Author: Arvid Järnefelt

Skiing in Viipuri

Issue 1/1993 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Vanhempieni romaani (‘My parents’ story’, 1928–30). Introduction by Kai Laitinen

One of my earliest memories of my parents, Alexander and Elisabet, is a scene from early spring that must be located somewhere in the vicinity of Viipuri [Vyborg], in those distant times [the 1860s] when the young couple, having moved from St Petersburg, had lived for only a few years in Finland, where my father held the post of director of the topographical district.

I remember a glorious walk with my father and mother.

Alexander had his skis with him. Elisabet held us both by the hand, Kasper and me. We had come out to see Papa ski. Our other brother, Eerik, was still too small for such expeditions, and had been left at home.

Presumably Mama, too, saw downhill skiing for the first time on that occasion, and she was amazed to see how it was done, standing, with one foot on each ski.

Mama was wearing a tight half-length fur coat; on her head she had a brownish-grey fur hat whose top part was made of dark red velvet.

I remember the steep, snow-covered slope, which our cheerful mother good­-humouredly helped us climb, carrying each of us in turn, from time to time setting us down in the deep snow, in which we sank up to our waists. In places the snow was so hard that we could run along it as if along the floor.

I remember that dazzling, bright slope as if it were yesterday. The snow glitters with sparkling brightness. One cannot keep one’s eyes open. The snow has a yellowish sheen, like the sun itself.

Papa is wearing a pale grey officer’s greatcoat with silver buttons; on his head is a dark military fur hat, and on his feet shining knee-boots. Now he pushes with his ski­sticks and sets off down the slope. His downhill speed is terrifying, even though he is standing up on his skis. On reaching the plain, he grows smaller and smaller, and, finally, is only a dot, far, far away. What a long time we had to wait before he came back to us!

Mama was greatly thrilled and amazed. But she was astonished that Papa dared stand up on his skis, when he could have sat.

To make the long wait shorter, Mother invented a game for us to play. She dug nests in the snow, and we crouched in them. She went behind a bushy juniper, hooked her fingers frighteningly in front of her face, and pretended to be a bear. We squealed and burrowed deeper into our nests. Growling, she crawled out from behind the juniper.

This was fun. We forgot Papa completely, and did not notice him until he was back on the slope. Once back at the top, he pointed his skis downhill again and shouted for Mama. He wanted her to stand on the skis behind him and hold on to the belt of his greatcoat, so that they could ski down the slope together.

Mother was full of laughter and panic. Covering her eyes with her hands, as if afraid even to contemplate such danger, she fairly squealed with terror. Papa had already put on his skis, and merely asked Mama to hurry up.

‘Ni za chto, ni za chto!’ cried Mama, waving her arms as if to protect herself. That meant that she would not for any price consent to such a reckless action. ‘No, no, no, no!’

Papa shook his head to try to make Mama ashamed of her cowardliness, saying, what will the boys think of having such a cowardly mother!

But this had no effect. She merely turned away, and a crease began to appear between Papa’s eyes, something that we boys always took note of, however far we were from him. And I think Mama would have noticed it, too, if she had not happened to be turned away.

‘Come on!’ said Papa, in a voice that made Mother glance at once toward him. And now, of course, she abandoned all her objections. She did as we would have done. Without showing any hesitation, she went bravely up to Papa, placed herself on the skis behind him and gripped the belt of his greatcoat.

And Papa said: ‘just hold on tight, and start to step with me, first with your left foot, then your right, one, two, one, two…’

Papa spoke in a decisive voice that one could not imagine anyone disobeying. And they began to move forward. We stood a little lower down and watched their descent. Papa speeded them onward, helping with both his sticks.

As they reached the slope and the skis began to slip forward under their own power, Mama’s head was hunched between her shoulders and her eyes were tightly shut. Clearly she was preparing to throw herself into the maw of the world’s greatest danger, come what may!

Excitedly, we watched the extraordinary spectacle. They sped past us at a furious speed. Papa and Mama together! Together for once, and skiing, which meant they were playing a game! We had never seen anything like it. At home they were nearly always in different places, one in the kitchen and by the beds, the other at the office and in his study, where we were not allowed to go when Papa was at home. But now they were skiing together, and even Papa could laugh, because this was a game! We were carried away with enthusiasm. Could there be anything more exciting or exhilarating! My chest swelled with joy, and I would have liked to shout and scream, for no reason, or to turn somersaults, over and over, head buried in the deepest snow.

But what was this?

Just as their speed was at its greatest and they were about to reach the plain, we saw them fall over. Their speed threw them apart. Mama spun around in the snow, with a flash of white underclothes. Papa stayed where he was, but he too had turned head over heels in the snow. And one of his skis ploughed far, far on, on to the plain.

Mama must have guessed that we were frightened, for she leaped up and started waving to us, cheerfully shouting, ‘Coo-ee!’, and began to hurry back towards us. Papa set out on one ski to fetch the other one. But even so, they arrived back at the top of the hill at the same time. Mama’s progress had been slowed by her excessive laughter. When he reached her, Papa had begun animatedly explaining something to her, and perhaps it was this that made her laugh, or perhaps the fact that the snow was so soft that she often sank into it up to her waist. At times she was so helpless with laughter that, on foot in the deep snow, she was forced to lean against the frozen snow-crust. This exasperated Papa, but that only made Mama find their fall even funnier.

When they reached the top of the hill, Mama could no longer make out, through her laughter, what Papa was trying to say to her. Then Papa turned to us, and we realised that he was not really angry at all. He only wanted to absolve himself from blame for the fall. He wanted to make it clear that Mama had been pulling him backward with all her strength. The faster they went, the more Mama had tried to slow them down, until in the end she pulled both of them over. We understood this explanation perfectly well, and both of us, with manly solidarity, took Papa’s side.

He started to demand that Mama should climb up on the skis again.

And, strange to say, Mama seemed quite happy to do so, as if she, too, thought it was fun.

But nothing came of it. Apparently one or other of her sons had, after all, been so frightened by the recent somersault that, as Mama climbed on to the skis once more, he burst into tears. And, to cheer him up, Mama began to amuse him. Began to pretend to scold and threaten Papa, and push him off his skis with one of the sticks. Papa, too, was inspired to make believe. As Mama poked him, he pretended to fall over in the snow. Then it was his turn to attack Mama. And now Mama seemed to fall over. But Mama got her own back, breaking off a branch of juniper and approaching Papa menacingly. Now Papa pretended to take flight. He skied off down the slope at speed, but made a sudden turn halfway and climbed up again. What an excellent skier he was!

This make-believe fight amused us so much that we almost split our sides with laughter. The funniest thing was to see Papa being frightened of Mama! Could there be anything more ridiculous: Papa running away from – Mama! Again I wanted to shout for joy and turn a somersault in the snow.

But most hilarious of all was to see them romping together in so unruly a fashion, pushing each other into the snow and wrestling each other off balance.

No other memory from those times has remained as bright and clear to the last detail as this apparently insignificant scene. And yet it casts light on the blackest darkness of succeeding years, a completely solitary memory, as if it had gathered all light to itself, and extinguished all other sources with its brilliance.

Why should one particular memory outshine all others and become the most important experience of childhood? With the best will in the world, I cannot understand why it alone, and no other, engraved itself on my memory. In order to explain something in the future?

I cannot think other than that the memory has survived because of the unforgettable feeling of joy that was awakened in us by my parents drawing companionably closer in their unruly games.

Other parents too, if they knew how such a sight would delight their children, might play together more often.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins