Is Daddy coming home for Christmas? By Sally Salminen

2020.08.26 | Sally Salminen

Introduction

In 1944, the renowned Finland-Swedish novelist Sally Salminen has the short story Kommer far hjem til jul? (’Is Daddy coming home for Christmas?’) published in the magazine Juleroser (Christmas Roses). Salminen had shot to fame after winning a Finnish-Swedish literary prize in 1936 for her novel Katrina. Her celebrity status was perhaps not only because of the quality and wide appeal of the novel, but also because she wrote it quite unusually while working as a house maid in New York.

Although Salminen normally wrote in Swedish, this short story may be an example of her work written in Danish. She married Danish artist Johannes Dührkop in 1940 and subsequently lived in Denmark on a permanent basis from 1940 until her death in 1976. No translator is named and the original manuscript has not been found to prove it either way, but in her memoir In Denmark (1972), Salminen sets out that she also wrote in Danish.

Salminen she came from a big family and grew up with many brothers and sisters. She herself had a foster child. She writes about motherhood and war also in two other short stories: “Et Barn er fodt os” (1941) (A Child is Born to Us), and “Trollet” (1944) (The Troll), and she pictures childhood and the perspective of the child in the novels Lars Laurila and Barndomens land (The Land of Childhood), as well as in the memoir Upptäcktsresan (1966) (The Trip of Discovery).

Permission has kindly been granted for publication in both Danish and English by Sally’s descendant who own the rights to her work. The English translation is by Paul Larkin. Read the original Danish version by clicking here.

Is Daddy coming home for Christmas? By Sally Salminen

“Mummy,” Lisa said, “is Daddy coming home for Christmas?”

The little girl stood in her quiet, intense manner, waiting for the answer, and was still waiting when, for the second time, her mother let her sewing drop to her lap and gazed at the pale, yellow wall. When she had sat like that for some time, her right hand began searching between pieces of cloth and paper on the table. Lisa followed her mother's movements with a keen eye, and at last lifted her hand and, with the utmost care, drew away the newspaper under which the pencil was hidden. Her little index finger then edged forward and tugged gently at the black pencil so her mother's hand could not fail to touch it. Now mother finally shifted her gaze from the blank wall and looked across the mess on the table. Her glance caught Lisa in passing, who gave a start and smiled. A brief, involuntary smile that expressed her pent up zeal. But in the next moment the smile vanished and her face grew taut and pallid. Her whole, eight years old figure collapsed, as if her young shoulders were already laden with too great a burden. Gradually, however, her mournful expression was replaced by a strange light that seemed to come from within and made her almost transparent facial features decidedly radiant.

“Mum,” Lisa said, “is Dad coming home for Christmas?”

The question still burned on her lips. But she did not repeat it. Rather, she waited with a trembling heart for the answer. Mother smiled at her, and though Lisa would not have been able to explain this smile, she understood it. It pained her and yet thrilled her at one and the same time. With this smile, her mother was saying:

“Yes, it's true. I have my own little girl, and we are friends.”

But in truth, her mother’s distracted eyes no more observed the little girl, even though her gaze was fixed on the child, than her smile and the resulting reassurance were truly directed at Lisa in this moment. Thus, Lisa’s gladness was mixed with pain.

Mother was far away again. The little one's bright blue eyes, her face made even whiter by the lack of visible eyebrows or eyelashes, searched in all earnest for warm, living contact with her mother. A vital and urgent need for her. But mother was gone. Not in jest, like when she played hide and seek with her little brothers, but gravely absent, somewhere in that vast hiding place where Mum’s thoughts seemed ever to reside.

But it was for precisely this reason that sadness was not the only emotion felt by Lisa. For she looked at her mother with all the admiration that a child’s heart can muster; afraid however to invade the mystery of this second and even third mother. That was why she chose not to repeat her question. Lisa had, in her own way, divided her mother into three parts. Or rather, saw three different mother-beings in one. The first was ‘everyday mum’. The one who cooked and washed up and scrubbed the floor and played with her brothers and sometimes even chided herself, and who was often to be seen sat in her chair with old, threadbare nappies and small woollen trousers as she struggled to mend them yet again. This was ‘everyday mum’, and it was for her Lisa's heart hungered so fervently. But then, she would not have done without the ‘second mum’, either. For with this more distant figure, which rose like a great shadow behind the first mother, a sense of mystery and great occasion entered the home.

Mum wrote things. She wrote every day. But sometimes the pencil fell out of her hand, as if she had not been able to set down any more than a few lines on the paper. But in the afternoons, when the child helper came and took the little boy out with her and quiet descended on the home, she would begin to write again. Now her pencil would swing and write so fast you could hear the nib scratching on the paper. This mother also spoke - to father, when he was at home - with the neighbours’ wives, or to herself. But even then, she no more than at other times saw the astonished eyes of the child who looked in wonder at her transformed mother. The thick, lustrous hair that tended to reddish and seemed to glow like fire about her face as she moved around the room and the sun would suddenly caress it. Strange words erupted from mother’s mouth:

“It’s a pack of lies ... all of it ... I'm telling you, there’ll be no war, ha, ha! No, let them just try it. You and me, Harald, know that all their propaganda is just one big fat lie, nothing else. Yes, we will fight, but not in the way people think. No, No. There’ll be no war ...”

That was the torrent of words from her mother, and she said far more than that. Flaming and hateful towards some or other “they”, or “them” figures – but glowing with affection for other vague “we” and “us” people.

But father did leave them in the end. He went off to war. And mother now spoke to herself even more often as she did her work. Grim and vehement, the incomprehensible sentences jumped from her mouth. When the lady from next door called in, a cascade of words suddenly gushed from mother's lips. Bitter, accusing words. And now she was threatening:

“But I will write. Oh don’t you worry. I will reveal the truth!” she cried, many a time.

Mother had, in fact, always written. Even when they lived in the first of the many many homes that Lisa could remember - they had ‘flitted’ so often — even then, Mum had sat with a pencil in her hand and had become absent and secretive. But, it did sometimes happen that her mother would descend from that high and distant place and second and first mum became the same person. Then she lifted Lisa onto her lap and began to read:

“My son will be a general one day.”

“It's about Arthur!” Lisa cried, happy and proud to have understood.

“Yes, it's about your little brother.” At that time, the second eldest was still ‘little brother’ and mother wrote many poems about her son. About all the great things he was going to achieve in the ‘good’ army. There were also brief verses with her insights into the kind of thoughts that traversed his round toddler head, which rocked gently with every breath in his sleep. Most of the poems, however, were about father. After her initial eagerness, Lisa’s own head sank downwards in sadness: there were no poems about her in ‘Mother's book’. And it would, she knew, become a real book someday. Her mother, despite all her mental wanderings, was still close to her little girl and sensed her unspoken sorrow.

“But about you, my little friend, I cannot write anything. My pen is too rough and ready. But maybe one day ...”

Here too, mother had written about war. About grey men, all conveyed in grey vehicles to a front, somewhere at the edge of the world.

And after her dad had gone away in just such a grey car, Mum had cried out in threats and anger:

“I will write. Oh yes, I will!”

Lisa regarded her mother's pencil with unbridled awe, as if she might be able to defeat entire enemy armies singlehanded, with just this in her hand.

But, at the start of the war at least, mother did not write anything. There was a period of long, unsettling nights and dark days, with the blackout paper rolled only halfway up, even in daylight. And they ‘flitted’ again. Many times they moved. And mother never held a pencil in her hand again - yes, late at night she wrote letters to father - but she did not ‘write’. She was more like one of the furies, with her flying hair and constant agitation. At one point she raised her fist skywards and raged at the bombers flying over them.

With time, mother became less and less overwrought, but also more sombre and powerful. In the same way that a mother hen gathers her chicks around her, she would spread her arms and draw her children towards her when danger threatened. Lisa, her ‘big girl’, Arthur ‘the general’, and the ‘little one’ she carried within her and whom they awaited with so much excitement.

Then Christmas came and the burning question was:

Is Daddy coming home? He didn’t come. Instead, their new ‘little brother’ arrived.

And mother, who was always so strong and brave, soon began to talk about Sven-Erik becoming a professor. At the end of the day, she probably didn’t want more soldiers in the family. But as ‘little brother’ was even more remarkable than ‘General Arthur’ had ever been, he was still destined to reach the heights, but just in more peaceful pursuits. However, Lisa was never really sure if mother was serious, or called him ‘Professor’ as her own little joke.

After Sven-Erik was born, Lisa discovered that there really was a ‘third’ mother - an even more unreal and distant mother than the second mother. This third mother rose before her like the guardian angel in their picture. High above the two more worldly figures. The third mother was silent and far away in her dreamworld, from whence she would return, mournful but gentle, to their own world.

However, the second mother was still the predominant one. And now mother was indeed ‘writing’ again. Lisa was in awe. Because writing books was, she knew, a very important thing. But she was also fearful and, clad in the nightdress she had outgrown, she would creep over to the crack in the door once her brothers were asleep. It hammered like a machine gun there in the other room. As if mother were fighting her own terrible war. She had brought home a typewriter, and it carried a loud and vexing sound. Trembling, the little girl finally crawled into bed again and eventually fell asleep. The sound of the typewriter a thousand tiny hammer blows in her small, tired head

But, this strong, determined mother with her gentler moments, and her fussing and fawning over little brother, soon changed, and Lisa was suddenly unsure as to which was which. Yes, mother was still writing, though with interruptions. But gradually she stopped altogether. Then one day Mum said they were going to have a little sister.

“Sister?” Lisa asked, with no little doubt in her voice. As if a break in the long line of brothers was unthinkable. Her mother gave her a knowing look, which made the child blush; not least because she knew that Mum only gave her those type of looks because she treated her eldest child more like an adult. For Lisa this was a momentous thing. However there was a certain recklessness in the way her mother brought her into her confidence. Mum could not bear to be the only adult in their abode. But Lisa seemed to shrink at the shoulders under the weight of this premature inclusion.

“It has to be a girl,” mother said in a harsh tone. And Lisa strove to concur. Of course it would be fun to have a little sister. But why was mother so serious? And why did she cry at night? Weeping and angry and slamming her hand down against the edge of the bed.

And another Christmas came quickly upon them. “Is Daddy coming home?” Arthur would ask repeatedly through the day. And Sven-Erik’s echoing burble seemed to copy him, as if he were asking the same question. Lisa, too, carried the same question in her heart, but said nothing. She knew he was not coming. For there was mother twisting her hands and in some far flung place, staring out into the long winter’s barren world. Instead, she asked:

“When will your book be finished, Mummy?”

Mother gave the child yet another knowing look. Then she said:

“It will never be finished.”

“Oh, but then they will never get to know,” the little one whispered, her lips suddenly dry as a desert.

“Know? ...” Mother laughed a tired laugh and laid her hand gently on the bright, silk-soft hair, as she looked up to the heavens. “Who wants to know anything from me, child? I don’t know a thing – not a single thing, except that I don’t want to give birth to any more boys.”

 “Is Dad coming ... ?” No, Lisa could not bring herself to pose the question, even though she had blurted some of it out.

“I don’t know anything,” her mother replied wearily as she slumped to a chair by the table. The threadbare children's clothes in her hands.

Dad came, but left again before Christmas. And deeper into the winter came the next new ‘little brother’. Lisa sighed in resignation, as if she had been certain all along that it couldn’t be anything but a new brother. But Mum almost never talked about the new baby. Nothing about what he would become, or the great things he would do, until one day the lady next door said:

“You are moping because of all the boys you’ve had, you say? Even though it’s part of the war effort. But you may stop moping. Because if we get more wars, everyone will suffer the same, men and women both. But there will be peace in the world again, be assured. So be glad for your boys.

“Yes, yes, it's true enough. It makes no difference,” mother repeatedly said, after the woman had left. And after this, she would murmur and coo to Henrik, smiling sadly at him and show off his little toes and first signs of tiny teeth. And the third mother, the imposing, thoughtful and gentle one, became more and more the one who went through the house and tended to her chores while she waited for peace to come. But at night, she lay awake and clutched at herself in a mute, overwhelming dread, when the three-year-old pain that lay deep within her began to torment her once again. Not even Lisa's acute awareness could sense this. That this terror in her mother had also been waiting for something. The appearance of the Grim Reaper at their door.

And once again Lisa stood before her mother and asked:

“Is Daddy coming home for Christmas?” None of the brothers had asked yet. But Lisa, noticing that the days were getting shorter, thought that this year-long question was now very real once again. She did not repeat the question. For she knew that, regardless of how distracted her mummy seemed, she would have heard it anyway. Then after many minutes of patient waiting and trembling anticipation, her mother seemed to quietly shake herself, as if she were carefully loosening some invisible bond that had held her captive. Mummy smiled again, this time with a real smile for her little girl. The still infant voice had purged many obstacles and penetrated the deepest part of her psyche.

“Is Dad coming home? Yes, but dear child, Christmas is a long, long way off yet.”

Lisa stood still for a moment and stared at her mother with a look of utter dejection.

“Is it?” she asked.

“It is, I’m afraid.” And Mother fell to her deep thoughts once again.

Lisa moved quietly away. The war was so massive and huge. And Dad was away for so long. It was a long time to Christmas, too. Now she would never again have the courage to ask.

Read a biography of Sally Salminen or a synopsis of her literary works.