we decorated the Christmas tree with paper stars and tiny candles

on Christmas Eve, Far carefully lit the wicks and we all held hands,

dance-walking around the glowing, flickering tree we sang carols

in a moment light-frozen for all time I stopped thinking in English somewhen in that winter

Danish filled my sleep and my waking, cascading from my mouth like a strong river victorious after destroying a dam

om for?ret / in the spring

come spring, we helped in the fields, burning off crop stubble and picking the head-sized stones heaved up through the dirt.

Far frowned at the weather, consulted his journals, and finally planted, then frowned at the ground until the green leapt out

The Three Mile Island nuclear plant outside Harrisburg, PA malfunctioned and melted a little in late March, for a while the experts thought it would blow up we saw a map on the news that showed the potential radioactive plume reaching all the way to Central New York to kill my family

Mor hugged me as I sobbed, but a few days later, the plant’s meltdown was under control and the danger passed

then my grandfather died

my bone-ache returned with a vengeance his death allowed for the third and final phone call home, I cried

with my father, who was crying thousands of miles away.

Grandpa wanted all of us grandchildren to see him in his coffin to learn that death is to be accepted,

not feared

but if I went back for the funeral, we couldn’t afford the ticket that would return me to Denmark for my last three months

so Daddy told me to stay

He sent me photos of his dead father, bedded in a white funeral box Grandpa looked surprised,

like when an always-late bus arrives early after we cleared the stones from the field that spring

I took to riding my bike down new roads wandering far

r?dgr?d med fl?de p?

Danish reminds me of gargling with mashed potatoes

forty different vowel sounds

and consonants that melt like soft cheese a sentence in Danish can sound like an aimless hum

but the curse words roll like thunder our neighbors, massive farmers with granite hands and red faces liked to tease me by asking me to say r?dgr?d med fl?de p?

which translates to “berry porridge with cream”

if you say it right, it sounds like you’re choking on a furball

I said it wrong for months

other words were easier to pronounce, but took longer to understand hygge (now making its way into English) translates as “cozy”

but is much, much more; hygge is sitting on a dark winter’s night with friends or family, the room candlelit, everyone knitting or crocheting sipping coffee or beer, eating pastry or sm?rrebr?d talking, talking, listening, talking, enjoying the pleasure of kindred spirits with the winds howling outside

tak means “thanks,” but that’s like saying Mount Everest is a hill

Danes express gratitude sincerely, reflexively, constantly

thanking their parents for every meal, thanking teachers for help, friends for last night’s party,

the butcher for a good cut of meat tusind tak / “a thousand thanks” is the variation that I like most

it comes closest to expressing my boundless gratitude to min danske familie When summer breezed back in, I finally conquered r?dgr?d med fl?de p?

to the farmers’ delight, they shared the phrase’s deeper meaning, rooted when they were boys carved of bone and sinew, simmering with rage

because Denmark was occupied by Hitler’s army those farmer boys fought back, sabotaging and harassing the Nazis

the Germans tried to infiltrate their resistance when someone was suspected of being a German spy, the farmer boys

asked him to say r?dgr?d med fl?de p?

if he didn’t pronounce it right, it was the last thing he ever said.

In Denmark, in Scandinavia, across Europe memories of World War II ache like a scar does when the weather changes or a storm draws near

old countries are riddled with battle wounds that split open, bleed, and cause new pain if not cared for,

just like us

scars may look stronger than unwounded skin, but they’re not

once broken, we’re easily hurt again, or worse the temptation is to hide behind shields, play defense, drown ourselves in sorrow or drug our way to haunted oblivion until death erases hope

My home in Denmark taught me how to speak again, how to reinterpret darkness and light, strength and softness

it offered me the chance to reorient my compass redefine my true north

and start over


to go straight from our Danish homes back to our families of origin would have screwed everybody up we needed a breather

a break

they sent us to Lejre, half an hour from Copenhagen to an Iron Age archaeological center where researchers were puzzling out how ancient Danes

crossed bogs and swamps

three thousand years earlier they needed young, strong bodies not afraid of work we thirty-nine half-growns from all over the world had to build a bridge


used axes to hew logs for the frame tied fat bundles of saplings and green branches for the foundation, dumped them in the water like offerings to the bog

we ate meat roasted over the open fire devoured bread, yogurt, and cheese slept on a thin layer of straw in a giant tent all of us together, drifting deep and dreamless waking achy, grabbing our tools chopping, carving, cursing

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