Dec 22 2019

The Chanukah lights

Now, I am going to say something that if someone else said it or I saw it written that someone else said it, I would think to myself, “Boy that is so corny.” But I am going to say it anyway. “My heart is filled with love.”

Tonight was the first night of Chanukah. The last Chanukah to be celebrated in this decade. My group of J.A.P.S.* gathered together this afternoon at the apartment of my friend Marina and her family. Between 3 and 4 pm people arrived carrying pans of latkes, cheese pancakes, sugar-coated stars of fried dough, fruit salads, cookies and cake. The homemade donuts were already there awaiting our arrival. People filled the kitchen, organizing the reheating of the latkes. Others were centered around the large oval table in the living room, arranging a multitude of hanukkiahs, the nine-armed candelabra used at Chanukah, with a bit of aluminum foil placed under each one to catch the drips from the colored candles. I spread boxes of matches between the silvery candlesticks and placed the Holiday Bag on the coffee table, ready to be filled with small presents as each new group of people came in.

Once everyone had arrived, we dimmed the room lights and gathered around the large table to light the shames candle which was then used to light the remaining other candle, symbolizing the first night of Chanukah.

Together we said the prayer over the candles.
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.”
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light”

As we waited for the colored lights to burn down, I went over to the coffee table and picked up the Holiday Bag. One at a time I took out a small gift and calling out the name written on the package, handed our young people their presents. Young people I must call them for they are no longer the small children they were when I first met so many of them long ago.

With most of the candles now burned down to ash, we moved them all to the center of the table as people gathered around a counter top filled with trays of different kinds of Latkes and choices of apple sauce, sour cream and lingonsylt to eat them with and cheese pancakes sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and fruit salads and all the rest of the delicious and oily treats everyone had brought. We filled our plates and went to find a place to sit and gorge and talk to friends we hadn’t seen in a while. The apartment was large enough so that groups could form: the young people sat together around the coffee table and eventually started playing a board game my son had brought. The oldsters divided up into several groups and I circulated between them dropping in to the various conversations, all of them interesting. Finding something to talk about with these long time friends has never been a problem.

And then the first of two remarkable things happened. As my friend Barbara was making her way around, about to leave, she stopped and said she had something to say to the whole group. Now, because of my inability to remember conversations verbatim, I am just going to paraphrase what she said. She started off by telling us that she wanted to express her gratitude for this group, that we exist. That because of this group she has been able to stay in touch with her sense of Jewishness and the group has helped to contribute to her children’s sense of being Jewish too and she was very grateful for that. Then she turned to me, who was standing beside her, and said she wanted to thank me for forming this group and organizing all the gatherings and keeping it going and she wanted me to know how much she appreciated all my work and effort. She said a bit more in that line and then everyone clapped. Now I have to admit that I don’t mind making myself the center of attention but…when someone else makes me the center… hmmm…that’s different. I also have to admit that my first reaction to her words was to feel embarrassed. But then, slowly, as Barbara continued talking, this warm glow started to come over me and I found myself feeling so happy and yes…I will even use this very cliché word, joyful. And all I could say then was thank you.

On the way home with my son, as we sat on the bus together, I asked him if he had heard what Barbara had said about me. He responds by saying, “Oh, you mean when we all had to clap?”
“Yes”
“Yeah, I sort of heard what she said. But don’t let it go to your head.”

Later that evening, after Bevin and I had come home and decanted all our stuff, Håkan asks Bevin if he had a good time at the Chanukah party. He answers, “Yes. And by the way, I have Chanukah presents for both of you.”

As Bevin goes into his room, Håkan and I look at each other, practically in shock! Our son has bought Chanukah presents for us??!! He comes out and hands a beautifully wrapped present to each of us.

“When did you do this?” I ask him.

“Last Tuesday, when you went out with your friends. That’s why I wanted to know if you were going out that evening.”

I stare in shock at the present in my hands and then at him. I undo the wrapping and there is a book entitled Nonviolent Communication – A Language of Life by Marshall B Rosenberg. Håkan got a game for his Nintendo Switch.

“Pappa can read the book after you do.” Bevin says to me, with a big smile on his face.

So two remarkable things happened today: the people who I have been shepherding for the past 22 years said thank you and my son bought me a Chanukah present.

Truly the lights on the menorah are shining so very brightly on me tonight and I am filled with love.

*Jewish American Parents in Stockholm

Dec 14 2019

Calling Mom

December 14 would have been my mother’s 93rd birthday.

She died about two weeks after she turned 85. I was with her the last month as she progressively passed away as the result of a no longer functioning pair of kidneys. There was no birthday cake served on that birthday, neither was her very favorite treat, ice cream. She didn’t really know that it was her birthday as she lay in her bed surrounded on both sides by hospital bed bars. The hours passed quietly that December day in the middle of New Jersey. A few friends called me but other than that the day itself went unnoticed. The next day, my uncle Wally, mom’s little brother and his wife Rosemary came out to us with a cake. My cousins Ed and Nora came too. Rosemary brought a lovely cake she made for Mom. We showed it to her but she was in her own world by then and couldn’t really notice it. We went out for Chinese food – mom stayed in her bed serenely unaware that we had been there.  After we came back we ate the cake together, without Mom, in the small staff dining room near her room. When Wally and Rosemary and Nora and Ed left, I gave the cake to the staff to share.

Today here in Stockholm, was a cold, grey day full of rain. The kind of day you don’t really want to go outside in, unless you absolutely have to. The kind of days we have had a lot of the past two months. I needed to go to the grocery store so, there you are…I had to go out. As I walked trying to avoid muddy puddles, my hood up against the rain, dragging my shopping cart behind me, I found that the day seemed to suit my mood. I thought about how long it had been since I last called my mom and told her about the weather here in Stockholm. Eight years. Hard to figure. I have spent my entire sixth decade without my mom.

She had spent her entire sixth decade without me, except for the two weeks a year that I came home to visit. I moved to Sweden when she was 61. Back in those days international phone calls were expensive and thus infrequent. Did she ever tell me that she was sad that I had moved so far away. That she missed me and wished I was there? That she loved me? Not really. Those were not the kind of words that passed between members of my family very frequently. I know she did though – miss me that is…and love me. I think she was happy that I had finally found a guy who was willing to put up with me and marry me. That he dragged me across an ocean was something else. And then we had a kid and made her and my father grandparents. That made her happy too. The once a year visits to help my parents get to know their grandchild were always too short. Then SKYPE happened and we could do more frequent calls and she and Bevin could actually look at each other when they talked. That made the distance less.

The last years before she moved to her independent living apartment at Monroe Village, I called her a lot. We didn’t really have much to say. She wasn’t so interested in talking about the past and the future was so uncertain. We talked about dinner and weather and how Bevin was doing in school. She frequently asked when we would next come to visit. I kept saying we would come visit but later. After a while, the reason I called her every day was to make sure she could answer the phone. After she met Marty, I didn’t have to call so often. She was busy and not so alone. There was someone there who looked after her. And I think she looked after him. They kept each other company.

But today, on her birthday, as I walked in the rain, I really felt like I wanted to call my mom, to talk to her. To say hi, to tell her how I was doing, how we are still trying to get Bevin to move into the apartment he bought, how life was going.

I lived far away from my mother for so many years. But I always had in the back of my mind that she was just over there, out of sight, but just a phone call away. I am an expert at procrastination. So as I walked, trying to keep my boots from getting too muddy, I said to myself, I’ll call her tomorrow.

And tomorrow, I will say it again.

Me and Mom eating Chinese food at home in Stockholm. 2006


Nov 2 2019

My Mini High School Reunion

I graduated from high school fifty years ago! I find that hard to believe. It goes along with realizing that fifty years ago my generation went to Woodstock and fifty years ago human beings walked on the moon.

This past July, a group of fellow former seniors from West Morris Regional High School in northern New Jersey attended our class’s 50th reunion. A reunion committee had spent almost a year planning the event and I admit to feeling a bit nostalgic as I kept getting planning updates. But I didn’t go. I rarely travel back to the States during Swedish summer – my husband and I have a country house that the only time we can be there is in the summer.

Only fifteen years ago, the majority of my classmates had become just dusty memories from an old yearbook. The last time I actually met – in person – anyone from my New Jersey school days, was 40 years ago when I attended our tenth reunion. But now, many of my former schoolmates are friends on Facebook and even though I haven’t met them in real life, I’ve seen pictures of their grandchildren.

A few years ago, I finally had the chance to unpack a load of books carted over here from New York City and never seen again in almost 30 years. My high school yearbooks were among them. Opening the books was a walk down memory lane. I discovered, much to my surprise, that my senior class had had an exchange student that year who came from Sweden! What a weird coincidence, I thought. I had not shared any classes with him so didn’t really know him. I had a vague memory of sitting in at a talk he gave about Stockholm with slides showing pictures of the city but that was all.

Britta Jacobsen was a high school friend who had Swedish parents, something I gave little thought to, even when she came into school wearing the most unusual clogs with perforated white leather tops that she got on a trip back to visit her parent’s homeland.  Her mother and brother eventually moved back to Sweden – but to the Gothenburg area, not to Stockholm, so we have not had a chance to meet. As part of the reunion planning committee, she messaged me last year, asking if I could try to track down our former Swedish exchange student, Lars Göran Thambert. Luckily, he had a rather unusual name and I was able to locate him on LinkedIn. I wrote to him there, explaining who I was and about the reunion. He never wrote back and I let it drop. I did however send his LinkedIn info to the reunion committee and Wayne Myers also sent him a message. This message landed just when Lars was on one of his rare visits there. He wrote back to Wayne and eventually made a video about himself that was shown at the reunion. Lars also discovered my letter to him and answered me. We exchanged a few emails and decided to get in touch and meet for Swedish Fika in Stockholm after the summer. I told him I would let him judge for himself how good my Swedish had become after living here for over 30 years.

We planned a date in the middle of October at my favorite cafe here on Södermalm near where I live. I wondered how I would recognize him, a person I never knew all those years ago but I took another look at the video he made to get an idea of what he looked like today. We exchanged phone numbers and I figured if we couldn’t recognize each other we could call the other’s phone and listen to see who in the cafe’s phone was ringing. Modern times!

Its been along time since I’ve been on a blind date but I still remember that feeling of worrying if we would have anything to talk about. Lars had said in his video that he was an architect, so I figured conversation could flow no matter what. Back in high school, the two career paths I was considering were either Fashion Design or Architecture. I choose Fashion but after two years at Pratt, I switched to Commercial Art/Illustration. I had been scared of choosing architecture because I felt math and science were not really my thing. Once I got to Pratt, it turned out that many of the guys I became best friends with were from the architecture program anyway. And many of them told me that math and science were not their thing either. Go figure.

The day came and I sat myself down at a table in Vurma with my latte, a cardamon bulla and with my yearbook clearly visible.

This is how we looked in 1969

I recognized him immediately as he came in the door and gave a wave. He ordered a sandwich and we started talking. We started off by looking though the yearbook, pointing out people who we had been friends with and just reminiscing about life in NJ all those years ago. He is still in touch with the family that hosted him back then. I told him about Art School. He told me about the architectural projects he has worked on here in Stockholm, some of them quite large projects. We both have had our own companies and agreed we like being able to choose who and what we work with. I told him my story about how I landed here. He told about his grandchildren and I told how I am still trying to get my grown son to move into his new apartment. We discussed art and architecture and design. The almost 3 hours flew by. I had to finally go home to make dinner for my family and he was about to meet his daughter to go to see an exhibit of furniture design. We said good bye, agreeing to keep in touch.

I am so glad I met Lars. It was a lovely afternoon. But more than that, knowing that there is someone here in my adopted homeland who shares a part of my long distant past is somehow comforting. The world is a big place and when you are young you never know where your life will take you. For some people the journey is not very far while for others like myself you end up a long way from where you thought you would be. And that just proves that in spite of its size, the world can be a very small place indeed.


Jul 28 2019

Beach day

It’s still early morning and I am not yet ready to get up out of bed. It’s very warm in the room. I lie still, on top of the covers, no need for blankets in the heat of the morning. The lace curtain at the open french door flutters slightly as the air mildly moves through the room and out to the world. The day is very bright outside but the sun is not shining directly into the room yet. The tree outside the window shows a bit of green shadow beyond the lace. Its quiet inside but I hear birds chattering occasionally from the other side of the window. It’s a hot summer day – one so unlike the usual summer days here in Stockholm – because it’s very hot. Suddenly a seagull screams its raucous cry. Another answers it and they begin a loud conversation as they fly above my building. I am immediately transported and as I close my eyes I imagine I am on my way, getting close to my destination, the Jersey shore. Its going to be a beach day at the shore. I can almost smell the scent of the salt water, feel the heat beating down from the blue cloudless sky and the sun sitting alone there. The fire from the white sand under my sandals radiates up my legs. I carry my blanket and my bag filled with suntan lotion and my towel and my book, looking for the perfect place to plant myself – close to the grey damp sand near the edge of the of the water line. I hear the waves pounding the sand, white foam at the edge where the salt water meets the grey hard surface and rolls up the beach just so far until slowly it starts to fall back down to the ocean.

I open my eyes and get up, to start my day here in my island-studded home, surrounded by water, here in Stockholm.


Jul 6 2019

Books and writing and reading

Somewhere on my Facebook wall, someone posted a link asking people to list which books they had read that got them to start writing. This got me to thinking about books and writing and reading…especially in the aftermath of this year’s Stockholm Writers Festival.  For me, I don’t think any books I’ve read inspired me to start writing. Probably most of the reason behind my writing is just that it’s the overflow of the stuff that is littering up my brain – ideas, opinions, emotions that I can’t figure out how to handle any other way. But the question did get me to think about the kind of books that I read and why is it I read them.

The majority of the books I have read have been science fiction; ever since I discovered The Martian Chronicles amongst my dads paperbacks when I was 11. I admit that I haven’t been reading many other books since I discovered the Outlander books in 2014. Definitely not much Science Fiction has been read even though I have at least 5 or 6 unread Iain M. Banks novels on my Kindle just waiting for me to look at them.  I don’t buy many real paper books anymore. Last year I gave away almost all of my books from the 70s and 80s that I carted over here and then never unpacked. I don’t want to start cluttering up my limited bookshelf space again. Downsizing is the stage of life where I am trying to be these days. But I did buy 2 new books at the Stockholm Writers Festival. Neither were the sort of book that I would normally buy or read. One of the books was The Good Son by Paul McVeigh. I met the author at the mingle the day before the festival started and we had a great chat. He was interesting and funny and serious at the same time. His book was about a time and a place I knew almost nothing about and I was curious about what he had written. The other book was Falling by Julie Cohen. I sat in one of her seminars at the festival and she had a lot to say about writing. She has written a lot of books. So I was curious. What kind of books does someone write, who writes a lot of books.

I read both books very soon after the festival was over and all the hysteria of it had calmed down. I liked them both. I couldn’t put them down once I started. I kept thinking to myself that I really shouldn’t read new books because once I start a book I have trouble doing other things. All I want to do is lie on the sofa and read the book. I need to find out what happens to these people. It’s an effort to get up, put the book on the coffee table and start to make dinner for my family. It made it hard to go to sleep because I kept wanting to  continue reading. I enjoyed both of them. But the truth is – I will probably never read them again. As soon as I finished them, I started to think about to whom I could recommend the book and give it away to. I have friends who borrow books out of the library. They read the book once and that is enough for them. But I am a re-reader. I like to own my books. I like to be able to pick up a previously-read book and read it again. But not these books and not the 2 books I bought last year either. And the question I ask myself is why. I liked the characters in both books. I could relate to the characters in Falling more than in A Good Son. But I very much enjoyed the story about both sets of characters – what happened to them – the changes they went through.

So…why do I read the books I do and why do I read them over and over again; like I did with Tolkien and Azimov and Le Guin and Zimmer Bradley and Niven and Zelazny and Cherryh and so many other authors… and now with Gabaldon? Science fiction is often criticized for having flat one-dimensional characters. But some of the most fascinating characters I have ever met, I found between the covers of Science Fiction – characters I have never forgotten.

So it’s not the characters that kept me coming back to read and re-read and re-read again and again. It was the worlds that I entered in those books. In the real world, the world I live in, I truly hate traveling. I hate packing suitcases, always afraid I will forget something. I hate getting through airports, afraid I might miss my flight. I also hate sitting on an airplane whose seats are not designed for long legs. I don’t really want to travel to foreign places on this planet. I feel uncomfortable being a privileged first-worlder visiting third world countries and cluttering up their fabulous beaches or mountains. Yet within the covers of my books, I can experience a world built on a revolving ring, I can live in Middle-earth, or the world-encompassing city on the planet Trantor. I can be with wizards saying words of magic. Or hang out with aliens covered in fur like CJ Cherryh’s heroines who travel in space ships or humans living in a space station circling an alien world.

I come back to these books because of the world-building their authors do and the characters they people those worlds with and the fates that await those characters. I keep coming back because I once again want to live in those worlds. Falling and Son were interesting slices of life but they didn’t take me anywhere I want to revisit.

Writer friends say I should try writing science fiction, since that is what I read. But I am not a world-builder. I am only a visitor. The things I am interested in writing about are the things already in my world – the world I try to know and live in. So I write, trying to make sense of my world. But I love to visit other worlds – to disappear there for a while. As long as I don’t have to leave my sofa.