I couldn’t understand the cold and indifferent way my father treated his mother, and how he was able to let his heart be hard towards her. Especially when, at the age of 86, alone and frail, she sat at the table in her kitchen with the faded green linoleum floor. It was the last time my father and I visited her. An empty bird cage dangled from the ceiling.
She had shrunk since I last saw her. But old and tired as she was, you could still see the strength that had once coursed through her. She had come to America in 1905 at the age of 23, strong, ambitious, vigorous and hurrying, she wrongly thought, out of a dying land. Some say that 10 percent of Norway emigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Others say that most of them would have gone right back once they realized that the streets were not paved with gold. My grandmother wanted to go right back, but she didn’t have the money. She had been married for ten years and had two small children before she was able to go back for a visit. She remembered how her father rowed them across a fjord and how her son David, my father, thought he was so strong for an old man of 82.
When she was a little girl, her father, my great-grandfather, used to bounce her on his knee and sing a nursery rhyme to her. And she would throw her blond head up toward the ceiling and scream with laughter. “Sing it again, Daddy! Sing it again!”
My father looked at the empty bird cage dangling from the ceiling.
“You should get another bird, Ma,” he said.
“No, David. No more birds.”
“You have to eat more, Ma.”
“What can I eat?”
“You like chicken. You used to cook chicken.”
“I’m not very hungry these days, don’t you know.”
When we left, I said, “How can she eat more, Daddy? Look at the way she’s living.” I was sure she felt that David, my father, was no longer her son. How could she feel that this man who was talking so impersonally to her was really her son? Three weeks later, her other son Richard came and took her to Kentucky to live with him and his family.
Someone said that you can always tell when something is coming to an end. You know by the way events are shaping that it can’t last much longer, but you think there are still a few days or weeks to go. And that’s the moment when it finishes with a sudden bang that you didn’t expect. A week after the start of her new life in Kentucky, my grandmother collapsed at the breakfast table and died.
This was the nursery rhyme my great-grandfather sang to my grandmother when she was a little child of three:
Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.