THEY LEFT—AND WE CRIED
A year ago I never would have guessed it would end this way—that two families, strangers to each other when the year began, would shed tears as one family went back to Norway twelve months later.
Last night I hugged two little boys over and over, trying not to notice their tears, fighting a lump in my throat because I was uncertain when I would see them again. Cornelius and Constantin—only 11 and 5 when we first met. Back then their names seemed too elaborate for their small bodies. Yet today the names evoke images that have become a palpable ache, linked to all the moments we spent together. Those elegant names: how quickly they seemed to wrap around each boy until they fit exactly right, and how inevitably Rob and I came to love the boys themselves. Though the two were unique, the older a serious student, the younger an imp, they both had a sweetness that drew us in.
We first met the Norwegian Glittenbergs a year ago, when they moved in across the street from my daughter Tracy and her Paul. Our first glimpse of Constantine, who’d just turned five, was like finding an adorable, pet child who spoke no English. He was tow-headed and small, with a button nose and a child-actor’s assortment of expressions: wonder, humor, dismay, delight, all enhanced by a missing front tooth. When we spoke, all of us around Tracy’s dinner table, Constantin leaned toward Cornelius, an elf with eyes on his brother’s face as he awaited a translation. Had he been old enough for kindergarten in Norway, he might have known some of what we were saying.
On that first get-acquainted supper, Tracy brought in her next-door neighbors, the Bowers, who also had four children. One of them, Elizabeth, has a voice so lovely that a few years ago at age twelve she sang at Tracy’s daughter’s wedding. Tracy announced to the group, “I hear that the Glittenbergs also have a girl who sings. Mathea-Mari, can you and Elizabeth go in the house together and find a song you both know?”
For fifteen minutes, the two girls—one Hispanic the other Norwegian--disappeared. When they came out, the two joined in a harmonic version of a popular melody, which was so lovely it stunned the whole group. Only later did we learn that Mathea-Mari, now sixteen, is famous all over Europe as a solo performer . . . and that her family picked a leased home in Tustin, partly because it was close to an airport from which her father could take her back to Europe for frequent, scheduled concerts.
“How lucky,” our family remarked later that evening, “that we didn’t know about Mathea-Mari in advance, or we’d have all been intimidated.”
The year became a miracle of increasing closeness between the two families—which often included Rob and me. We saw less of the two older girls--Olivia, a senior, and Mathea-Mari, a junior, who were consumed with homework at Beckman high school. But we spent hours with their younger brothers. Early in the year, Tracy taught the boys a card game, ‘golf,’ in which the lucky card is a joker. One of the first things five-year-old Constantin learned to say in English came with a cry of joy, “I got a joker, Mama!”
Cornelius, a slender eleven, displayed an awareness of everything around him. He wore glasses, and he was half an actor, playing a quick succession of roles as he responded to every idea that flew by. We always knew what Cornelius was thinking. He and I quickly became buddies, exchanging hugs with each new encounter. One day Rob and I found him on a nearby road, walking home from school. We stopped to give him a ride. When he jumped into our car, he said, “Your car smells like my Grandma’s car.”
“Is that good?” Rob asked, and he said, “yes.”
How often we arrived at Tracy’s to find little Constantin dashing into the house and flying with a great leap into Tracy’s chaise lounge . . . where he didn’t exactly sit, but splayed out into a disorganized pattern of white, skinny arms and legs.
Frequently invited to dinner with Tracy and Paul, Rob and I often found the party included two small boys as additional guests . . . and an evening that ended with games of golf. As I sat across from the two blond kids, I was mesmerized by a parade of shifting facial expressions, as though our family had been touched by budding movie stars, by two faces lit with a kaleidoscope of emotions, every change of thought or mood expressed more vividly than with words.
Even Tracy’s small, black-and-white dog, Ollie, became part of the entertainment. On days when she walked Ollie, Tracy fetched Constantin to go along, the boy only slightly larger than the pet. Soon she and Constantin went on errands together, and she even brought him and Ollie to the park, letting them entertain each other as she played tennis. And he spent a day with her at Videoresources . . . becoming an instant mascot for the company.
Charming kids don’t happen by accident. We became warm friends with their parents, J.P. and Katherine, both young, good-looking, and solid in their own skins. Increasingly, the two families spent more and more leisure time together—visiting California sites, like beaches, an “escape” room, friends of Tracy’s, and even our son Chris’s ranch. And the family was with us on multiple holidays—Easter, Mother’s Day, the Super bowl, Christmas.
Thanks to kindergarten and all those two-family adventures, Constantin became steeped in English. By year’s end, now age six, he knew everything we were saying--and he’d even learned to read in English. Sometimes when I arrived at Tracy’s, I heard a tiny voice calling from a window across the street. Though I couldn’t see him, I knew it was Constantin, spinning out a greeting.
Our last day with the Glittenberg’s was both memorable and poignant. Around noon, the two daughters borrowed my Prius to take their driver’s tests, hoping, before they left, to earn California driver’s licenses. To our delight, both succeeded. When I got my car back, they’d had it washed.
Dinner at Tracy’s that evening was bittersweet. The two boys couldn’t stop weeping . . . the younger, still no bigger than a puppy, curled up in his father’s lap, the older leaning against J.P.’s shoulder . . . a tableau momentarily interrupted by the arrival of “Addie,” Constantin’s fellow kindergartner. He’d mentioned her occasionally, and now her mother admitted, “One day they went to the park. And they (she spelled it out) K.I.S.S.E.D.” We all burst out laughing.
Later, mother Katherine read from her laptop, a long tribute to our family, and especially Tracy. And then came gifts from the Glittenbergs to all of us, among them cookies from Hawaii. Rob and I returned home, already feeling nostalgic and sad.
If only sadness hadn’t been part of the departure . . . but it was. As Tracy drove them to LAX, everyone in the car was singing except the two boys. “It was so heartbreaking,” Tracy said. “They couldn’t stop sobbing."
The consoling part is, we know we’ll see the Glittenbergs again, either in California or Norway. Feelings as strong as we all felt for each other can’t be entirely eliminated, either by time or space. For that we’re grateful.