The Little Boat That Sailed Through Time

A simple hand-carved ship binds five generations of family together.

little boat on water
Adam Voorhes for Reader’s Digest

I spent the tenth summer of my childhood, the most memorable months of my life, in western Norway at the mountain farm where my mother was born. What remains most vivid in my mind are the times I shared with my grandfather Jørgen.

The first thing I noticed about Grandfather was his thick, bushy mustache and broad shoulders. The second thing was how he could work. All summer I watched him. He mowed grass with wide sweeps of the scythe, raked it up, and hung it on racks to dry. Later he gathered the hay in bundles tied with a rope and carried them on his back, one after another, to the barn.

He sharpened the scythes on a grindstone, slaughtered a pig, caught and salted fish, ground barley in a water-driven gristmill, and grew and stored potatoes. He had to produce enough in the short summer to carry the family and the animals through the long, snowbound winter. He stopped only long enough to eat and to sleep a few winks.

And yet he found time for just the two of us. One day after a trip to a faraway town, he handed me a knife and sheath, saying, “These are for you. Now watch.”

He slipped his own knife from its sheath, cut a thin, succulent branch from a tree, and sat down beside me. With callused hands, he showed me how to make a flute. Even today, 63 years later, whenever I hear the pure notes of a flute, I think of how he made music from nothing but a thin branch of a tree. Living on an isolated mountain farm, far from neighbors and stores, he had to make do with what he had.

As an American, I always thought people simply bought whatever they needed. Whether Grandfather knew this, I don’t know. But it seems he wanted to teach me something because one day, he said, “Come. I have something for you.”

I followed him into the basement, where he led me to a workbench by a window. “You should have a toy boat. You can sail it at Storvassdal,” he said, referring to a small lake a few miles from the house.

Swell, I thought, looking around for the boat. But there was none.

Grandfather picked up a block of wood, about 18 inches long. “The boat is in there,” he said. “You can bring it out.” Then he handed me a razor-sharp ax.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so Grandfather showed me how to handle the tool. I started to chop away to shape the bow. Later, after he taught me the proper use of the hammer and chisel, I began to hollow out the hull.

Often Grandfather joined me in the basement, repairing wooden rakes or sharpening tools. He answered my questions and made suggestions, but he saw to it that I did all the work myself.

“It’ll be a fine boat, and you’ll be making it all with your own hands,” he said. “No one can give you what you do for yourself.” The words rang in my head as I worked.
Finally, I finished the hull and made a mast and sail. The boat wasn’t much to look at, but I was proud of what I had built.

Then, with my creation, I headed for Storvassdal. Climbing the mountain slope, I entered the woods and followed a steep path. I crossed tiny streams, trod on spongy moss, and ascended slippery stone steps—higher, higher, until I was above the timberline. After four or five miles, I came at last to a small lake that had been carved out by a glacier. Its sloping sides were covered with stones of all shapes and sizes.

I launched my boat and day­dreamed while a slight breeze carried the little craft to an opposite shore. The air was crisp and clean. There was no sound but the warble of a bird.

I would return to the lake many times to sail my boat. One day, dark clouds came in, burst open, and poured sheets of rain. I pressed myself against a large boulder and felt its captured warmth. I thought of “Rock of Ages” (“ … let me hide myself in thee”). Through the rain, I saw my little boat pushing its way over the ripples. I imagined a ship bravely fighting a turbulent sea. Then the sun came out, and all was well again.

A crisis developed when we were ready to return to America. “You cannot bring that boat home with you,” my mother said. We already had too much baggage.

I pleaded, but to no avail.

With a saddened heart, I went to Storvassdal for the last time, found that large boulder, placed my boat in a hollow space under its base, piled stones to hide it, and resolved to return one day to recover my treasure.

I said goodbye to my grandfather, not knowing I would never see him again. “Farewell,” he said as he clasped my hand tightly.

In the summer of 1964, I went to Norway with my parents and my wife and children. One day, I left the family farmhouse and hiked up to Storvassdal, looking for the large boulder. There were plenty around. My search seemed hopeless.

I was about to give up when I saw a pile of small stones jammed under a boulder. I slowly removed them and reached into the hollow space beneath the boulder. My hand touched something that moved. I pulled the boat out and held it in my hands. For 34 years, it had been resting there, waiting for my return. The rough, bare-wood hull and mast were hardly touched by age; only the cloth sail had disintegrated.

I shall never forget that moment. As I cradled the boat, I felt my grandfather’s presence. He had died 22 years before, and yet he was there. We three were together again—Grandfather and I and the little boat, the tangible link that bound us together.

I brought the boat back to the farm for the others to see and carved 1930 and 1964 on its side. Someone suggested I take it home to America. “No,” I said. “Its home is under that boulder at Storvassdal.” I took it back to its resting place.

I returned to the lake in 1968, 1971, 1977, and 1988. Each time as I held the little boat and carved the year on its side, my grandfather seemed near.

My last trip to Storvassdal was in 1991. This time, I brought two of my granddaughters from America: Catherine, 13, and Claire, 12. As we climbed the mountain, I thought of my grandfather and compared his life with that of my granddaughters. Catherine and Claire are made of the same stuff as their ancestors.

They are determined and independent—I see it in the way they carry themselves at work and play. And yet my grandfather seemed to have so little to work with, while my granddaughters have so much.

Usually the things we dream of, then work and struggle for, are what we value most. Have my granddaughters, blessed with abundance, been denied life’s real pleasures?

Working tirelessly on that isolated farm, my grandfather taught me that we should accept and be grateful for what we have—whether it be much or little. We must bear the burdens and relish the joys. There is so much we cannot control, but we must try to make things better when we are able. We must depend on ourselves to make our own way as best we can.

Growing up in a comfortable suburban home, my granddaughters have been presented with a different situation. But I hope—I believe—they will in their own way be able to cope as well as my grandfather coped and learn the lesson my grand­father taught me all those years ago. On the day I took them to Storvassdal, I hoped they would somehow understand the importance of the little boat and its simple message of self-reliance.

High in the mountain, I hesitated to speak lest I disturb our tranquility. Then Claire broke my reverie as she said softly, “Grandpa, someday I’ll come back.” She paused. “And I’ll bring my children.”

Reader’s Digest first published this article in May 1993. Arnold Berwick passed away in December 2013, at the age of 93.

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