Two wonderful childhoods

LIKE many grandparents today, we live far away from our grandchildren. Our grandchildren live in northern Norway, 50 miles above the Arctic Circle, and their father is Norwegian. We took Norwegian lessons, but because our grandchildren speak a northern dialect, it didn't help much. Fortunately the two oldest children, now 8 and 10, have picked up enough English to communicate with us. We visit every summer and stay close the rest of the year through letters, pictures, tapes, and occasional phone calls. But our visits are special, both for us and for the children. Because there are few distractions in northern Norway, such as television and movies, we read books together, take long walks, and do a lot of talking.

It's the talking that is the most rewarding. And last summer we hit upon a topic that grandparents everywhere will find is of great fascination and interest -- their childhood.

It came about by chance when eight-year-old Karen asked me in her rather strange English:

``What did you when you were little, Mor-Mor?''

One of our children had once asked me if I had been born in a log cabin and had I been scared of the Indians, and I wondered if that was what Karen thought. Surely she would be disappointed to hear of my quiet, ordinary, sheltered life in a Long Island suburb. How could this child, who was growing up in a wilderness area in a rigorous climate where it was dark three months of the year, where she had to ski cross-country to visit her friends, where she was liable to meet a moose on the mile-long road to her farm, and where she was free to climb the mountains to the top where eagles soared, relate to my protected and structured childhood?

Memories began to flood my mind -- especially our summers at the beach. Karen didn't really know about beaches. Her swimming was done off the rocky shores of the fjords -- or the grassy slopes of a mountain lake. She had never seen the ocean or the miles of white sand we have on our beaches. So I began to tell her about them. . . .

``Every Sunday morning very early my father would take us all -- my two brothers and my sister and my mother -- to the beach. We would park right on the ocean and find a spot to settle in the sand dunes.''

Karen looked puzzled.

``Sand dunes are huge piles of sand, like small hills with a few tufts of grass growing in them. You could sit on them and look out at miles of glistening white sand. And beyond was the ocean, the Atlantic Ocean. If you left the beach in a ship and sailed right across you would get to Europe -- and Norway. But all you could see was the sand and water and the sky -- and of course the sun. You had to be careful about the sun.''

``Why?'' asked Karen.

I laughed. I realized that to her, the sun was the most precious and rare thing in the world. Where she lives, in the summertime the sun doesn't set for three months and people are out in it day and night. They work in their gardens, walk their dogs, and repair roads all night long. Karen's father is out on his tractor at 2 in the morning, a lone figure circling the field followed by a flock of gulls.

``The sun can burn you at the beach,'' I explained. ``But we sit under umbrellas or cover ourselves up.''

``That's dummy,'' said Karen. This was one of her favorite expressions. Of course it was dummy to cover yourself up from the sun if you were a Norwegian and wooed the sun as much as possible.

``Anyway,'' I continued, ``we would all go into the ocean for a swim. But the Atlantic Ocean is not like your Norwegian sea. The ocean has huge waves.''

Karen frowned. ``I think it is . . . bad . . . to swim in the ocean,'' she said.

``You have to know how to do it,'' I explained. ``My father taught us how to jump through the waves and get out beyond them to where it's calm and you can swim. And he taught us how to ride in on the waves and how to go with them, not fight them. He taught us to respect the ocean and the surf.

``And when the surf rolls out, the sand is wet and smooth and you can make footprints in it until the next wave comes. There are birds called sandpipers who play with the waves.''

I went on to tell Karen how we would change into dry clothes under towels and then find driftwood on the beach to make a fire. Then my father would cook a big breakfast with eggs and bacon and toasted bread, and sometimes even pancakes. Nothing in the world has ever tasted that good.

Karen sighed heavily.

``I think you have more fun when you are little than I have,'' she said. ``I not have ocean and sand.''

``But you have the mountains and the fjords,'' I told her. ``Now you tell me what you do.''

``I play with Astrid,'' said Karen. ``We go to the fjord where there are big rocks. We have a secret place.''

``In the rocks?'' I asked.

``Yes, under the rocks. No one can see us. We take food and books and stay all day.''

``Do you go into the water?''

``Sometimes. We slide down in the fjord and swim. It is very cold. We must put on lots of sweaters.''

``What else do you do?''

``We climb the mountain to the top.'' Karen waved her hand in the direction of the mountain directly behind her home. My husband and I had gotten halfway up once but no farther. It is very steep and rocky, with a sharp drop into a gorge on one side.

``It is very beautiful up there,'' said Karen. ``I can see the farm and the sheep and Papa in the fields. And all the flowers and the water falling down the sides of the mountains.'' She sighed and repeated, ``It is very beautiful.''

Her eyes were shining with love. I looked at her small face lit up with enthusiasm and I thought that, of all the children, it would be Karen who would stay on the farm and run it someday.

``I think we both have wonderful childhoods,'' I said. Karen nodded.

``I like someday to see the ocean,'' she said.

``Someday I'll show it to you,'' I promised. ``Just the way you have shown me the fjords.''

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