The evening was getting on, when Marius said, “I think you’d better cross out Krogsholt after all.” Helga looked up surprised from her writing. She was just about to ask if the new editor should get an invitation, when Marius said, “I’m going to put in an announcement.” He looked at her with a mix of triumph and reproach. “I think you’re getting old, Helga,” he said mildly.
Old Helga, who was actually twelve years younger than her husband, and who also definitely looked it, made the expression on her face that she always did when Marius got out of control. “So you could have saved me all this,” she said, meaning the pile of invitations and envelopes that she had already written. “And the stamps,” she said. “When are we going to use all of these stamps?”
Marius shook his head. Patiently, he explained that of course they would send out the invitations too, because he wanted to make sure that everyone who was supposed to come would actually come. But there should be an announcement too. “Can you just write something up?”
Writing that turned out to be more difficult for Helga than one would think. You couldn’t just write, “Remember my 80th birthday on September 14th,” even though that was the intent.
They discussed it at length. Eventually they agreed to use the usual wording, even though Helga still complained that then they could have skipped the invitations and the stamps. Marius ignored her and told her to write something down. Helga paged through a couple of issues of the newspaper and wrote: “On the occasion of my 80th birthday on September 14th, I invite family, friends and acquaintances to celebrate at a party in the meetinghouse at 7pm. To facilitate the catering please RSVP at the grocery store.”
She read the draft. Marius thought a little, then went outside to spit. He came back in. “Read it from the beginning.” He listened carefully. “No,” he said,”that’s no good.” There was a pause. Helga looked at him questioningly. “It sounds like we’re fishing for guests, like just anyone can show up.”
He thought long and hard. “We can send out the invitations now,” he said, “and then we can put in an announcement ‘to please withhold any acknowledgements.’”
Helga perused the announcement section, took another newspaper and searched that one as well. She wrote. Then she read: “All considerations of acknowledgements on September 14 are kindly but firmly asked to be withheld.” She looked up at him, and he had a suspicion that there might be a bit of teasing in her look. For appearance’s sake he let some time pass. He wasn’t going to let himself be provoked. Then he said, “Don’t you sound a bit too standoffish? Couldn’t you write it more along the lines of ‘that people don’t need to send acknowledgements’?
She wrote again: “Withhold acknowledgements on September 14.” “Please,” said Marius. “It should say, ‘Please withhold.’” It was quiet in the kitchen for a while. Then Marius mumbled, “Please withhold acknowledgements on September 14.” He still wasn’t totally satisfied. He tried to explain. “Most people will understand, but what about the ones who might take it literally? The bank director, for example, or the new guy at the feed store. How’s anyone supposed to know what they’re used to, wherever they’re from.”
Helga was still looking in the newspaper. “Open house,” she said. “How about announcing an open house from noon to 2pm. A lot of people do that nowadays.”
Marius just about sneered with indignation. “Open house! It’s going to be in the meetinghouse, and it’s going to be decorated for the evening. How can we do an open house in these two rooms? If you write it up like that, a hundred people might show up.”
Helga’s skepticism remained unsaid, but was revealed unequivocally in the quick look she gave him. He hissed. The mood in the kitchen had deteriorated. They decided to sleep on it.
So it ended up being both. The 70 invitations to the party at the meetinghouse were sent out, and in the newspaper there was an announcement – across two columns – which Marius figured couldn’t be missed by the bank manager, or other managers, or the editor, or the heads of the political associations and people like that. This is how it read: “On the occasion of my 80th birthday the 14th of September, congratulants will be received at our home from noon to 2pm. Helga and Marius Beck.”
This wording was the result of lengthy negotiations and a difficult compromise. Helga had insisted on “open house,” repeatedly mentioning that that was how it was said nowadays. Marius sneered, “Open house. Nonsense. Do you want the place flooded with random people?” He had even lowered himself to writing a draft of the announcement, and that was when the word “congratulants” was introduced to the proceedings.
Helga had to step aside. Despite everything, he was the man of the house. On the other hand, she was adamant that the announcement should include both their names.
Marius protested. He even laughed. “It sure as hell isn’t you whose turning 80,” he said. But Helga documented, with the help of the majority of the recent papers, that this type of announcement included the names of both spouses at the bottom. He could see for himself. She held up the newspaper and pointed: “Sincere appreciation for everyone who came to my birthday celebration. Sonja and Peter Jensen.” The wives were also included. That’s the way it was done these days. “You don’t want to seem old-fashioned, do you?” she asked.
Marius obviously didn’t care. He continued making a couple of snide remarks about the 80-year-old Helga, but it was no use. “I’m going to be doing all the work,” she said, “so I want to be in the announcement.”
The silence that followed her remark became quite oppressive. In the end, he gave in. “But you have to call it in yourself,” he said. He got up with some difficulty and tramped outside to the yard. “Damned bitch,” he mumbled. “Can’t even have a spittoon in the kitchen.”
Time passed, and it passed slowly. The invitations had been sent, and the responses arrived. The announcement was phoned in; it was printed, and it was read. And some talk circulated about it.
“Congratulants,” laughed Morten Andersen at the grocery store, when he barged in on a conversation about Marius’s upcoming big day. “Congratulants,” he laughed with the tone of voice that was used here in this area for making fun of proper spoken Danish. “I don’t think they mean us common people, going around pretending to be congratulants.” There was nearly audible applause from Jens Christian and Holger. Of course everyone knew that Morten had an old grudge against Marius, and that it hadn’t gotten any smaller with time, even though recently they had sort of become neighbors. But still it was well said. The grocer didn’t participate audibly or visibly in the fun. Of course it amounted to more than peanuts, the wine, beer and tobacco that had been ordered for delivery, some to the meetinghouse, some to the house. And with everything else that was needed for such an occasion, it was a pretty good contribution to an otherwise declining turnover. When the discussion turned a bit more subdued – and more to the point, he discovered – he didn’t refrain from saying that Marius has always been a good man for the area, and that unlike certain others he never moved his business outside the parish. It was a statement that found its mark with a couple of the men present. Still it was the particular Morten-Andersenish way of saying “congratulants” that was memorable, entertaining everyone on their way home. And thereby the word was granted citizenship in the local language with a definition that would not be found fully in the unabridged Danish dictionary.