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Mess-Ups and Mistakes (VH)

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Vala Hafstað's picture

Someone in my office turned 50 this week. Because my handwriting is legible, I was asked to write the birthday card, and I wrote, “Dearest Svandís, We all wish you a happy 50th birthday!” As I wrote this, I thought, “This is unbelievable; the woman really looks young for her age. I would have guessed she was no more than forty. Some people just have all the luck. What’s her secret?” Then the rest of the staff signed the card. One of the women rushed to the flower store and we got ready to join Svandís for a birthday treat in the kitchen at 10:30.

I had just finished an article and got up to join the party. There she stood in the kitchen, busy talking to a couple of the men. She looked serious, considering the occasion, and was dressed in black. I decided it was all right to interrupt their conversation and warmly embraced her to wish her a happy birthday. To my surprise, she responded rather coldly. The men she had been talking to looked at me with a serious demeanor and whispered, “It’s not her birthday; this is Svanfríður, not Svandís.”

How typical of me, I thought, and couldn’t help laughing at myself. This answered the question I had been asking myself all morning. Her secret, then, was that she was no more than forty.

This reminded me of the family reunion I attended last weekend, where I stormed in, full of confidence and greeted one of my cousins loudly by name, only to discover that this was her twin. As if that weren’t bad enough, for the remainder of the evening I managed to mix up another set of female twins, also my cousins—not once, but twice. Should I have felt badly? Maybe, but I didn’t.

I knew I was not the one responsible, but my mother. After all, I’m her daughter and possess many of her shortcomings. While growing up, I spent many summers at my aunt’s farm in the north and never forget that time when my parents came to visit one summer. I must have been 14. It was a warm day. I was tanned and had tied a scarf behind my head.

There I stood in the driveway, holding my little niece in my arms, as my mother got out of the car to greet everyone. She first greeted my cousins and then came to me. Very politely, she shook my hand and said, “Good afternoon!” I remember holding back a smile, shaking her hand and letting her move on to greet the rest of my cousins. At that moment, I realized she had no clue she had just greeted her own daughter.

But my inability to recognize people is not the only flaw I blame on my mother. She never enjoyed housework and when it came to cleaning the house, she found it sufficient to focus on the “large areas,” meaning the center of every room, thus, never venturing into the corners. She rarely dusted and every cake she ever attempted to bake faced the risk of severe burns. Although she had the ability to knit better than most, she never took the time to do so, leaving me the only kid in school without as much as a pair of home-made mittens, let alone a home-knit sweater.

As you probably have guessed by now, the corners of my rooms seldom get my attention, dust is in abundance, and although I knit well, I never take the time to do so. Unlike my mother, I don’t cause my cakes severe injury, but then again, I seldom take the time to bake.

Don’t, though, for a moment imagine I feel any bitterness toward my mother. On the contrary. I admire her for having had the good sense to do all in her power to enjoy life. "You should only do the things you enjoy," was her motto. She always had time to learn new poems, especially if they made her laugh. In her sixties, she made the decision to learn by heart every verse of Hávamál, one of the longest poems ever written in Icelandic, attributed to the Norse god Óðinn (Odin). She said she felt she had to learn those words of wisdom on how to conduct her life, so she could live by them. And she never missed an opportunity to quote them.

Nor did she ever miss a chance to look for comical stories in the newspapers, cutting them out and pinning them to the wall, with the most humorous sentences underlined, for others to enjoy. The fact is that despite many sorrows and adversities, she had the unique ability to see life as a comedy in which she was eager to play a role.

So while I hold her responsible for many of my shortcomings, I have her to thank for my ability to laugh at my mistakes and discern the comical where it’s present.

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.