When I was four years old, we moved to the edge of Lake Mälaren in Sweden, a 40-minute car ride west of Stockholm. This was 1965. We arrived at the beginning of one of the hardest winters in popular memory. Though technically it was still autumn when we got there, snow already covered the ground and Lake Mälaren had begun its wintertime freeze.
For months, the lake simply completed the view for me when I gazed out the picture window. The window was double-paned, and some magical soul had stuffed twigs and lichen between the windows at the base. They’d added small figurines – a deer, a fox – to finalize the miniature woodland scene. From where I stood at the window gazing past this charming scene, our yard stretched toward the lake, a gravel pathway leading to a small landing dock of silvery gray wood. During that winter, the lake remained covered in snow and froze so hard that cars could drive on it. It was rumored that Harald Wiberg – who’d illustrated the famous Tomten books by Astrid Lingren – lived on the island across the way.
After the thaw, we saw sailboats on the lake, their sails small and bright as freshly-washed handkerchiefs in the distance. One spring day, my brother, sister, and I had a harrowing experience with two swans. They were tired of being lured by the older neighbor boys with the promise of food only to be pelted with stones when they got close to shore. My siblings and I ran out of dried bread to feed them, and when they rose out of the water, wings spread, necks outstretched, and mouths hissing, we minced a painful, terrorized retreat up the gravel path in bare feet, screaming for our mother. On a bright sunny day in May, we raised a May pole and had a party in our yard next to the lake. We moved to Stockholm the following year to an enormous apartment complex, but it’s this red house by the lake that shaped my loving memories of Sweden.
This move to Sweden was only one of many moves in my childhood. My own children have not lived by a lake; they never moved from the house they were born in until college beckoned. They have not been in a position to be chased by aggressive swans. They have not experienced a winter so harsh that after 10 minutes in it they begged to be allowed back inside. They have not had to trudge to the local grocers in single file so their mother’s footsteps in the snow would keep them from sinking to their waists in the drifts.
As parents, we try to correct for those things we experienced as hardship. Our parents did this before us. It’s a parenting creed, to try and provide the conditions that will mean our children’s lives will be less hard than ours, that they’ll have fewer obstacles. But all we really know to avoid are the things we found challenging; we don’t know exactly what hardships our kids might benefit from, nor do we know which one might simply be an experience devoid of fulfillment, only to be endured and gotten through.
That first winter on the lake, a neighboring family, the Roths, took a shine to me. One day, they planned to ski beside and on the lake with another couple and with their nine-year-old, Anne-Katrin. I could use her old skis, they thought, and it would be nice for her to have a companion (this was before we all learned that Anne-Katrin wanted nothing less than to have me as a companion).
I’m curious how all of this was arranged. Did my parents want to say no but couldn’t find a polite way to do so? Did they think what a relief it would be to have one fewer kid to track for an afternoon? Did they think it’d be fun?
Regardless, I found my four-and-a-half-year-old self at the lake one day with Anne-Katrin’s stubby orange skis strapped to my feet. I was dressed for the cold; the day was gray with low clouds reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. I had never been on a pair of skis in my life. We set out with me bringing up the rear so as not to slow anyone down. We skied on a path that skirted the lake when we weren’t on the lake itself, and the wintertime deciduous trees had cleared out their leaves to improve the view. But it took almost no time before my view contracted to include little more than the bright-colored tips of my skis following the person ahead of me.
Did I mention that the heel didn’t lift off the ski? Traditionally, cross country skis are designed such that the leg and foot of the skier act a bit as if one is running. To execute the most efficient glide, the heel on the back leg lifts followed by a forward stride. Without that, one is destined to merely shuffle along the snowy track. During this ski trip, a glide only happened on the occasional decline – or if I positioned my poles just right I could give myself a shove toward a brief momentum.
This afternoon marks my first experience of pushing past what I understood the limits of my endurance to be. Telling this story later in life, I told people we skied around the lake but that would have been impossible: its circumference is over 200 miles. More accurately I might have said it felt like I’d skied around the lake. By the end of the excursion, my senses had narrowed to a pinpoint: the scratchy dampness of condensation on the scarf that covered my panting mouth; the scrape and shush of skis over snow alternately rough and smooth; achey shoulders from overusing my poles in an effort to save my trembling legs; and the broad orange tips of those skis always going on before.
I didn’t really know the Roths. I didn’t have the sort of easy interaction with them that would have enabled me to say, “Excuse me, but I’m hungry / tired / finished.” At the close of our afternoon, the Roths praised my endurance, my stoicism and athleticism. What a trooper I was!
Was this a useful childhood experience? We know it’s good for us to not always stay in our comfort zone. That’s how we find out what we’re capable of. But what about when we’re too far outside of our comfort zone? Do those moments offer us anything? Did this experience truly teach me that I was stronger than I thought, more capable? Or did that lesson come from other more satisfying experiences later in life where I felt a little more choice, more agency? I don’t know the answer to that. It’s hard not to try and shape this tale as one where I overcame adversity, but all I really felt at the end of that experience was miserable and tired.
What is my children’s equivalent to this? In what ways would they say they’ve pushed themselves and found they could do more than they suspected they were capable of? I keep encountering articles on Facebook and elsewhere that are intent on sounding the alarm that our kids aren’t as tough as my generation was and that this presages some tragic outcome. Maybe that’s true; I don’t know. The very concern implies that we believe it’s possible as parents to have some control over the sorts of hardships our children have but that hasn’t been my experience. Oh, I may have tried to not put them in a position as four-year-olds where they were required to ski around a lake with people they didn’t know well enough to complain to; I may have succeeded somewhat in protecting them from that.
But growing up in this human form is inherently full of hardship. I don’t actually know everything my kids have endured, but I’d be crazy to assume therefore that they’ve not had to endure much. For starters, they’ve had to tolerate the adults of today who think their modern hardships don’t even qualify as such. It’s our current equivalent of having to hear how your grandfather walked five miles to school every day in the snow, uphill both ways. Some of today’s youth haven’t suffered the specific hardships experienced by their parents, but do we really think what they have suffered somehow counts for less?
I’ve not been back to Sweden. I hope to return someday. It will have changed. When I think of Lake Mälaren, I think of how, when we stood looking out from our house, it filled my vision. More than that afternoon with the Roths, I remember a cerulean sky with a smattering of white clouds, both features mirrored in the blue water of the lake, the sailing boats’ billowy white sails looking like reflected clouds.