I was eleven years old when my father sent me to Stockholm to spend the summer with my Aunt Berta. Mama had died only a few months before, and Papa thought it would be good for me to be with my aunt. I'd met her once when I was very little, but I remembered nothing about her. Later, I understood that Papa needed some time alone to sort things out, but he didn't talk about it; not then, not ever. On a clear, mild day in May, I boarded the train in Minneapolis with my nanny, Paulina, and we spent one night in New York before boarding the Gripsholm.
It was 1935, and the only Americans who could afford to travel were those whose fortunes had survived the Crash. Papa's clothing stores had continued to make a small profit, and both my parents had inherited enough money to get us through the bad times. Sometimes Papa took us on weekend trips, so I'd seen some nice hotels in Minnesota, but they were nothing like what awaited us on board the Gripsholm. "The floating palace," it was called. There were marble fireplaces, chandeliers, and molding on the ceilings of the dining rooms and parlors. Our stateroom contained an elegantly designed vanity and writing desk; a giant painting of blue-coated men riding horses near a castle took up most of the wall space over the beds.
The day we boarded, we met a crewman named Jack who became smitten with Paulina. He brought her tea in the afternoon, and doffed his cap and made a little bow whenever we passed. Once in a while, when he spotted me on the deck, he would smile and say "Good day to you, Miss Natalie," and present me with a little gold box of cookies or candies. They were delicious, and not like anything I'd eaten in Minneapolis. I am old now, yet I can still taste the richness of the chocolate and the softness of the raspberry and lemon cream. And I can still see Jack's crisp white suit and his handsome angular face.
We sailed for only a day when the storms arrived, rocking the boat with such force that many of the passengers vomited. Our stateroom was dark, and I lost any perception of the line between day and night. I lay in my bed, hugging my pillow and breathing as deeply as I could, like Paulina taught me. It wasn't so bad; I was able to cry about my mother and not be interrupted by helpless adults who thought there was something they ought to do for me.
My pillow, damp from tears, became my mother's skirt. In the dark, I could smell her perfume, and when the great ship tumbled with a giant wave, I heard her voice, calling me to come in, come in, Natalie, from the storm. The sea tossed, and I tossed with it, reaching for my mother in a waking dream until, exhausted, I slept. At the end of our third day at sea, the sun reappeared, and I was well enough to leave the stateroom and go exploring. Paulina, knowing that Jack would be around if I needed anything, stayed behind to write some letters.
On my way to the dining room, I stopped by the small library to find a book of boat stories and pictures I'd seen the day we boarded. Seated on an ivory moiré chair was a woman in a dark blue wool skirt and a blouse the color of the chair. Around her head was a blue scarf, and she was reading a letter. Though her clothes were simple and her face was bare of anything other than a hint of lipstick, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. My mother had been pretty, and Paulina turned men's heads with her crystal blue eyes and thick blonde hair. But this woman was different; her face looked as though it had been carved by one of the sculptors in my father's art books.
When I entered the little room, she looked up and gave me an uncertain smile that made me feel a bit sad, something I had seen adults do before. I felt embarrassed, as though I shouldn't be there, but before I could decide what to do, she spoke.
"Hello, there. Did you come to read or to hide?"
Her voice startled me; it was husky, and she sounded more Swedish than anyone in my family.
"Hello," I managed to answer. "I came to find a storybook, but I can do it later."
"The library doesn't belong to me. Anyone on the boat can come in here and sit. Only they don't, thank God. They haven't found it." She smiled, and this time, her smile had a glow like the white sun after a storm.
"Where are you going?" she asked me.
"To see my Aunt Berta."
"Where is that?"
I was embarrassed again, for no one had told me exactly where my aunt lived..
"In Upp-sa-la," I struggled to say.
"Ah, not far from Stockholm, where I'm going. You've never been to Sweden, have you?"
She gestured for me to sit at the table with her. I pulled up a chair and dangled my legs.
Then, to my own surprise, I blurted out: "My mother is dead, you see, and my father is...my father is...I don't know. He says for me to spend the summer with Aunt Berta. Paulina is with me--"
"Slow down. Who is Paulina?"
"My nanny. She's in our room, writing letters."
When I said the word "letter," the beautiful woman's face became serious. She put her hand on the table and touched the piece of ivory-colored paper she'd been reading when I came in. There was a great stack of letters and telegrams surrounding her, though we had been at sea less than a week. I stood up to leave.
"You needn't go. You haven't even told me your name."
"Natalie's my name. What's yours?"
"You may call me...'Anna.' Are you hungry, Natalie?"
I was starving. We left the library and went to her stateroom. With its gilded mirrors and canopy bed, it was like the hotel suites I'd seen in movies. She called for the steward, who brought us mushroom soup and some little crustless sandwiches and cakes. While we were eating, there was a knock on the door.
"Come in," my hostess said in that low voice that made her sound as though everything she uttered was of great significance.
It was Jack, and he was carrying a bundle of telegrams and some newspapers.
"Ah, I see that two of the loveliest ladies on board have met," he smiled, cocked his head and looked at Anna for a long moment. "May I get you anything?"
"No, thank you, Jack" I answered, and Anna said, "No, this will be all."
"As you like," Jack answered, placed the telegrams on the table, and was gone. I stayed with Anna for another half hour or so, and she told me about the towns and villages in Sweden. When I left her, I searched the deck for Paulina, and found her alone, leaning against the railing and looking out at the sea, which was now blue and calm.
"How was your lunch?" she asked me without taking her eyes off of the water.
"Delicious. A nice lady named Anna invited me to eat with her. A Swedish lady who"-- I made my voice as deep as I could--"talks like this."
"What did she look like?"
"She was very pretty. She wore a blue scarf, and she was tall, and she had stacks of telegrams."
Paulina put her arm around my shoulder and held me close to her. Then she smiled, and her eyes looked like marbles that had been tossed on board by the sea.
"Don't be a nuisance to the passengers, Natalie. If you get lonely, tell me, and we can find something to do."
The next morning, Jack delivered a note to me: Natalie, are you free for luncheon at noon? A. I showed it to Paulina, who said "Well, I suppose you do have a new friend. Have a good time." Then she went off to meet Jack for lunch.
I went to the fancy stateroom, and there was already a tray of sandwiches and fruit on the table. Anna's head was bare, and her auburn-brown hair cascaded down to the collar of her plain white shirt. She smiled at me, and I sat down.
"And how are you today, Natalie? Hungry, I hope."
I wasn't hungry; I had dreamed about my mother -- of walking near the lake with her, holding her hand, feeling her breath on my cheek. When I woke up, the first thing I saw was the porthole, and I felt sure that some deep part of me was being sucked into it, sacrificed to the cold ocean to bob and toss about forever.
Anna took a bite of one of the sandwiches and then sighed. "I, for one, will be glad to be off this boat. How about you?"
My eyes were suddenly moist. I didn't want to leave the Gripsholm, didn't want to go to Sweden, didn't want to look at land of any kind.
"Sometimes it is better to be between destinations," my friend said in a faraway voice. "But you have your aunt, and you still have Paulina."
"But what if Paulina marries Jack?"
This was the first time the possibility of such a thing had occurred to me, and the tears came for real. My new friend put her arm around me and wiped my eyes with one of the linen napkins on the tray.
"I wish I could be someone else," I told her.
"Oh, do you? Who would you be?"
"I don't know," I sniffed. "Anyone else. Haven't you ever pretended you were someone else?"
"Yes, Natalie, I have. But at the end of the day, I am still myself."
"Papa doesn't have Mama to talk to anymore, and when we get off the boat, Paulina won't have Jack. Everyone will be alone."
"A moment ago, you were worried that Paulina would marry Jack. Anyway, Miss Natalie, sometimes, it is not so bad to be alone. Eat your sandwiches."
I ate lunch with Anna every day for the remainder of the voyage. Sometimes I wept and talked about my mother. And sometimes we made up stories about Paulina and Jack.
I imagined their getting married on a boat in the moonlight, with me as the flower girl. I wore a white silk dress, like Mama's finest, and carried a bouquet of yellow roses. In this version of the story, Jack and Paulina came to live with Papa and me in Minneapolis, and Jack wore his white uniform and took us all out to tea.
Other times, I changed the story and had Jack fall overboard or sail away forever so that Papa could marry Paulina and keep us all together. In my darkest rendition, I married Jack in a secret wedding ceremony, and Paulina took care of our children.
"You have a wonderful imagination, Natalie," Anna told me. " It will serve you well."
When we reached Göteborg, Jack gave Paulina and me handkerchiefs with Gripsholm embroidered in blue. He kissed my hand, and kissed Paulina on the cheek, then disappeared in a dark sea of uniforms and luggage. Anna, done up in a scarf and wide-brimmed hat, blew a tiny kiss to me as she disembarked, and I felt a wave of seasickness, though we were docked and my feet were about to touch land.
Aunt Berta, as it turned out, was tender and kind, and she and Paulina got on well. Paulina spoke of Jack from time to time, but when I finally asked her if he was her sweetheart, she smiled and shook her head.
"A friend for the voyage" was all she said, and I never brought up the subject again.
One day, Paulina was reading the newspaper when she gasped and called my name.
"Look Natalie!" she pointed to a picture in the newspaper. There was Anna, wearing what looked like the skirt and blouse she'd had on the day I'd met her in the library of the Gripsholm. Under the photo was the caption, Garbo returns home for extended visit.
"Your friend is Greta Garbo!" Paulina almost shouted.
I knew who Greta Garbo was; everyone did. Mama, who loved movies, had called her the greatest actress in the world.
"That explains why she never came out on deck," Paulina went on. If she did, people would recognize her. She didn't want that."
"She likes privacy, Natalie. She wants to just be herself and not give autographs and have people take pictures of her. I think she has had a somewhat difficult life. Perhaps she is running away."
"Running away from what?"
"Oh, her mistakes, I suppose. Or maybe her own loneliness. I think she is a sad lady, Natalie."
That summer in Uppsala, the days were spun of warm shadows, cold blue water and pink skies. The time passed quickly, and Mama came to me almost every night in my dreams, walking silently with me through dark passages illuminated only by the memory of her fragrance, the movement of her skirts, the wisp of hair at the back of her pale neck. Papa wrote to me -- brief formal letters in dense blue ink. And Paulina took me to the movie theater in Stockholm to see Anna Karenina. I sat in the dark and wept silently over Anna's doomed romance with Count Vronsky. When she left her husband, and he told their little boy that his mother had died, I cried until the skin around my lips tasted like the salt of the Atlantic.
Paulina held my hand. I didn't realize it at the time, but everyone in the theater, caught in the spell of Garbo's grief, was weeping along with me.
About the author:
Diane E. Dees is a pscyhotherapist and writer in Covington, Louisiana. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in many publications, including The Raven Chronicles, The Dead Mule, Thema, and Palo Alto Review. She is a columnist for Moondance and also writes political commentary for several ezines. Diane and her husband, Orvin, are the webmasters of www.princesscafe.com, the world's only virtual rock and roll restaurant. Diane's blog is at www.dedspace.blogspot.com.