Two years ago my father turned 80. Two weeks after, I turned 40.
“Do you realize that I’m exactly double your age now?” he said. “This will never happen again as long as we live.”
What a thought to twist my head around…
When I started school as a 5 year old, my father was 9 times my age…
When I was 20 he was only 3 times my age – and now this!
The age gap diminishes year by year and I am now the same age as he was, when I was born. It feels like an existential equinox. A turning point.
Recently my father randomly showed me his childhood sketchbook. I was so thrilled to get a direct access to his imaginative side as a boy. I had to share, what he has kept to himself all of these years.
Looking through his drawings from when he was 10-11 years old, I’m moved by my father’s innocence and eye for detail. Nobody taught him how to draw. But clearly he was observing the world and wanted to capture it. The motives are both from his every day life and inspired by what he could pick up from books, radio and occasionally a movie he had seen at the local cinema.
As a little girl, I would ask him before falling asleep: “tell me about when you were a boy”. I liked to time travel with him. He would sing me folk songs and tell me about the farm, where he grew up. How the rhythm of life followed the needs of the animals. 5 cows and two horses. My grandfather would feed them from 5 am and until 10 pm. It sounded romantic to me – other worldly.
In the winter they would travel in horse carriage and use candles as head lights. My father and his brother built their own toys from material they found in the forrest or at home. A flash bow with arrows of willow, soapbox cars and paper-kites. I admired his ability to create everything from scratch.
The family was self sufficient with vegetables, meat, dairy products and eggs. Of course this simple and sustainable way of life grew out of necessity. There was no waste in my grandparents’ household. Literally, no garbage or plastic to throw out. My grandmother made (and repaired) most of the clothes they wore and was skilled in crafting beautiful and delicate embroidery for both useful and aesthetic purposes.
Knowing my father’s gentle spirit, I was surprised to see as many hand weapons, canons, soldiers on horses, detailed sketches of artillery and combat situations in his drawings. That fascination with metal. I easily forget, that he experienced direct contact with armed forces. Being born in 1939 he still remembers his village as occupied by the Nazis. There were about 100.000 soldiers in Denmark, that had a population of 3,8 million people, so they were everywhere. The young soldiers would march on the streets and approach the farm to buy meat, even if my grandfather would deny selling it to them.
My father drew storyboards dreaming that he one day would direct a film about a war that never happened. The fighting parties would realize how useless it was to waste lives on both sides and call it off the night before it all began.
The year I was born he bought an 8 mm camera and started making short films about our family. It’s mesmerizing to see my first steps in the garden on real film. My father’s sensitivity to art would become much more influential to me than I was able to realize as a child. His focus changed from drawing to music and that eventually became a life long passion.
With the little money they had, my grandfather had bought my father a violin, when he was about 10 years old. He had talent and loved the classical music, so he started taking lessons with a teacher, that had studied at the Royal Conservatory of Copenhagen, under the great composer Carl Nielsen. Although he was often encouraged he never chose to make music his profession. He wanted to make sure, that music would be free of any duty and always driven by passion. Throughout his entire life he continued to play in numerous orchestras and even taught and conducted. Together with his musical companions he played in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Austria (Vienna).
Such a contrast to his work life. In 1954 my father finished the 7th grade and started a hard training as a carpenter, working 6 days a week, often more than 50 hours. Although the physical work was straining for a young and skinny boy, he caught on quickly, and his ability to draw was useful at the technical school.
When he was 14 years old his father died suddenly, and him and his brother became the men in the household. “How did you manage to carry on?” I asked him when he told me many years later. “There was enough to do” was his brief reply.
I often wonder, how my father’s choices would have been different, if his father had not left him at such a young age. Luckily my grandfather had passed on his love for music before he died.
Connecting with a parent’s creativity is about connecting with the very place we come from. Had it not been for father’s relationship with music, I wouldn’t even be here today.
It was music that lead him to meet my mother, who was an amateur folk dancer. In 1976 my father was asked to join her group to play on a trip to “America”, as the US was called in Denmark back then. For both it was their first (and only) cross-Atlantic trip. Their private love story began and 3 years later I was born.
“I was a bit of dreamer, when I was a boy. Looking out the window at school. Lazy you could say”.
In contrast to my father’s words, I would never call him lazy. He grew up under circumstances, where activities were measured by how useful they were. Being able to carry a heavy load was an important and noble thing, and that’s what he continues to expect of himself.
Still today he is active from morning till evening. You’ll find him wandering into the local forrest to gather big piles of wood for the inhouse fireplace – a kind of timeless and anachronistic activity that is so close to the nature of his personality.
I like the thought that the boy who made the dreamy drawings became the man who drew and built the house, I grew up in. A solid and elegant manifestation of my father’s intelligence and craftsmanship.
Every time I’m at my parents’ place, I’m reminded of who I was as a child. My father taught me the power in that. Being rooted in the place, where the first dreams are born.
Still, my heart, now sets the sun, While the moor is resting,
Herds now homeward are begun, And the stork is nesting.
Still, my heart, now sets the sun.
Eastern window-panes afar, Flare up in the gloaming, Moorland ponds like tiny stars, Catch the sunset’s homing.
Still, my heart, now sets the sun!Two verses by Jeppe Aakjær, that my father would sing to me.