The flour-covered pin slams down on the counter, and a white translucent cloud rises from behind the wooden countertop where she stands. The deep grooves of the pin leave an intricate crisscrossed pattern on the pale dough. Her knobbed and wrinkled knuckles grip the handles as she rolls the pin back and forth over the thin dough with a swift and concise motion. She has done this dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Never does she complain about the labor. Her small mouth, the same as my mother’s and mine, curves up at the edges as she cannot help but smile when making one of our family’s oldest recipes. Passed down for generations, the tradition of making Lefse, a thin crepe made from potatoes, is one she has continued with her daughters and now granddaughters.
Lesfe is traditional Norwegian flat bread that our family makes every year around Christmas. Mixing together the simple ingredients—milk, flour, and potatoes—is an enjoyable family engagement. After the dough is all rolled out, it is put on a hot skillet and flipped over with a long, flat wooden tool. Every year I manage to flip one over the wrong way, and it flops onto the floor. My grandmother always seems to catch me in the act. She knows from years of experience that a beginner like me is bound to make a few mistakes. She lets out a large sigh and rolls her round eyes as she turns her head in my direction. Thankfully, we make enough lefse to feed a Viking army, and the one casualty is usually over looked. My family and I are partial to butter and confectionary sugar as a spread, but jam or fish are sometimes rolled up inside the fragile bread as well. We eat lefse for days straight during the holidays, morning and night until we cannot stand to look at it anymore. This holiday indulgence binds us to one another and brings us nearer as a family.
Occasionally my grandmother cracks a joke about being the shortest Scandinavian because the rest of us tower over her. She tells my cousin and me how we inherited the best traits from my grandfather, who was tall, slender, well built and strong, like a true Scandinavian. We laugh because we know that we have truly inherited our best qualities from her.
She stands 5 feet 2 inches. Her body is rounded and shows signs of age. Her skin is porcelain and still delicate despite years of washing dishes and raising a house of five children and a stubborn husband. The wrinkles reveal the veins that map her worn hands. Her wispy, white hair sits in perfectly sculpted curls set by her once-a-month perm. Occasionally she wears eyeglasses for reading, but her vision is still good. Her face is round and plump, still so full of life. Her cheeks pull down only slightly at the edges and below her little wrinkled mouth her chin sits perfectly round like a button on a child’s pea coat. Her dark blue eyes are deep, enigmatic. They remind me so much of my mother’s. They are stern yet soft and delicate like the ocean waves before a storm, calming and frightening.
She continues to roll and pound the dough, back and forth, again and again until it is ready to crisp up on the hot stove. Her cheeks are pink with delight. She tells me to bring her the jar of sugar that sits across the counter out of her reach. I do so willingly and avoid being scolded for disobedience.
Her voice is clear and stern, a sea captain commanding her crew on rough waters. I remember on every yearly visit my grandparents made from their home state of Minnesota that it seemed like my grandmother always yelled at me to do the dishes or vacuum the rugs. There was always something to be cleaned, fixed, or done around the house. She is sweet and obedient but practical and hardworking all the same. Her voice alone is enough to make me want to stand up straight and say, “Yes ma’am!” Intimidating she can be, but there is more to her than a drill sergeant who has been working many years keeping her soldiers in line.
After she tells me to get her the sugar she points across the room to her tan, leather purse that sits on a kitchen stool. She tells me to find her tissues and bring one to her. I unzip the bag to find the contents of a drug store. Multiple pill bottles, band-aids, chapsticks, packets of sugar, loose buttons and other miscellaneous items make it impossible to see the purse’s bottom. As I shuffle through old receipts and loose pieces of gum, I wonder what she could possibly need all of these things for. I unzip pocket after pocket and come up with everything but tissues. She tells me to look in the small pocket on the front of the bag. This pocket has a magnetic button instead of a zipper, for convenience I assume. I find the tissues by themselves, perfectly folded to fit inside of the square pocket. I hand her a tissue, and instead of blowing her nose, she takes off her glasses and wipes the flower that coats the lenses.
She settles her glasses back on her face and then reaches her short chubby arms across the counter to grab my face. Her hands are warm and smell of flour with accents of floral Chanel perfume. She pulls my face close to hers and kisses my cheek, leaving the echo of a loud smacking noise as she releases. Holding me there for a second, she keeps me close, telling me how much she loves me. For a woman who has lost so many loved ones, I understand why she lingers just a few moments longer as she keeps my face pressed to hers.
I remember looking at my grandmother on the morning that my grandfather passed away. She sat next to him in the bed that had been my mother’s as a child. Not crying, she held his frail, colorless hand and watched his lips part to take in the slightest breath. I, along with my mother, two aunts and a few of my extended family stood around the bed, all choking back tears and holding hands. This was the first moment, at the age of fourteen, that I saw my grandmother as the strong woman that she really is. In the face of tragedy, after having lost both of her sons in the past few years, she stood like a fortress that morning, unwavering and well composed. There was a sad, lonely gaze in her eyes, as if her soul had escaped through the hollows of her blue irises. Watching this elderly woman on the edge of the bed, I wondered how she had not blinked or shed a single tear. It wasn’t until I began to sing a song, about a grandfather wanting nothing more than his granddaughter to find her true love, breaking through the solemn silence, that I saw my grandmother’s cheek glisten in the dim light of the window. I knew that the heart-wrenching sorrow she felt was nothing close to what any of us were feeling.
After she releases me from her tender grip, I smile back at her. She goes straight back to rolling and pounding the dough as if nothing had interrupted her. I know that in her head she is counting her blessings. She masks her joyful tears in her apron as she pulls it up to wipe her face.