reaching vines. Blood rushes to my feet. My face flushes, then tingles to marble.
All day, my pallor and stiffness linger. And Mamma is sorry. She walks me back to the dining room and shows me that the drapes have stretched down again, almost to the floor. They have lengthened and smoothed themselves out. They are okay—see? Her voice is soft and her eyes look at me like a warm day. She is sad for me, but she can’t undo my shock or the way I pulled her anger inside my body. Her rage of the morning is tucked under my jaw line and layered behind my eyebrows. Frozen inside me and scraping against the calcium of my bones is knowledge of my capacity to ruin. I will need to be careful. Forever.
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.
It’s a cool spring morning, and I’m lying on a sunbathing chair in the back yard, being very still. What brought me here? Small, I live in the expanding whorl of new day into longer day; moving slowly into night, then–miraculously!–to day again. In this open yard, time holds without exhorting.
A robin lands on the metal swoop of chain link fence. The bird’s eye is hard and clear, circled by white feathers, and shining black at me. In its velvet vest, the robin hops down to the grass, watching me be as still as a statue of a little girl alone can be. We hold each other’s gaze, and I feel myself become a bird. This fellow being has come to show me what I am, to remind me that I can fly. The robin has a family, too, and I am part of it.
Inside, Mamma and I are alone together. I want to go to school like my sisters do, but I’m not big enough. I learn waiting. Mamma gets ready to shop, snugs her skirt over her hips, and carefully hides her slip above her hemline. She examines her face in the bathroom mirror and doesn’t like something. She squints, tweezes. She adds eyebrow pencil, mascara, and red-brown lipstick to her face, making her beauty more alert. She blots lipstick onto a white kleenex, then glides another round of color onto her mouth, pressing her lips to paper once more. The metal lipstick tube clicks closed. Haphazard tissue kisses rest in the trashcan day after day.
I sit on her bed as she pulls up the long zipper of her high heeled boots. She turns in front of the full-length mirror and pulls her shoulders back, then smiles at me in her reflection. You look so pretty, I say. At the grocery store, she is deep in thought, turned toward cans of green vegetables and hunks of beef tongue. We walk past piles of potatoes and packages of chicken gizzards to the fish counter. Looking at a flounder, stranded on its icy bed, its lopsided eyes cloudy and vague, she says, That doesn’t look very fresh, does it?
Home again, I see the “I’m not here” look on my mother’s face as I watch her watch TV. I practice being quiet so I won’t have to go to my own room and nap. Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives, the man says, at 2 pm on channel 7. We have hurried home from the grocery store to watch. Mamma is smoking, breathing in, breathing out.
Now she has left the room, disappeared to laundry or tidying or a telephone respite with a friend. The click of the linen closet door, then the crispness of her voice lilting into the kitchen phone threaten to float me to sleep, but I fight to stay above the surface. Her forgotten cigarette sends a line of smoke up through the white lampshade to the ceiling. The still room is bisected by a horizontal cloud, and I lie underneath it. I reach over and push the butt into the ashtray, saving it from falling onto the table. With my movement, whorls of grey mix with clear air above my head.
When I am finally big enough for school, I will jump out of bed and stand in front of my closet, stifling a yawn. I will wear a green skirt to kindergarten, my hair combed back and tied with a ribbon. I will stare in amazement as a classmate cries, missing his mommy. When I am nineteen, and half a continent away from my mother, I will harness all of my depressed will and apply to the local university. After classes, I will change into fancy clothes, adjust my slip, and hostess at an elegant restaurant. Twenty years later, at 39, I will earn my second master’s degree and become a therapist at the same university’s counseling center. I will wear patterned skirts and stylish heels. I will mascara my eyes and tint my lips before I go to see clients. Listening, waiting, I will sit with them in that open space, as the mystery of time re-weaves all our lives.