I wish I were in the Arctic.
Every morning I usually visit the corner café for an hour before I start the day. But my routine has changed: I head to the park and read.
I return to A Woman in the Polar Night, one of my favorite books, of which a new edition was published last year. It’s an account of Christine Ritter, who in 1934 decided to brave the elements and joined her husband and another trapper in a hut in the Arctic. There, the group struggles first with constant sunlight, then the eternal polar winter.
As I read, my Oma, my grandmother, is dying. She’s had a stroke. The limits on flying mean I cannot see her in her final hours. Next time I return to New Zealand, she will be gone. Vanished. It will be as if she never was.
I console myself that I visited her at Christmas. That she was able to meet my daughter, eight months old at the time.
A survivor of World War II, Oma left the Netherlands for New Zealand when she was roughly twenty-eight years old. She left behind her entire family. And developed a new life, a life where she spoke only English. An official informed her (and the other immigrants) that they were to forget everything of their old life including their language; they were to forget Dutch.
But some things are unforgettable. Certainly, behaviors.
We used to smile at how Oma kept an over-stocked pantry, always buying extras, tinned foods, many cakes of chocolate (she had her priorities right), and hated waste.
We are not laughing now; even toilet paper has become a serious matter.
Before Christine Ritter departed for the Arctic, she received a letter from her husband: ‘P.S. If you still have room in your rucksack, bring enough toothpaste for two people for a year, and also sewing needles.’
How quickly we are reduced to essentials. And how quickly our grocery lists alter with circumstance.
As time passes and their stores dwindle, they eagerly await the arrival of the pack ice, which will bring the polar bears – more food. Much of Ritter’s writing is about the abundance or absence of food. And everyone is eager to play their part, to cook for each other, to share.
When my mother was set with the stressful task of selling our old house, a sale due to our parents’ divorce, she would leave me and my sister with Oma. One day my sister took violently against being left. Her unhappiness was infectious, and I was soon equally upset.
Oma floundered for something to calm us. ‘We’re going to do something fun. We’re going to… we’re going to… have a Sweet Party!’
My sister and I froze. ‘
A Sweet Party?’
We sounded out the words, suspicious, as Mum slipped out the door.
‘A Sweet Party!’ Oma repeated. She went to her pantry and flung open the top cupboard where she kept the colossal collection of goodies and began the arduous process of taking them out.
First came the packs of chocolate. Fruit and Nut aplenty. But our eyes were on what came next – because she was Dutch, this included an awful lot of liquorice. Aniseed pastilles. Those little sugary cubes. Then the hard kind that, when they cracked open, released something so bitter that we only ate them for dares. Next, the cats. And the coins. So many coins! What treasure! And the beehives. And the pieces that looked like chalk. And the dubbel zoute – ‘double salt,’ so salty your mouth flooded with saliva at one whiff of them.
She brought out not a few of each, but every giant oversized, overfilled container and set every single one of them on the low coffee table.
We were spellbound.
For a seventh of a second.
Then we launched ourselves at the mass (Mum blissfully forgotten).
In Woman in the Polar Night, a spoonful of honey is considered an indulgent treat; luxurious.
Without our usual ‘luxuries’, days pass slowly, yet it seems that out there, beyond our grasp, beyond our control, everything is happening faster – there’s something out there.
Ritter and her companion joke about a particular hut being haunted. They laugh, but it reads uneasy. ‘We both know that ghosts are imaginary, but we both know also that imagination can become reality in the mind of a man who has lost all standard of reality in the loneliness and darkness.’
For us, here, that ‘something’ is harder to see – a virus – but the results are equally distressing.
I try to maintain some normality. I walk, and is seems surprising to find the sun shining, the grass so vibrant. The wind fresh. The day feels happy. It doesn’t match the turmoil hidden within ourselves, the threat on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
We’re not supposed to read scary stories before bed, now there is no choice.
When my sister and I were very small we used to beg Oma to re-enact the death of our grandfather, her late husband. And Oma would explain how he cried out in the night, ‘Help! Help!’ and clutched at his chest and lay back on the bed, and then was gone. The way Oma shouted ‘Help!’ and the way she grabbed her chest was fascinating.
‘Do it again, please?’ we cried.
Some stories, despite their apparent eeriness, or sadness, are strangely reassuring. Ritter’s account of the Arctic, particularly her days alone in the hut suffering through a storm, sounds stifling, but soothing during this time when we are all isolated.
And no narrative of the north would be complete without considering the northern lights, which Ritter describes in wonderful detail, including a piece of lore: ‘The Eskimos have given a beautiful interpretation of the mysterious undulation of the light. They believe that they can see the spirits of their departed in its drifting veils.’
There are no northern lights for me, and there may not be for a long time. I continue reading on the park bench, alone, atop a slope, where the cold wind funnels through. I shiver; but at least for me the cold will not last. The sun rises through the tree trunks before me, as if to prise the bush open, and the stark, bright, light hits my face.
–March 30, 2020
Rose writes for children and adults. Her pieces have been published by The School Magazine, the 4th floor literary journal, Medusa’s Laugh Press and performed at Adelaide’s Quart Short Reading Nights. A wanderer at heart, she resides in Brisbane with her favourite Antarctic souvenir (her husband), and her daughter.