Hanne Gault: Stranger in Both Worlds

“If I had it to do over again,” Hanne Gault said, “with the wisdom that age begets I wouldn’t have made the move.”

In 1955, at age 17, Gault accepted the invitation from an aunt to travel from Denmark to work for one year as a maid in a wealthy home in Massachusetts. “I was eager, very young,” she said, “eager to go places!”

Ten days on a luxury ship crossing the ocean was “a heady experience” for her but she found New York big and scary. Her aunt cautioned her to hang on to her purse and not talk to anyone.

“I spoke little English,” Gault recalled, “and was very unhappy.” When she received a call from an uncle who captained a freighter between Canada and Denmark, “I cried to have him pick me up. I wanted to go home.” But after talking with a cousin who had made a good life here, “she made me feel better.”

As a maid, “I had people tell me what to do, how to behave, to wear a uniform,” she recalled. “I had to say, ‘Dinner is served, Madam.’ I was a natural rebel and didn’t like that much.”

After that year Gault returned to Denmark for nurses’ training, graduated in 1960 and came back to the United States for work and travel. She became a nurse at the Cornell Medical Center in New York City; during her first week she attended a dance for interns, residents and nurses, meeting Sidney Gault who had a fellowship at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center across the street. “He asked me to dance,” she said, “walked me home, and four months later we married.”

The Gaults had three children (Karin, Adam, and Eric) and made their home in Lake Forest, Illinois. Sidney worked as a dentist; because of her family Hanne returned to school and became a junior high math and science teacher, an occupation with regular hours. She enjoyed teaching as much as nursing, she said, because she loved the kids.

“My husband helped me a great deal with science, and I loved math; it was so defined,” she said. “But my nature inclines toward music and literature.”

She has written poetry since she was a child when she helped an uncle compose verse for family occasions. When her children were older she began writing more seriously; after retirement she attended poetry workshops and joined the Wallace Group of writers.

Gault carries with her a notebook for making observations on life around her and her life in Denmark. “You mine your past” as a writer, she said. Oftentimes she writes late at night. “It’s a need to express yourself.

“I like ‘twisted thinking’ sometimes,” she added. “Pretty is not a word for my kind of writing. I have a hard time writing nature poems.”

Gault feels ambivalent when she reflects on her life in the United States. “At this point I am a stranger in both worlds, not at home in either, yet at home in both. Where you come from defines you, but your home and children tie you here.

“Family becomes more important as you grow old,” she continued, “and I cannot leave my family here, yet I constantly long for my previous life, the culture, the language, the ability to know that one has a common ethos with those around.

“The immigrant experience carries with it an emotional stress that has no remedy, one that for me has become more pronounced with time.”

The Gaults have a son living in Taiwan, “so far away,” she said. “I understand how my parents felt.” While her mother didn’t deny her the opportunity to go to the United States, “she was very unhappy that I left.”

Gault admires the society of Denmark as in many respects it is ahead of this country socially and made her “feel more like a human being.” However she finds herself better connected in Door County than elsewhere in the United States. “You feel that you belong; you recognize people and are known.” She and her family have vacationed in Door County since 1963; Wills Cottages in Ellison Bay is one of their favorite spots. After their retirement in 1997 the couple made their home here.

Gault never writes in Danish. “I would rather express myself in my original language,” she said, “but English is a rich language with so many ways to say something.”

Gault’s poetry has appeared in a number of publications, including the Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar. “I have been working for years on a chapbook,” she said, smiling. “But I don’t know that the world needs another chapbook!”

Looking for America


I remember the day President Roosevelt died.

We heard it on the radio and even though

it happened on the other side of the world

It made an impression on me.

My mother was ironing my father’s shirt.

At the news she set down her iron

and put her hands to her face in sorrow

over the loss of the savior of our wretched world.


FDR,  the embodiment of America,

the  measure of our prayers and hope of the world.

a cause for jubilation across Europe

with the arrival of  the Yanks.


As an immigrant to America

I came with the belief like Roosevelt

that  the US government was a force for good

and a true instrument of the people.


Now people say government is our enemy

On television and talk radio  politicians

trash each other undermining

the  public confidence.


Let’s return power to the people they say

Let’s get government off our backs.

A recent Hollywood actor turned President

said Government is the problem.


But I’m thinking that it wasn’t  long ago

there was a government and a president who

brought America through the The Great Depression,

a world war and still preserved America’s democracy?


Wasn’t it  the  government

that affirmed the bill of rights,

preserved our natural resources,

civilized industry,

worked against bigotry,

served the right of workers,

protected the powerless,

and made it easier to be old?


Maybe the America we are looking for

lies buried like a fossil in amber leaving

us  to  our present sorry state.

The future is not what it used to be.

I’ll   keep  looking.



In the beginning

constant reminders

of loss of the familiar.

Always judging through

comparative lenses

to see what is lacking.


Say your name

as it should be said or the way

Americans make it sound?


After a few years

You redefine your values.

your history your sense of place.


Gradually America

becomes more important

than the home country.


It can’t be put to words.

It stays  buried in the inner life

an emotional amputation.


Home is still clearly present

but now more an ideal memory

fused with longing.


Fifty years an immigrant yet part

of a culture that won’t let go.

Not enough years left to grow a new self.



I was seventeen when I first came

eager for a view of the land of plenty

close to glamour and boys driving big cars

just like they did in the movies I had seen.


Tante Ellen met me at the pier. I traipsed

behind her with my big suitcase in my new

high-heeled shoes, feeling forlorn  and strange

not sure I had made the right decision.


America looked huge, indifferent ,

lots of traffic, lots of people, black people,

new to me, stark skyscrapers. Tante warned,

hang on to your purse. I was scared.


Faces talked at me, I understood nothing.

Everything went  too fast. How would I ever

learn to feel  at home in a place  like this?

Already  I missed my mother.



Returning home after my mother’s death

You can’t go home again?


But there is always Mrs. Mikkelsen saying

good morning, Mrs. Hansen to my mother

and me when we pass her on the street

as she has been doing every morning

for the past fifty years.


And there is Mrs. Olsen on third with

her impressive bosom flowing over

the windowsill and always the safety pin

that keeps the front of her ripped

schmatte from coming entirely apart.


She is calling to Viggo, her husband,

the cigar maker, to forget about

coming home till he is sober, as he

tries to climb his contrary bike to the

squealing delight of the neighborhood kids.


On second is Mrs. Rasmussen who runs

a foot clinic in her living room and smokes

big cigars. Her son crashed his motor cycle

when he was only twenty-nine. He died.

People say she is out of her mind.


Mrs. Nielsen on first is pregnant.

Her husband is taking her

to the midwife on a push cart

because she is too fat to walk

and there are no trolleys or cars.


Mrs. Marx on the mezzanine

is German and a Nazi sympathizer.

She hisses every time she sees us

and lets Heinzi her son, who is fifteen,

wave the swastika from the window.


He sings all the Nazi songs he knows

for the soldiers who come every night

to shout and sing and stomp their feet.

I listen and worry that they may come

up to our floor and take us all away.


His sister Annie is my friend but

my father no longer lets me play

with her and ignores my tearful pleas.

I sometimes see her peek from behind

the curtain at our games in the street.

Mr. Levy the tailor on the corner

always stands in the doorway

with his daughter and greets us

on our way to school until last week

when his whole family disappeared.


Sometimes the street singers

come into our courtyard and people

throw coins wrapped in paper

to them from the windows with

requests for their favorite tune.


We hang upside down on the clotheslines

and perform daring stunts around

wet sheets, underwear and towels

and run like hell, tipping bikes that fall

at the super’s feet when he chases us.


The street and our small apartment,

(Four rooms and a loo) is my world

on the top floor of a square building

till I leave for America. A world, I reenter

after my mother’s sudden death.


The books she was sending for my birthday

hang in a bag on the kitchen door

neatly wrapped and ready to mail,

her crossword puzzle unfinished,

her coffee cup on the table by the chair.


I take the nameplate off the door and wait

for the movers to walk down the stairs

ahead of me so I can hide my weepy face,

homeless for the first time despite my age

but that was twenty five years ago.


They say you can’t go home again

but there is always Mrs. Mikkelsen

saying good morning, Mrs. Hansen

to my mother and me every morning,

as we pass her on the street.


You are from where?


I am from the land of low expectations,

self-deprecating humor and a pessimistic

outlook on life, where the happiness scale

is set so low that its people are counted

the happiest in the world.


I am from strong muscles and hard labor,

hair brushed aside with backs of sweaty hands.

I am from grey buildings and rain

and schools doing their best to crush

creative notions in their inmates’ brains.


I am from cool springs and mild winters,

short summer nights and long days

with sunrise and birdsong at 2 am.

I am from blond hair and blue eyes

and bare breasts on sandy beaches.


I am from the land of Carl Nielsen,

the Little Mermaid and Kierkegaard.

I am from laughter and “hygge”

that coziest of terms used by Danes

for togetherness at any chance.


I am from decency and honest intentions,

a nobody from nowhere in particular

where beech trees fill the forests

and the wind has made the country flat.

My bones ache for its shores.

“I like ‘twisted thinking’ sometimes. Pretty is not a word for my kind of writing. I have a hard time writing nature poems.”

~ Hanne Gault