I was born in the Westmann Islands and there I grew up in a large family. The economy was booming, the place was bustling and it was a great place for children. During the fishing season my relatives from the east fjords came to work and the house was always full of guests.
My parents loved reading and besides their own fair collection of books we made good use of the town’s library. My father was a good story teller and he knew a lot of poetry and stories he quoted when he told his stories. My mother was a housewife. She was good with her hands, thrifty and clever. My life changed the instance she died, without warning, when I was 11 years old.
My parents were both from the east fjords and that was the setting for their hearts and minds. I spent many a summer there at my maternal grandparent’s farm. At that time many farms where still without electricity and the farming was done the way it had been done for centuries. The hay was cut by hand, there was a small boat and a boat landing and it would be rowed to fish with a line with a row of hooks. Most of the catch was cooked by my grandmother who was an excellent cook. Everyday food, both fish and meat, was also treated in traditional ways to preserve it, slightly fermented (fish), dried, pickled, salted and smoked. To go with this, we had potatoes and swedes from the kitchen garden. The food was cooked on the oil fuelled cooker and we ate by lamplight when the day grew darker in the autumn.
We, the children, worked alongside the adults, took turns to do the milking, to separate the milk from the cream and to churn butter and I learned how to make skyr [a kind of thick yoghurt]. We had our own miniature farms to play with in the meadow and we played with paper dolls made from paper from the co-op and my brothers made boats from cans of oil and named them after boats that were known to fish more than others.
In the autumn when I got back home I refrained from telling people that there was no electricity at the farm, I found it a bit embarrassing. Today I am proud to have taken part in a way of farming that has now disappeared and I feel that my roots lie from the Westmann Islands and east to the fjords.
I lived on the islands until the volcanic eruption in 1973. I have never felt so powerless as when I watched the beginning of the eruption. “So, this is what it feels like to die”, is what I thought as the fire tore loose from the shuddering earth and the air was filled with sulphuric gasses. When the paralysing moment of terror passed, there came the hope of surviving this incredible nightmare and I joined the frightened villagers who hurried down to the harbour. My home, the place where I grew up disappeared under a blanket of ash and lava. Since then I have lived in the Reykjavík area.
I have always been keen on books and it was my son’s sudden illness that got me writing. I read a lot to him and then I started to write.
In my writing I look back to youth and also the enormous changes that I have experienced. Life goes on and emotions will always be there and children will always have to face problems that they need to solve.
I have a constant need to get back to my place of origin. The Westmann Islands have a strong pull on me and I feel right at home at the east fjords. When I walk by the shore, take a trip out to sea and do a bit of fishing, I think of my people who have lived on that spot for centuries. I also think of the old people that had moved from the rural area but often came to stay with my grandfather and grandmother during the summers. Each and everyone had lived a long and hard life and full of curiosity I would listen to their tales of a time when the countryside was prosperous and there were people living on all the farms.
I also wonder about why I am like I am and others are like they are. How much of us is the heritage of generations past and a vessel that conveys experience to our descendants? Sometimes my dreams predict the future. I had one such dream about the eruption. Things are not always what they seem. That is what I write about.
Gunnhildur Hrólfsdóttir, 2002.
Translated by Dagur Gunnarsson.Back