Hanna Hertzsprung (1914--1987)
There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket,
Nineteen times as high as the moon;
Where she was going I couldn't but ask it,
For under her arm she carried a broom.
"Old woman, old woman, old woman,"said I,
"Whither, oh whither, oh whither so high ?"
"To sweep the cobwebs from the sky,
And I'll be with you by and by"
I am dazzled by the image of my mother's leaping up and tumbling down on
a circus trampoline, panting as she was flung upwards into the night to
sweep the cobwebs from the moon. Hanna Hertzsprung. Her name sounds like
a trampoline. What does Hanna Hertzsprung mean? I ask.
She says, Hanna, Sprung from the Heart. She was half-Swedish, half-German.
We read these rhymes together when I am three. We have just arrived from
Stockholm. Her English is poor so we are learning the words together but
some words do not exist. Frustrated, she shuts the dictionary and teaches
me a song in Swedish.
I feel the real pressure of her arms about me, guiding my fingers within
her own to mimic the spider in the spider song. This song is a roundelay:
the spider climbs the waterspout, falls, rises, falls then rises again,
moving closer and closer to my ribs. Pressing thumb to index, index to thumb,
her fingers crawl up to my ankle, my knee, then perilously close to my stomach.
I tense as her fingers dance on my stomach. Poor spider child, she says
as we drop our hands to the floor, Poor spider child must crawl up again
into the sunshine. We would do this until I was shrieking with laughter.
She would make a whiffling sound in my ears and I would whiffle back.
Then we would start again, at the toes.
As I sing this tune to myself, I write her name:
Hanna, Hanna Hertzsprung
I feel her hand as she guides me along the letters of the alphabet. She
says, Each letter must be perfectly drawn.
Why? I ask.
Why? Because the meaning is in the shapes of the letters as well as their
We say the alphabet aloud. In this country, she says,the letters are the
same but the sounds are different. Some are flatter, some are longer. No
hills. It's so even.
When I come to Z, she says, Stop. The English alphabet stops here.
I am surprised: it's so short, cut off.
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