The Other I

April 2, 2008

Kristin Lavransdatter

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:49 pm

I’m reading a book by Sigrid Undset that won the Nobel Prize in 1929.  My mother told me she read it three times in her life – once before her first child was born, again after her sixth child was born, and after her tenth child, and that it was like reading three different books as her understanding and insights changed with the years.

I read it the first time almost half a century ago, and am only now reading it for a second time.  After nine years in the convent  and thirty-five years of marriage, a different book it certainly is.  But what fascinates me most is that I think it’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading a biography about my mother.  It takes place in 14th century Oslo which is not where one would expect to find a parallel life for a second-generation American Polish woman like my mother.  But I’ve been having mental conversations with her as I make my way through the 1000 pages of Kristin’s life.

Kristin is the oldest daughter of an upright and successful farmer held in high esteem in the parish.  Historically, it is before the Reformation, and the teachings of the Roman Church are unquestioned.  My mother was like that.  I’m much more of a doubter, but for my mother there seemed to have been an unquestioning belief in God’s love and justice, in heaven and hell, and in all of Christian doctrine.  Like Kristin, she celebrated with her family the feasts of the Christian calendar, preparing special foods for special days, fasting, and worrying about her unworthiness.

My mother also married a man like Kristin’s father whose religious principles were rigorous.  In search of the ideal life, my parents bought land that was gradually tamed with wheat fields and cattle, and where my mother raised her family.  She was passionately in love with my father until the day she died, a passion that survived what must have been a fair number of insights into my father’s depression and general anguish at what he perceived to be his failures.

I told my youngest sister, who was six when Mom died, that I was lending the book to her.  She said she in turn wanted to share it with her own daughter who never knew her grandmother. 

I said I am bequeathing my mother’s 80-year-old copy in my possession to her, but for now I want it back.  Because I want to read it again in another ten years if I’m still here to read.  I’m pretty sure it will feel like a different book yet again.

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1 Comment »

  1. this blog sort of catapulted off the page. my mother, two read it three times, the last just before she died. i think she read it to be acquainted with norse history/culture, having just moved to trondheim having married my father. what was of note to her was not so much the church, but the power of women, including the fact that during that time, women took their mother’s first names as their last as boys took their father’s first names. women always maintained her last name after marrying, as did my mother unusual in the 30’s. women carried the keys – she carried family, farm, economy, within her sphere of power. and what in the ensuing years, has caused us to become traditionally dependent, subservient (love and obey) while on the bus going to work, i witnessed a 14 year old pretty hispanic girl today walking down the street, hanging on to “her man” and i wondered where her self began or ended.

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    Comment by karen — April 2, 2008 @ 11:26 pm | Reply


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