Chapter 19

’Carry me home to Heaven’

 Monday April 28th. I do not go to the pool. I have to go to a funeral. It is not going to be the saddest of funerals. The lady who has died became 89 years old. She was one of my aunts on my father’s side, aunt Lillemor, Lillemor Burum.

            Her real name was not Lillemor (which literally means Little Mother). Lillemor was a pet name given to her when she was a little girl. I have never heard her be called anything but Lillemor. If I was tortured to say her real first name, I couldn’t do it. I simply do not know.

            I dress in my dark suit and a white shirt, put on a grey necktie with black stars which I use at funerals, brush my shoes, and drive to the railway station at Rygge.

            I enter the 10.54 train to Oslo. The ride takes a little less than an hour. I go to eat lunch at my publishing company, Forlaget Oktober, located in Kristian Augusts gate in central Oslo. Oktober’s authors have a standing invitation to come to lunch in the canteen. Lunch is very informal, and typical Norwegian. Staff and visiting authors sit down at a long table, and we all make our own open-faced sandwiches. There is no beer or wine served, just orange juice and water.

             I sit alongside my editor, Cis-Doris Andreassen. Not for all the money in the world would I tell her about my writing in English.

             If she, somehow, had heard a rumour about it, I would tell her that an author has to write what he has to write, in a language that suits the project. She would have respected my decision. She is very respectful. But she would have urged me to stop before I waste to much time and energy on at book that can not be printed by Oktober, or any other Norwegian publisher, and for which I’ll earn absolutely no money.

              I would have answered that even if I live from my writing and need money, I have had to write this book for publication on the web, for free. I needed an outlet for my thoughts. I needed to write in a language which gives me resistance, in which words do not come too easily. I needed English a patient short of air needs oxygen.

              No, to say that would have sounded too dramatic. I find no good metaphor. Good luck for me that my book is a secret and that we will have no conversation about it.

               Present at the lunch is author Per Petterson. He has had great international success lately. His novel ”Out Stealing Horses” has done very well in Great Britain and the USA, and won him literary prizes. Do I envy him? Of course I do, and he knows that I do. All Oktober’s authors, and all other Norwegian authors, envy Per. But he is such a good, modest and hard-working fellow that we welcome his success and think he deserves it.

             The last thing we would talk about at the lunch table, Per and I, is how he has hit the international book market. He would blush if I mentioned it. He tells that he has a new novel ready for publication in the autumn. I congratulate him.

              I know I’ll have no new novel ready for this year or next year, for years, maybe. But I  write – I do my typing - and that is the most important thing for a writer. Come rain, come shine. I write.

             From Oktober I take a taxi and tell the driver we are going to the east of the city, to Østre krematorium (Eastern Crematorium).

             Traffic is slow. I think about Lillemor who is dead. She was my father’s half sister, one of his five half sisters. He also had two half brothers. What I remember best of Lillemor is a memory from childhood, from a Christmas party when I was five or six years old. Every Boxing Day (”2. juledag”) the big family on my father’s side gathered at my grandmother’s house at Haslum near Oslo. For reasons that I’ll explain later on I did not know my cousins very well. They were many, and I loved meeting them. But upon first sight of the whole bunch on this particular Boxing Day I was a bit scared.

             We, the children, were supposed to walk around the Christmas tree, which was very big and glittering, and sing Christmas carols. We all lined up. But I did not know whose hands I should put mine in.

             Then my blonde aunt Lillemor came forward and put my right hand firmly into the hand of her daughter, my beautiful fair-haired cousin Tonje. My left hand Lillemor put into the hand of my beautiful brown-haired cousin Lillegull (Little Gold, or Little Golden One – it was and is a family fond of  pet names and sobriquets).

            We, the ring of children, were standing still. I did not understand why we did not start marching. All of a sudden something happened that almost stopped my little heart.

             The tree moved.

             First it turned slowly around, then it moved faster.

             And the tree started  to play.

             It was a familiar Christmas song, ”Glade jul, hellige jul” (”Happy Christmas, holy Christmas”).

             The tree’s movement and music was too much for me. I screamed in panic. I wept.

             Aunt Lillemor comforted me, and said repeatedly that there was no danger. She told me that the Christmas tree was supposed to move around and play ”Glade jul”. This was perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.

             I wiped away my tears. Finally the tree stopped, and so did the music. I marched heroically along with a good grip of  the hands of my cousins. But I did not sing. My voice was gone, my mouth dry.

            Afterwards my father gave me an explanation of the mystery of the tree. My father’s mother, my grandmother Frida, was German. From Germany she had imported a peculiar Christmas tree stand (”juletrefot”). The stand was mechanical and could be wound up like a clock. When a lock was released, the device started to move, and a musical box (”spilledåse”)inside the stand started to play.

            During Christmases to come I was not afraid of the moving and playing tree. But I never liked it very much.

            I remember from a late Boxing Day evening  Lillemor sitting on the veranda at Haslum with her husband Leif and my mother Fredy, the three of them smoking cigarettes. The veranda of the big house, which had once been a farmhouse, was dimly lit. I was standing outside in the darkness to cool off after a friendly fight with my Swedish cousin Anders.The red lights of the cigarettes illuminated the faces of the smokers. I thought about how pretty my aunt Lillemor looked, and of course about how pretty my mother looked.

            On the veranda my father, called Fred by the family, stood by himself, aloof as he sometimes was when visiting my grandmother, smoking his pipe.

            By that time, when I was nine or ten, I had learned that my aunts and uncles were not his full sisters and brothers, but half sisters and brothers.

            Later, much later, I learned that my father was born out of wedlock, as an illegitimate child, a by-blow. His mother Frida Weidner had, when very young, met my grandfather Johan Fredrik Michelet (having the same name as my father got) when he was a student of engineering in Germany. The relationship between the two of them resulted in pregnancy. Pregnant Frida came to Norway to meet with Johan Fredrik. Something went terribly wrong.

             The story I have heard from my mother is that he was not able to cope with the situation, that he escaped, that he went off. And I know for sure that he emigrated to America. First he was in North America, then he moved on to Argentine, where he live for almost sixty years until his death in 1964. He worked as an engineer constructing hydro electric power stations in the Andes Mountains. Then he became a cattle farmer on the pampa. He never came back to Norway. He never saw my father. There was no contact between them.

             Left alone in what was for her a foreign country, Frida gave birth to my father. This happened in 1905. Lonely and penniless she could not take care of him. He was placed on a farm in the interior of Østfold. He came to good people, a childless couple who treated him well.

             Frida took up work in a shop in Kristiania (today Oslo). She met the man who was to become her husband, the well-to-do timber merchant Bernt Paulsen. They married, settled at Haslum and got seven children.

             I sit in the taxi, driven by a Pakistani like so many Oslo taxis, and think about the long lapse of time since my father died. It happened 24 years ago, when he was 79.

             His little sister Lillemor has died now, so incredibly many years later. 

             How come? I have to do a calculation. Born in 1919 Lillemor was 14 years younger than my father, and she became 10 years older than him.

             We arrive at Østre krematorium. I see no familiar faces in the small crowd that has gathered on the stairs outside. I check the notice on the bulletin board by the entrance door. It says that Gerd Burum is to be buried at 13.30 hours, which is five minutes from now.

             So Gerd it was, my aunt Lillemor’s Christian name, the one she was given when baptized.

             I go inside and see some of my cousins. I sit down besides Håkon, who has lived in Sweden his whole life and been an actor there. I ask him if his mother, my aunt Totten, is present at the funeral. She is not. Now 92 years old she is the oldest of the three surviving of my aunts and uncles. I guess she has found the travel from Sweden to Oslo be too fatiguing.

             My father’s surviving half brother Klemet lives near Seattle in the USA.

            But my father’s youngest half sister, Lilletulla, who lives in Vestfold on the Oslo Fjord, is present and sits on the same bench as I do. I greet her and cannot stop looking at her. For me it is so curious to sit with my father’s sister, he being so long gone, and she being here alive. At 87 years of age Lilletulla seems to be in very good shape. I see in her face some of the facial features of my father, especially the sharp nose.

              Lilletulla and I met at a family party this winter. As I have already written, I do not see much of my cousins. The family party at my cousin Vensen’s farm at Jevnaker was a rare occasion. I liked it very much. Aunt Lilletulla told me a story about my father: He was often invited to Haslum. But his half sisters and half brothers were not told who he really was. Lilletulla thought of him as a handsome young friend of the family and adored him. She was sixteen years old when she was told that Fred was her half brother. He was then 32 years old.

             She said to me at the party that she was still angry with her mother and father for not telling her the truth about her half brother before she was sixteen. Why was my father’s existence such a family taboo?

             My aunt Lillemor’s body is in a white coffin surrounded by a lot of white flowers. I had expected that there would be many flowers at the funeral. For many years she and Leif were the owners of three florist’s shops in Oslo. When they sold the flower shops, she started working as a switchboard operator at Tiedemann’s tobacco factory.

             It is to be a Christian burial. We are waiting for the priest to appear.

             (I know that in English the word ”priest” is mostly used as a designation for Catholic clergymen. But since the word in English is very similar to the word in Norwegian, ”prest”, I have taken the liberty to use ”priest” sometimes when I describe Protestant clergy.)

              Music is played from a record. It is ”Memory” by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I see the back of my cousin Tonje who is sitting on the front bench. She was it who told me on the phone that her mother had died. She said it was not such a tragic affair, considering how old her mother became.

             Last time I was at Østre krematorium – a little less than a year ago - the funeral was a heartbreaking event to me and many others. My longtime friend Tron Øgrim, writer and lecturer, had died of a stroke at only 59 years of age. Tron was a leftist political guru for many of my generation, and for a lot of young people. At his funeral the premises were so crowded that many had to stand on the outside. I gave a short commemorative speech at Tron’s funeral, which was not a Christian burial. He was an atheist like me.

             When my mother died in 1972, my father and I arranged for her to have a Christian burial. When he died in 1984, I – the only child – arranged for him, according to his wish, to have the same sort of a burial as my mother.

             On both occasions I felt that the words of the clergymen about eternal life were not true to me. But I said nothing to the parsons afterwards.

             At Østre krematorium a young clergywoman enters.

             A hymn is sung. The old people in the crowd sing along. The younger people mumble or hum, or keep quiet. I, even if I am not young, am amongst the quiet.

             The young female priest delivers a sermon of the traditional kind; the creed, the prayers, the blessing.

             I do not know if many, or any, of my cousins are beleivers. We have never spoken about religious matters.

            Whatever we are, we follow the custom and the ritual, out of respect for the dead, for Lillemor.

            The parson speaks about Lillemor’s life, presenting information she has been given by my cousin Tonje and her younger brother Nils.

              She says that Lillemor was one of eight children. This makes me glad because it includes my father in the crowd of children.

            We sing another hymn:

              Så ta da mine hender of før meg frem

            inntil jeg salig ender i himlens hjem!

            So take my hands and lead me on

            until I saved end up in Heaven’s home!

             In the printed funeral programme no name of the hymn is given. I do not remember the name of the hymn, which is very popular at Norwegian Christian burials. I call it ”Carry me home to Heaven”.

            Do any of my cousins really believe that Lillemor is to be carried home to Heaven?

            I don’t know, and I shall not ask. My slogan of the day is: Let everyone keep their convictions. Let them believe if it makes them happy.

            The atmosphere is not blissful. It is an atmosphere of sobriety.

            We all rise to our feet.

            The young clergywoman throws earth on the coffin and says the ceremonial words about coming of the earth and becoming earth, and the resurrection from earth.

            Music is played. It is a lyrical melody by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, ”Ved Rondane” (At Rondane Mountains).

            We go to the coffin and greet the dead in silence.

            Then we leave Østre krematorium.

              After the funeral there is an arrangement for family and friends at Østmarkseteren, which is located on the edge of a wood, a stretch of forest called Østmarka to the east of Oslo. I go there in Lillegull’s car togheter with Lilletulla.

            ”Seter” means dairy farm, but is also a popular name suffix for lodges in the forests and hills around Oslo, the most famous being the Viking style Frognerseteren near Holmenkollen. Østmarkseteren was built in 1926 as a cafeteria serving cross-country skiers in wintertime and walkers and bathers in the nearby Ulsrudvannet (Ulsrud Lake) in summertime.

             During the German occupation a big bunker was constructed in the granite ground underneath the timber buildings of Østmarkseteren. What purpose the bunker had I have never found out. Maybe it was to be a refuge for German officers in the case of an Allied attack on Oslo, a kind of Wolfschanze in the woods.

             As an eager skier I often visited Østmarkseteren in the 1960’es to have a drink of hot blackcurrant toddy in the cafeteria.

              At the end of the 1960’es the cafeteria was modernized to become a restaurant with banqueting rooms. The place is well kept and much used for weddings, birthday celebrations and after-funeral arrangements. It is renowned for its good wine cellar.

              We, the guests from the funeral, all sit down in one of the banqueting rooms. It is a Norwegian saying that blood is thicker than water, meaning that family ties are strong. And strong they are also in my family which I do not meet often. I really like to be with my cousins. We talk about family matters and memories. We tell each other that we should not only meet at funerals, but find other occasions.

             We have buried an old aunt. The next time we meet at at funeral, it may not be to bid farewell to an aunt, but to one of our own generation. We, the cousins, are not old people yet, but we have started to grow old. The hair or beard of many of us has become gray. My Swedish cousin Anders passed away at only 50 years of age. Death may hit any of us. I have had my diseases of the heart and the prostate, of which I have spoken in public. I do not know if any of my cousins have had similar problems. At the table we do not talk about our own health.

             Our generation’s life expectancy may not be as long as that of our old aunts. The aunts grew up in the lean 1930’es. During the war years they had scanty fare; five years of  an involuntary slimming cure. After the war there was a strict rationing of sugar and other foodstuffs. British and American cigarettes were status symbols.

             We of my generation grew up in the relative poverty of postwar Norway. But then Norway became rich from the oil of the North Sea, and we started to live fatter, and had unlimited access to foreign cigarettes and French brandy and Scotch whisky, and champagne. Our lifestyle was not as healthy as that of the aunts.

             At Østmarkseteren we all eat a lot of sandwhiches, danishes and big pieces of layer cake, or cream gateau. The wine cellar is not opened for the occasion. We drink coffee and mineral water, following the custom of Norwegian after-funeral arrangements.

             I tell a story from a visit I paid to Høyanger a few years ago. Høyanger is an industrial site on the Sogne Fjord in Western Norway, known for its aluminium factory, one of the oldest in Norway. I was invited by the local trade unions as a speaker on May 1st, and spoke strongly against the closure of the aluminium factory. I was shown the melting furnaces which the owner, the big aluminium corporation Norsk Hydro, threatened to shut down. (The old factory at Høyanger is still operating, due to the tremendous development of industrial production in China, which has increased the demand on the world market of aluminium from Norway.)

             At Høyanger I was also shown the summer vacation home of the workers. There the Chemical Worker’s Trade Union had kept a book, a kind of ledger (”protokoll”), from 1933 as a souvenir of the hard times. In 1933 a summer camp for working class girls was arranged at the vacation home. It was important that the girls were well fed, so that their weight would go up during the stay. In the book accurate record was made of the weight increase of every girl.

            Today, if such a record should be made at a summer camp for girls, it would be of the weight reduction of every girl. Times are changing.

              I go in the car of my cousin Anne and her husband Even to the railway station, and catch the five o’clock train from Oslo. I am exhausted after the trip to the city. My mind is full of impressions from the funeral, and of sad memories of the funerals of my mother and father.

            On the train I meet a friend, Per Mathias Høgmo, who was the successful coach of the Norwegian national female football team which won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Sydney in the year 2000, beating the US team 2-1 in the finals. He is now working as a manager of top football at Norges Fotballforbund  (The Norwegian Football Association).

            We discuss football. It is relaxing, and distracting my mind form the memory of funerals. We also discuss Labour Party politics – he is a party member – and religion. I tell him I’m going to Trefoldighetskirken on May 1st to defend my atheist point of view, and it makes us smile.The journey goes quickly.

            When I drive by the stone church in Rygge, I stop for a couple of minutes to meditate about eternity. For 839 years people have met in this church to pray for salvation and bury their dead. If the stones in the walls could tell, they would tell about the belief people have had during all those years; that the souls of their beloved would be carried home to Heaven.

            ”I’m sorry, old church,” I say, ”that I have no faith and cannot believe in eternal life.”

            ”The faithless are welcome inside me,” answers the church. ”It is here they can be saved.”

            ”I know that much,” I say. ”But I am like the marten. I’m not easily trapped.”

            But what I now tell the church is bull. A winter several years a go I went skiing on the snowcovered fields of a big farm in the neighbourhood called Evje. In a cluster of oaks I stumbled upon a device which I had never seen before. It was an open wooden box with a a big, rusty scissor  inside, the kind used to trap bears and foxes. From the box came the rancid smell of rotten fish, and I noticed a bundle of dead fishes. I couldn’t figure out what the trap was meant to trap. Then I saw some pieces of black fur, and realized it was a marten trap and that a marten had recently been trapped in it.

            What a shame, I thought, that no sooner has the marten appeared in this part of the country, then somebody starts trapping it. I wondered if such a trap was legal, or if I should report it to the police. I wanted to rip the trap apart, but did not dare. What if the scissor suddenly snapped and caught me?

            I wouldn’t like to be found dead from bleeding or starvation in a marten trap.

       Chapter 18

Chapter 20