On the coast of Denmark:
I gripped the gunwale of the tiny sailboat as it tossed in the choppy waves. I wasn’t used to being on the sea like this, having been born in the town of Hohn, centered in the Jutland Peninsula. True, Papa was a fisherman, but I hadn’t been his helper like my brothers.
And now I was on my way to the Isle of Fohr, a few miles off the western coast of Denmark. Papa was seated just behind us holding the tiller, looking quite at home there. He’d been born and raised on Fohr like Mama, but for some reason I still didn’t understand, they’d left the island for the mainland. Trying to settle my churning stomach, I reached over and grabbed my sister’s hand.
Elka gave a tiny smile. Apparently, she too found the churning
uncomfortable. “It’s all right, Elena,”
she whispered. “The voyage isn’t long.” North Sea
“Papa, why are we going to Fohr now after so long?” I asked.
Papa frowned and made no reply at first. Finally he shrugged, “We will talk of this later. Now I must keep this boat upright.”
As he said this, the small craft lurched into a tall wave, climbing its side and cresting the white top with a crash. I gagged and turned to heave my breakfast into the crashing waves.
“Aye, you’ll never make an islander,” Papa shouted above the water’s sounds.
“Why are we going to see Grandpapa and Grandmama?” Elka asked.
I wiped my mouth and tried to swallow the bitter taste in my throat.
“You’ll see when we get there,” muttered Papa. “Your grandmother can be very insistent.”
The boat was now tied to a floating dock on the shore. As we climbed a nearby grassy knoll, a man in working clothes came striding toward us from a cottage perched on the side of the hill. He waved, but I saw he wasn’t smiling.
When he got within a few yards of us, he planted his feet in the sandy soil and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “So you’ve come at last, have you Hans?”
Papa stopped and assumed a similar pose.
Before Papa replied, the man pointed to Elka and me. “And these are your girls, I presume?”
The anger in his voice was confusing me.
“Father, please.” Papa’s voice was edged with anger, too. “Can we at least go up to the cottage?”
“Your mother insisted on it, of course.” He said nothing else but turned on his heel and started up the hill from where he’d come.
“So, is this truly our grandfather?” I whispered to Elka as we tried to keep pace with the men, no easy task in our long skirts and tight shoes.
“I guess so, Elena. I’ve never met him before either.”
Just as we reached the door of the weathered wooden cottage, it burst open and a woman in a long brown skirt grabbed me in her embrace. “My dear granddaughters, at last I see you face-to-face.”
“Yes Mama,” said our father. “The eldest is Elka, and Elena has just turned thirteen.”
“Already women,” the woman sighed. “Why have you taken so long to bring them to me, Hans?”
“Hmph!” This sound came from the older man. “Enough of this,
. You know as well as I that all Hans’s
children have been led astray by their mother’s Baptist heresies.” Helena
‘So that’s it,’ I thought. ‘There’s a religious argument between Papa and Grandpapa. Could this thing really be the cause of so much strife and separation?’
“Now Anders,” the woman was sighing. “Can we please put these differences aside for the sake of family?”
“I’m not the one who pulled their roots out of this home-ground on Fohr and dragged them away to the mainland.”
The interior of the cottage was dimly revealed by light coming through the small windows. They had no covering, and the shutters were opened to the brisk outside air. I took a deep breath, glad this seemed to settle my still-churning stomach. Despite its sparseness, the room had a homey welcoming feel.
“We’re so fortunate to have a sunny day, my dears. Please sit.” Grandmama guided us to benches on either side of the worn trestle table.
Before us were chipped crockery plates, each with a small stack of barley cakes topped with a dollop of jam.
‘Is this the special lunch?’ I thought. ‘It seems so plain.’
“Oh, thank you, Grandmama,” Elka was saying just then. “You didn’t have to give us so much of your precious berry jam.”
“Please call me Nanna,” she smiled. “There’s no need to be so formal with just us women.”
Looking up, I saw Grandmother’s warm smile but thought I also saw tears in her shining blue eyes.
“Would you like coffee? Or are you not permitted to drink it?”
“Oh yes, Nanna,” Elka nodded. “We’d love to try your coffee.”
Once we had steaming mugs beside our plates, I finally found my voice. “Won’t you join us, Nanna?”
“I’ve already eaten my lunch, dears.”
“Please, just sit with us,” Elka insisted.
“Very well.” She poured herself a mug and drew up a battered wooden chair to the end of the table.
As we ate the barley cakes, I tried my best to look pleased with them. This would be considered ordinary fare in Hohn, but apparently out here on the Isle of Fohr, things were quite different.
Then I found my mind wandering back to Grandpapa’s comment on Baptists. My own baptism was just a few years back, and I remembered it well. The true meaning of having my sins washed away was cemented in my memory by the feel of the chill waters rushing over my face as the pastor leaned me back into the lake near our little church in Hohn.
Mama ran and embraced me tightly as I stepped back up the bank, heedless of my dripping white gown. I remembered seeing her do the same when Elka was baptized. Now I realized with a start, this was one of the few times Mama had ever hugged me.
“Blessings on you, my child,” she’d murmured into my ear. “You have decided to follow Herr Jesu Krist. May he be with you and guide you always.”
Now Elka’s voice pulled me back into the present. “Nanna, why do Grandpapa and our father seem so angry?”
Even as she said this, I heard deep voices coming toward the door. “You’ve turned your back on your family, Hans.”
Nanna jumped to her feet, slamming her coffee mug on the tabletop, and shouted out the open window. “Do not bring your stupid arguments into my house.”
I glanced at Elka’s face and saw she was as surprised as me. Our own mother would never be heard raising her voice like this in public.
“Those pig-headed men,” Nanna muttered. “They’ve made their opinions of God more important than their own families.”
“Is that why Papa has never brought us to visit you?”
Nanna laid her hand over Elka’s before she replied. “You are of my own blood,” she sighed. “I should never have let us be torn apart like this.”
“What do you mean?”
“My husband is a Lutheran, like most of
Denmark and . This is a part of who he is. But when your father married Elka Nahmens, he
turned to her beliefs and became one of those who teach differently.” Germany
“So that’s why he and Mama left Fohr?”
“My husband sent them away.” Now I definitely saw tears shining in Nanna’s eyes, and my heart felt heavy in my chest.
“He banished them?”
“Some would use that harsh word, Elena. These men—"
Her voice broke.
I reached over and gripped her hand. It was icy cold, and I began to rub gently, trying to warm it.
Just then the door was flung open and Papa stomped in. “It’s time to go, my daughters.” We could hear the tension in his voice.
Elka rose and nodded obediently, but I didn’t move. “I’m staying here with Nanna,” I said. “I want to visit with my grandparents.” My mind was racing and my heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe these words were coming out of my mouth. But as soon as I said them, I knew they were true.
Papa’s eyes flashed as he turned to us, but Elka stepped toward him from where she was standing at the table. “She’s still young, Papa,” she said. “She needs to get to know her family. Please, don’t stop her.”
“Why should I take orders from you?” Papa hissed. “You get back in your place, woman.”
“You know Mother would let her stay for at least a little while.”
“These old Lutherans will ruin her faith.”
“Papa, my faith is strong enough,” I said.
“And I’ll stay with her, if you wish,” Elka added.
“Very well,” he grumbled. “But you must keep my father from preaching to them,” he glared at Nanna.
“You know he loves you, Hans,” she murmured. “He just doesn’t know how to show it.”
Papa reached down and kissed Nanna on top of her head. “I know, Mama.”
“If only you two weren’t so stubborn, you thick-headed Deutsche Manner,” she sighed.
“I can’t come back for you until after the barley harvest,” he said then. “Are you sure you want to stay that long?”
“We’ll be fine, Papa,” Elka said, giving him a hug. “Don’t worry. This way we can help Nanna with her canning for winter. Especially since she’s given us the last of her berry jam.”
“There’s still a bit left, dear,” Nanna smiled.
“I love the idea of helping,” I added as I embraced Papa. “Please don’t worry. And tell Mama we’ll help her as soon as we return.”
“Yes,” Nanna nodded. “The berries ripen earlier here than on the mainland, I’m told. The girls’ help will be appreciated.”
Papa was staring at the floor as though he might find an answer there. “Very well,” he muttered at last. “I’ll be back before the winter storms.”
Then without another word, he turned and stalked out the door, slamming it behind him.