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Knowing Place Sample

1: Fru Stagnéus

I shop and clean for the widow Stagnéus three times a week. It takes all the courage I can muster.

I trudged up to her top-floor apartment one gray September day. Someone had taped a note on the ancient elevator: ur funktion. Broken, again. I usually put the groceries in the elevator, push the button, and take the stairs two at a time, reaching the top floor long before the creaking machinery. Today, loaded with groceries, I climbed step by step, round and round. The stone stairs spiral up past bursts of daylight from ceiling-high windows and pause at the dimly lit landings, where the apartment doors face each other.

The cyclic climbing invites reflection. Between the second and third floors, I put the groceries down by a window. I gazed at the building across the inner courtyard. Through its dingy windows I could see a similar stairwell winding upward. I leaned close to the glass and peered upward to the patch of sky. I wondered, not for the first time, what I was doing with my life. In a dead-end job, in Sweden—a country that is deceptively similar to the United States, but where I am daily reminded that it is fundamentally different. Learning Swedish makes it easier to get around, but the language alone is not the key to the cultural enigmas that continue to elude me.

The gray sky gave no answer except, Where else? My job prospects are probably no better stateside. No one awaits my return. After leaving college, my friends scattered across the globe. As for family, now that Nana is gone, only my father is left. After our last meeting, he would hardly welcome me back. I sighed, picked up the groceries, and continued.

“Fru Stagnéus,” I called and knocked firmly on the door. I was late and knew I’d be met with an icy glare. Fru Stagnéus is a fin dam, the supervisor had told me. And a fine lady she is. Of all my clients, she is the only one who demands I use the formal ni in addressing her. I still struggle with the intricacies of the Swedish language and find it hard to remember to use this formality most Swedes in the nineteen seventies consider obsolete. Fru Stagnéus also expects strict punctuality, something I try hard to oblige. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain the reason for my tardiness today. Gustav, my morning client, had had an accident while sitting on a park bench.  I’d had to help him home, clean him up, and get him into fresh clothes. Even if I’d known the diplomatic term for ‘loose bowel movement’ in Swedish, it wouldn’t have been proper to speak of such things with fru Stagnéus.

Sure enough, fru Stagnéus stood in the hall as if she’d been waiting there all morning. She always dresses primly. Today she wore a dark blue skirt and jacket over a white blouse with a large cameo pinned carefully at the throat. Her gray, permed hair was swept up from her stern, time-lined face, making her look even taller than she was. Leaning on her bockar, two wooden supports shaped like tall, skinny sawhorses, she glared down at me menacingly. I figured my best strategy was to pretend nothing was wrong.

“Good afternoon, fru Stagnéus,” I began. “How are you?” Whoops, “I mean, how are ni?” I entered the apartment and put my scarf on the hat rack, then sat down to pull off my boots. Fru Stagnéus scowled wordlessly. She always makes me feel presumptuous when I put my things on her hat rack or sit on her stool.

“Would you like me to do the living room or the bedroom today, fru Stagnéus?”  When I was a teenager, I used to babysit some difficult kids. I learned the trick of giving them choices: Do you want to brush your teeth before or after we read a goodnight story? The same strategy seems to work with fru Stagnéus. I guess it gives her a sense of control.

“Living room,” she answered, pushing my boots with her bock so that they sat more squarely on the shoe rack.

“Fine.” I headed for the kitchen. “Just as soon as I get these groceries put away.”

Fru Stagnéus followed me through a narrow passageway into the kitchen. I never cease to be amused that this spacious apartment has such a tiny kitchen with appliances from the forties, including a minuscule refrigerator and a single cupboard for storage. But then, it was designed for the maid, who would shop for groceries every day and sleep in the alcove off the kitchen. The passageway connects the kitchen with a large dining room. One day last week fru Stagnéus asked me to clean out the cupboards in the passage. Fine, I said, before opening the doors and seeing the stacks of plates and saucers and serving dishes that she expected me to remove, rinse, dry, and replace after washing down the shelves. The plates were milky white with delicate blue grape clusters fastened in the glaze. I had seen the same plates in a department store once and had picked one up to admire. When I saw the price, I put it down very gently and moved away carefully. I cannot imagine the value of the dishes in fru Stagnéus’s cupboards.

“When was the last time ni used these?” I had asked, forgetting that a question of such a personal nature was way out of line. Fru Stagnéus just looked at me blankly, and I went back to my work.

Later that day, as I was putting on my coat to leave, she said, “My son’s thirtieth.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“My son’s thirtieth birthday dinner,” she repeated. “We were sixteen at the table.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you had a son.”

Fru Stagnéus stood in the hallway and gazed into the dining room. “He died when he was thirty-two.” I followed her gaze and could almost see the dinner party she was seeing there, with all that lovely porcelain on the lace-covered mahogany table.

I don’t remember what I said then, probably something clumsy and inappropriate. But it was the first time with her, I felt I was in the same room with another human being. I try to remember that feeling, and the fact that she had a son who apparently died as a young man. Because most of the time, like today, she makes me feel like an unwelcome intruder who is only tolerated because she can clean house, someone who has to be watched in case she snitches some of that precious porcelain.

Now fru Stagnéus stood behind me in the kitchen and sniffed and snorted while I pulled things out of the bags and put them on the counter beside the sink.

“You got the wrong butter. I want the extra-salty butter. You’ll have to take it back.”

“They were out of the extra-salty butter,” I replied. Seeing this did not appease her, I continued, “and they had a sale on the regular.” She harrumphed, but I could tell I’d hit the right button. She loves saving a krona.

“Don’t put that can up so high,” she went on as I put the mushrooms on the shelf above the counter.

“Is this okay?” I put it on the next lower shelf.

“Farther to the right,” she commanded. I obeyed. Patience is a virtue, I reminded myself. Just give her a sense of control and she’ll be all right. I continued to pull out groceries, and she continued to tell me precisely where she wanted them. That done, I folded the plastic bag, flattened it with my hand against my thigh, and placed it with the others in the crook of the drainpipe under the sink. Doing this maneuver, exactly as she had instructed me on my first day on the job, seemed to reassure fru Stagnéus, and she wandered away into the dining room while I started cleaning the living room. A large archway connects the rooms, so she can keep her eye on me while I dust and polish. I seemed to be doing things up to her standards today. By the time I dragged out the vacuum cleaner she had dozed off in the large chair at the head of the table.

I hated to wake her, so I stood for a moment looking out the tall windows down on the square below, something I usually can’t do without exposing myself to a lecture about lazy workers and taxpayers’ money and what was to become of today’s young people.

The square is one of my favorite places in Stockholm. All sorts of people cross the square during the day, often stopping to buy a hot dog, rest on the benches, watch the children in the playground, or admire the rosebushes. It is a hiatus in the otherwise hectic pace of city life. I watched as two policemen escorted a young man from a park bench. The man reached surreptitiously, and very smoothly, into his back pocket as the policemen took him by the elbows and led him away. A white envelope fluttered down to the ground behind them.

As soon as they were out of sight, two other men came over and picked up the envelope—it was their lucky day. Does fru Stagnéus know her apartment faces a square notorious for drug traffickers?

Fru Stagnéus awoke with a snort. I grabbed the vacuum and turned it on. After finishing the living room I headed for the dining room. She hobbled begrudgingly out of the way. I ran the vacuum around the mahogany table before putting the machine back in the closet. Then I returned to the living room and approached her.

“Fru Stagnéus, I’ve got some extra time today. Would you like me to clean out the oven? I know you’ve wanted that done.” Fru Stagnéus’s oven was something of a nemesis for her and something of a joke down at the home-help center. After three different home helpers refused to clean her oven, she had called the supervisor to protest. The supervisor had explained that ovens were not on the home helper’s Job Description. She had even gone so far as to suggest to fru Stagnéus that perhaps she could get her daughter to do it.

Fru Stagnéus was so outraged she contacted her local politician and wrote an angry letter to the editor of Svenska Dagbladet. That was over a year ago, but the story was still circulating, with laughter, when I started working at the home-help center three months ago.

Fru Stagnéus stared at me for a long while. I began to worry. Did she know that this was considered a joke among the home helpers? Did she think I was trying to make fun of her?

“Well, it does need to be done,” she said finally, to my relief. Whatever she may have thought, she didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to get the oven cleaned.

“Great, just let me clean up the toilet and I’ll get to the oven. Next time I’ll do the bedrooms and the tub.” When I first started coming, she had asked me to do the entire apartment every time. I tried to explain to her I could do a better cleaning job if I spent more time in each room. She needed some convincing, but my arguments finally appealed to her sense of order and efficiency.

I got down on my knees in front of the oven. It wasn’t very dirty, probably hadn’t been used since her son’s thirtieth. The oven was small but deep. It wasn’t so clean that it didn’t leave dark smudges on my sleeves as I reached to wipe off the back. I blew some loose curls from my forehead and remembered Nana proudly showing off her new self-cleaning oven. “Finally,” she had said, “a real labor-saving device.”

Moments like this reminded me of the absurdity of my situation. I had never cleaned anyone’s oven, or toilet, except my own. My father is a geology professor, and I naturally went to college. But when I graduated in 1972, the market was glutted with baby boomers with bachelor’s degrees. My attempts to find employment bore no fruit. My father blamed it on my major, European history. Science, he said, was the future. And computers. In an attempt to appease him, I took a course in Fortran IV programming. Every program I wrote ended up stuck in a DO loop. I only learned enough to know I was not cut out to punch and shuffle computer cards.

On a whim, after reading Marshall McLuhan, I applied for a master’s course in journalism. Journalism was popular: The media was going to change the world. For people who couldn’t decide whether they wanted to drop out or to work within the system, journalism offered a middle ground, a fence on which to sit and watch the world around them. I started the fall semester enthusiastically, but quickly became disenchanted with what I learned about the media industry.

Nana died that autumn. I was devastated. And not long after that I met Björn and fell in love. Deeply, intensely, never-before-and-never-again in love. I didn’t need to deliberate very long before deciding to leave journalism and the U.S. to head for adventure and romance abroad. Once settled in Sweden, I quickly realized I couldn’t live solely on adventure and romance. But my bachelor’s degree didn’t cut much ice in the Swedish labor market. Foreign education in general was highly suspect, and in the fervor of anti-Americanism brought on by the Vietnam War, a U.S. education was especially worthless. So here I was, on my knees in fru Stagnéus’s kitchen.

Summer jobs had been plentiful. In fact, at the start of the summer I had a choice of possible jobs: sorting mail at the post office, gardening in the city cemeteries, or working as a home helper for elderly people and people with disabilities. You didn’t need much training to help people with cleaning, cooking, and shopping. The Swedish employees took long vacations, so the city recruited summer stand-ins among the more recent immigrants, mostly Finnish women, some Latin Americans, and me. At the end of August, they kept me on part-time.

Most of the time I enjoy the work. I get a chance to meet the natives in their home environment, sort of an extension of college Anthropology 101. I get to practice my Swedish, and I can feel I am doing something worthwhile. I had never been drawn to the so-called helping professions, like nursing or social work. But my self-esteem had recently undergone a severe beating, and the opportunity to give something to someone, albeit a clean oven, is good therapy for me.

A loud knocking interrupted my thoughts. I started to get up to answer the door when I heard the clump, clump of bockar in the hall. I got back down on my knees and continued to scrub. A man’s voice came through the wall. I wondered who was visiting fru Stagnéus. Her daughter had come to the apartment once when I was there, but I had never seen any other visitors.

The passageway served another function, I realized, as an effective sound barrier, giving the family some privacy from the hired help. The voices got louder. I stopped scrubbing and strained to listen. Fru Stagnéus sounded irritated. It seemed to be a young man speaking, but I couldn’t make sense of the words.

The man’s voice puzzled me. I heard a distinct “du”—that alone would have irritated fru Stagnéus. And his voice lacked completely that tone of respect usually paid to someone older, in any culture.

“Get out! Out with you!” Fru Stagnéus’s voice pierced the thick walls. She was more than irritated—she was angry. And frightened. I jumped to my feet, oven rags in hand, and headed for the hall.

A young man stood in the open doorway. His straw-colored hair stuck out in all directions from under a brown beret. He was glaring at fru Stagnéus, who glared back. He was about to step toward her, but when he caught sight of me, he spun around and slammed the door shut on his way out.

I turned to fru Stagnéus. “Is everything all right?” I was curious to know about this strange visitor but knew enough not to ask directly. I was also concerned about fru Stagnéus. I had never heard that note of fear in her voice.

Fru Stagnéus maneuvered her bockar around. “Ja, he’s gone,” she muttered and headed into the living room. “This time.”

I wanted to follow her but stopped myself and returned to my place in the kitchen to finish the oven.

When the oven was clean, I folded the dirty rags in neat squares, as fru Stagnéus had instructed. Even before going in the laundry, they were to be folded. I put the rags in the laundry hamper and tied up the plastic garbage bag under the sink. Maybe it hadn’t been wise to clean the oven. My status with the home-help supervisor and the other home helpers is tenuous, to say the least. They are stymied by an American who speaks Swedish and works as a home helper. They don’t quite know how to classify me. Also, by cleaning the oven, I may have taken the enjoyment out of the fru Stagnéus oven story.

Fru Stagnéus had fallen asleep again, this time in the armchair in the living room. She would get so embarrassed when I woke her. Fina damer don’t sleep in the middle of the afternoon. I returned to the passageway and called out, “Fru Stagnéus, I’m done for today. I’ll come back the day after tomorrow.” I went into the hall and began to put on my things.

Fru Stagnéus came shuffling in. “No need to shout so.”

“Fru Stagnéus, would you mind, I mean, perhaps ni,” I groped for the right Swedish words and expressions. “Please don’t tell the supervisor or the other home helpers that I cleaned the oven. I don’t think I’m supposed to do that.”

“Of course not,” she replied.

“Thanks.”

Tack, Beatrice. Thank you for today.”

I picked up the garbage bag and left, closing the door after me. Halfway down the winding stone staircase, it struck me: That was the first time she had ever thanked me and called me by name. I didn’t know if it was because I had cleaned the oven, or because I had discouraged the unwanted guest, but it was a landmark event.

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