On Art

Tove Jansson, Sommarön (Summer Island), n.d., pencil and gouache on paper, 24 x 15 cm. Photograph by Hannu Aaltonen.

Each summer, when they couldn’t stand the city anymore, when the heat was unbearable, and they had a brief reprieve, they drove for three days to the middle of the country to stay at a log cabin on a lake that her grandfather had built now a century ago and where she had spent summers during her childhood. Her father, her children’s grandfather, and his sister, her aunt, would drive up the eight hours from Chicago and spend a week with them so that they could be around her two small children.

The previous summer, in the week before her father and her aunt arrived, she was able to relax into the lassitude that overtook her from being there, and possibly as the result of the long series of days in the car, with two children to monitor and soothe and attempt to entertain. That summer, after having just finished a period of work, she spent most of the time on the bed in the newer room that the four of them stayed in. She would sit, on the old gray-green sheets, the dog curled up next to her, watching the two children and their father through the window, making notes in her notebook. She sat there amidst the green light of the lake and the surrounding green and sketched out the familiar geometry of the trees surrounding the lake, the fallen trunk the ducks often slept on. She attempted to sketch in pen the white pine tree directly outside her window, the surging upwards of the boughs, like a series of prickly mustaches.

The mother showed the drawings to her oldest in the morning, who became jealous of her notebooks scattered across the bed and demanded her own small notebook, which they later purchased in town, one for both of the small children. She wondered, then and now, if they would remember the sound of their mother’s pen, her illegible scratching that probably looked to them like the branches on a tree.

On their daily morning walk, they picked raspberries by the road, the littlest in wet overalls. Never in these woods growing up had she seen raspberries. She wondered whether it had something to do with the heat and heavy rains of the past years.

In the late afternoon, the sun was bright and hot. She sits with her notebooks and her copy of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book on the front porch. There were windows on all sides of the cabin. Through the window, she can see the girls and their father at the blue rope swing and hammock in the nested area of the woods near the water, where her oldest has made a fort of long branches. She hears the children lightly fighting, the father’s warning tones. She thinks about the grandmother in The Summer Book, charged with the granddaughter while the father is absent, alone with his work or grieving, or both. The mother is gone, but we don’t know anything about her. The father is allowed to not be present, to also be a ghost.

She wonders whether she is the older woman companion, or the absent father, in this narrative. The children are less on top of her here, they are more free. She couldn’t hear them now. Where were they? Suddenly, they emerge from the woods.

The lake is dark and moves silkily as the afternoon turns into evening. She charts the different patterns. At night the waterlilies recede. She just sits at the window and watches the lake and the trees. In the morning, the lake can be incredibly still, like a mirror. The lake looks dark green, reflecting the trees. Her oldest comes in and shows her a drawing of a bird in her new notebook, without the usual smiling face. She had paged through The Summer Book and seen the illustrations of creatures—mouthless yet expressive. The eldest and her father read the book together during the toddler’s naps.

That morning they had seen a blue heron near the red canoe. It looked like a naked alien, or a dinosaur. It surprised her to see it up close. It took a large shit and flapped slowly away by the time the girls could get to the bedroom window. She ran out with her daughters to look at its excrement, like speckled white paint across the grass. Will you write that in your notebook? her oldest asked her. The other day, she told her mother to write the textures of the lake. Like the brown muck, she said.

How silent everything was—it seems to just be them, like they were the last people on earth. Sunday and no weekenders, save the drunken boaters Friday night trying to see the supermoon. Almost no one on the sparkling lake. The retired town doctor and ER nurse that live across the way come near on kayaks. Sometimes they wave. The curiosity of the boaters that come nearby, like the dreaded pontoon boats. You can hear the voices before you see the people appear, coming closer sometimes to see who is there. She knew they were supposed to wave. They hated these boats, hated the interruptions.

Everything mostly silent except the birdsong The oldest sits at the rocking chair and deliberates on a large and speckled feather from a walk, poring over one of her grandfather’s bird books. Owl or woodpecker, she decides. They counted fourteen ducks on the lake that summer, learning how to fly. The mother sat on the bed looking out at the lake through the window and made spiral drawings of the ripples of the lake. How it can move rapidly.

On their last day by themselves, before their grandfather and great aunt arrive, they sunbathe nude on the dock, her and the two children, the pale moons of their little butts. She knows that all of this solitude will be gone in a few hours. Her peace punctured. The stomping around. The shuffling of slippers. The sighs. Having to remark on everything. But the children are so happy with them, pleased to have family.

There was so much of her oldest, who was then almost six, that reminded her of the child in The Summer Book—her curiosity and independence, but also how she clung to the two elders on the front porch, wanting them to play with her, wanting to chat at them. The aunt, who was actually her great-aunt, had brought a ball of yarn and needles to teach her how to knit, as she had done when she herself was a child. She wasn’t sure exactly what her oldest and her grandfather did or talked about during the hours of nap—she was relieved to have family watch her children.

Tove Jansson, Ensittaren (Recluse), 1935, pastel on paper, 66.5 x 49 cm.

They made sure the grandfather went for a walk down the road every day, sometimes holding the hands of one of his grandchildren, naming the wildflowers on the side of the road.

On the walk, they stopped to check out droppings and animal tracks. The large black mound with fur, acorns and berries in it was most likely Bear. They had witnessed while driving in one day from town two alien creatures running down the road, which they were convinced were wild turkeys. She drew the bird tracks later in her notebook. With the grandfather, they stopped at a burrow on the road and stared at the strange hole, trying to imagine the mysterious creature inside. A badger, the grandfather decides authoritatively. So many creatures that summer. The fox in the middle of the road they saw while driving. The mouse in a cup in the sink. The red ants in sand hills on the road and around the trash can.

On their walk, the grandfather looks with pleasure at the baby pines going up by the road. Red pines and jack pines, he pronounces out loud. He’s allowed a large part of the forest to be cut down by a logging company, which has also carted away the dead trees at no fee. Her father looks at trees the size of small humans and feels optimistic, but it is a source of tension with his youngest daughter, the now middle-aged mother, that continues into the next summer.

The aunt never goes on the walks. She sits there with her large glass of milky coffee and straw and her knitting or her stories on her device. At a certain time she switches to decaf. She has always been an old woman, even when her nieces and nephew were very young, and she was only in her late twenties and thirties, and lived forever in that house in the other city with her other brother and her mother. Now, she takes her mother’s place, and sits at the sliding loveseat that used to be a swing, and watches. The women up at the cabin are supposed to be the ones watching through the windows, while the men and children have adventures in the immediate vicinity. When the lock breaks, the men focus on fixing the doorknob, and the mother is called into being a panopticon for the children. The plant position, to plant yourself in front of children. Like the woman is a tree. Although she was the one to also chase after them.

The next summer, they spent the first week with the grandfather and aunt, which took away the ease she usually felt upon reentering the lake and the woods, their little island. They were already on the rhythm of the others, and the silence was marred by constant voices. For most of the summer her father and aunt would be up there alone, sitting on the newly built front porch—newly built meaning much more than a decade ago—looking at the lake, remarking upon the birds that arrived at the bird feeders, such as the hummingbirds who came to drink the sugar water in the jewel-red feeders. They must name the blue jays, the grackles and the hummingbirds. Oh, look, a goldfinch. Two hummingbirds. They must be hungry.

They didn’t cringe at the increasingly occasional pontoon boats, instead waving at them. They didn’t mind intruders, which they saw as company. Very slow season on the lake, the aunt said.

At the beginning of the week a man came blazing up their road in a vehicle, from one of the more brutish clans that had hunting camps closest nearby, and offered to widen the road, which her father agreed to. As soon as she saw the older, athletic man out there talking to her father, she froze in the doorway and backed away. She was hoping to go out to check up on the children with their father at their swing. The grandfather was uncomfortable seeing the fort that the almost seven-year-old had built over consecutive summers, which he hadn’t noticed. He was worried it was a fire hazard. That was his new obsession—the dead wood, which is why he let the trees get cut down, why he let this man leave a mess of branches widening the road so that, he said, the firetrucks could get in if they needed to. There had been serious fires in this forest in the past, but the recent vigilance seemed to be a response to that summer’s fires in Canada, but not, for her father, mixed with anxiety about warming, which he professed to not believe in, or want to think about. She found herself wondering again whether her father was a good steward of the land.

They settled into a pattern of making meals for the older relatives, of encouraging the grandfather on a late afternoon walk, the children often whining that they wanted to play instead. The sight of their neon t-shirts against the sand road. Wearing the toddler on the mother’s back until she complained and wanted to run after her sister. There weren’t any berries at all on the side of the road this year, at least not yet.

There was an identical feeling to last summer. A palimpsest feeling, especially in the notebooks, the repetitions of the two summers. Only subtle changes. And that everyone was a year older.

She wonders often whether writing in the third person makes the “I” a fiction. Does it make her less real, she wonders?

Because they were up this summer earlier than usual, they kept picking ticks off themselves, which were crawling all over them, including the toddler’s tender arm.

The grandfather wanted them to take him on the boat to see the outlet which bisected his property. He had been fragile since falling the previous winter, outside of a restaurant, and didn’t want to get into the boat without help, which he did, slowly, hanging on to the dock and grunting. The little girls sat in the middle in life jackets. He wanted to see if the pines that were planted were still growing. They were not. Why did you let them cut the healthy ones down? the daughter said again, causing, as usual, prickliness. Well, the loggers weren’t going to just take the dead ones, he said. The water levels are high again, that was good, he said.

When the grandfather and great aunt left, one week later, the children were sad, but the mother was finally able to relax, to look onto the lake, still as glass, with the upside-down reflections of the empty cabins. Then the lake begins to ripple, the double world vanishes. The mother watched the oldest make crayon drawings, her back facing the lake. A house with a triangle roof, just like she was seeing now. Then a large tree. The self is wearing a triangle skirt. The self is as big as the tree. The summery light on the lake. Sweating. Saturated blue and green. Swaying of grasses, ripple of water.

One cooler morning she watches from the window the children with their father on the dock. Pleasure at the red overturned canoe, the red hummingbird feeder, even the red stripes of the flag her father buys every year to hang out there. The water bugs make ripples. The children are trying to catch fish with nets. The littlest captures a small fish. Her net gets caught on the splintered dock. The mother calls out, worried the little one is going to trip. It was like this for her mother, and her grandmother—the women sitting there watching. Her holler matching her grandmother’s. Eventually the toddler falls in the shallow end and emerges weeping, her yellow cotton sweater dripping. The mother runs to help as they pull off soaking wet pants, sweater, shoes, lay them out to dry.

It was perfect weather, after the storms when her father and aunt were here. Not hot. Cold at night, cool in morning. Earlier in the morning she watched two girls make theirpasta soup in a metal bowl—ferns, weeds, pinecones, dirt, crumbled pieces of bark.

They can walk farther now that the grandfather is not with them. They take a morning walk to the other side of the lake, wearing long sleeves and pants to avoid insect bites, the mother wearing the toddler on her back, the oldest child managing the dog leash, moving to the side of a road when a truck or aging sports car came roaring around. They admired the elaborate signage of the houses more crowded together on the other side of the lake, the solar panels, the modern-looking cabins with Swedish and Finnish flags. Their family, even though they owned most of the lake for a century, did not get nice things. Her father and aunt used the same chipped ceramics that their mother had gotten free in a spaghetti catalogue. When they brought new beds, which they finally did after about forty years, they got the cheapest quilts.

Talking to each other, the parents remarked on this, on the specific sounds of the rustling birch trees, that there are so many less crickets on the sandy road.

When they return, the oldest begs for the mother to go swimming with her, but the youngest needs to be put down to nap. The mother watches the oldest sitting on the splintered, now sunken dock, the bench covered in lichen and bird shit. Her feet in the water, the spirals the water makes. She is waiting with the net, watching for the fish. It surprises the mother, how imaginative and solitary her oldest has become, their secret world here.

In the afternoon, after the toddler’s nap, they finally took out the canoe as a family. The oldest complaining she was not allowed to row, but the mother wanted to, like she had as a child. The children sat in the middle of the boat, in their life jackets, exclaiming over spiders and large ants on the floor. They traced the edges of the property, towards where she had remembered there was a beaver dam when she was a child. Apparently, there was a new dam, in the outlet, which they rowed towards to try to see. Another source of tension between the mother and her father, the grandfather. The father was letting one of the neighbors, who all hunted, try to shoot the beavers. The two adults remarked that in the past the outlet used to be dry, all muck. Now there were so many lily pads. And the ducks sheltered there. It comes as a shock, like a pain, seeing again the thinning trees. What must the other inhabitants of the lake think, she now wondered, to have their view so altered?

When they got back, almost as if to shake herself of this melancholy, she stripped down out of her overalls to her underwear, delighting and surprising the children milling about the shallow side of the water. Later, all three of them naked, as there was no one around, she watched the children climb the overturned boats on the shore, playing pirates. It was like they were the only people in the world. A joy watching them be free, like a relief.

Tove Jansson, Rökande Flicka (Smoking Girl), 1940, oil on canvas, 41 x 33.5 cm.


From the exhibition catalogue for Houses of Tove Jansson, on view at Espace Mont-Louis in Paris through October 29, 2023. 

Kate Zambreno is the author most recently of The Light Room (Riverhead, 2023) and Tone, a collaborative study with Sofia Samatar, published next month from Columbia University Press.