“I’d like to go to Denmark next week,” I said to my husband. “I’ve never been there.”
“I’m sure there are a lot of places you’ve never been. Why not Afghanistan?” he teased. “Or maybe Iraq?”
“I’m talking about Denmark, South Carolina, where my mother grew up.” (My mother’s parents died before I was born, so — with no family there – my parents, my brother, my sister and I never had a reason to visit that tiny town in the South Carolina Lowcountry.)
I pulled out my calendar and wrote in big letters across the following weekend: RESEARCH — DENMARK!
“Don’t you think you should make motel reservations?” he asked. “Contact people? Figure out what you’re looking for?”
“No, I think I’ll just let it unfold, be loose,” I answered. I’ve never been loose in my life. The truth is, I had no idea what I was looking for. My agent had suggested, while editing the manuscript of my first novel, The Slow Way Back, (in which I used details from my mother’s childhood in Denmark, South Carolina) that perhaps the Denmark scenes could use more vivid description.
Then, it was a morning with a sky so blue it could have been a child’s crayon drawing, and my husband and I were cruising down SC-321, past cotton fields, through Norway, Sweden and Finland — into Denmark, a town that looked as though nothing had changed since 1920. Picture-perfect.
We pulled up to the train depot, now the Welcome Center. I had a strong feeling someone other than my husband was with me. When I went into the bathroom, I said out loud to the mirror, “Can you believe where I am, Mother?” I turned on the water to wash my hands. It sounded like someone very happy, laughing.
I gathered up “I’ve been to Denmark” bumper stickers and “Compliments of the city of Denmark” pencils and got directions to City Hall, where the three people who worked there gathered around to hear me describe the book I was writing about their town. They tried to think of someone my mother’s age who might still be alive. Rhoad’s Furniture Store is where they sent me.
The minute I sat down with Mr. Rhoad, it was obvious he was too young — seventy-nine — but he told funny stories about the early years in Denmark and sent me next door to Brooker Hardware.
Mr. Brooker thought my best bet was the Juice Group, eight older men who’ve lived in Denmark all their lives, who get together every morning just to talk. They call themselves the Juice Group because they can’t drink coffee anymore. My husband and I would join them the next morning at ten.
I made one more stop. I knocked on the door of my mother’s house. An elderly woman, raised in Denmark, had bought the house seven years before. She told me stories that rounded out the picture of the town in the ‘20’s. Her granddaughter showed me around. I could tell from the photographs I’d studied in Mother’s scrapbooks that very little had changed. The built-in china cabinet in the living room was still there, as was the tangled grape arbor out back.
The next morning, my husband and I sat in Brooker Hardware — stiff overalls hanging behind us — and listened to the Juice Group reminisce. They talked about the ice truck (“Ice! Get your ice! Made in the shade, sold in the sun!”), my grandfather’s department store, my mother’s family (“your mother was beautiful,” “your uncle was a ladies’ man, “I went to parties out at the river with your aunt”). The ceiling fan was ticking like a clock.
From there, we went to the public library, where I found a list of honor students at Denmark Elementary in 1917: Second grade — Margaret Bogen (my mother). Fifth grade — Emma Bogen (my aunt).
As we pulled back onto 321 on our way home, cotton fields on either side, my husband asked if I’d gotten what I was looking for. He wasn’t talking about the branch of cotton I’d stopped to pick a few miles back.
Well, I said, I didn’t meet anyone who was my mother’s age, who would have known her really well. And sometimes the reminiscences went on a little long. And Saturday night was frustrating when we couldn’t find a decent place to eat, or sleep. But yes, I did get what I wanted. And it was more than concrete descriptive details for my novel. I’d gone somewhere I’d never been. All the way back to my mother’s childhood.