A Man and His Great-Grandfather

Knud Sønderby

Illustration by Gianna Meola

How many city dwellers can count back a couple of generations in their family and not end up out in the country? Only a few. Some know where such and such a farm or such and such a place where their ancestors lived is located. Others don’t. Some never gave a thought to where or whom they originated from. It’s totally irrelevant for a city dweller, where or who his forefathers might have been. What matters is work. Everyone is making their own way, just by hanging on. The heavy-set trolley driver, driving his car through the city’s traffic, is he longing for the old fields? He doesn’t give them the time of day. As long as the farm blood is pulsing in his veins, he is not thinking about it. He’s content to make use of it.

And then one day you stand in front of the house where it was.

One day I happened to stand in front of mine. A random memory popped up while I was riding my bicycle through a country town. Wasn’t it there that a deceased aunt once said . . . And a church record allowed me to follow the trail further.

Then there I was, going door to door like a beggar, between the low thatched roofs of farms and houses spread so widely apart over sumps, heaths, and stretches of meadow that it was difficult to believe they were classified under the same name on the map. Mongrels yapped at my heels. A hand held fast to a door that was opened and the entryway was blocked by a body and polite suspicion. Who is this stray city chap? I also got a glimpse of a solitary heath drama. A young woman with a well-placed black eye opens the door. Her reluctance is not minimal. It was there beforehand. She opens a door to her bitterness and slams it again, as if expecting that I would slug her too.

It is the season when heavy red-striped bedclothes are hung to bake in the sunshine. Between the patio stones, weeds are sprouting, and pigeons coo pleasantly on the roof. A farmhand is standing high up on a cart full of heather, unloading. Politely, he averts his gaze after looking me over, and keeps working, as if that is the only thing he is occupied with. It’s just a guy from the city. His reticence is like when you see a dwarf and of course don’t notice anything unusual about him.

He shouts my question to another, half-embarrassed on my behalf: “Someone is asking if there is a place around here where someone named so-and-so once lived.”

“Who’s askin’?” shouts a woman from inside the house.

“It’s a man . . . a gentleman.” And he stabs the pitchfork into the heather to emphasize that I should not read too much into this. It is just the characteristic of an appearance, an outfit. The mannequin outside a department store is also a gentleman. As far as . . .

“What for?” she shouts from her hiding place in the house.

But he wants nothing more to do with it. He lets me field the question myself, if I want.

And I explain to him what this means to me, but he is unable to say it out loud. He opens his mouth a couple of times to repeat it to her, is the epitome of courtesy. But it cannot be repeated. Miserably, he goes back to working. He would rather crawl into a hole.

Eventually I am asked inside. A man in a homespun frock coat and slippers—an old man with a liberal flapping tie and low, crooked collar—approaches to receive me. I am invited to sit in the family room at the glossy, varnished, mahogany-colored dining table. Table doily and blue flower vase. Highly polished, factory-made sideboard with a silver top. Clever businessmen have trawled the Danish countryside, and for ten-dollar bills tricked the country inhabitants out of these authentic and dignified old pieces of farmhouse furniture. But look at the man in his slippers. There is something the hustling agents could not buy, no matter how much they might have offered. Personal dignity. They drove off with antiques and dizzying profits, but the man kept for himself what was most important.

God help me if this man doesn’t have a bearing that would make a diplomatic corps jealous. And without the least outward means—just the oak boards in his possession and his consciousness. No smile, but no undeserved suspicion either. A faraway look in his eyes, just after offering me his hand. But at the same time a respectability that is somehow contagious. I sit down to present my application to this minister of these foreign lands; I am no slouch myself. He bows his head, ready to listen, creating simultaneously peace of mind and an impersonal distance.

And, yes, of course, he has information to give me, he knows which family I mean, and he can show me where the house is that they left behind. In the last year many of the farms have ended up in the hands of families of strangers, just like this one has. Otherwise it was always the same families, fishermen and farmers every one of them. Usually the families even married into one another. His own family has lived on this farm for several hundred years. If the man I’m describing was my grandfather, then at some point far back we are actually related. He relates this information like the coincidence it is, and without his distance or impartiality lessening for a moment.

And was there anything else he could offer me, now that I am visiting the home of my ancestors? No, there wasn’t. And he trades his slippers for a pair of clogs, and in his frock coat the old former fisherman and farmer follows me outside, a short distance down the road, until he can point out the particular house.

I will never forget his eyes.

It can happen that a city dweller, in a distant region of the country, meets the facial expression of his family among strangers. A pair of eyes, for example, that he suddenly recognizes.

They were my father’s eyes that man was walking around with.

Big blue eyes that somehow had an independent life separate from his. Contact with them was only made on occasion, and that gave them a remoteness. He used them only intermittently to see out of. When he spoke with a person, he only had to bring them into focus, to see with them, for it to be perceived as a warm courtesy.

A rural person moves to the city, sits in a room in an apartment building, and before long resembles a gentleman, at ease in the milieu, not surprised in the least to be able to find his own home among the honeycombs. And the subway and trolleys. If you don’t like your home, then move through the concrete maze to a new one. The subway and trolleys are there to accommodate the rootlessness.

Parents and children and, at most, a couple of grandparents. Bright in front and dark behind. The consciousness reaches no further. The view is no better from the third floor.

And the ancestors are just a couple of generations back, the lineage, the forgotten ones, the ones left behind, the place whose location you might not remember anymore.

Sometimes it can be found. A coincidental remark, that even more coincidentally has taken root, a church register’s yellowed pages, an old man, noble in his simplicity, who has not been moved from the thousand previous years in himself, who has his roots well-preserved, who in any case knows what he knows, and does not pretend to know any more than that.

And there the house stands, the place through the many hundreds of years where nothing has changed. Its three sections huddled together, an old thatched roof, and low walls whose red bricks have been blackened by sun and wind. A single rosebush against the wall and also a garden in front. Sitting inside the rooms looking out of the windows, your nose would be at the height of the tops of the potato plant outside. In there they did their time, century after century. Blue and green glass balls, the kind fisherman use, are placed around a little garden bed. In the distance I can see that farmhand, standing in the cart of heather, working his pitchfork—in ten years he will still be there. The thatched houses and farms are spread across a square mile or so of the scraggly heather. On the telephone wires the swallows see-saw in the wind, and on the other side, only a hundred yards west, the cliffs stand like a mountain range, and the North Sea sounds its organ tone against the beach.

So it actually was my great-grandfather, the last fisherman and farmer of a long line, who lived here.

And time has stood still ever since. Here.

He brought in a bit of grain, but more fish than grain I’m sure. He also had potatoes to go with the fish, a single cow and a couple of sheep as well. And you can still see the sheep grazing behind the house. They have survived everything. When he got old, he was like the old dignified man I spoke with. Had no reason to be otherwise.

But one son became a livestock trader with more money in his greasy wallet than had passed between the hands of all his forefathers put together. The earning potential of previous generations accumulated and gathered in his pockets, just by his drinking an Irish coffee or slapping a man on the back. And on top of that the culture, the children’s future, city life.

His son is not going to be a livestock trader, but a grocer or a wholesaler!

This is how people come to the city.

And a man, who could never bring himself to slap another person on the shoulder, who could not be bothered to have a drink in order to receive a product, to grease the skids, and who was distant to those he spoke with, became a merchant, bought and sold products in which he was not interested, to people he did not care for. He sat in the evening, reading books about animals and plants. City life. Every Sunday he took his children to the park or the harbor, made small, warm, awkward attempts to get them interested in single blades of grass or in the birds and animals. He could lift up a flounder and tell them everything about it. First, a flounder is of course not flat. It is compressed.

The children show no interest.

Two men, who one at a time traveled farther and farther from home, made it in the world, as you are supposed to as a city dweller.

And then it can happen that a third or fourth or fifth generation city dweller one day finds his way back to his place of origin, stands in front of it, looks at the same view that had been his family’s for many generations, and the swallows are see-sawing on the telephone wires, the wind is whistling, the sheep grazing between sedges and lyme grass, and there are bluebells at the road edge. Time takes care of itself here. You don’t have to help the time pass. It just stands still.

There I stood so strangely irrelevant and foreign. Like a highly polished piece of city furniture from the factory dropped at the roadside. And I don’t own that place, which otherwise always was ours.

I sat for a half hour looking at that house, which had nothing to do with me anymore, imprinting on my memory the view to all sides. The sheep almost grazed the life right out of me by their ease and sense of belonging. But I did realize a couple of things. I have very ugly hands. They are almost as wide as they are long. They were made to hold an oar, or to work as a livestock dealer, boring my fingers scrutinizingly into the tenderloin of a steer. They nearly cover the typewriter. And I often make mistakes.

It was as if these hands had come home again.

translated from the Danish by Michael Goldman