Saturday, January 18, 2014

THE NEIGHBOR NYMAN



(...picking up the story just after I talked about the hunger years that afflicted Sweden and Finland in the 1860's. Any advice on my use of the Swedish language and culture are very welcome)


These were realities from that time that Anders remembered well, but in his younger years, as he was growing up, those things never entered his mind. Anders’ home province of Värmland is a land of hills and forests, rivers and lakes.

As a lad, he had spent many hours and even days wandering through the forests around his home area, discovering secret spots that he was sure had never before been seen by any man. It was a place that gave a boy the room and the time to think. It was a place for an imaginative mind. It was a place that not only allowed one to dream, it encouraged it. Anders considered himself fortunate to be raised in such a beautiful place of nature.

However, despite the natural beauties of the province, it was not one of the wealthier areas of Sweden. The soil was not as fertile as it is in some other parts of the country, and every year it was a challenge to wrench a crop out of the fields. Farms were small, and the people were poor.

 As his old neighbor Nyman once told Anders when he was a boy, “The hills may be beautiful, but you cannot eat them.”

That was the pragmatic side of Nyman. He was a farmer who lived just about two miles away from Anders’ family’s torp. Anders used to go and see Nyman often as a boy – almost every day. Nyman would always have a glint in his eye when Anders walked into his yard. “So, it is you then, Andri” he would say, pretending to be stern. Andri was the name he always called Anders. Anders did not know why and never asked him.

But the boy knew Nyman better than to be frightened by his feigned sternness. The old man was really a rather cheerful and contented fellow who enjoyed life. That was the larger part of his personality.

It was true that Nyman struggled as a farmer, as did most who farmed in the area. He and his wife had two girls, both much older than Anders, and no sons. It was likely for that reason that Nyman liked when Anders came to see him. And for Anders, who was growing up without a father, Nyman also played a special role in his life.

The two never consciously considered their friendship one of a surrogate father and a surrogate son. The thought of that would not have been agreeable to them. In their eyes, they were just friends, an old man and a young boy who shared an interest in life.

Nyman was poor, but at least he owned his land. Anders’ father had not. He instead was a torpare, meaning that he did not own the small amount of land that he worked. When Anders’ father and mother first lived there, when they were first married, they did not even own their little house, their torp.

In order to pay the rent on their land, Anders’ father had worked three days per week for the landowner. The landowner had several properties, and Anders’ father worked in one of these. He also worked an extra day to begin to buy the land that he, himself cultivated for his family. At the point when Anders’ father had died, he had managed to buy the little cabin. However, though he had been a hard worker, he had not yet managed to buy any of the land.

Then, when his father died, the hopes of eventually purchasing a bit of land for a farm also vanished. The family still needed a little land available to them in order to raise food for their family. For this, Anders’ oldest brother Carl then went to work for the landowner. Carl was fourteen years old at that time. He did not have to work three days a week, as did their father, but since the land they were leasing was less, he usually only worked two days a week. Anders had just turned five at the time of his father’s death.

Nyman’s family had been very kind to Anders’ family through this whole anguishing event. The kindness continued. Though they also were poor, Nyman and his family were very generous. They often brought Anna Kristina bread and eggs, and milk from their cow. At harvest time, they would bring some potatoes and rye flour.

One harvest season there was a party in the village where people would bring some of their crops and have a feast. Nyman’s two daughters went, bringing some of their eggs and potatoes. However, they soon left the party to return home, instead bringing the food over to Anders’ family’s house. “None of those people in the village needed the food as much as Anna Kristina’s children,” they told their parents.

Nyman was a religious man. He spoke often of how God had provided all of their needs. One evening, he and Anders were watching the sun sending its final rays on the trees to the east of Nyman’s farm. The sun was in the west, but as it sent the last of the day’s light across the sky, it lit up the trees in the east.

Haying at Vik in Stange, Hedmark (1884)
Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929)

The two friends were lying with their back against a rack of hay that Nyman and he had hung to dry. The racks were special ones that were assembled each year in the field at haying time. They kept the hay off of the ground to let the air circulate around it so that it would dry quicker.  They called these racks “höhäckar.”

The man and the boy sat in silence for some time, just watching the sky and the slowly changing light on the tops of the trees. Then Nyman spoke. He was not speaking to Anders, necessarily, but it was just that his thoughts found a voice.

“God is so good,” Nyman said in a voice that sounded rather far away.

Anders did not know whether or not he should respond, but he finally turned to his old friend and said, “Why do you say that Herr Nyman?”

At these words, Nyman almost acted surprised, as if he had forgotten that Anders was sitting beside him. “Well,” the older man answered, “God has given me the best life that I could ever imagine.”

“What do you mean?” Anders responded. “Certainly there are things in your life that could be better. There are times when you do not have enough money to do the things that you should do.”

“Oh, that is not important,” Nyman said in a rather dismissive voice. “It is true that from what we see today, there are things that we would do differently. But look at us now, you and me, Andri. We sit here with our backs against this freshly cut hay. We smell the sweetness of the grasses and the flowers and watch the sun in the tops of the trees while we rest our muscles. The air is fresh and the birds are singing their evening songs. Can you imagine anything better than this?”

Nyman chewed on a piece of grass, slowly moving it from one side of his mouth to the other as he spoke. Anders pulled another piece of grass from the hay against which they were leaning and, putting it in his own mouth, turned again to watch the sun in the trees.

They both sat silently again for a few moments, then Nyman spoke. This time he was talking to Anders. “When God made the first man, he put him in his garden to dress it and to keep it. I should think that it would have been a most satisfying work for Adam. It is the highest of a calling to be a farmer.”

Anders had to agree. Yet, even at this young age, he knew that he was not to be a farmer, at least, not right away. Perhaps some day.

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