View from a Prairie Home

By Hege Herfindahl, Columnist

Sometimes, a smell will take my mind back. Memories. From way back. Today, in the misty air after the recent rain, the smell of the pines was pungent. The wind, which for months it seems, has been so strong, just rustled the top of the branches as I stood beneath them. The majestic pines that I planted long ago. And my mind flitted back to when I was a young child.

My father and I often went for walks on days just like today. He would take my hands and off we went into the woods. We didn’t talk much, even though we normally did, but on these occasions we were silent. Usually, he would tell stories, often expanding and embroidering them into fantastic tales that would leave me spell-bound. And I would reciprocate in kind. Sometimes, we would sing together, silly songs. But not now. These woods were like a church of sorts; solemn and silent with the music of birdsong and the rustle of leaves when we stepped on them.

The woods around Oslo is a nature preserve and even then, in the mid-50s, hiking trails were maintained. But on these, our special hikes, we took other, more obscure paths. My father knew the way and I trusted him, as children trust their parents. After a while we arrived. The old cabin was abandoned, but there were still a roof and walls made of rough logs. It was quite hidden in the dense forest of hazel bushes and clumps of aspen and birch trees. The forest floor was blanketed with cones from the majestic Norway pines that shaded us.

My father had taught me to make animals out of the cones. I would use twigs for legs and they magically became cows. My cone-cows lived on a farm made from stones and bark where they would be safe from the trolls we made out of moss and birch bark.

I would play while my father sat leaning against the wall of the old cabin, smoking his pipe and looking at nothing, it seemed. With the innocence of a child, it never occurred to me to ask the story of the cabin. Who did it belong to and why were we here far from other people?

My father had a traumatic youth, fighting for his life against the mighty occupying forces of the German Wehrmacht right here in these woods. Looking back at the peaceful scene of a young father and his little girl enjoying their time together, I can only speculate what went through his mind.

I know he took me with him, always alone, because he later told me I was his soulmate. We looked alike, we spoke alike and we thought alike. The same things would make us cry or laugh or break into song. The same things would inspire us to tell stories. We both would get impatient with arrogance and upset with poverty and suffering. And, I think, having his child with him near the scene of his war-time drama healed him, and helped him transition into a new world where he had to redefine himself after the war was over.  

I don’t remember how often we went to the old cabin in the woods, but the experience is powerful and vivid. It enters the corners of my consciousness when I hear a chickadee call or when the air smells strongly of pine or when I find a pile of pinecones that I never am able to not pick up.

Why did we go to the old cabin in the woods? Why did my father, a normally lively and vivacious man, sit so quietly and contemplatively, just staring into space? Was this the place where he hid after having been chased by the Nazis? And why did he take only me to this place? Was it because he couldn’t bear going there alone? And didn’t want questions about what happened here?

I will never know. The hike to the old cabin was an experience only we shared, a man and his young daughter. My father died young at 54, more than 45 years ago. But at times I miss him so much my heart breaks.