by Nina Lichtenstein
As a kid, the key to our apartment dangled on a string around my neck. I guess my working parents felt confident I would manage on my own in the afternoons until they came home at dinnertime. If I had any spare time on my hands I did not spend it inside reading, keeping a diary or doing puzzles, but instead, I roamed the neighborhood looking for nooks and crannies to explore, for people to talk to. Sometimes that meant getting into trouble. I was a crafty, devious and curious youngster, who loved sneaking around doing my share of shoplifting candy and comic books from the corner store. I loved to befriend my older neighbors, who were looking for company and someone who would listen to their stories. These were the adults who were around and also had time to pay attention to me. Visiting with them, I did not feel awkward as I did around my peers, and the older folks would welcome me into their apartments, smiling and offering a snack or two. No need to act cool or prove my belonging here. Although their homes would often smell funny and the foods they offered seemed old fashioned compared to what I was served at home, I loved having places to go where I was welcomed, accepted and made to feel as though I mattered. My parents never worried about my safety. It might have been the times. It might have been my parents. My dad would later tell me I was raised with “freedom under responsibility.” It’s possible I might have preferred less freedom and less responsibility.
Emilie Fleischer, or Mille, as was her nickname, was in her early eighties, and had I known the word when I was a child, I would have said she looked bohemian. In her floor-length pleated black skirts and black velvet headband dramatically accenting her thinning pageboy-shaped white hair, she fancied herself an artist, or at least a connoisseur of art. Mille was a spinster like her sister Helene, and they lived together in the apartment above us in Oslo, Norway, where I grew up. Somber paintings lined the walls of their dark apartment that smelled musty and faintly like old bodies that needed to bathe. The long, deep-red velvet curtains in the archways between the large, high-ceiling rooms made their home feel dramatic, as the fabric hung heavy from massive dark wooden rods with rounded, carved finials, the drapery forming pools of red on the floor like on a theater stage. I was happy here in this unconventional and mysterious place, where my arrival was anticipated with food and companionship.
I often went upstairs and rang their doorbell right after I came home from school. Mille wore dentures, and sometimes she would open the door without them. I was enthralled and a little scared by the cavernous hole of her mouth, her tongue prominently visible as she lisped her greeting past lips that turned inward, wrapped over her pink gums. When Mille offered me a snack she might fish out an overripe banana from their pantry and hand me half while mashing the other half for herself, like baby food. Sometimes she would let me mash it for her, making me feel conscientious and competent. We took turns cutting up fruits on a wooden retractable cutting board hidden directly under the kitchen counter, above the top drawer. Pulling it out, she would grasp the small white porcelain knob with a silver center that had gray dirt encrusted into its circular ridge. The board was usually moist looking or full of breadcrumbs, and the middle section of the wooden surface was worn down, creating a slight dip from years of slicing bread in the same spot.
Sometimes when I visited, the sisters would say they wanted to celebrate—I never knew or understood what the occasion might be other than it was something special. I would help them whip up three raw eggs and several tablespoons of sugar until the foamy blend became stiff enough to hold a shape when we pulled a spoon through it to check if it was ready. The egg cream or eggedosis is a traditional Norwegian treat loved by children and is usually served on holidays. The sisters would let me portion out the sweet, creamy froth into three identical cut crystal goblets. The fancy glasses stood gleaming, lined up on the kitchen counter where I was meticulously at work making sure I achieved an equal division of the smooth, yellow blend, licking the spills from my fingers. Helene would leave the kitchen and I could hear her rummage with bottles in their antique curio cabinet in the dining room. Taking up an entire wall, the massive piece of furniture was dark and ornate with beveled glass doors and a carved wooden front, and sat heavy in the brightest but least utilized room in the apartment. Helene would return with a fancy bottle of golden brown liquid, its gilded label inscribed with foreign words I didn’t understand. Using an old, large and dented silver spoon—so tarnished even I noticed that it needed polishing—Mille would carefully measure three spoonfuls into two of the three glasses.
In the living room, the deep and plush, moss-colored velvet couch was supported by clawed wooden feet and adorned with a carved top rail. Sitting between them, we slowly nursed the egg cream with teaspoons while looking through their family albums of black and white photographs. The sisters had many such books—big, heavy guardians of memories, and they would share a little story for each photograph as they took turns pointing out this one or that one. Small, square or rectangular images with white zigzag borders, attached to heavyweight, matte black pages, were held in place by tiny triangular white corner pockets. Beneath the photos, most of them faded, captions were written carefully in beautiful cursive handwriting with a thick white pencil; names of people, places and dates going back to the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when everything looked glamorous and romantic. In some of the photos I recognized a younger Helene or Mille, their dresses long, elegant, white and full of lace. Some of the faces were blurry, and many of the people seemed serious. There were photos of the sisters as girls, posing in sailor dresses with matching hats, somberly looking at the camera from the top of the front steps of their summer home, or in front of a blooming fruit tree.
Time would fly like this; me, squeezed comfortably in between the sisters, the heat from their soft bodies surrounding me. I looked up toward the tall windows facing the street, only partly visible through the archway connecting their two spacious living rooms, and I noticed, but did not care, that it was growing dark outside.
Sometimes my mother would ring the doorbell to fetch me for dinner, but it remained my little shared secret with the sisters that we had indulged in such a decadent afternoon snack.
My family never knew much about their quiet, enigmatic lives, and one day when I was about thirteen, Helene died and Mille was alone for the first time in her life. She became a recluse, and when my mother would ring her doorbell to see if we could help with food-shopping or other practical things, she would peer through the crack with the safety chain still attached, trying to discern if she could trust the caller. Sometimes she would reluctantly let my mother help, but often scrutinized the receipt and claim that she had been cheated—blaming the grocer, other times my mother. My parents bought a townhouse in the suburbs around this time, and we moved away. I missed my old neighborhood and all the connections I had made there, and although we were just a short bus-ride away, it wasn't the same. The daily-ness of it was gone. Soon we learned from other neighbors in our old building that Mille had been moved to a nursing home. I took the bus to the other side of town and visited her once or twice, and while she seemed to remember me, she had what seemed like an imaginary, confusing story to tell about the thieves in the nursing home and her many lost and stolen personal items. She kept a stash of toilet paper rolls in the basket attached to her walker. I followed Millie down the hallways of her new residence so she could show me her room. Her body hunched over the handles of her walker, she mumbled, “they sure do steal around here.”
I don’t remember when Mille died, or the last time I saw her. I recall my mother mention the sisters’ niece, who was making all the “arrangement.” As the next of kin, she would inherit their apartment.
Whenever I go back to Oslo to visit family and friends, I detour through the streets of my childhood. Passing the pre-war brick apartment building where I used to live, I look up at the windows of our old living room and my parents’ bedroom above the gateway to the inner courtyard, and above them, the windows of the Fleischer sisters’ apartment. In the place of their heavy drapes are fashionable Marimekko curtains with bold, orange flowers with black eyes, and a set of glass Ikea vases, purposefully arranged.
I resist ringing the doorbell. I know that seeing the inside of the apartment will alter forever my ability to vividly recall the afternoons spent in their company. How I would nestle on the couch between two warm, generous women’s bodies, and sense that I belonged. They made me feel welcome and important. Their wrinkled faces beamed as they spoke, and their hands—with paper-thin almost translucent skin—gestured with generosity, offering food and stories. Our souls were kindred and in need of one another. Their door was always open. I didn't need a key.