Shelved between my copies of Sigrid Undset’s Jenny and The Master of Hestviken stands Bob’s Kristin Lavransdatter. Bob was one of my high school teachers and a family friend. He lent me his book five years after I finished high school. Thirty-eight years later, prompted by the lure of discussing it with an online group, I contemplate a reread, though the book’s spine is damaged and its covers detached.
On the first day of his teaching at Archbishop Chapelle, Bob moved his chair from behind his desk and turned it backwards. Sitting astride it, he looked away from the partially filled rows of student desks to greet latecomers with a broad smile. As juniors, we were generally confident, but we were also wary. A male teacher at our all-girls Catholic school was a novelty, not to mention this one who looked like a benevolent sprite and told us to call him Bob. Although it was 1977, his class, Social Justice, was not only new to the curriculum, but a new concept for us.
The bell rang and Bob walked down the rows, placed mimeographed articles on our desktops, and gave us a definition of social justice: a moral imperative connected with mercy, fueled by respect for the dignity and rights of all human beings, with a call to advocate for the voiceless and the hurting. Our main assignment would be to write journal entries about the articles in black-and-white composition notebooks to be handed in periodically. We also wrote about the news we gleaned on our own and the documentaries we watched in class.
Since this was the year of our community service hours, a requirement for all the New Orleans-area Catholic high schools, we wrote about those experiences as well. Some of my service hours took place in a downtown soup kitchen at an emergency homeless shelter for men. My tasks were to help the other volunteers prepare and serve the food. Keeping my head down, I felt awkward accepting thanks from the weary men in line for the simple action of ladling food onto plates. Back home, writing in my journal, I reflected on the difficult lives these men led, the reasons complicated and unknown to me. In class we shared our experiences and handed in our journals with their written accounts. I noticed that as our awareness grew, so did our empathy for those we might not have otherwise encountered in our mostly sheltered lives.
When Bob returned our journals to us, I heard muttering from my friend across the aisle. I opened my notebook and smiled at the comments he’d written neatly in the margins. I found his remarks encouraging, nothing to grumble about. From the beginning Bob seemed to know who benefited from gentle prodding and who needed stern remarks.
Arms crossed and head bowed, he listened intently to the student who’d volunteered to read a passage from her journal. When she was finished, he complimented her writing. Then, windmilling his arms, eliciting giggles from some of the girls, he spoke enthusiastically as he nudged us into deeper discussion. It was impossible not to compare his class favorably to past religion classes, when the elderly voices of the nuns, some tinged with Irish accents, monotonously outlined Church history, as we apathetically took notes. Some of the tougher girls in Bob’s class acted indifferent, but even they couldn’t help but be drawn into the lively debates.
As I started my senior year, Bob began a 10-year stint in the theology department at the Jesuit high school my brothers attended. I felt sorry for the new juniors at my school, but I was more interested in seeing if my brothers would have Bob as a teacher. My mom, who engaged easily with the more personable teachers, befriended him at one of the quarterly parent-teacher conferences. I imagine this is when she first invited him to a family dinner, the barely used wedding china brought out for the occasion, though the jean-clad Bob was as casual as we were.
Having a teacher over for dinner seemed old-fashioned to me, like in the historical biographies set in colonial and frontier times that I’d read as a child. When my youngest siblings expressed how weird it was for a teacher to come for dinner, my mom explained that Bob was single and still new to the area. How else would he get a home-cooked meal once in a while? I felt hesitant about renegotiating his position, from former teacher to family friend, but any dismay we kids felt at having to entertain a teacher evaporated in his genial presence. Quick to laugh, Bob looked and acted younger than most of our teachers, and he put us all at ease, even my dad, who considered himself asocial. One of the many dinner topics must have been about my voracious reading, though I don’t remember the specific conversation.
After my high school graduation, I was absent for many family dinners. Within five years, I’d left for a university several states away; was married; gave birth to a daughter; graduated; and returned with my husband and child to my hometown, where I gave birth to a son. My children now accompanied me to my parents’ home for family dinners with Bob. I don’t recall my husband doing so; he was restless and his interests lay elsewhere. At one of these occasions, Bob handed me Kristin Lavransdatter, the 1,065-page book and its author both unknown to me. His copy, a fifteenth printing of the Nobel Prize Edition published in 1936 and translated from the Norwegian by Charles Archer, looked antique, though it was only two years older than my youthful mother. I rubbed my hand over the front cover, buff with gold accents and black lettering. Inside, the front endpaper displayed a colorful bookplate with the old-fashioned name of Henrietta Wingate. I stowed the book inside my bag, cushioning it between two diapers, and sat in my mother’s recliner to nurse my youngest.
As I always did in those days, I read in stolen minutes. With my toddler daughter napping on the bed nearby and my infant son sleeping in my arms, I propped Bob’s book on my knee and opened it to my bookmark. I plunged into Kristin’s story as if it were the river Lethe. The ceiling fans of our rented half-of-a half of a house in the middle of New Orleans didn’t dispel the heat, but as I read Undset’s vivid descriptions, my surroundings disappeared and were replaced with cool, dense forests and rocky fjords. Even so, Kristin’s communal sleeping loft didn’t seem much different from the king-sized mattress on the floor of the one bedroom of our upper flat. Comparing our living situation to the fourteenth-century Norwegian mode would’ve been a break from reality. The only article from Bob’s Social Justice class that I remember in any detail was about a single mother of two young children evicted from their apartment, their mattress thrown to the curb. Perhaps I remember the article to this day because, only six years on from Bob’s class, I’d worried about suffering a similar fate.
I was swept away by the life of Kristin, the eldest child of a respected farmer and his depressed wife; their experiences of tragedies; her defiance of familial and societal expectations over her choice of Erlend as husband; the lifelong consequences of that marriage. Some of those details felt like they belonged to me. Also an oldest child, I knew my marriage, as a very young woman, was not what my parents wanted for me. Kristin cares for her many sons while maintaining a household without much help from the mostly absent Erlend; I had only two children, but holding together my smaller family felt similar, and my unconventional husband’s nonappearances at family dinners might have been the impetus for Bob lending me, then allowing me to keep, this particular book.
Kristin’s story stayed with me in our upper flat: as I plucked my son off the balcony after he crawled away to lift himself up with the aid of the porch railings, shaking them as if there were no danger below; as he bumped into furniture and walls, learning to walk, welts arising on his bruised forehead; as he suffered a scary asthma attack before he was two years old, his little chest laboring with the effort to breathe in the middle of the night. I was an outwardly calm mother, but I must’ve had Kristin’s family’s tragedies in the back of my mind, readying me to face anything that came my way.
Four years after reading the book, I packed and carried it into a different home for my children and me: a bedroom for each of us and air-conditioning units in single-floor windows. Both Kristin and I had operated as single mothers, heads of our households, while our imprudent husbands, having no interest in domestic matters, did their own thing; and I’d made my single status official.
Bob didn’t tell me Kristin Lavransdatter was about motherhood. He didn’t say Kristin’s life culminated with an act of social justice, one more dangerous than my service hours at a soup kitchen. He didn’t say Sigrid Undset was a feminist, even after her conversion to Catholicism. Those discoveries were mine, but now I wonder if Bob lent me this particular book because he sensed what I was going through, knowing the story would not only deliver comfort, but offer a role model and a template for my future: Kristin’s hard work to provide for her children, and her zeal to raise them to be self-sufficient adults.
He may have wanted to get across to me that having a faith like Kristin’s was what I needed. After all, he was a religion teacher. But that’s not the message I took from him or the book. Undset’s depiction of a strong, flawed woman enduring much travail throughout her life, along with my growing up in the seventies when the times were changing, showed me that I didn’t have to tolerate a marriage that was no true marriage, not even by the dictates of the Catholic Church. Always an eager reader, I received Bob’s book as a young mother and wife, clueless as to its future impact on my life. To this day, almost four decades later, I cherish the book as a relic that both conceals and reveals my inner life between its battered boards.