Karen Babine

Midsommar Dag

January in Minnesota is color stretched thin, pulled until you can see through it, even the delicate aquamarine too cold to hold clouds. January is the palate cleanser to the density of Midsommar Dag twilight or 4th of July cobalt. Color in January is the warm side of the color wheel, the male cardinal, the stop sign, the orange-yellow of the school bus that would be invisible in summer, blues and greens fading to dark neutrals. There is a clarity in January that summer lacks, the ability to see through color, though because of Rayleigh scattering, I don’t trust the blue in front of me. Even the blue of my mother’s eyes doesn’t exist, no actual blue pigment in her eyes. Twilight ascends—not descends—in the way of water boiling, not a switch flipped from light to night in these latitudes. In some senses, blue doesn’t exist, the point where green becomes violet on the spectrum indistinguishable in many languages: where do you find the moment where one thing becomes something else?

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The blue of my 3½ qt. Le Creuset dutch oven is the kind of twilight that’s darkest on the ground, but when you look up, you realize the sky doesn’t quite know day has arrived yet. This deep, saturated blue of the pot is similarly graduated, lightest on the bottom, darkest at the top. This is Midsommar Dag blue. This is Yeats’s “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” Blue, the “heavens’ embroidered cloths,/ Enwrought with golden and silver light,/The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/Of night and light and the half-light…” kind of blue. The pot’s name is Phyllis, after my Swedish grandmother, in the way that I have named all my Le Creuset as they leap at me from thrift store shelves. I have champagne tastes in cookware and a beer budget, as they say, and the food metaphors are on point today. My mother’s medical team talks in food terms. Cabbage-sized tumors. Infusions. Port. Drug cocktails. Seeds. The food language is even more confusing to me than the war metaphors, the language of battles and crime fighters and being a survivor. But to recast the insidious mess of cancer in wholesome things, flavors and recipes that bring me good memories, is to do something strange to the idea of how we understand this thing that is fundamentally inexplicable.

This pot is a enameled braiser, a variety of dutch oven, with little nubs on the inside of the lid so steam can condense and drop back onto whatever is being cooked low and slow. She is a Cousances Le Creuset, one of the oldest cast iron foundries in France, swallowed up by Le Creuset in 1957. Last night, I made my mother mashed potatoes in that pot as my mother started to fade from the stress of the last forty-eight hours. This morning, I find the moment—6:46 am—where the night becomes the twilight color of the pot sitting on the stove. There is no line between night and light. It only becomes in the way that water boils. The day before, she had her triple-cocktail of chemotherapy drugs, Neulasta twenty-four hours later to inspire her stubborn neutrophils, and no food sounded good to her. We learned last time that there is a twilight grace period before she is unable to get out of bed and we knew she needed to eat something, anything, before that happened, before the mouth sores, before she has trouble swallowing, before the “dead belly” feeling in her midsection.

We Swedes are, stereotypically, people of bland, white food. My grandmother, Phyllis, was notorious for thinking that salt and pepper were pushing it when it came to spices; she always bought her dill pickles without garlic. We are people of potatoes, dairy, pickled herring, risgrynsgröt, the Christmas cookies in shades of butter. In summer, approaching Midsommar Dag, we dig tender, tiny new potatoes from the garden, boil them whole, then put them back in the pot with milk and butter, and serve those red potatoes swimming in rich whiteness that glimmers with butter fat. Mjölk och potatis. Milk and potatoes. In summer, we feast on color, cucumbers in salt water, corn on the cob, red potatoes, tomatoes sliced thick. We rarely eat blue, I realize, rarely drink it. Sometimes a Minnesota summer gives us dark blueberries, if we hunt through forests for them, if we want to rub earth from them instead of buying them encased in plastic. Blue has no scent, in the way that green may smell of mown grass or honeydew. It’s documented that blue needs to be taught, that it’s the last color to develop in a culture’s vocabulary, because we take the sky for granted. This summer, in the blue and yellow of this Midsommar Dag, my mother will have finished her chemo, my parents will celebrate their 40th anniversary, and we anticipate the birth of my sister’s third child. We will have traced that moment where aquamarine has become cobalt. We simply have to get there, to find that line that does not exist, between sick and well.

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When I held my mother’s hand in the doctor’s office the day that we heard cancer, the doctor didn’t know what kind it was, couldn’t tell us what stage, or what the best course of treatment would be. Only after the hysterectomy, pathology gave us a name: embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, and though this cancer only appears in children under the age of ten, not sixty-five year old women, we exhaled on those syllables, power in the knowing. When my niece was born, six years ago, the entire family was in the delivery room—my sister and brother-in-law, my youngest sister, my parents, my brother-in-law’s mother and sister. We didn’t know the sex of the baby, but we knew a girl would be Cora and a boy would be Henry, in the way that even when you can feel a child kick in utero, it remains abstract. On that last push and it’s a girl, there was great joy in releasing that breath we all held on her name. Cora. She’s Cora. We didn’t know her yet, but of course she was Cora. There was no one else she could be.

She blinked at us with newborn-blue eyes that were not blue at all.


Karen Babine is the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), winner of the Minnesota Book Award and current finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Slag Glass City, Quarter After Eight, North American Review, Passages North and others. She lives and writes in Minneapolis, where she measures the year by the Cadbury Crème Eggs in the spring and the Scream Eggs in the fall.

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