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Samantha and Gamle Nalle
(A small bear with a big heart)


Samantha looked at the box in the window of the store. It reminded her of the box in which her old bear Gamle Nalle lived in her dresser drawer. The window was decorated with holiday lights, toys, and banners. It had been a long time since Samantha had celebrated the winter holidays, in fact, any holiday. She was 47 years old and (as she liked to tell herself) holding. Holding for what, she didn't know. Lately, Samantha had been filled with a grayness that clouded her thoughts and invaded her feelings with overtones of despair. She looked at her reflection in the window, her thinning gray hair framing her drawn face which even in repose seemed to sag a bit, sadly.

Gamle Nalle,
(1961)

Her thoughts drifted to Gamle Nalle, as they always did when she was on her way home. He was a small bear that had been hers as long as she could remember. When she was a young girl, Gamle Nalle had been Samantha's truest and most dependable companion. Every night she undressed Gamle Nalle and got him ready for bed by putting an old red, flannel nightshirt over his small furry body. The nightshirt was soft with two shiny blue buttons. The bear and the nightshirt were a present from her grandmother, who had brought them back with her from Sweden to the United States when Samantha was just a baby. Samantha had warm memories of her grandmother, whom she called Nana Mormor, and she took a moment to close her eyes and remind herself of the old woman's smile, her warm touch, and the light fragrance of cinnamon that seemed to follow her around the house whenever she came to visit. The warm memories then drifted back to Gamle Nalle, and she remembered all the nights he had comforted her and calmed her. Every night, after her bath and after Samantha had prepared Gamle Nalle for sleep, she would take him to bed and arrange him carefully on his own pillow next to hers. Then she would kiss him three times and pull the cover up onto both of them. Over the years, Samantha had kissed Gamle Nalle so many times that his mouth and cheeks had become smooth. And every night, she and Gamle Nalle would sleep quietly in one another's arms. In the morning, Samantha would wake up Gamle Nalle, take off his nightshirt, put a small red felt hat with a pink feather on his head, and place him sitting up on top of a small blanket in the old shoe box she kept in the largest drawer of her only dresser. From that location, Gamle Nalle would watch Samantha as she prepared for another day at school, at the university, at her job, for a visit to one of her friends' homes, or perhaps just a day of staying inside doing chores.

And now she was 47 years old, standing in front of the holiday window, looking through misty eyes and thinking of Gamle Nalle and her Nana Mormor, wondering what she would do with herself that night, the next day, the day after that, and the day after that; next week, next month, and next year. Samantha closed her eyes and squeezed them hard enough to see dark shapes and sparks. She opened them again and tried to see through the grayness. But she was caught in the moment, a moment of bland stickiness holding her tightly in its arms and quietly whispering. If it wasn't so cold and windy, Samantha would have probably laid down on the sidewalk, right there in front of this holiday window, and fallen asleep for a while. This thought was new to her, but as foreign as it seemed, it carried with it a comforting sameness. However, it was not to be. With heavy footsteps that moved of their own accord, Samantha found herself walking home, holding a dark, shapeless bag, trudging slowly through the ash-colored snow, one step at a time, sinking into the ground and into the moment, over and over and over, until she found herself putting a key into her front door. Slowly, she turned the key, listening to the lock click, and pushed the door open. Samantha took a long, large moment to glance around at her porch, then her walkway, then the street in front of her house. She was alone, as far as she could see through the dirty grayness. Samantha then slipped in slowly, quietly, dragging the door closed behind her with a long, nondescript, final thump-click-click. Without a thought, her hand reached for the small switch on the wall. Her finger paused for a moment in the dark, hovering over the switch like a tired, reluctant hummingbird. Then she pressed it.

"How's my beautiful, red-haired best friend?", she heard her favorite voice say the lights went on.

In an instant, the house lit up brightly, and the holiday decorations covering the walls began to sparkle red, blue, green, and orange. To her right, the fireplace burned bright, the red and gold flames winking at her cheerfully. Samantha looked across the room to where Gamle Nalle was sitting with a big smile on his face. "I missed you all day," he said, with a big smile.

"And I missed you," said Samantha. "I have a surprise for you."

"Well, I have a surprise for you too, but you go first."

"Here it is," said Samantha, as she reached into her large, orange and yellow bag and pulled out a brightly wrapped box. She handed it to Gamle Nalle, who took it eagerly and pulled off the wrapping.

"I can't wait to see what it is," he said, opening the box.

Samantha watched as Gamle Nalle's face lit up brightly. "A jacket," he said, "a wonderful jacket. It's just what I wanted. May I try it on right now?"

"Of course."

"It's just what I wanted. And the white and brown stripes match perfectly with my fur."

He strutted up and down the living room like a child with a new toy. "Samantha, this is so beautiful. How can I ever thank you?"

"Don't even try. I'm just glad to have you with me. Where is Nana Mormor?"

"She's in the kitchen," said Gamle Nalle, "preparing something special for dinner."

"That sounds wonderful. What's my surprise? Can you tell me?"

"I can, but let's wait until after dinner, so I can share it with Nana Mormor as well."

"Fine with me, my wonderful little bear."

Just then Nana Mormor came out of the kitchen holding a large pot of steaming chicken soup, with carrots, parsnips, celery, and parsley. "Samantha, darling, it's so nice to see you. Can you please help me with this? Just clear some space on the dining room table for me." She then put down the pot, which smelled delightful, and went back in the kitchen for more: potato pancakes, buckwheat groats, green beans, meatballs, and chicken. Five minutes later, the three of them were sitting at the table, inhaling the wonderful fragrances of Nana Mormor's home-cooked food.

"Your food always smells so good, Nana," said Samantha, "I'm so hungry, I can hardly wait."

"Me too," said Gamle Nalle. "I love your cooking."

"In that case, my little bear," said Nana Mormor, "why don't be the one to start?"

"Okay," said Gamle Nalle. He paused for a moment. "I am grateful for the lovely place we live in.

"I am grateful," said Samantha, "for the colorful decorations that make me feel so happy when I look at them."

"And I am grateful," said Nana Mormor, "for being able to cook for both of you and for sharing this lovely dinner."

Then they all began to eat and the air was filled with pleasant talk and jokes and happiness. When they finished, Nana Mormor disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a steaming plate of dessert pastries. "Here you are, Gamle Nalle, just for you, some kanebullar."

Gamle Nalle's face lit up with a huge smile. "Kanebullar, my favorite," he said, "Swedish cinnamon buns. I am a Swedish bear, you know," he reminded the others unnecessarily.

"That is true," said Samantha.

"Yes it is," said Nana Mormor. "I remember the day I brought you home for Samantha. What a wonderful day that was for all of us."

"Speaking of which, Gamle Nalle," said Samantha, "didn't you say that you had a surprise for me?"

"Yes, I did," replied the bear. "In fact, it is a story. I made up a brand new story for you and Nana. Come over to the fireplace, and I'll tell it to you."

"Once upon a time," said Gamle Nalle after they had settled themselves in front of the fire, "there was a young girl named Samantha and her pet bear Gamle Nalle.

"One day, they decided to take a walk. They started at the edge of a small lake near their home, and walked around the lake into the woods. The day was clear and fresh, and the woods were so beautiful that they became distracted and lost their way. They walked and walked, but the more they walked, the more lost and confused they became.

"Just as the sun was beginning to set and the shadows were getting longer, they met a fox with a long, beautiful red and brown tail. He asked them if they were lost and offered to lead them back to the lake and their home. However, since it was getting dark, he suggested that they spend the night at his house, and he would help them find their way home in the morning.

"So Samantha and Gamle Nalle followed the fox back to his house, which was a large hole in the side of a giant tree. It was a tight fit but they managed to squeeze through the hole and, to their surprise, they found themselves in one of the most marvelous places they had ever visited.

"There were three large rooms, each of which had a warm, soft bed covered by a rainbow-colored quilt. There was also a kitchen, filled with the most delightful foods and drinks. And, finally, there was the largest room of all, a play room, warm and toasty in the cool night air. The floor was covered by soft leaves and the walls had pictures of colorful, abstract paintings.

"The fox, who prided himself on being a consummate host, asked each of his guests if they would like a sweet. Samantha and Gamle Nalle both said yes, and Gamle Nalle asked if the fox had any sockerbitar. Neither Samantha or the fox had never heard of sockerbitar, so Gamle Nalle explained that it is a foam sugar cube that is given as a treat to Swedish children. He explained that he was actually a Swedish bear.

"The fox ran to the kitchen, reached into a blue clay jar with yellow stripes that was sitting on the counter, and came back with two small cubes of sockerbitar. He gave one to Samantha, who held it in her hand, not quite sure what to do with it. He gave the other to Gamle Nalle who took a bite and then remarked that this was, perhaps, the best sockerbitar he had ever tasted. It was almost as good, he told them, as the sockerbitar he used to eat when he was a young bear growing up in Sweden.

"Before long, Gamle Nalle began to get tired, and he was ready to go to bed. However, Samantha was curious and couldn't stop herself from asking questions. She asked the fox how he came to have such a large, comfortable home inside a tree. The fox answered that to believe was to see, and that since they believed that his home was so wonderful, therefore, it was.

"This confused Samantha, so the fox said he would explain. Suppose, he told her, you were very, very far from home, lost, as you are right now, and you were to imagine that, somewhere, a magic door existed and that, if you found the magic door and walked through it, you would instantly be at home in your own house.

"He pointed to the far end of the room at a small purple and pink door, and invited Samantha to take a closer look. By now, she too was getting tired but, to be polite, she put her sockerbitar in her pocket, walked over to the little door, got down on her knees, and crawled through. The instant she got to the other side, she found herself back in her very own dining room, sitting next to Gamle Nalle and Nana Mormor, and looking into the fireplace."

Samantha looked at Gamle Nalle and Nana Mormor. "Gamle Nalle," she said, "that was one of the best stories you have ever told us.

"Thank you," said Gamle Nalle. "I rather enjoyed it myself."

Samantha yawned, which made her realize that it was time for a bath and then bed. She put her hand into her pocket and, to her surprise, pulled out a sockerbitar. As soon as Gamle Nalle saw it, his eyes lit up.

"Look at that," he said, "sockerbitar!" he said. "I haven't seen real sockerbitar for many years. May I have a taste?"

Samantha loved Gamle Nalle and she loved Nana Mormor, so she broke the sockerbitar into three small pieces, gave one to Gamle Nalle, one to Nana Mormor, and popped the last piece into her mouth. "Oh my," said Samantha, "that is good." Then she yawned again.

Nana Mormor said, "Samantha, you have had a big day and it is getting late. I think it's time for you to go upstairs and take your bath and then go to bed. Go along and get started, and I will be up in a moment to wash your hair."

Samantha walked up the stairs and, as she did, she was filled with warm memories. She remembered, when she was a very young child, the many times that her family would eat dinner here with Nana Mormor and, after dinner, the rest of her family would leave, but she would be allowed to stay overnight because she was the oldest child. She would sit downstairs in front of the fire with Nana Mormor, who would tell her stories and play games with her. (This was before either of them had met Gamle Nalle.)

On those nights, when it got late and Samantha began to yawn, Nana Mormor would take her upstairs and give her a bath. After the bath, Nana Mormor would put Samantha to bed, in the very same bed where Samantha's mother had slept when she was a child.

Samantha remembered all this as she climbed the stairs. When she reached the top, she turned to the right. She passed the guest room, her own bedroom, and then Nana Mormor's bedroom. She walked down the hall, entered the bathroom, and started the water for her bath, pouring some of Nana's special bubble bath into the tub.

Once the bath was ready, Samantha took off her clothes and climbed in, letting herself relax into the warm water, surrounded by bubbles. She looked at the small white floor tiles with an interwoven pattern of small black tiles. Whenever she looked at this floor, she was reminded of how good she felt every time she took a bath in Nana Mormor's plain, but comfortable bathroom. She thought back to the many times she stayed overnight when she was a young girl, and how she felt loved and pampered whenever Nana Mormor would give her a bath and wash her hair.

There was a soft knock the door, and Nana Mormor came in. "I've come to wash your hair Samantha," she said. "You have such beautiful, thick red hair."

Nana Mormor knelt down beside the tub and Samantha bent her head forward. Before she applied the shampoo, Nana Mormor gave Samantha a dry washcloth to put over her eyes if necessary. This gesture always made Samantha feel cared for. Once in a while, the shampoo would get in her eyes and sting a tiny bit and, as far back as she could remember, whenever Samantha put the cloth over her eyes, the stinging immediately went away.

Tonight, Samantha closed her eyes and relaxed as Nana Mormor shampooed her hair and then dried it in a big fluffy towel. She left Samantha alone to finish by herself and Samantha dried herself, put on her pink and yellow stretchy pajamas and white socks, and emptied the tub.

As she walked towards her bedroom, Samantha looked to her left and saw Gamle Nalle walking up the stairs to join her. He moved slowly, pushing and dragging himself up one stair at a time. He was, after all, a very small bear. When he got to the top, he smiled at Samantha and they walked together into the bedroom. She lifted him up and, as she sat down on the bed, she placed Gamle Nalle beside her on his very own tiny, soft pillow. She helped the bear take off his hat and jacket, and then put on his soft red flannel nightshirt with the two shiny blue buttons.

She took out a small faded blanket and pulled it up to cover Gamle Nalle. The blanket was light beige with a thin embroidered olive- colored border, and Samantha had been covering Gamle Nalle with it every night as long as she could remember. She then pulled up her own blanket and snuggled into the warmth of her own beige and olive flannel blanket and her own soft pillow.

Nana Mormor looked in to say Good Night, and then closed the door, leaving it open just a tiny bit with the hall light on. That way, if Samantha were to wake up in the middle of the night, there always be a little bit of light shining in, so she wouldn't be scared. Samantha gave Gamle Nalle a big hug, kissed him goodnight, and was soon fast asleep.

As she sunk into a deep, relaxed sleep, Samantha found herself walking with Gamle Nalle near the ocean. They were in a large meadow filled with wildflowers of many different colors. Samantha didn't recognize where she was, but she felt safe because Gamle Nalle was leading her.

"Where are we, my little bear?" she asked.

"We are in a field near the ocean," said Gamle Nalle. "This is one of the places I used to live in Sweden when I was young. I lived with a girl named Maria for many years, you know. It was a long time ago," he said thoughtfully. "Anyway, in those days, Maria and her family had a summerhouse here that we would visit. Look over there," Gamle Nalle pointed, "do you see Maria and her best friend Ann-Kristin? Let's go see what they are doing."

Gamle Nalle led Samantha down a path in the meadow over to where they saw Maria and Ann-Kristin gathering wildflowers. The two girls looked about eight years old. Maria was thin, fair-skinned, and had light-brown hair, teased into blond highlights by the sun. Ann-Kristin was shorter and a bit stockier. Both girls were laughing and running around calling to each other as they pulled colorful flowers out of the ground. After a while, they sat down to rest and catch their breath. Then they combined all their flowers into one large bouquet and walked towards a nearby farmhouse just past the edge of the meadow.

"I know that farmhouse," said Gamle Nalle. "That is where Farmer Christoferson and his wife live. They just moved in a few weeks ago. Let us go see what they are doing."

Samantha and Gamle Nalle crept up to the farmhouse and, standing on their toes, peeked in the window. "That is Fröken Christoferson, the farmer's wife," said Gamle Nalle. They could see the old woman talking amiably with Maria and Ann-Kristin. After a while, Fröken Christoferson left the room, returning with a platter that had a picture of a rooster on it.

"Look what she has on that platter," said Samantha. "It's a cake."

"It's not just a cake," said Gamle Nalle. "It's a funnel cake. In Swedish, it's called trattkaka. Have you ever had one? It tastes so good. I sure could go for a nice piece of trattkaka right about now."

They watched and watched as Maria and Ann-Kristin talked with the farmer's wife for a long time. Finally, the two girls got up and left.

"That's strange," said Gamle Nalle, "they didn't have any cake. It's not like a farmer's wife to not offer two young girls a piece of cake."

Gamle Nalle looked at this cake and his mouth started to water. "Doesn't that cake look good?" he said to Samantha. "Let's go talk to Fröken Christoferson, and see if she'll invite us in for a visit." He led Samantha to the front door, rang the bell and, when the farmer's wife answered, introduced himself.

"Fröken Christoferson, I am Gamle Nalle and this is my friend Samantha. We couldn't help but noticing the lovely fragrance of trattkaka coming from your house."

The farmer's wife looked at them. "You are correct my little bear. Why don't you and your red-haired companion come in for a visit and have some cake? There were just two girls visiting but, for some reason, they didn't want any cake. So perhaps you will enjoy it instead."

So Gamle Nalle and Samantha came in and sat at the kitchen table, very much enjoying their visit. The farmer's wife was a friendly, talkative woman dressed in a green and yellow dress covered by a soft beige apron with a border of olive-colored embroidery. The kitchen had a bright, colorful picture of a purple and green fish on the wall. The farmer's wife noticed Samantha and Gamle Nalle looking at the picture, and she said, "I will be glad to tell you the story of this picture while you eat." She handed each of them a very large piece of funnel cake and began to talk.

"Many years ago", she began, "when I was a little girl, my grandparents had a farm in the countryside and, every summer, my sister and I would visit them for several weeks. One afternoon we were walking near a stream, and we heard a voice talk to us. 'Hello little girls,' said the voice. 'Would you like to see something wonderful?' We looked all around, but we didn't see anyone.

"'I'm down here,' said the voice. And there in the stream was a purple and green fish with a big smile on his face. 'Come join me,' he said, 'and I'll show you something wonderful.'

"So my sister and I walked into the stream and put our heads down into the water to talk to the fish. All of a sudden, we found ourselves swimming under the water, with the fish leading us up the stream. Oh, the things we saw! If I told you, you would have trouble believing.

"What I remember most was a large, underwater cave, filled with jewels of all different colors, where many other fish were swimming around. The fish introduced us to all his friends and relations, including his 212 brothers and sisters. (Fish have large families.) They gave us special treats to eat, and showed us all the jewels, and after a while we played guessing games and told jokes.

"Eventually, we realized it was time to go, because it was getting late and we didn't want our parents to worry about us. So the fish led us back downstream to the place we had first met him, and when we got there, we climbed out of the water and said goodbye.

"We never forgot our wonderful adventure, and my sister and I talked about it over and over. We tried to tell our parents, but they didn't believe us, and I realized that, when I became old, I would probably not believe something like that either. So one day I took my paints and a piece of fine paper, and I painted the picture of the fish that you see on my wall. Now, whenever I look at it, I remember the wonderful day when my sister and I met the purple and green fish and visited the cave of jewels."

The whole time, while Gamle Nalle and Samantha were listening politely to the story, they were also eating funnel cake. Finally, when they could eat no more, Gamle Nalle stood up and bowed. "Fröken Christoferson," he said, "we thank you so much for your hospitality and for your story. And now that it is getting late, we must go."

"Oh," said Fröken Christoferson, "it is getting late, and soon my husband, Farmer Christoferson, will be home for his dinner. It was nice to meet both of you, and I hope you will come back soon and visit me again."

"We will," promised Gamle Nalle.

Yes, we will," promised Samantha.

They left the farmhouse and walked back towards the meadow. By now, it was getting dark and the two friends walked and walked and walked, and just when Samantha was thinking that she couldn't walk any further, she looked up to find herself snuggled in her bed, comfortable and warm, with Gamle Nalle lying beside her, snoring gently. She closed her eyes and the next thing she knew, she heard Nana Mormor's voice.

"Samantha, Gamle Nalle, it's time to get up. Come downstairs for breakfast."

Nana Mormor drew back the curtains, and the bright morning sun streamed into the room, lighting it up like a golden crystal. As Nana Mormor walked downstairs to the kitchen, Samantha and Gamle Nalle climbed out of bed.

"Samantha," said Gamle Nalle, I am so hungry for breakfast that I could eat a whole funnel cake all by myself."

"I am too," said Samantha. "Let's get dressed."

She pulled off his red, flannel nightshirt, folded it carefully, and put it on his tiny pillow. Then she took his red felt hat with a pink feather and placed it carefully on his head. She then dressed him in the jacket she had brought him as a gift the day before, the one with white and brown stripes. (Gamle Nalle didn't need to wear much. After all, he was a very small bear.)

As Gamle Nalle admired himself in the mirror, Samantha went to the closet and chose a bright blue dress for herself, along with her favorite golden broach for a decoration.

Once they were dressed, Samantha carried Gamle Nalle downstairs and into the kitchen, where they sat down at the old table. Samantha had sat at this table so many times as a young girl, it was one of her favorite places in the whole world.

Nana Mormor brought them a large, steaming bowl of oatmeal to share and gave each of them a cup of peppermint tea: a regular-sized cup for Samantha; a special, small bear-sized cup for Gamle Nalle. They ate and drank, and drank and ate, until, finally, Nana Mormor said, "Samantha, it's time for you to go."

Samantha went to the front door and put on her favorite red coat and, to keep herself warm, covered her thick red hair with a purple and white scarf. She then turned around to take one last look at the sparkling red, blue, green, and orange holiday decorations and the brightly lit room with the fireplace burning with red and gold flames.

"Goodbye, Gamle Nalle. Goodbye, Nana Mormor," she said. "I will see both of you soon."

Gamle Nalle,
(2014)

She reached for the small switch on the wall and turned it off. Then she left the house, closing and locking the door behind her. As she walked carefully down the steps, she found herself thinking about her old bear, Gamle Nalle, and about her grandmother, whom she called Nana Mormor. How she missed them both!

Samantha moved slowly across the porch, down the steps onto the walkway leading to the sidewalk. As she followed the sidewalk away from her house, the overcast sky, barely lit by the winter sun, mirrored the gloomy blandness of her thoughts. She trudged with difficulty through the tired, colorless streets, her stringy gray hair falling over her eyes. Her feelings were as bland and colorless as world around her, and a car drove by, carelessly splashing her ash-colored cloth coat with muddy slush before disappearing into the foggy nothingness.

At 47 years old, Samantha realized she was getting too old for this but still, she walked on, lurching a bit from side to side, one step at a time, from one moment to the next, trying not to think about tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. Her sad, tired face moved silently and anonymously down the empty street. Soon, she thought to herself wistfully, the holidays will be over.

Stories by Harley Hahn