Difficult Sally

Sally was a difficult child because she arrived in a basket on the doorstep, without instructions. We are still not sure how it came to be that she landed on our doorstep, or who may have delivered her. We’re pretty sure that it wasn’t the stork, since it was at least a decade since the last stork had departed Denmark.

We took the basket inside the house and lifted her out of the basket, and we sat her in a baby highchair, as that seemed to be the appropriate thing to do with what looked like an approximately seven-month-old baby girl. There she sat, on her throne, and stared at us.

I was ecstatic. I had always wanted a daughter, and we’d been trying to get pregnant forever, with no results. I wondered if, and was later convinced, that this baby was a gift to us from the mysterious. My wife on the other hand wasn’t so sure.

We named her Sally because I liked it, and Anne after my wife’s grandmother, since Nicola, that’s what her little bracelet said, didn’t suit our last name Blog. Sally Anne Blog arrived in our lives on a Thursday afternoon with good weather in the beginning of July 1968, and everything about life as we knew it changed suddenly and dramatically.

Sally sat in her highchair at looked at us. She didn’t smile, she didn’t cry; rather, she took us in deliberately and slowly, appearing to be in deep thought. She was calm and less fidgety than most seven-month-olds.

She had large hazel colored eyes. We invited family and friends over to view the new baby, and she stared back at them with the same expressionless calm with which she had initially greeted us. Then the dog came in from outside, Flossy, our flat-nosed brindle boxer who until that moment had been the child in the household.

The minute Sally saw Flossy her entire demeanor changed. She lit up in a smile from ear to ear, laughed, and reached her little chubby arms out to the dog. We didn’t think much about it, and preceded to treat baby Sally the way babies were generally treated at that time. She got a beautifully decorated room with my old Winnie-the-Pooh crib, which she figured out how to operate in no time. We had to turn to the wall the side that lowered, or the kid had it opened and was out of bed in no time.

Later, we bought a pram for her to sleep in outdoors. All babies are parked outside for napping in their prams in Denmark. A baby harness is attached inside the pram and the baby is bundled up in warm clothes and covered with a down comforter; the fresh air is good for sleeping. We parked the pram in the front yard where it could be seen from the kitchen window. I was doing some paperwork in my office, which was in the back of the house, when I heard Bertha, my wife yelling from the kitchen, “Paul, Paul, come here!” Sally, apparently uninterested in napping, had gotten out of her harness and was standing up in the pram, scraping snow off its top with big arm movements, using both hands, and gleefully bouncing forwards and backwards making the pram bounce in it’s deep springs as much as it was capable of without falling over. We ran out and brought her inside. My wife asked if I thought that was a sign. “A sign of what?” I asked. She didn’t specify. I let it go.

Around that same time, Sally was in her highchair in the kitchen. We had a heavy antique cast-iron petroleum lamp hanging over the dining table, and Sally could just reach the tip of it from her highchair. She had been told multiple times not to touch it since it wasn’t secured all that well in the ceiling. Bertha had left the room for a moment, and upon returning saw Sally touching the lamp with the tip of her index finger. Bertha started yelling at the top of her lungs from the hallway, two rooms removed. Sally froze, big smile on her face, finger on the lamp, not moving. When Bertha came into the kitchen and could properly see the situation, she realized Sally’s fingertip was actually not touching, but was exactly one millimeter away from the lamp.

Bertha loved to tell that story. It was as if it contained some implicit truth about the nature of Sally. “No matter how loud I yelled, Sally kept smiling, never flinched or attempted to move her finger as I approached her. I wanted to scream and wring her neck; then I realized she wasn’t even touching the damn lamp,” she would repeat.

When,years later, we couldn’t get a preschool space for Sally, my aunt Karla offered to look after her during the day while Bertha went to school. Aunt Karla was one of those soft older ladies who never disagreed with anyone, especially not Sally, or with her husband Johannes.

Johannes was a retired curmudgeon who loved to read the daily newspaper over and over and to take long walks by building sites and watch his farmer’s trading town develop into a busy suburb of the nation’s capital.

Uncle Johannes had a glass eye. He had played with a bow and arrow as a kid, and lost one eye.  We were always told not to play with slingshots and such, because someone could lose an eye, and it had actually happened to Uncle Johannes.

Uncle Johannes and Sally would stand hand in hand, just like I had done with him when I was a boy. They would stand next to the old church by the town pond, originally the well and water supply, now reduced to a dirty fountain full of coins, and they would watch the cranes and the tractors moving dirt and building supplies for the construction of an indoor shopping center. Johannes’ fascination with large-scale construction sites was contagious. Sally caught it quickly.

Later, the city built a junction that connected the old country freight train routes with the electric fast trains that lead straight from Ballerup to Copenhagen. They would watch the construction project and the trains going by from the windows of Karla and Johannes’ apartment.

Aunt Karla taught Sally to drink Earl Grey tea, play solitaire, and fold her candy wrappers in her pockets and discard them in trash bins along their walks. Karla also insisted that Denmark was entirely too small for Sally, and that her mother rushed too much and was insensitive. Most of Aunt Karla’s observations were astute. Sally and Bertha never got along; never able to connect.

Sally spent endless hours talking to the dog, by this time Snoopy, a long nosed fawn colored boxer with an expressive black mask. Snoopy had a fabulous disposition. She loved us and hated everyone else. She was perpetually on the lookout for a dog fight, and would jump the hedge if she didn’t like the look of a passing pedestrian, or bicycler, or skateboarder, or dog, or whatever. It’s a miracle she never seriously injured anybody, and a really good thing that people rarely file lawsuits in Denmark.

Since Sally didn’t have many friends her own age and spent most of her time surrounded by adults, she talked to the dog, and to the trees, to flowers, to horses, to wild animals, to anyone, really, who would listen and answer her.

Sally became much less difficult when she learned to read. She devoured book after book on any subject, some from our bookshelves, many from the library where she and her mum would go every Saturday, and some from our friends’ bookshelves.  She read teenage literature about drug addiction in America. She read encyclopedias and dictionaries when she couldn’t find anything else. I suspect she read Fanny Hill, The Adventures of a Pleasure Girl. She read all the existentialists: Søren Kierkegaard, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus. She said she found them deeply depressing and kind of dull.

One time Sally and our friend’s son Peter found a stack of porn magazines in the city dumpsters and proceeded to read them in secret under blankets with flashlights for several weeks. We wondered why they were so quiet. By the time we figured it out, the magazines had been thrown out a second time. No one paid any attention in those days to whether or not reading material was age-appropriate. So long as the kids were preoccupied with books instead of asking relentless questions, all was well with the world. During those times Sally could almost pass for a regular child, one that hadn’t arrived in a basket, with no instructions, on a sunny afternoon, to change our lives.

I was gone two-thirds of the time because of my work as a merchant marine captain; however, when I was home I was completely devoted to Sally. She followed me around the house, into the garden, out into the tool shed, and waited for me outside the bathroom door, talking to me the whole time. I remember a conversation we had about what happens after we die. I’m sure she didn’t know the word “reincarnation,” but she had an idea of the concept, talked about recycling people, using them again and again.

She asked me if I believed in God, where I thought we go after we die, why suicide was illegal, and if I thought it should be legal instead. I distinctly remember looking at her, puzzled, answering, “I don’t know,” to the endless stream questions I had never given much thought to. “You shouldn’t worry about things like that at your age,” I said. She went quiet, and after a long pause finally said, “Huh. It’s all I think about.” Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to let a 10-year-old read Jean Paul Sartre after all.

My wife Bertha found Sally difficult at best, and had little idea how to relate to her as she wasn’t interested in beauty, fashion, gossip, or left-wing South American politics like Bertha was.

I found her curious; odd, perhaps, but I adored her nevertheless, even though I was disturbed by many of her thoughts. As long as I can remember, she was able to make people feel better, take away aches and pains by touching them, putting her hands on the sore spots. It was different, and yet we all, friends and family, sought her out, wanted to know more.

She became skilled at talking to adults about what they wanted to hear and rarely about what was really on her mind. She learned to please, mostly I think, because she wanted to belong, to fit in.

When you receive a child like that in a basket without instructions on a summer afternoon in 1968, you don’t question it. You just take her in and pick her up. You love her to the best of your ability and try make her feel included in the family.

I still wonder where she came from. She never was like any of the rest of us. She was sweet enough, just different and harder to relate to than anyone I had known until then. She made me think about things I would have never considered if it wasn’t for her asking.

She once bought me book for Christmas. It was called Through Time into Healing, by Brian Weiss, a psychologist who had also written the bestseller Many Lives, Many Masters.

I thought the ideas were far-fetched, but I re-read the book when my heart grew weak after they had amputated my left leg. When I read it that second time it gave me peace. I still didn’t believe that we come back here again and again, but the idea was very comforting.