Norwegian food, at least the kind that Minnesotans cling to, is some of the strangest stuff. Genuinely, Minnesotans will rabidly go to bat over the integrity of lutefisk (please enjoy this monstrosity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutefisk) and lefse. We have specific church basements that we travel to yearly, like trout to the spawning grounds, to get our fill of gelatinous stink fish and sheet of potato paper. One of the uglier looking ones that gives me whiplash nostalgia is frut zupe, the sweet soup made of dried fruit and tapioca or barley. Looks like hell, tastes and smells like the best kind of hug. Its that offputting vibe, those inconsistent discrepancies that made me think of home, safety, and that strange sense of low level danger that's innate to dark corners and shifting foundations when you're a child.
A Recipe for Frut Zupe
5 cups water
1/4 cup large pearl tapioca
1 cup chopped prunes
A dash of unresolved tension
1 cup mixed dried fruit, chopped
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Zest from 1 lemon
A healthy dose of creaking floorboards and ancient furniture
We lived with ghosts growing up.
A ghost story:
When we were little, my brother and I were warned by the old folks from my street: “You live in the Tasch House. Watch out. That’s where the witch lived, and if you were bad, she would pickle you and keep you in a jar in the basement.”
When my family moved into the house, the basement was packed earth, raw slabs of limestone making up the walls and in the center of the room, a deep pit, broken mason jars and shards of dry rotted shelves. A lock on the door: a steel bolt before a steep set of stairs, more ladder than steps.
So, the house was undisputedly haunted.
Maybe not by a witch, but definitely by the tenants that lived there in its boarding house days.
When digging in the yard, you’d come up with shards of china, clay marbles.
Once, a body that had to be exhumed from the front yard, after we found the headstone buried under a stump.
It was an old house.
There was the woman in my room: it made sense: I had grown up with many women that couldn’t let go of the past. She would tuck you in at night, pull the covers up tight, and sit at the edge of the bed until you fell asleep (the reverse: she didn’t let you get up). If she hated an outfit you wore in rotation, it would disappear, replaced with something more suitable folded neatly in the middle of the floor.
Of course, this house was all I knew growing up, so it wasn’t until my best friend stayed the night that I learned that things weren’t quite normal.
Did your mom come in here last night?
Then...who sat down at the end of my bed?
Oh. The lady.
There was the light that hovered in my brother’s room, that if you looked at too hard on your way to the bathroom, would reconfigure into a face. You ran past as fast as you could, and side-stepped the attic door as you went (the footsteps in the top of the house often clipped along behind you).
The man that smoked in the downstairs bathroom. It still smelled like a cigar room, from time to time, and when we moved houses, he banged the doors, turned the walls red and oozy.
Well shit. They’re not happy.
My dad tried to spackle the red back in, tried to still the doors.
Both of my parents always told us that there was nothing in the house. It wasn’t until that day, that moment, when we started burying saints (saints. From the Lutheran family) in the front garden, that they let on that we had a damned infestation.
An infestation of the damned, rather.
I looked at a picture of that house today. 600 Garfield Avenue, North Mankato. And it didn’t look right.
Like the skeleton in the yard, the structure was there, but the important bits of flesh were gone, hidden deep under.
My mother loves to tell the story of when my parents first bought the house: she sat down in the foyer and cried, the place was such a mess, with faulty wiring, crumbling plaster and peanut butter brown walls.
They worked hard over the years to bring it back to some of its former period splendor: dad lathed spokes for the grand staircase, buffed and stained the wooden floor. Both of them studied catalogues for brass sconces and lamps, trim and moulding. They terraced the yard, made the whole backyard a jungle of raspberries and hostas. I would spend hours in the berry briar, scraped to hell and stained purple-pink from the fruit that I tucked into my pockets, eating them as I thumbed through The Golden Compass for the fiftieth time, or under the plum tree, warding off the birds so I could get to the plums first (my whole childhood I was referred to as “the little bird”). The whole front yard was gold with blackeyed susans, frothy strands of pink and white hollyhocks, and the peonies were so large, their weight bore them down to the sidewalk. The gooseberry bushes and lilies, the giant weeping mulberry that made the perfect fort and the linden sapling we planted to replace the black walnut felled in a summer storm.
At Christmas, we’d close the pocket doors to the parlor and set up the tree in front of it, and there was nothing more magical than turning off the overhead lamp in that front room and watching the lights from the tree reflect back in the warped glass of the windows. And the wrought iron grates that shot up warm air from the heater in the basement: my siblings and I would fight over who got to sit on it winter mornings, or after a sledding trip, to get feeling back into our toes and fingers.
I could tell you where each piece of furniture had lived, the Victorian loveseat, the cedar chest, the piano I hated taking lessons at. That I hid medicine under when I was sick. The itchy pink floral rug we had to cover with a sheet on Friday nights for pizza night in the livingroom, the only time we could eat anywhere but at the kitchen table.
You could hear the squeak of the stairs, the age of the home spoken in the language of its floorboards, the breath of the settling foundations in the stillness of the night.
Looking at the realtor’s pictures, it wasn’t right. The linden is a proper tree now, and that’s about all that was left of the old gardens. They’ve spackled and facelifted, trying to make it look new and modern. The wallpaper is gone, the peanut butter paint is back (mom would hate that). I can see everything that was moved, “fixed”, updated, and it’s strange, like looking at a stranger and knowing that this is someone that was so, so familiar and precious to you, like a superimposed image, the negative of a photograph.
Things have changed so drastically, and I wonder if the ghosts are still there, if they’ve ever been able to move on.
Because I don’t think I have.