People always ask me what Danish people are like and a few years ago, while I was caught up with my own issues of unhappiness and sorrow, I probably would have answered with a shake of my head and say, “Well, they’re Danish.” I knew I was generalizing, and hated doing so, but it was easy to do and as far as I could tell, I wasn’t hurting anyone—or so I thought.
When my son and I returned from New York City this summer, he said a few things to me that made me think. First of all, you have to understand, when we stayed in New York, we stayed at Marie’s on 154th Street—a beautiful brownstone full of books, amazing artwork and people. At Marie’s, Kai met play directors, writers, painters, editors, agents, sales directors, actors—all of whom just happened to be Black. And he loved it. He loved it, I suppose, because he got to see others who looked like his mother and who, from what he could tell, valued his mother highly. What child doesn’t like to see that, especially when he’s gotten to see some unsavory sides of me here as an immigrant in another a country—a mother’s spirit who seems broken from the inability to feel connected to a culture so obviously outside of her own. He’s used to seeing his mother being the different one, which in itself is not a bad thing, I’m just saying. Take for example this story one of his kindergarten teachers told me. I had bumped into her in a bar and she said, “Are you Kai’s mother? Well, I have the funniest story to tell you!” And she continued, “Kai and I were sitting by the lake and he sat on my lap. He pointed out to the water and asked, “Hva’ det?” (What’s that?) “It’s a swan!” She answered, to which he responded, “Hva’ det?” yet again, but this time he pointed to the little cygnets. “Oh, those are her babies.” Kai looked at her very confused, “But why are they brown?”
“Oh, they are brown, but when they grow up—”
“You mean, when I grow up, I’ll turn white too?”
It’s not easy for a child to grasp being a minority if the security measures and positive reinforcements are not in place. One of the things I learned so profoundly about race is how our children learn to think about it. So when my child returns with me from New York and says, “Mommy, white people are not as smart as Black people, are they?” I’m flabbergasted. I wonder where he received this tacit message? “Why do you ask me that?”
“Well, I can see it in the way they all act. It not so nice how white people have treated Black people, you know, with the slaves. You can not be so smart to treat other people like that.” While there was one part of me, the emotional, irrational, fed-up part that wanted to be like, “Yeah!” I had to admit to myself that I could not send the message to my son that it was ok to conclude that certain groups of people were different from other groups. I’m a tree-hugging hippie and in the end, I will die saying it, human beings are human beings. It may be hard for me to stand by that sometimes, but in the end, it is my credo, the words that allow me to carry my head up high and look every one in the eyes. I’m not saying there are not days when I feel like putting both hands up in the air and declare, well, fill in the blanks.
Now I also realize that my son has access to a world that I do not. When he is not with me, he is with Danes, for the most part. He gets to do that Eddie Murphy thing—you know, discover the world as a white guy. So I’m thinking that maybe my son is hip to some things that I will never be privy to. But who knows? This is all speculation and not based on any real, solid experiences. So when people ask me what Danish people are like, this is how I’ll respond from now on:
My mother-in-law Annie taught me how to knit when I was pregnant. She took me into her home when I first arrived here, and truth be told I’ve spent more time with her than I have with Ben. Even when Benjamin and I are not together, she and I still hang. She was just over here last night eating dinner with me, talking about books and the love of her life Kai—despite the fact that her son and I are no longer together. Danish people can be like that.
My father-in-law will always be my father-in-law no matter the relationship I have to his son. He is a tall, handsome man whom I’ve grown to love through long conversations of his childhood growing up in Nørrebro, helping his friend kill pigeons for food. He was put out at the age of sixteen, after his mother’s death. She was bed-ridden for years and he would tell me of childhood car drives up to the Northern coast, in a car his father and friend custom-built in order to fit her stretcher … and he would tell of days on the beach, his mother smiling as she slowly sailed to her horizon of death. I’ve never asked him for anything but he’s just one of those people that you know, without words, is there for you. Danish people, I guess, can be like that.
Then there’s Oldemor! A round robust, buxom woman who, like my son Kai, is deaf. She bakes the best cakes and knits every one socks—do you even realize how cool it is to wear hand-knitted socks? And they are soft and warm and provide a furnace for your heart when you really need it. Kai is her first Great-Gran and to her, I come from the America of the old days, an America that was full of promise and “saved” Denmark. I remember once I met one of her brothers who said to me, “You look so much more beautiful now—you’re not as dark as before!” Man, I still laugh when I think about those words! The thing about Oldemor is, she’s not hung up on anything other than being happy and enjoying life to the fullest. And me? I say right on Oldemor! The Danes can be like that.
Unfortunately Tante Liv has passed on—but she is still with me in spirit. I can feel her closer to me since I have just received some little knick-knacks her children allowed me to have after her passing. There’s a wooden carving of a man, two alabaster candle holders, some cutting boards. I mention these things because of the vibrations they have added to my house. The sense of reaching out for something, passing my fingers across it, feeling traces of her still there: like a detective dusting for fingerprints. Tante Liv also grew up during the War in Nørrebro and talks about corn coffee and a time when many people here lived in squalor. Women’s interests, herbs, tea, wine, health, family—these were all things she valued. She would tell me all the time, “Bring your books up here Lesley,” (to the summer house), “You must write up here.” Her husband Uncle Per, well, what can I say? While I type these words I can still see him, big blue eyes, baseball cap, khakis, a red sweater—in the kitchen de-boning fish and telling me how much he loves Kate Bush. He has unfortunately passed on…but yeah folks, the Danes can be like that. I could go on about the many beautiful people I have been fortunate enough to meet here … but you get the picture.
Like any other place in the world you find beauty and ugliness. I remember once I went to this toy store and I had to wrap this present up at a table. There was another woman and let’s face it, we were both in a rush. We started getting really mean with each other and then all of a sudden, I can’t remember who broke the ice, we just started laughing, shared the table and some small talk.
What is it that causes us to forget our humanity sometimes? What is it that causes us to forget other’s humanity? True cultural differences exist—for me to deny that would be ridiculous. But in the end, no matter where you go there are going to be those who shine so bright they lift you up and those that hover just over the bitterness of frustration they color everything around them.
So when people ask me what Danes are like, I’ll not only show them this piece but I’ll also add, the Danes? Well, they’re pretty much like you and me—human beings, fumbling and striving towards the beauty of life. Some are more successful than others of course, just like me, just like you. Perhaps what we really need to be focusing on is, what are we like? Perhaps what we need to do is observe ourselves and when that extra energy allows, nudge each other towards a bit more happiness.