Darwin

Charles Darwin was none other than the Devil.

I learned this very early on.

Olga, my mother’s mother (mormor) had cut out and saved a now-yellowing newspaper picture of him, of Darwin (all black cape and black bowler hat—from under which rim hated you his piercing, devilish eyes—and long white devilish beard), a photo apparently meant to scare children. This, she would say, holding this image up for me to see, is the Devil, the Devil I tell you, for he claims that God did not create Heaven and Earth. He laughs at the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were created and then lived and then were tossed out of for befriending the snake—Darwin is the snake.

I was three or four or five or six, pick anyone, she’d tell and re-tell this story: the man who tried to kill Jesus and God. Yes, yes, the Devil. And I, yes, I believed her, and for years afterwards—into my teens, even—I held a very reserved opinion about Charles Darwin. Whenever he was mentioned in school, and he was, naturally, the image would flash: The Devil, an image I’d have to almost forcefully brush aside to place him in a more sensible and favorable light.

And while we’re on the subject of Devils, another historical figure to make it onto my grandmother’s shit list was one Jonas Alstromer—popularly, if incorrectly, seen as the Swedish father of the potato—whom she blamed for every drop of alcohol made and consumed in Sweden.

Actually, Mr. Alstromer did not, as generally held, bring potatoes to Sweden but he certainly popularized their cultivation. So, why is he another Devil in Olga’s eyes?

Well, that’s because potatoes are often used in distilling what we call fire wine—our Swedish national hard liquor distilled from potatoes, grain, or, in the olden days, wood cellulose, that clocks in at about 30% to 38% alcohol content by volume—serious booze in other words. Olga was convinced that Alstromer brought potatoes to Sweden and was therefore the root cause of fire wine and all the misery it brought.

Hearing Olga tell it, and I heard her tell it a lot, without Jonas Alstromer (a close relative to the Devil) alcohol would never have become such a scourge throughout Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Sweden.

Now, I did come to find out later that Olga’s father indeed had spent most of the family’s fortunes and incomes on drink, so no wonder she didn’t quite see eye to eye with the fire wine (and potatoes).

But at three or four or five or six, to be utterly convinced that these were very, very, very bad men indeed, that’s what amazes me today.

Then again, this from the same woman who arranged for my mother to have all her teeth pulled and replaced by dentures at eighteen. Mom was pregnant with me and the going folk wisdom at the time in this somewhat backwards backwater village of Mellansel was that pregnant women will always have lots of trouble with their teeth, best thing to do: pull them all and replace them with dentures.

This was actually (horrifyingly) done to my mother. She wore dentures for the rest of her life, of course—you never grow a third set of teeth.

I cannot even imagine the state of sanity of the doctor or dentist who actually undertook this unforgivable violence perpetrated on a young, pregnant girl.

Well, that’s Olga for you. An enigma. She loved me more than just about anything, and I her. Still, looking back now, I’m kinda glad I still have my original teeth.

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