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Chuck Haga: One last look at old letters sparks memories of people, places, fun. Then, into the fire.

It hurt me, badly, as I read through more letters, especially those from the 1990s.

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Chuck Haga is a columnist for the Grand Forks Herald. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)
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Toward the end of a three-day stay at Lake Itasca State Park last week, I made a fire at my campsite on the outer ring of the Pine Ridge campground.

When the fire was good, steady and sustaining, I sat nearby and pulled the first letter from a thick stack of aging correspondence. It was postmarked Aug. 18, 1979, from Oslo, Norway.

“Kjaere Chuck,” it began. “Dear Chuck.”

Sidsel Cordtsen was a teacher in the Norwegian school system. She spent parts of her summers at the International Summer School in Oslo, where she met and befriended students who had come from around the world to learn her language and something of the history and culture of Norway.

Before the summer of 1978 was over, we had become good friends. We were among a small group of international friends, from Norway, Poland, England and the States, most of us in our late 20s and eager to explore and learn. We made weekend trips together, to fjords and mountains and to Sweden once, partly to escape the stiff Norwegian taxes on spirits.

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Sidsel saw a particular challenge in me and my American accent. I’d bring a bottle of what the city wine monopoly called “plain red wine” to her apartment, and, alternately scowling and praising, she got me eventually to the point where we could communicate in Norwegian. That continued as I enrolled for a year at the University of Oslo.

And for nearly 20 years after I left Norway, she sent me letters, almost always three or four carefully handwritten pages in Norwegian, until she died. Breast cancer.

I finished rereading that first letter and slipped it into my campfire.

Sidsel and I were a pretty good example of a friendship type some say isn’t possible: a deeply intimate friendship between a man and a woman that does not involve sex. (Although I did mix up my Norwegian one night, thanking her for the night’s “samleie” when I meant thanks for the “samtale.” Samtale means conversation. Samleie means sex. Knowing only too well the limits then to my vocabulary, she forgave me.)

I won’t go into it here – this probably is too personal already for some of you – but my life was a shamble that year. Sidsel helped me through it – laughing, scolding, chasing the melancholy. She quizzed me about American politics and culture, and she introduced me to Norwegian song and literature. She fed me and helped me read the Oslo newspapers. She introduced me to friends and tried to counsel me against falling for the friend of another friend. She was honest, searingly direct and demanding.

It hurt me, badly, as I read through more letters, especially those from the 1990s, to see how often I had disappointed her by not writing as often as she did. Life happens, you know. In September 1989, she wrote that several of her letters to me had been returned – I was in a new relationship and had changed addresses in the Twin Cities and hadn’t told her – and she had gone to the American embassy in Oslo to demand they help track me down.

To make sure I fully understood the severity of my crime, she wrote that one time in English: “Surely, a card with ‘Chuck’ on it would have said ‘I’m unhappy, but alive,’ and you would have saved me an ocean of worry. Please, Chuck, do promise not to do anything like that again. You don’t know the despair and the helplessness one feels when there’s such a deafening silence for so long.”

But she ended that letter as she always did. “Klem.” Hugs.

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I saw her when I returned to Norway twice in the early 1980s, and once in the early '90s when she came to Minneapolis. She was sick then. We sat and talked for hours and she shook her head over my shrinking Norwegian vocabulary, my deteriorating accent. She consoled me about the continuing mess of my life but lifted and prodded me and told me to keep on keeping on.

At Itasca last week, I read the letters, picturing the people she mentioned – Ian, Wojtek, Mary – and remembering the places we had gone, the occasional arguments, the fun and the disappointments. I read the letters and fed them one by one into the fire, one more act in the difficult but necessary process of “clearing the decks” so someone else won’t be burdened with the task. Some of you have done that, or will soon, so you understand.

With a few other old friends, still living, I’ve returned letters after looking through them once more. My friends can smile at the evidence of their young selves and weigh what seemed important enough 20, 30 or 40 years ago to put on paper and send through the mail. I don’t think people will do that with printed copies of emails … unless maybe they’re responding to subpoenas.

I kept two letters, which I’m using as bookmarks, so I can see the familiar script, her name and mine. I’ve kept a picture, Sidsel smiling. I’ve kept memories. Thank you for allowing me to share a few of those with you.

I love you, Sidsel.

Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at crhaga@gmail.com.

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