It wasn’t easy explaining why we were moving to a glacier, especially right then when the New York City winter was beginning to sink in its fangs. There was always that teasing buzz that reddened my cheeks when I tried to qualify our move, particularly to theater friends.
“NOR-way? Like tundra Norway?” The producers of the big musical I was appearing in gaped. There were blank stares from other actors, raised brows from the music director: “Norway. Gotcha. Capital of Sweden, right?” The assorted smirks and sniggers: “Freeze-your-everlovin’-earlobes-off Norway?”
I triple-checked Oslo’s coordinates just to get my bearings. Right there, yes folks, at sixty degrees latitude it sits, along the very same ice-gray line as Alaska, the Yukon, Siberia and a convivial speck in Canada’s Northern Territories called “Eskimo Point.”
No wonder I’d never thought much about Oslo, and hadn’t given much thought to Scandinavia. But I had to start thinking, if even vaguely, about the details when, a few weeks earlier in October, things started really rumbling, and when I found myself in a theater production office in late November, negotiating my way out of my contract, evangelizing to the artistic director about a place I really had no clue about, except that my husband and I were taking our two children, his business career, and my barely-budding theater career there.
This October I’m telling you about takes place a bit before everyone and his hamster has a cell phone. The tech people have knocked on my dressing room door during intermission, motioning that there’s a call for me on the backstage telephone. Randall’s voice sounds like it’s in Hoboken, not Oslo:
“Honey, I’m so sorry to call right now. But . . . things are pretty serious in today’s interviews. I won’t waste your time. Uh, so, remind me again, how does Norway sound to you?”
Cold, I think, and feel.
“You mean they’re tendering an offer already? Like now?”
With my emerald green robe wrapped around me, I press my forehead against the wall, my hair in pin curls under a nylon that also holds in place the wire of the body microphone snaking up and over one ear like a beige garter snake sucking on my cheek. It will be covered in a platinum 1940s wig in a matter of minutes. Other cast members are scuttling by, focused on a space between their eyes and the floor running lines, or they’re laughing, tugging shoulder pads and hemlines, patting each other’s backs, humming their next number. A crew guy points at me and then his wristwatch, raising an eyebrow, wagging two fingers. Two minutes.
Would we be interested (I’m hearing these words), such a wonderful group to work with, ready to move, boss a great mentor, willing and available, beautiful office, this place is gorgeous, two or maybe longest three years? Spanning Scandinavia? Soon?
One minute. Finger hammering on wristwatch. Louder tisking. Time. Bad time. Bad timing.
I had thought something like this might hit us sooner or later. And let’s face it, I hadn’t, after all, put my pretty foot down forbidding Randall from going to a whole slew of preliminary interviews. On the contrary, I’d been crossing my fingers, hoping things would go wonderfully for him. A career and family opportunity like this one! It all would have been great. A once in a lifetime opportunity. Sooner or later.
But I’d been banking on the later, a year or two or three later. Maybe after I’d worked out the wrinkles in this crazy life, the life of a full-time mother and wife, an adjunct English faculty member, and an aspiring professional musical theater actress. Maybe after we’d found a place right in The City, I’d thought, or after we’d figured out how to split care for our two children with the demanding schedule of daily rehearsals, then tri-weekly matinées and nightly shows. After, I’d thought. After Randall and I had mastered that complicated late afternoon handover on my way to the theater. Maybe later, like after I’d gotten that patchwork to a good place where I wasn’t utterly exhausted during the hours I was with my children. (I came home from shows close to 1:00 a.m.; the children always got up and Randall headed out the door for work at 6:00 a.m.) Maybe later, after this show and another and another, later after I’d signed with one of the agents with whom I’d just lined up appointments.
So when he advises me, my Randall, there on the backstage phone just as the second act overture erupts in a brassy shout, that he’s so sorry and he knows this is not what we’d expected but he has to give a yes or no in a matter of hours, I don’t feel duped. I feel ambushed. Not to mention really close to missing my entrance. I feel pinched not punched, and not by my husband (I’d seen him off at the airport, after all, and had kissed him proudly, wishing him “All the luck in the world!”), but now I feel crammed up against a cinder block wall of choice I’d naively waltzed right into. And there from that corner I see I have no choice, given the timing, but to delicately decline the offer. And indelicately hang up on my husband.
But I don’t.
Because right then there is this snowplow thing. Right when telephone and backstage tensions are most tense, when trumpets and trombones are exploding with the second act overture, when dressing room doors are swinging open and shut, shooting shafts of white my way like search lights, when a frantic crew guy is giving me the Slit-Your-Throat! signal, I slowly close my eyes. I bow my head. I rest my brow in that cinder block corner. And from that posture I tunnel inwardly to a quiet space in my mind, searching through my gray matter and the matter which matters more, my heart.
Randall waits on the line on the other end of the world. Then slowly, pushing through a blur like the view through your windshield during a whiteout on the Garden State Parkway, comes a calming sensation. It is the image of a big, humming, green John Deere snowplow. I can see its sun-yellow blade. It’s cutting a channel right through the cold-wet weight of my mind. It scrapes right down to bedrock, clearing smooth the way ahead. So tactile is this utility tractor in my head, that I open my eyes expecting to see on the floor at my feet what is so evident on the floor of my brain. A way forward. Impossibly sheer walls of snow on either side. This clean, glistening sliced trail. Visible as that. Without lifting my eyelids, I see what we’re supposed to do, what I am supposed to do.
A month later, I’m scouring New Jersey Burlington Coat Factory sale racks for winter outerwear for four: Mom, Dad, Parker, age four, and Claire, age two. Next thing, this terrific cast holds a big bon voyage party that makes me all smushy and doubtful for a few hours about the reliability of internal green power tractors as predictors for one’s entire familial and professional future. Then I think of that pathway image, I sit on it for a while, rekindling the sensation I know I’d had, and remind myself that “foreign” isn’t really so foreign.
We had in fact lived abroad, Randall and I, even extensively. Before we married, Randall and I had both lived and worked in Germany and Austria respectively. I’d studied in Salzburg and Vienna, and as a young couple we’d also returned together to work in Vienna. Before all that—before us, even—Randall’s father had been a missionary in pre–World War II Germany, my father had been a missionary in post–World War II Germany and had then studied music in Vienna, had married my mother and moved to Munich where their music studies continued (his in violin, hers in voice) and where, after a rousing night at the opera, they had conceived me. My zygotic beginnings were, so to speak, “foreign.” Twenty-seven years later, with our first child, newborn Parker, Randall and I had moved to Asia for his internship at a Hong Kong bank. Our one-day family, we’d planned from almost our very first kiss, we would raise internationally. The “how” was a mystery to us then. But we were kissing, so come on, details, details.
Cold and long dark winters, I’d heard that much. Übercool design, I’d heard, and those funky Northern Lights. And Ibsen. And Grieg. Aqua and A-Ha. And Lillehammer. And the Norwegians are all tall blondes with strong bone structure, I’d heard. So just like me! But they all skied. So not just like me. We’d done Hong Kong, Austria, Germany, and Norway was Germanic. The company was offering some support to save us from taking out a loan from the World Bank in order to survive as a young family in Oslo, one of the five most expensive cities on earth. We would learn Norwegian, which to us as former college instructors of German sounded like fun, the way hopscotch sounds fun, or making a model airplane sounds fun. What could be the challenge in packing up and moving there for a couple of years or so? My union membership in Actor’s Equity would remain valid for three years while I took no work but focused completely on our children, assuming, as I did, that there surely wouldn’t be any random professional theater productions rolling through Oslo with a part in English for a young mother of two. We’d take the two-to-three year Nordic package, bail from it at that point, and then get back to the center of things, to our previous trajectories. To our cheek-by-jowl, dry-wall Jersey town home development right off Route 1. Now tell me: what could be so complicated about that?
What awaited us in Norway was an eye-opening, life-altering, trajectory-yanking journey that was so thoroughly challenging and satisfying in every way I can’t even fish out a word for it. It set our family on a course that, nearly two decades later, continues to define our places in and responses to living in this world. We couldn’t have known this during that backstage phone call, but that single decision to leave our home country would be the decision to make our home in many countries.
The mechanics of leaving our home country to make another place our home begin (and this shouldn’t surprise anyone) with feeling bile climb our throats. Vertigo. On some level we all fear the unknown, and we all fear being blown away, having our skirts blown skyward, having a blow to our pride, and somehow we know in our bones that however narrow and colorless that strip of comfort zone ledge might be that we’re teetering on, leaving it, flinging ourselves off into a major geographic and cultural relocation, will expose us. It will expose our limitations, insecurities, weaknesses, and our baggy Superhero underwear.
But another part of us wants to take that step, to fall, as they say in Norwegian, “neck over head in love” with a new place, a new people, a new way of living in the world. Sometimes that move just begins in a cursory, sideways glance of curiosity about the place. We study the map. We watch the people, their way of moving and talking and gesturing in conversation and we take note of how they sing to their babies in the city park and how they greet old friends in the marketplace and how they drive their cars or their rickshaws or their camels and by now we’re fascinated by observing how they hold their canteen or wine goblet or beer stein or how they hold their liquor at all. Before we know it, we’re mirroring how they fold their origami or their crêpe Suzette or their slice of pizza con funghi, and next we’re eating at their pace, slurping miso soup, spitting seeds over our shoulder, ripping the tip off the hot baguette, peeling our raw shrimp, and all of this with our eyes blindfolded and both hands tied behind our back.
In Norway, you do peel and eat raw shrimp, and you do it at a langbord, like our long farm table. It was our first and really our only major purchase when we moved there early in the winter of the Olympic Games of 1994. We were directed by friends to Peter, a craftsman who lived on our same island, a tall, scrubbed-clean, blonde specimen of gentle Nordic chiseledness who let us pick, from pictures, our own pine tree he would personally whack down and from which he would hand carve this long board of a table. In his workshop where he worked mostly alone and in silence, this Norwegian craftsman took our hand-selected pine, let it cure, carved it into this chunky plateau, then added (hand painted, in matte barn red) twelve pontifical-looking traditional Norwegian farm chairs. I am sitting in one now.
From this place the tale begins.
Next thing you know, that table from a quiet northern Norwegian forest and equally quiet workshop is surrounded with lots of noise. It’s the noise of laughter and singing and the sound of utensils clanking and glasses clinking, and all of this is coming from new friends, some of whom are sitting at the adjoining fold-out tables crammed into corners of our biggest room. Everyone is speaking different languages. Most frequently, the conversations weave from one tongue to another, then return to one common tongue, swirl around there for a while gaining momentum, then drift into threads of different languages, different stories, different ways of gesticulating and coloring the conversation.
Just as often, there’s food covering every inch of pine where there isn’t white table linen (a gift from a new friend), pewter plates (a gift from another), or elbows. Faces are leaning toward the candlelight, toward each other. That was Oslo.
And that was Versailles.
And . . .
And that’s just part of the tale, the glimmery, photo-op, made-for-movie, fairy-tale part that can be found in these pages. There are real people from across different cultures, people who helped us learn their languages, traditions, country’s history, and views of everything from politics to religion to gender roles to school systems. Like the barn-red chairs, this family of friends wraps all the way around the table and around the world. They wrap around our family and our family’s story. In point of fact, without them, there is no story to tell.
What lies at the heart of the tale of this table and is of greatest value, I believe, are not the dinner parties, no matter how scintillating, nor the into-the-wee-hours conversations, however colorful. At the very heart of this book is an enduring truth I’ve learned from so many years of living nomadically, of raising my family in the vortex of serial change. That truth is that just about everything, every last thing, every object is, ultimately, disposable. Things are, especially when you have to wrap and pack and load and unload and heft their weight time and time again, not only of comparatively little value, but they just plain make it tough to up and move quickly or gracefully. They’re gravitational, pushing you deeper into this earth’s crust, and when suspended against gravity, like our table, they cause neighborhood spectacles, make sailors sweat and swear, turn cartoon characters into gargoyles, and they bring out the beast in pleasant mothers who otherwise shave their shins, curl their eyelashes, and sample truffles in the bathroom.
Already you’re catching me in one of my typically human contradictions. Why, if things like tables have “comparatively little value” (as I write), and if they are “ultimately disposable” (as I also write), why then such a brouhaha on a sunny Parisian morning? Why get the gardienne’s apron in a bundle?
Because this table itself is needed to tell this or any of my most important stories. Like Julia Child said of her big Norwegian farm table, the one that the Smithsonian Institute has displayed with her complete home kitchen, our table is the heart of our home. Mrs. Child made no bones about it. If she was going to move from land to land—Norway, Germany, the East Coast of the US, twice in France (where her apartment in the Rue de l’Université was only a short walk from ours in Rue du Colonel Combes)—if she was going to be forever on the roam, then something, she insisted, had to remain stable.
This one table, s’il vous plait, may it stay?
Aside from my husband and our four children, who have always been my world amid this whirl, there are very few tangible things that have remained constant. Nearly all else at some point or another has had to be left behind. Houses, cars, sofas, pianos, beds, some few heirlooms, they have been left of sheer necessity: they didn’t fit, they didn’t match, they didn’t survive or they didn’t make it up the third floor stairway, down the cellar stairway or over the Atlantic.
My people, though, my most intimate, adored and invaluable people, they are my indisposables. Lose the rest of the stuff, go ahead, but do not lose my family. My family, they are what I knew would always remain. We did not have and never will have twenty or even ten accumulated years in a cul-de-sac, no decade or two of dreamy neighborhood cross-pollination that happens when a dozen or so families live hedge-to-hedge, enjoying parallel lives throughout everyone’s pregnancy, preteen, and prom years, marinating in one another’s lawn fertilizer and deck sealant, mixing barbecue sauces and swapping babysitters, swimming in one another’s backyard pools, and sometimes even in one another’s gene pools.
Well, one can’t have it all, they say. The fenceless life and someone else’s picket fence.
And they are so absolutely right. One cannot have it all.
And so we choose. We choose to have each other.
Which brings me back to friends. Some of my friends are essential, the way air, earth, and the blue ocean are, the lifelong distance from whom exacts quite a cost. But today, thanks to rapidly advancing technology, you have an excellent chance of keeping in close touch with such friends. Still, the pattern I’ve experienced is that as soon as you start gathering new friends around that long table of yours, and as soon as you get the conversation rolling, the music pouring out of the corner with the piano, just when you get to the point where you’re sharing forks with Sven or chopsticks with Su-Ling or childbirth stories with Svetlana, you have to break the news of your pending departure.
You have to do this to your children, too, who’ve also invested in their own friendships. The celebration around your table stalls in that difficult moment, the music recedes to a plunking tinkle, and you’re back in that queer place where your muscles stiffen around your mouth, and you eke out a promise, as you’ve done how many times before, of remaining in touch. And possibly even visiting. Next year, you promise, smiling like you’re waiting for your sixth grade school photo to be taken. After that, you express regret that you didn’t do more of this or of that or of something else while you still had the time together. Had we only known, you usually have to say, we’d be moving so far away.
And so soon.
And so . . . soon you’re unwrapping forks and chopsticks from that gray packing paper, the glasses from their bubbly plastic, and a crew is milling busily around you, chattering away in a language that for you in this moment is as good as Hmong played backwards and on high speed on a 1930s RCA Victor. It’s a language for which you’d been forward-thinking enough to buy that slick pocket phrase book which is packed, as fate would have it, in the bottom of box #491.
So these crew members merschgebirschgaborschk their way through your narrow entry hall, waving a questioning hand here, depositing a bed but the wrong frame in the wrong room over there, and so you’re belly-crawling through the soggy maze of your brain trying to find that doggoned cognate for “bed” and “frame” and “wrong,” only to see out of the corner of your eye and through a ground floor window that the rest of said crew is now standing in the middle of the street surrounding your big table, your one and only indisposable thing. She’s posed there, your table, in the open air quite bare and vulnerable and all defenseless in her raw pine, while the men are scratching their beards and beating back traffic, which is blocked because of the moving truck and immovable table, so the natives are honking crazily, the crew is swearing (at least you assume it is swearing, although it sounds just like mershgebirschgaborschk only with a certain corporeal emphasis), and the whole scene alerts the local police, who pull up, lights swirling and badges brandishing, all of which, of course, breaks the ice nicely.
Welcome to your new homeland.
So, you need your one and singular fix of comfort now and again. Our table has been just that, it has become almost like an essential friend, accompanying us for so long, witnessing so much of what this life has meant to our small unit. The morning after those parties I’ve described above, for instance (and you and I have to have a deal that you never tell my dinner guests about this), I changed my babies’ diapers there. On its big surface I also massaged their little limbs with almond oil and essence of eucalyptus when they were congested and crampy. Here, I also massaged butter under the skins of turkeys and pheasants and between the blistered toes of little, sore soccer feet. It’s along its dinged up but steady edge where our two youngest, Dalton and Luc, holding tight, learned to toddle. When older, they hid underneath it in ad hoc bed linen Bedouin tents. All four children have done more homework here than should be legal, with fountain pens in OCD graph squares typical of the French and German academic traditions. Dalton has practiced Chinese characters here, with a quill. The two eldest learned to speak Norwegian, all four French, Claire and her little brothers German, and a couple of us, Dalton and I, Mandarin while propping our heads in our hands, our elbows on this forgiving pine.
As a this-world, true-tale table, it has absorbed the marks of real life: drops of blood, vinaigrette, and tears, and has some small grooves from dropped (hurled) knives and Cocker Spaniel claws. These aren’t complaints. I wouldn’t want my table any different. If she were of a harder wood than pine, she might not have kept the scratches of our human traffic. I like soft wood like I like soft hearts; in them our life stories leave a deeper impression, scars of impact. I don’t mind, in fact I prefer, the imperfections, the cracks and water rings, the nicks, bumps, and pen marks which, when I run my hand over them, are a living tale themselves, like the shush of hieroglyphics recounting something multi-layered, organic, compelling, undying.
This pine has been figuratively both behind the stories and in the middle of them, as well as literally underneath our stories from its very beginning, because throughout everything, I’ve recorded the story on top of this table. I’ve heaped up thousands of words: journal entries, stacks of mass-mailed or private letters, emails, song texts in many languages, pictures with intimate scribblings on their backs, newspaper clippings, school reports, letters from my children written in new and varied languages, my cherished pocket notebooks, annotated maps, and my favorite novels.
Working with them and still on this same table, I’ve written what’s evolved into this volume, a memoir of a global family, of a global mother. In its pages, I begin to recount the geographies and landscapes both external and internal, the landscape of a family with its significant gains and its notable losses, its guffaws and faux pas, its “You-Will-Not-Believe-This-Ones,” its new friends, its heartbreaking farewells.
So here it is, that story, written up and down the broad pine spine of this langbord. Here’s where I invite you to sit and look out my back window, the Jura mountains of France on this side of the house, the Swiss Alps out the other, and I’ll take you as far as my words can manage: to a few special spots far beyond these mountains, to places and people my family and I know well and love much.
“Dis donc! She is quite a table,” a new Swiss friend said just this week as she walked into this part of the house with the large windows and the table. “Elle est belle. I’ll bet she has quite a story,” she said, tracing her fingers along the edge.
“She does,” I said. “She has quite a story.”
Pull up a chair right here, I almost said to my new friend.
I’ll tell you the whole thing.
This article is an excerpt from Melissa Bradford’s Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family.
Image source: Shutterstock