On May 17, 1814, Norway became a free and independent nation and all over Norway it is still celebrated. Norwegians are very patriotic and believe it is a day for the children, as they are the future of the country. People of all ages line the streets of the small towns, dressed in traditional Norwegian costumes called bunad, or wearing red, white and blue ribbons, the colors of their flag, pinned to their best clothes. They watch as the school children march through the streets waving small flags, singing the national anthem ‘Ja vi elsker dette landet’, ‘Yes we love this country’. Marching bands follow close behind as people shout “hurra for Norge” afterwards there is ice cream and soda for all.
In honor of May seventeenth or ‘syttende mai’ as the Norwegians call it, I’m going to tell a story my grandmother, Gerd told me. She was a twenty-eight-year old widow with three young children and a small farm to run.
May 16, 1947
This story took place sixty-five years ago today, on the very island in Norway where I live now…
With her children in school, Gerd stood outside in the unexpected and much appreciated sunshine hanging clothes. Embraced by a warm and caressing breeze she tried in vain not to be fooled by this simple pleasure. She knew only too well that at any moment the cold, northern wind could come charging back. Glancing out past the fields, which seemed greener that day, she noticed a small boat coming in the fjord with a flock of seagulls in stubborn pursuit. Her eyes followed the boat as it chugged through the still water creating a rising swell, which lost all strength as it descended towards the shore. She lost sight of the boat as it passed Kråkefjellet, ‘Crow’s Mountain’.
Hearing the familiar sound of the Tjeld, Pied Oystercatchers, and the Vipe, Northern Lapwings, announcing their return, confirmed that spring had arrived. The Tjeld were large black and white birds with red bills and matching long red legs, with their distinctive looks and harsh cries there was no mistaking them. The Vipe were also black and white but could not be confused with the Tjeld, as the lapping sound from its wings and the shrill of its call make it unique.
Perhaps it was the warm May sun or maybe the anticipation of the day to come, whatever it was Gerd felt happy. It was not often she could enjoy a carefree day with her children. Basking in the sunshine, lost in her thoughts, she was startled when one of her son’s classmates suddenly appeared.
Out of breath from running, he said the teacher wanted her to come quickly, then turned and started running back towards the school. With a frightening feeling deep in her gut, she followed after the boy, all the way to the tiny one room schoolhouse near the beach. There she found her son lying on the ground, his nose bleeding and his eye swollen. The teacher, a tall, stern, no nonsense man, explained how he had lined the class up outside so they could practice for the coming day. They had been singing and waving their flags as they marched around the school yard when her son, jokingly lifted his flag and yelled, “Heil Hitler.” Hearing this the angry teacher hit him and knocked him to the ground.
Shocked by the scene, Gerd cried out, “He’s only a boy and obviously has no real understanding of the war, or its devastation.”
Knowing this was no excuse, as it had only been a few years since the war ended, and seeing the sullen look in the teacher’s eyes, she understood there would be no making amends.
“Take him home and I don’t want to see him back here again for the rest of this school year!” The teacher ordered through clenched teeth.
The happiness Gerd felt earlier that day was now gone, gobbled up by life.
Disturbed by this story, knowing as a mother how she must have felt, I wanted to comfort her, but didn’t know how. Sensing despair in my silence, it was she who offered me comfort instead.
“Oh Maggie, don’t worry. It was a long time ago and things were much different back then,” she said.