By Synne Borgen



Let us start with a country. Or better still, let us start with a place. A place at the end of the world.



Big slabs of gray granite. Ground down by ice, sand and sea for thousands of years into smooth, round rocks, sculpted by the elements into the shapes of Henry Moore. The billowing forms cascade down towards the sea. I follow their lead, traversing the grey until I reach the blue water, leaping from mainland to islets to skerries, sometimes aided by a convenient scattering of big stones in the shallows.


It is easier in winter, when you can take Sunday promenades across the fjords, walking from island to island on the thick ice. Summer seems far away then, but six months later you swim in the sparkling sea and lie down to dry on the sunburnt rock.


I reach the southernmost stone, farthest out in the water. Behind me I can feel the towering presence of the Norwegian mountains, but in front of me there is nothing but water and sky, and I know that Denmark is there beyond the waves, and after Denmark is Europe. We call these rocks World’s End, but to me they were always the beginning.



In the house where I grew up, I could see this horizon from the kitchen. Every day before school, I would climb up on the kitchen bench and eat my breakfast by the window. The color of the skerries changed with the seasons, from dull gray to golden to rosy pink. In the darkness of winter, all I could see was the occasional beam from the lighthouse, and sometimes the lights of a ferry out at sea, reassuring me that the world was still out there.



My grandfather must have felt the same pull. He was always turned away from us, looking out onto something else. Like many young boys from this gnarled, rocky coast, he went to sea. His mother was already dead, and his father was a whaler in the Antarctic. In November 1938, he signed on as an Ordinary Seaman on the M/T New Zealand, a month before his eighteenth birthday, and less than a year before the outbreak of war.



He was born on December 13th 1920. The Day of Saint Lucia. On this day, parades of children haunt the schools and kindergartens, the hospitals and care centers in the early morning hours. Children dressed in long white robes, the girls’ torsos slashed with red silk bands, glide slowly through the dark corridors, singing and handing out yellow saffron buns, carrying candles in the blue hour. And in front, always the prettiest girl with the longest, blondest hair. The glorious Lucia herself with her crown of lights. They sing a song about overcoming darkness with light, as Scandinavians do every winter. We know darkness. Always trying to hold it at bay by keeping flickering candles in every room, even in the dull daylight. After nightfall, blinds are never drawn, but kept open to let some light seep out our windows for the passersby on the street. Every day, we feel the battle between light and dark on our bodies.



The tanker New Zealand was requisitioned into allied service after Germany invaded Norway in the spring of 1940. The ship log has left a trace of my grandfather’s journey. The early war years were spent in Australia, Asia and Eastern Africa, and then, in 1943, he crossed the Pacific several times sailing from Australia to ports in the US: Pearl Harbor, San Francisco, L.A. In 1944, he signed on to a different vessel, the M/V Tarn, which spent the last two years of the war shuttling across the Atlantic from New York to ports in Western Africa. When he was ashore, I know he lived in Brooklyn, where I live now, but I don’t know where, or what he did, or whether  or not he liked America. At sea, they sailed in convoys. Many of the ships were torpedoed. Many of his friends died. The sailors smoked with one hand covering the cigarette, hiding the red glow from the eye of the submarine.


After eight years at sea, he returned to Norway in 1946. He danced with my grandmother that New Year’s Eve, they married on her birthday in July, and by the next new year, he was at sea again and my uncle was about to be born.


He became a captain, and sailed and lived all over the world, China, New Zealand, Tanzania. Sometimes, he wouldn’t come home for years. My mother didn’t meet her father until she was five. Seventeen years later, in 1974, she picked him up at the airport. His oldest daughter had gotten married since they last saw each other. She was seven months pregnant with my brother. “How fat you’ve gotten,” was what he said.



He died on the day of winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, when the sun is but a tangerine rind behind the mountains. After three heart attacks, he died of an exhausted, rotting heart, the tissue slowly crumbling away for five days in the hospital bed.



I no longer need a lighthouse to remind me of the world outside – I’m looking right at it. Just like he did.



In the 22 years we shared a family, my grandfather never said a word to me. My mother says he was traumatized in the war. I think his heart rotted from underuse. But I never stopped looking at the horizon. Now, I wake up briefly at every sunrise to see the palest pink and gold come over the rooftops. I eat my breakfast looking at the Brooklyn skyline from my bedroom window. The dark gray roof of my neighbor’s house cuts sharply across the slightly lighter sky, chimneys and high-rises like islands out at sea.