Copenhagen, Hovedstaden, Denmark
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
When my boys turned five, I got them ponies.
There was Texas, a wily pinto gelding, and Daffodil, a palomino with a white stripe down her lovely face. The ponies would live in our backyard, except for on Christmas morning, when they would come in the house to open presents, eat peppermints and caper beneath the Christmas tree.
I kept the surprise until dinner, then I blurted “I got you guys PONIES!”
Because he didn’t want me to be disappointed, Tavish said, “That’s nice, mom,” and took another bite of his broccoli.
Toby, said, “Why?”
And Guy said, “That’s exactly what I was thinking. Why?”
And then they all stared at me because they really didn’t know why I had gotten my children ponies for their fifth birthday.
I stared at them because who doesn’t want a pony for his birthday?
I brought Texas and Daffodil home anyway, and I fed and brushed them until partway through the next dreary December when I looked out the window and saw them standing fetlock deep in mud and realized that no one cared about them but me.
I tell you this story because I want you to know that I try. I really do. But it’s hard to get motherhood right.
This week I took the boys out of school and brought them to Copenhagen.
The plan is that we get one last carefree blast of international togetherness before high school kicks in.
I chose Copenhagen because it was in Copenhagen on my 10th birthday, that I tasted real bleu dressing for the first time. It wasn’t like the mayonnaise in a jar that I was used to. This dressing was chunks of gorgonzola cheese swimming in fresh whole-milk sour cream, and it was even more than that.
It was velveted kings in heavy gold crowns and church bells ringing down cobblestone streets. It was all the centuries of history I’d never cared about before, described in all the languages I’d never heard. One spoonful of that dressing and the world was bigger than I ever guessed.
I remember we had chocolate mousse for dessert afterwards. It was one hell of a birthday dinner.
Copenhagen is where Hans Christian Andersen lived for most of his life.
Along with Walter Farley, who wrote The Black Stallion, Hans Christian Andersen was the champion of my childhood. His stories are the soundtrack of my life.
You might not recognize the name Hans Christian Anderson, but you should recognize his stories: “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Little Mermaid”. They are what we English teachers call “literary fairy tales”.
I require the students in my English 250 “Introduction to Folklore and Mythology” class
to learn about Hans Christian Andersen.
I tell them that the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid” is plebian bullshit, anodyne propaganda, an example of the deliberate dumbing down of modern America.
I challenge my students to throw off the shackles of Disneyfied fairy tales. I imply that it is their parents’ fault that they have not done this sooner and I pat myself on the back for being the change I want to see in the world.
As soon as we arrived in Copenhagen I ushered the boys to the statue of Hans Christian Andersen set in front of the stately town hall.
I point at it proudly and announce “Look! It’s Hans Christian Andersen!”. I take a deep breath all the way to my toes. My eyes fill.
“Who?” Tavish asks.
Toby doesn’t say anything; he doesn’t glance at the statue because he’s busy taking pictures of the town hall building .
“Oh my god,” I say. I stare at my children, my beautiful children who have been granted to me by the universe to shape into thoughtful citizens.
“Oh my god.”
“What?” asks Tavish.
They didn’t recognize Hans Christian Anderson.
I’d thrown the shackles so far off my children that they didn’t recognize the greatest storyteller of all time.
Of all the things I’ve done wrong in the last fourteen years, this may be the most egregious.
Because they could tell I was upset, my boys agreed to visit the Hans Christian Andersen house after we walked through the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.
Ripley’s has stuffed five legged goats and real-life shrunken heads from Borneo and a tricky bridge over mirrors and spinning walls that feels like it’s tilting until you close your eyes and realize you’ve been duped.
We took turns standing behind a clever one-way-glass window, trying to get people’s attention by waving our arms and yelling. I’m pretty sure the German tourist winked at us, but he may have been winking at himself.
In contrast, the Hans Christian Anderson museum has quiet wandering hallways leading visitors past life-size-dioramas. Some scenes include audio of the corresponding story read aloud in your choice of languages. We squeezed in the first passageway and stared at the diorama while we listened to “The Little Match Girl”, in English.
At the end of the story, I sniffed. I always cry at the end of “The Little Match Girl”.
The boys looked at me, nonplussed.
“Don’t you get it?” I asked.
“She died,” Tavish said, because he was listening.
“Well, yes,” I said, “but it’s worse than that.”
He raised an eyebrow.
I continued. “It’s not just that she died. Dying was the best thing that ever happened to her. The bad part is that she froze to death in the street, just outside the window of a house where a family was eating Christmas dinner AND NO ONE CARED.”
He looked stricken.
“Yep,” I chortled. “ ’Cuz life hurts. Now do you get it?”
We moved on to the next diorama: Thumbelina.
“Ah, Thumbelina,” I said. Do you know that story?”
Of course he didn’t, and I didn’t give him time to listen to the taped man inside the diorama read it to him. Instead I gave him my own summary:
“A barren woman, desperate to have a child, begged a fairy for help. The fairy gave her Thumbelina, a girl about half the size of her thumb. Her mother loved her very much, of course. Thumbelina is kidnapped by an ugly toad and sold off to be married to a disagreeable mole. Luckily she is rescued by a swallow who loves her more than anything else in the world. Once she is free, Thumbelina decides to marry a fairy prince just minutes after meeting him. The swallow sings at their wedding, even though his heart was breaking. Thumbelina never bothers to contact her mother to let her know she is ok.”
Tavish shook his head. He started walking faster. I followed him, summarizing more of Andersen’s stories as I tried to get him to understand lessons I should have taught him long ago.
The Little Mermaid: The youngest mermaid loves a prince. The Sea Witch grants her legs but each step is a knife of pain. The witch also cuts out the mermaid’s little tongue so she can’t confess her devotion to the prince. Instead he takes her dancing (ouch!) and tells her how much he loves his betrothed, a generic princess from the neighboring kingdom. If the mermaid stabs the prince the night before his wedding, the Sea Witch will give her tail and voice back. She kills herself instead, and the prince never notices what she sacrificed for him.
The Ugly Duckling: Everyone, from his duckling brothers and sisters to the turkeys in the yard, to the girl who brings the corn, hates the baby swan because he doesn’t look like a duck. He is so ugly that not even the dog will eat him. As he is about to kill himself, puberty strikes and he becomes a beautiful swan. Everyone who used to hate him now loves him, because people are that shallow.
The Red Shoes: A girl named Karen treasures her red dancing shoes. She even wears them to church and to her stepmother’s funeral. As punishment for her vanity, the red shoes won’t let her stop dancing. Finally, exhausted and desperate, she convinces an executioner chop her feet off, then tries to go to church to beg forgiveness. The red shoes (with her feet inside) block her entrance to the church. An angel grants her mercy and her heart is so grateful that it bursts. She dies.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier: The 25th tin soldier longed to marry the lovely paper ballerina even though he only had one leg and lived in a box with 24 other soldiers. He falls out a window, floats down a drain and is eaten by a fish. Luckily the fish is bought at the market by the cook at his house. The cook pulls him from the belly of the fish and places him where he can see his ballerina love. As he starts to hope that they will be together after all, one of the children impulsively tosses him into the fire. He begins to melt; the ballerina catches a draft and is blown into the fire, too. They both burn up.
“NOW do you get it?” I asked, when I was finished.
“Wow, those are great stories, mom,” Tavish said, dryly. I could tell he didn’t mean it.
“Ripley’s was fun,” Toby said, “because we actually got to do something”.
I can try, but I can’t write the stories that shape my kids’ life. They will pull from the annals of their experiences to create their own soundtracks.
We had hamburgers for dinner. We put our elbows on the table and bit into thick, medium rare hamburgers that left a trail of meaty juice down our wrists. The boys drank milkshakes and I drank a beer in a frosted glass. Our legs were tired from exploring Copenhagen. I don’t remember what we talked about. We were together. It was a good day.