I saw it in a second-hand book shop one summer. Its pretty cover caught my eye and I know what they say about books and covers, but this felt right. I paid twelve dollars and slipped my new hardcover into my yellow-shoulder bag.
“Look what I just bought!” I squealed to my best friend, Natalie, when I met her for lunch. “The little book of Hig-ee, the Danish way to live well,” I recited the title, convinced I had the right pronunciation.
“Hi-guh.” She corrected me.
And so began our obsession with a word neither of us knew how to pronounce. A Danish word that is as strange as it is familiar – a feeling, rather, one that makes you feel safe and warm and cozy, like a blanket next to a fireplace or Jamie’s biceps on Outlander.
Nat and I would tag each other in various Jamie and twinkley-light-Hygge-decor posts on Instagram, dream of travelling through Denmark together, and when my roommate, Sarah, and I hosted a Hygge-themed Christmas party, it was Natalie who arrived (and left) first – I love her for this.
Natalie has been my companion in all-things-cozy throughout our fifteen-year friendship. I’m pretty sure we’ve spent most of those years curled up on a couch, talking for hours between sips of hot tea. She is my person.
In August of that summer, I went to Abbotsford, B.C. to celebrate my grandma’s 80th birthday. It’s hard to find a gift for someone who has given you everything, so I gave her the book. By then I had figured out the proper pronunciation: “Hoo-gah.”
Right, exactly how it’s spelt…
Danish, I will come to learn, is a very complicated language. With its 40-something vowel sounds, it’s a lot like someone speaking German with an ice cube in their mouth who also happens to be underwater.
My great-grandma was born in Arhaus (“Are-whose”), Denmark and I thought the book would help my grandma feel connected to her Danish roots. And it had been a tough few months after losing my grandpa to cancer, so I also thought she could use some much-deserved cozy inspiration.
With her perfectly coifed blonde hair, timeless style, and impeccable golf swing, my grandma doesn’t look a day over fifty. Whenever she and my dad go out, she is often mistaken for his sister. Her beauty is captivating, but it’s her heart that leaves you weak in the knees.
She has never missed a birthday or holiday, always picks up the phone, and loves writing long iMessages with lots of double-pink-heart emojis. She is smart, kind, the best listener, and, with the spirit of a young prairie girl who rode horses bareback, she is strong.
When she visited my parents and I the following summer, we sat around the kitchen table and laughed so hard, tears streamed down our faces. At night, as she unpacked her suitcase on my childhood bed, we gabbed about her new clothes like giddy school girls before the first day. We danced barefoot, sang loud with our eyes closed, and talked about going to Denmark – just the four of us. We would stay on a houseboat in Copenhagen, explore Arhaus, be Hygge. “What’s on your bucket list?” I asked on her last night. She looked around our table and said, “this.”
Two months later, on a Sunday afternoon, I’m in my kitchen about to leave for work when Sarah hands me her phone, “Mere, your dad is calling.” She doesn’t look at me, but I can tell she’s upset. Something is wrong. I answer the phone and all my dad’s shaky voice says is “Nonie…” and I knew she was gone.
I crumble on my bed, shoulders heaving. I press the phone against my hot, wet cheek and listen to my mom’s voice tell me not to worry about work, she and dad will pick me up. Sarah holds me the entire time, rubbing my back while we both cry. “She’s everything,” is the only thing I remember saying.
Once I calm down a bit, I zombie-walk to the bathroom and look for answers in my puffy, mascara-soaked reflection, but even she looks confused. I leave the bathroom for the living-room table and call Natalie. “Nat – my voice cracks – my grandma…” I try to explain, but can’t and we both cry.
I sit at the table for several minutes, or seven years, waiting for my parents to come get me. I can’t even look at them as we pack the contents of my closet into a suitcase, stumbling over each other like strangers at a weird three-person house party.
I open my dresser drawer and pull out the birthday card I was planning on giving to her for her 81st. I throw the card onto my dresser, angry, “I bought this last year!” I sob.
I rifle through another drawer and pull out the last birthday card my grandma gave me. It’s pink and covered in tiny butterflies – like the small crystal butterfly that hangs from my necklace and the matching silver necklace given to each woman in my immediate family. I just stand there, staring at the last line,
Love you with all my heart, Nonie.
I hang on to my necklace and her words for the next couple of days.
As the plane touches down at Abbotsford International, my dad reaches out his hand for my mom’s and mine. We pile our hands on top of each other’s like a secret handshake; my team.
I give their hands a little squeeze before letting go and looking out the window. I can’t quite believe this is happening. The sting of the shock hasn’t worn off. And it’s not the goodbye that kills me – we were always good at those – it’s the weight of not being able to say hello again that feels almost unbearable.
We clunk down the narrow steps connecting the plane to the tarmac. Mount Baker behind us, the wide open Fraser Valley ahead, just past baggage claim. Abbotsford is the only airport I’ve been to where you enter baggage claim the moment you step off the tarmac. No endless escalators, no winding hallways, just Nonie and Papa smiling on the other side. It’s the most precious place filled with tender first looks and long-overdue hugs. Now, I can barely look up as we drag our suitcases out of there and slump into my aunt’s car.
Before I know it, my aunt has delivered us to the front gates of my grandparents’ home. As the car crawls down the driveway overlooking the steady Fraser River, I can hear every campfire, every story, every Johnny Cash song – a symphony of memories playing us in.
I enter their home like I always do – through the garage where the same stereo plays the same country station. That thing is always on. I push the door open, walk into their home, and expect to see them.
Everything is left exactly how my grandma likes it. Her robes hanging in the bathroom, vitamins on the counter, shoes in the hallway. I rummage through each box and drawer full of old photographs and hand-written notes. I run around, burying my face into furniture and clothes because the scent reminds me of them and I’m worried it’s going to fade. By now, I’m sure, I have fully freaked out my already concerned parents.
In the midst of my frantic k9-unit sniffing, I see it. I hesitate to pick it up because I don’t think I can. I take a deep breath, then a step forward. On her bedside table is The Little Book of Hygge I gave to her almost one year ago. I hold it in my hands for a moment, remembering that day, before I open its familiar cover and read the inscription,
Happy 80th Birthday Nonie! May this year be full of Hygge, you deserve it. Love you, Meredith.
I take the book from her table and pack it in my bag.
Fuck it, I’m going to Denmark.