When I was seventeen we moved into a three room apartment, in what my mother called “a better neighborhood.” The monthly rent was twenty kroner more than the old two-room apartment we used to live in. My father was sure it would ruin us, but my mother had gotten it into her head that we were going to move. She gave no justification for her idea, and my father could not fight it. My brother had gotten married shortly before, just to get out of the house. Maybe my mother thought I would stay home longer if I had my own room. But I had my room no more to myself than I had in the old apartment. It was only mine when I was sleeping on the divan which used to be in my parents’ bedroom. Only a cretonne curtain separated my room from what my mother called “the sitting room” which was intended for guests. But no one ever visited us except Aunt Anna. She was the sweetest and most cheerful person in all my childhood, but at that time I was only interested in young men and poetry. My mother considered both of these hostile elements in our family. All my poems were about love, and when she got hold of one of them, she burst into tears and said she could not understand where I had gotten such disgusting ideas.
The apartment was in a corner building, and along one street there was actually a semblance of propriety, some stucco on the gloomy facades and somewhat fewer snotty children in the street than we were used to. On the corner there was a cafe where there were constant fights and disturbances. Along the building’s other side, the street was exactly like the one we had moved away from. Earlier we had lived in the rear side of the building, which I only now realized was a huge advantage to me. Now, my mother was able to sit in my bedroom, ready to throw open the window as soon as I came home at night with a young man, before I could say a tender goodbye at the front door.
“So, there you are finally!” she would yell. “Get in here right now!”
All the young men got scared and hurried away. There was never enough time to make a next date. When I entered our house, which was on the first floor, she would be standing there in her flowered cotton nightgown staring at me with angry, sleepless eyes.
“You are becoming a woman of the streets,” she would say.
She always used expressions like that, sometimes interspersing them with biblical quotations, though she did not believe in God or the devil. Never in my life did I long for something so much as I did then – to turn eighteen so I could move out. I had a job at a warehouse where I packaged tin boxes eight hours a day. For that I received twenty-five kroner a week, and I gave twenty-five to my mother. After we had eaten dinner, my father would lie down on the divan for a nap, and my mother would sit down to knit with furious movements. Although my father always slept a couple of hours after dinner, she took it as a personal insult. She complained that my brother never came home and visited, but when he did make a rare appearance, he brought his wife, and my mother would ignore her. I sat paging through the newspaper while I gathered the courage to say I was going to the movies with a girlfriend. Then things would get so quiet between us that it seemed noisy if I swallowed. Usually I waited to say something like that until my father was awake. Sometimes he took my side, though I’m sure he paid dearly for it afterwards.
Then a whole lot of things happened at once, but since they happened while I was deeply infatuated with a young mechanic with a motorcycle, I barely noticed them. First, Aunt Anna’s husband was admitted to the hospital. He was rarely mentioned in our household because he drank and was supported by his wife. Aunt Anna was a seamstress and she often visited us on her way home, after she had dropped off some finished work at the company she worked for. When she visited, she and my mother laughed like two young girls, and my mother was like a different person. Maybe she always used to be like that. Maybe she should have married a different husband and lived a very different life. In any case, I have only seen her happy when Aunt Anna was visiting. She was her only sister. Aunt Anna always kept her hat on because she only meant to stay “a quick second,” as if the hat contradicted the truth when she eventually left, that she had stayed several hours. My parents did not hide the fact that they hoped her husband would die. They wished it for her sake. To me her visits meant it was easier to slip out in the evening, because now my parents had something to talk about. Her husband did eventually die, and at the burial my aunt cried as if she was being whipped. I cried too, God knows why, because I had never met him. Afterwards we went to a rather nice pub and had coffee. Not fifteen minutes had passed before my mother and my Aunt Anna were breathless with laughter over some occurrence from their childhood. My aunt had beautiful teeth with no cavities, which was highly unusual in my family. When we left the pub, my brother came over to me and said, “Lisa took off with another man. And I’m living in a room in Larslejstræde.” He said it as if it did not affect him one bit, and I thought that was how it was. “Don’t tell our parents,” he said, and I promised. Outside, my mechanic was waiting on his red motorcycle and I sat down behind him without saying goodbye to anyone, because when my mother was around Aunt Anna she forgot about everything else.
My aunt began to visit more frequently which softened my mother’s mood and gave me more freedom. She lost interest in calling me inside from my nightly embraces. My mechanic’s name was Kurt, and I started visiting his parents who were very friendly towards me. We exchanged rings at their house, so we were engaged for real, and I began to feel awkward about never inviting him to my home. I did not know what I should do. My mother never wanted us to be close to people outside our family. She never wanted us to grow up. Above all, she did not want us to team up with a member of the opposite sex. Perhaps she never wanted to have children and perhaps nothing ever happened to her in this world that she really wanted. I could not explain something as strange as that to Kurt. I could have gotten Aunt Anna to talk some sense into my mother, if I had some way of contacting her that did not involve my mother. My aunt was childless though she loved my brother and me. But my mother had always made sure we had no direct contact with her. When we were young, we were never allowed to visit because of her drunken husband. I did not even know exactly where she lived.
While I went and speculated over this problem, my mother came by one day to get me after work. I could see on her face that something terrible had happened. While we walked home, she told me that my aunt was in the hospital. She had started bleeding and by my mother’s hints I understood that she was too old for that. “So it has to be cancer,” decided my mother with a wavering voice. “If she dies I will have no reason to go on living.” On the corner of Valdemarsgade and Enghavevej, Kurt was straddling his motorcycle and he revved it in anticipation. He always waited for me there. I shook my head as a sign that he should not make himself known, furious at my mother who was now leaning heavily on my arm as if she suddenly had grown old and would fall down if I let go. I was also furious at myself for being a head taller than her. I was furious at my entire childhood. It was as if it would never end, and my strides felt stiff and awkward as we walked past my fiancé, whose red motorcycle and shiny leather jacket were gleaming in the autumn sunshine. My engagement ring, which was bought on installment, was in my handbag. I did not have the nerve to wear it at home.
As if there were no end to misfortunes, my father lost his job shortly after my aunt’s admittance to the hospital. My mother found out that my brother’s wife had run off, and began basing our entire future around his moving back in with us. I did not really listen when she told me about her plan and she asked me to talk him into it. I was always waiting for the chance to see Kurt at his home where everything was happy and normal. But at the same time I had sent some poems to a magazine because I was not planning to package tin boxes for the rest of my life. I felt I simply could not continue living two lives and deep in my heart I was starting to doubt if a mechanic was a suitable husband for a writer. In any case I became less excited about having Kurt visit my family. It became more difficult anyway, since now my father always sat on my divan reading an old encyclopedia and I only had my room to myself at night. We did not have enough money to heat more than one room and we had to have our coats on just to stay warm. My father’s unemployment check and my weekly four dollars were only enough to keep the worst misery from our door. I would turn eighteen in a few months and gradually I realized that the only salvation for me would be if my brother moved back home. But he never visited us and when I thought about my plan, I felt bad for him. It was the only generous feeling I preserved in the conscious iciness I was building up against my family. That was why I kept postponing my visit to his rented room.
My aunt had an operation and people at the hospital told her she would make a full recovery, but that she would necessarily need care until she was able to look afterherself. Did she have any family where she could live? My mother was more than excited for her to come live with us and she was installed in my father’s bed. Then he had to sleep on the lumpy sofa in the ice-cold living room and I woke constantly to his snores coming through the thin curtain until I got used to it. Now there was another mouth to feed, but as it turned out it did not matter because my aunt was too sick to eat. My mother spent all her time at the bedside and in the beginning we could hear their continual, familiar chuckling and babbling from the bedroom. My father resumed his habit of sleeping a couple of hours after dinner now that my mother’s reproachful stare did not force him to sit paging the old encyclopedia for hours. I could go wherever I wanted. But I did not go anywhere because I had gotten a reply from the magazine. They wanted to publish two of my poems which the editor found “extremely promising.” As if with the wave of a magic wand, this message changed my entire identity, my entire outlook on life. It occurred to me that everything I had loved about Kurt would not work in the elite literary circle amid which I would soon be moving. Within a few days I sloughed off my infatuation and got invited to dinner by the editor of the magazine and in a fog of newfound pride I received my termination from the tin can company, where the president had surprised me in the attic in the middle of writing a poem on brown packing paper. I hurried out to the editor, an unmarried, middle-aged man, the kind who loved to be surrounded by young people. He comforted me by saying that I could definitely live by my pen and if I ran into trouble he had always seen it as his mission to support the arts.
All this was impossible to talk about at home. My father had found some temporary work and he started staying out late. Presumably he went to a bar because he was completely superfluous in my mother’s world. That is how I finally had my room to myself, in peace, and I read books and wrote poems until late into the night. I spent daytimes in the reading room at the library so my mother would think I was at work and the money I got for the published poems was locked in the sewing box with the inlaid mother-of-pearl, my brother’s journeyman test piece, which he gave me at my confirmation. It was a very pretty little thing. When the lid opened, it played: Fight for all you hold dear…. At any rate those were the lyrics I sang inwardly to the crisp melody.
One evening the doorbell rang and it was Kurt with his tight leather jacket and his crash helmet on his head, requesting in no uncertain terms to have a word with me. As I let him inside, feeling rather flustered, my mother opened the bedroom door and yelled, “Get the doctor quick. She’s in a lot of pain. Tell him to come right away. Who is that?”
Without answering, I pushed Kurt back out the door explaining about my sick aunt and asking him to drive me to the doctor. He sped off at breakneck speed which did not impress me anymore. While we rode he told me it was over and that he was going to date any girl he wanted. I don’t know if I even answered but outside the doctor’s stairway he held up his right hand in front of my face so I could see that he had removed his ring. I just thought that he was acting ridiculous and I thought about my editor who understood writing and had the means to support it. But I had no interest in explaining this to Kurt. All I wanted was to be done with him. For some reason he walked with me up to the doctor who had examined my aunt before. “Dear God,” he said, when he heard why I was there. “Well, then, I guess it won’t be long now.” Then I understood for the first time that my aunt was going to die. Did she know that? Did my mother know that? When Kurt drove me home again, I asked him to wait outside while I went in and got my engagement ring. He took it hesitantly and I saw the sorrow in his face which was no longer my problem. I never saw him again, and I soon forgot all about him.
My aunt’s cheerfulness declined and my mother was getting tired of sitting with her. When I was home, she pleaded with me to take her place. The window in the bedroom faced a closed courtyard with a bicycle shed, and on its roof sat cats, raising their loving yowls to the heavens. The cafe’s back door opened to the courtyard and the drunkest guests were always let out that way. When I opened the window, the smell of vomit and cat urine wafted in to my aunt but it was not as bad as the rotten smell that had begun to spread from her bed. I don’t think she noticed it herself. She looked terrible. Her bright red gums were always exposed, even when she was sleeping, and her yellowed, emaciated fingers continually groped the comforter, as if they were searching for something. Twice a day a nurse arrived to give her a morphine injection. Soon after she had gotten it, she started whispering, without turning her head, unaware if it was my mother or me beside her. I had to bend right over her to hear what she was saying. The oppressive smell took my breath away. She whispered about doll’s clothing she had sewn for my mother’s dolls, and about their experiences as young girls. When she wanted to laugh, it turned into a violent coughing attack. “Do you remember,” she whispered, “when you hid the barber in the clothes closet? If Niels had not left so quickly, he might have suffocated.” Niels was my father. I started laughing because I laughed a lot in those days. Then my aunt realized she had the wrong audience and she quickly started whispering about all the dresses she had sewn for me when I was a little girl.
My mother was sitting in my bedroom, sobbing into her apron.
“How much longer?” she asked. “God help us, may she soon find redemption.”
Maybe I could have comforted her if she had expressed herself less bombastically. To me it seemed to make her grief appear unauthentic. In my judgmental mood and at my age it also seemed abnormal for her to be so tightly bound to her sister when she had a husband and children.
Not long after, my father lost his job again and my mother scraped margarine on our bread and we had porridge three times a week. It was a terribly cold winter and my aunt still refused to die. They thought I was still packaging tin cans, because, thanks to my editor, I was still able to deliver my weekly four dollars to my family.
One month before I turned eighteen, I pulled myself together and visited my brother at his room on Larslejstræde. The landlord looked at me skeptically when I asked to see my brother. “They all say that,” she said acerbically and let me in. He stood in the center of the floor in a nearly empty room, in the process of gluing together a chair. A sudden wave of tenderness came over me at the sight of him. I had notseen him in such a long time. He seemed to be glad to see me too and we sat down on his unmade bed.
“Dad does not have any work,” I said, “and Aunt Anna is dying, and they’re flat broke.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with me,” he said defiantly. “They ruined things between me and Gunhild. I could never invite a girl home without Mom going bananas. At least here we can be in peace.”
“Do you have a new one?” I asked, a bit shocked. I had not thought of that possibility even though he was twenty-one and a handsome young man.
“Yes,” he said. “And I plan on keeping her.”
To my surprise I started sobbing. He had never seen me do that. We never expressed our feelings. That was how it was at home. He put his arm around my shoulder, which was also the first time ever. Then the confessions poured out of me, about my broken-off engagement, about not packaging tin boxes anymore, about the poems and my plans for the future, and about the editor, who seemed to be in love with me, and who had enough influence to help me make it in the world. And all this, I explained, could only unfold if he moved back home. If one of us did not support them economically, they would both freeze and starve. If nothing else, I pleaded, he could just do it temporarily to ease the transition when I moved out.
He stood up and started pacing in the little room.
“Do you make money off that – writing?” he asked sheepishly.
“Nothing to speak of,” I said, “but I will eventually. And then I promise to help them.”
A sad smile emerged in his brown eyes.
“Fine, fine,” he said with a sigh. “I will do it. Just stop crying. I can’t stand it. I think you’re going to be famous. Just wait, that editor is going to marry you.”
I did not look at him when I said goodbye. I did not ask who he was engaged to. I knew he would never be able to invite her home to our parents. Ours was not a family that could ever accept new members.
I moved into a rented room three days after my aunt died. My mother was too heart-broken to really notice. I took advantage of her condition to tell her I was going to be married soon. She answered strangely: It does not matter who you marry.
I never really understood what she meant by that.
My brother kept his promise and moved back home to the room behind the cretonne curtain, and I forgot all about them – forgot about my home and lived my own life.
But sometimes – when someone has left me, or I discover inadvertently in the eyes of my children a glimpse of cold observation, of merciless, unsurmountable distance, I take out my brother’s pretty little sewing case and slowly open the mother-of-pearl inlaid lid. Fight for all you hold dear, plays the worn, old music maker, and an unnamed sadness swells inside my mind because they are all dead or disappeared, and my brother and I no longer communicate.
This short story comes from Ditlevsen’s fourth collection, Den onde lykke (The Trouble with Happiness), 1963. My translation of Ditlevsen’s memoir Gift (Dependency) was published by Penguin Random House as a Modern Classic in 2019. Many of Ditlevsen’s books were republished in Danish around 2017, her centennial, and they are popular in book clubs. Some of her works were also adapted for the stage. Although her work is from over half a century ago, it is resonant and relevant. Her stories tend to focus on some aspect of love gone wrong in relationship, whether husband-wife or parent-child, at various ages. The emotional conflict simmers between the lines, where the reader unmistakably recognizes himself. The universality of struggling within love and self-identity is at the core of Ditlevsen’s genius and wide appeal.
Michael Favala Goldman (b.1966), a widely-published translator of Danish literature, is a poet, jazz clarinetist, gardener, father and husband. Over 100 of Goldman’s translations have appeared in dozens of literary journals such as The Harvard Review, World Literature Today and The Columbia Journal. He teaches workshops and gives readings at universities and literary events. His recent books include Farming Dreams by Knud Sørensen, Stories about Tacit by Cecil Bødker, and Something To Live Up To by Benny Andersen.