by Helen Rehl
The first time we went to the island it must have been in wartime, the summer of 1941. We had gone on summer holidays before, but this was a new adventure. It was always so in the “old” days, mothers and children along with nannies would leave the city and go to the sea for the summer, dads remaining in town for their businesses and came on weekend visits, and then for their own holidays. This island, which remained for us a summer home through many years, was the island where my nanny, Dadda, came from. Her real name was Margaret, but in those days, the common name for young women hired to help with children was “Dadda.” It was a good position to hold for those who’d leave farms and smaller towns to seek positions in households in the “big city.” Mostly they found their second family there and stayed until the children were grown to teen-age years. Sometimes for the rest of their lives, part of the family they were.
Our Dadda Margaret had come to us when I was still 4 years old, she barely 17 at the time, and that was the second year of WWII of Norway’s occupation by German forces. Although gas was rationed, my father had managed to hold on to his car, saved gas, and by summertime we set off for the island.
We were all packed in the car, my mother, our Dadda, my sister, my little baby brother and I with my father driving, as we left the city behind. We were followed, in tandem, by small truck that belonged to my father’s company, packed with what seemed everything we owned. This little truck had a contraption behind the driver’s cab that huffed and puffed small clouds of smoke. I remember it was fed a small square piece of wood, as we had to stop now and then to “feed” it. A steam-car, I was told later.
At just 5 years old, the journey seemed endless to me. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the road, that final leg of the journey an unpaved country road that wound its way through woods. Leaving tails of dust behind us in the dry summer heat, the small truck almost covered to a ghostly white. Then the road widened from that one-horse-and-wagon road through the woods, a rise before a downhill, and suddenly, there it was, the sea and the island. How can I forget that sudden openness, the taste of dust and smell of sun on not-yet mown fields and the blue, blue of water? In the afternoon light, the island appeared to float, to almost hover in a shimmering mirage that hugged the water, layers of summer haze from gray, to blue to golden.
The final bend took us to the inlet that separated the island from the mainland where Dadda’s father, Erling and her older brother, Hans, waited to row us across. Women and children first — the men left to unload the car and truck, a couple of more crossings. Once on the island, we climbed aboard a flat-bed horse-drawn wagon for the last journey, where among belongings we bumped along a two-rutted road to the farm. And we were here for the summer, the long, seemingly never-ending summer. We got to know the farm well, a big barn, cows at one end, hayloft in center, horse stalls on the right, the pig-pen around the corner, and cackling hens running as we came upon the farmyard.
A little further up the road, with a huge stone knoll on the left, above the garden on the right, we arrived at the entrance to the main house on the farm, a long, 300-year old log house, blackened by tar. This was to be our summer-home.
We had four rooms in that old house, but the kitchen was for everyone. To me, it seemed enormous. A big kitchen, it was the heart, and hearth, of the farm. A large wood-fired, black iron stove on the right was used to cook all meals, summer as in winter. It has a center burner for big-size kettles on the front burner, and two smaller burners. All with rings to be taken out one by one, size of kettle depending. In addition, there was a “soup-well,” covered with a big “hat” – perfect for keeping your coffee warm, or for melting and drying snow-covered mittens in the winter! Opposite the stove, a long wood table, scrubbed to almost white, large enough to seat at least twelve. After Gunvor rang the big bell at the front of the house, signaling all to come in from the fields, it was at this table the “nons-leite,” the midday and meal, was served to all hands working on the farm. The kitchen was always the main heart of the farm.
While we lived in four rooms at the main house Dadda’s parents, Erling & Gunvor, stayed in the “summer house” across the road. There, the huge bake-oven took up most of the space on one end of the one room, a small sleeping quarter and simple kitchen and that was that. To the side was the well, and just above it, on the hill, the spring house, and then above that the smithy. This is where Hans and a younger brother, Johannes, stayed while Dadda stayed with us in the main house. This old house is now in a museum park close to the nearest little town where buildings like it have been gathered by The County Historical Society.
It turned out that Johannes was just a year older than me, and we became fast friends. He showed me around the farm, we gathered eggs from nests, which we found by crawling under the barn, he showed me how to milk the cows as he drank the milk he squirted into his mouth directly from the teat – somehow that was something I just couldn’t do, not only get the milk out of the teat, but to drink that warm milk.
In the afternoons we often roamed fields, picked wild strawberries that we threaded on stalks of oats or wheat, then a quick stop at the house for our afternoon snack. But first we stopped at the springhouse to pick up our bowls of clabber’d milk. Shallow bowls that Gunvor prepared by pouring fresh milk over a bit of soured milk. Covered with muslin, they were left outside to thicken, and when the flies gathered, time to put them in the springhouse. Soured to perfection, that’s where we picked up our bowls. Brought to the kitchen table, sprinkled out brown sugar and freshly picked field strawberries . . . now that was a kind of milk I liked, cold, thick and creamy. Better than any ice cream it was.
On the neighboring farm there were more playmates to find, and we scuttled between one farm and other, always in and out of whatever the grown-ups were doing. We were helpers in the early hay-cutting days when we were allowed to jump in the wagon and tamp down the hay so more could be filled on as the farmers and their helpers swung three-tined forks to lift the dry hay from the “hesjer” (long rows of two-tiered wires, strung between poles for the hay to dry after cutting) into the wagon. Then a long pole was laid across the wagon front to back to hold the hay down, and the horses trotted us back to the barn, we riding bare-backed, high up front. The barn became another place for play as the men had strung a hefty rope on a beam for us to swing over the edge for us to drop into the sweet-smelling hay. Did we sneeze even? Not that I can remember, hay-fever, what was that?
There were grown-up visitors to my Mom through the summer, and they, along with local women friends often sat on top of the rocky knoll where the grass grew, they talked endlessly, played cards, drank coffee, and kept to the shade of the one tree that grew there. A blessing that was to us children. We were free to go wherever we pleased. We explored the island, picked berries, almonds from a lone bushy tree, collected eggs, rode the horses, went wading or swimming when we learned how to do that. While by the sea, we always had to bring home shells for the hens. Before throwing them around the coop area, we had to crack them into smaller pieces, the more easily for the hens to eat them – that’s for the craw, we were told, that’s what digests their food. Oh? Really? And so, the lesson in digestive tracts from hens and birds to cows to humans. No textbook required; we were right there. If there was to be chicken fricassee for dinner, we chased the hens to catch one, which was promptly put on the block by one of the men to be axed – the headless hen stumbled about for a bit before falling over. Then we had to help pluck it clean, get gutted and carried to the kitchen for preparation for supper for the following day. Supper was always at noon, when the bell rang everyone in from the fields. We children always tried to be home for that meal, when everyone was around, farmers, helpers, women bustling to and from the stove serving huge slabs of bread and home-churned butter to go with the main meal. Once a month, 40 loaves of bread were baked in the brick-oven in the “summer house” and smaller rounds of loaves of leftover dough became our treats. Breaking through the crust and scooping out warm dough, that was a kind of heaven. Curry-combing the horses, drive the cows out to pasture in the morning, then gather them home in the early evening for milking, we could do. We learned a bit about beekeeping, too. When the neighbor farmer collected honeycombs from his hives, our job was to sling the honey from the combs, earning chunks of honeycomb to chew when the job was done. It was play and work, and we learned by doing one thing or other to our capacity, always age-appropriate without our knowing that, simply being reminded by a grown-up that we needed to know a little more before we could handle this or that task.
The island was pretty much our own country, we climbed trees, collected wild mushrooms – we were taught the ones not to pick, ‘cause they’d surely kill you – to be roasted in a long-handled pan over open fire.
It was here that I first learned to drink coffee. At 12 o’clock midday, Gunvor would ring the big bell atop the stabbur (a kind of larder-house, set rather high above ground by four huge boulders, one for each corner). The bell chimed far and wide and rang everyone in from the ban and fields for nonsleite. Once the plates were cleaned and cleared, there was coffee and a bit of sweet bread for dipping. Uncle Erling we called him, Dadda’s dad, had an outsize cup that easily held a good pint when, sweetened with sugar and topped with cream. With the cup came an equally outsize and deep saucer. He’d pour the coffee in the saucer to cool and then he’d gently blow and slurp – no gentle sip for him. The thrill was when I was offered a taste – the smell when I put my lips to the edge to get my slurp, oh, that was something! Best thing I ever tasted it was.
Then somehow the weekend came along. We’d all sit on top of the stone hill where we could see all across to the road, and then the dust rising as the bus came to the end of the road. Then we children would pile into the wagon to bump down to the inlet, Hans would row across pick up our Dad, and back to the farm we went. Our rhythm was somewhat interrupted then, and of course Sunday was a rest day, when most folks went to church. By Sunday mid-days the return; my Dad would get on the bus, and our summer lives went on with all the things we did, or managed to get into. For the most part we did fine, seldom anyone got hurt, no one drowned – if anyone got out too deep, there was always one of us a bit older to pull in the poor floundering soul, and in no time, we’d pretty well learned how to swim. One summer we had a young goat, a kid, who went everywhere with us, who’d even stand chest-high in water bleating for us to come back to shore. None of us wore bathing suits, we’d undress behind a bush, girls to one side, boys to the other, and then we’d run fast to get in the water. Of course we “saw everything” anyway, but that’s how it was then, not unusual for youngsters. You’d never see a child wearing a bathing suit.
Fishing was something we’d often do. Often it was for eel but we really loved when the mackerel came in. You could row out and just haul them in. Scraped clean and gutted, pan-fried on an open fire, crisp and brown. Everyone pulled the oars, when not big enough to handle one oar, two of us would pull it together and get in rhythm with someone pulling the other. One time we got really carried away and drifted out toward the sea that with the current brought us past even the big Singeløya island, the shore of Sweden well in our sights. By that time someone missed us around at the farm and came searching for us in the motorboat. A little scared already, we were given a “talk-to,” and promptly hauled back to shore. Didn’t keep us from fishing though but we’d learned not row past Lille Singeløya.
Where our swimming “beach” was but a rocky ledge, however nice and warm in the summer sun, it was the bigger Singeløya that we loved to visit. There, was the most beautiful white sand beach, most uncommon in our part of the world. We’d often all pile into the “hvaboat,” the one used for big net fishing. Old and young, beer, soda, home-made juices, water and always a big kettle of something good to put on a fire. One meal savorly remembered was the lamb-and-cabbage dinner.
A while back, we’d had a sheep tethered in the garden – the reason why it was tethered there we never know – but I think we scared it to death till it strangled itself and died. The usual “talking to’s” and threats to tether us all, of course. That the poor sheep died, didn’t mean it went to waste. Not long after, the most delicious lamb-and-cabbage stew was prepared in a huge kettle, balanced in the bottom of the boat with all other provisions, and off we motored for the last-of-summer picnics. You’d never tasted better lamb-and-stew than that – however horribly the sheep’s end. A sound I can still hear: the bleating of the poor sheep in its attempts at escaping us. But you know that life and death on a farm are never that far apart, though the day Daisy, the bell-cow got stuck in the moor, broke her leg and had to be shot, it was a shot we heard even with our fingers fast in our ears. She, too, was put to good use. We watched the butchering as she was hanging in the barn, skinned, the hide put to dry to be worked and used for leather, the meat partitioned and dried for winter soups, bones cooked for broth and stored. That’s just how it was.
Helen Rehl was born & raised in Oslo, Norway, 1936, and emigrated to New York City in 1958. She met husband-to-be Peter on a blind date in June 1965, and they moved to Malvern, PA in 1975, where they raised their children. Helen is part of the Writers’ and the Textile Makers’ groups at Malvern Arts. “The Summer Island a work in progress – I am writing it for my children, but also to revisit that time of such freedom, that was only partly available to my children. At least they could roam the neighborhood freely, and came for dinner when I rang my brass bell out front.“