Apr 12 2014

Pictures of life

In a golden, Godiva chocolate box, I have a collection of loose photographs. There is no order to them. Godiva photoboxThey encompass many years, most of them from before I moved to Sweden, and are collected from many places. Inside can be found some baby pictures that I took from my parent’s photo albums. There are a number of photo ID cards, some from Pratt Institute where I was a student, some from the Metropoliten Museum where I worked after graduation. There are some old driver’s licences – yes, I did once have one. Some pictures were taken in photo machines – one strip dating back to 1970 and another with me, my very young son and my husband crammed into the frame. There are also a bunch of old Polaroids from the 70s, with their white borders loosening in places.

I’ve had this box since I worked on a slide show for a production company in New York City back in the 1980’s. The production time-period included Valentine’s Day and we who were working there were working our asses off with long, stressful days and very late nights. The owners of the company came around on V-day and handed out to each of us, a large box of Godiva Chocolate – to keep our spirits up, I guess. Every night, I would go home very late, carefully choose one piece of chocolate from the box, eat it and fall into bed for a few hours of sleep – till I had to go back to work the next morning. It was a beautiful box, covered in embossed gold paper, and I didn’t want to just throw it away after all the chocolate was gone. In those days, I almost never took photographs. I’ve rarely owned a camera actually, and never a really good one. I had a Polaroid camera for awhile and one of those cameras that used a special film cartridge. It actually didn’t matter much what sort of camera I owned, I was a terrible photographer anyway. Because of this, I never had a lot of photographs lying around but I did have a few. I decided that the new golden box was the perfect place to put my meager collection. So that was where I put the polaroids that I took as reference material for illustrations and the few things from college and the baby pics. The box is now pretty filled up and I rarely put new stuff in there. Occasionally, however, I open it and look through the images that are there.

I also have a newer collection of photos taken after I moved to Sweden. My husband is a good photographer so we have lots of pictures. A large portion of them fill about 4 small IKEA photo boxes which sit on the shelves of a bookcase. The storage boxes contain neatly organized envelopes, the kind you used to get from photo stores after they developed your film. On each envelope is written the date and a brief description of the photos. Most of the envelopes contain double photos – that’s what we always ordered – so we could send pictures to my family back in the States. I guess I didn’t send a lot of photos because most of the envelopes still have their doubles. Or else I just sent the ones I looked good in. Occasionally, when we would have guests, the envelopes would come out and we would bore our friends with 30 or 40 pictures of us doing things.

In the late 90s, photos became digital and I stopped collecting envelopes of paper prints and collected them on my computer instead – in well organized folders. These days I don’t have to drag out envelopes of photographs to show to people, I show them on Facebook instead – and only a few of the best.

Facebook recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by offering to make a 1- minute video compilation of your Facebook posts. Many of my Faceys (my Facebook friends) did it but I was hesitant. There was something about it that bothered me. Was it because I didn’t want a machine to remind me of who I was?  Occaisionally, I find myself looking through my Facebook Photo Albums, reminding myself of the images I have posted there. I’ve even gone back and taken a look at posts I have written through the years. I had this idea that I might collect them and list them all in one long blog post –  as a way of seeing what I have been thinking about over the past 7 years since I have been a member of Facebook. But, like so many other things, I never got around to doing that. Now, however, here was FB offering to do it for me – collected into just one minute. Part of me was curious but part of me thought it was creepy. Well, curiosity got the better of me and I finally did it. I would send you the link so you could see my life too but it only works if you are logged in as me.

A few weeks ago, I listened online to a short radio program (www.thetakeaway.org/story/facebook-best-place-archive-our-memories) about the type of effect Facebook and its personal collections of photographs and texts might might be having on people in the long run. One of the ideas that was brought up was how, instead of showing our real lives, on Facebook, we only show the sort of life we want to project outwardly. It only shows the good side, our best self – that it is a scripted narrative. More recently, there has been a trend away from posting exactly what’s on your mind and instead posting something that illustrates how good your life is. The question asked during the discussion, was,
“Ten years down the line, will people look back and think that this “artificial” life  is what their life was actually like? Is this the only thing that will frame their past and how will it effect the way they remember their past?”

My response to this question is, so what? What is the big deal – how is this different than before? Our memories of our past have always been framed by what we keep and what we show. Whether its the boxes of junk left over from every move we made, still sitting in the garage; or the photo albums collecting all the photographs taken through the years; or the journal writings we made or the letters we sent to or received from others, telling bits of news of our lives. Some people have more and some people have less of these tangibile reminders of the life we have lived. A friend of mine who was the youngest of 5 kids says that by the time she came along her parents had gotten tired of taking photos and there are very few of her but masses of her oldest siblings. Some people wrote journal entries every day and others barely managed to send out a Christmas card once a year. I remember what my dog Skippy looked like from the photo I have of her and me when I was 5 years old. I have other memories of her but they are fleshed out by that photo. The same goes for many other past events that I remember. Sometimes the memory has become vague and faded but the photograph proves it was real and actually happened. The black and white photographs which my mother so very carefully arranged, with captions, in her photo albums with their black paper pages and white photo corners were a selection of the best images of her and her friends that she could collect.  And that is how I know her past. Facebook isn’t really different from this. The medium is different but the purpose is actually exactly the same as it was 70 years ago. The only thing to really worry over is whether the medium we use today will have the same possibility to last as long and be looked at as long as those old albums with their paper photographs. I can look at my mother’s photographs without needing the correct operating system, the right hardware or a particular App or Program. All I need to do is carefully pick up the slightly falling-apart scrapebook and gently turn the pages.

I sometimes wonder if the youngsters of today will be able to reminisce and enjoy looking through the images which they today capture in their smart phones with the same pleasure that I feel when I rummage through the contents of my Godiva Chocolate box. When they are 62 years old – will their images even still exist to be looked at? Will they still have something real to look back at to help them remember who they were? Will they still have something as sweet?

Mar 15 2013

Real life

“Well, I’m back.” That was what Sam Gamgee says at the very end of The Lord of the Rings as he returns home from his great adventure. And now I’m back too, back to my family, in my own home with all my own things around me. Back to real life. Back to being just Hilarie.

During the last week of my stay in NJ over a year ago, as I rode in the car with my husband, I told him how much the residents at Monroe Village whom I had gotten to know, said they enjoyed eating with me and would miss me, how the healthcare staff told me how great it was that I had been there for my mom, how much people from both the States and Sweden told me that they enjoyed reading my blogg. He reaches over and pats me on the head and comments that maybe he should have rented a larger car model so as to accommodate the size of my swelling head. He said it with a smile but I could hear the whooshing sound of the air leaving as my head shrank back down to normal size and I landed 0nce again on solid ground.

This made me think about the “instant celebrity” phenomenon so prevalent in our society today. Somebody sings a song on American Idol and suddenly they are SOMEBODY. Somebody that everyone is talking about, that everyone wants to meet or talk to. Everyone is saying how great they are or how wonderful they sing. I can say that I am beginning to understand how easy it is for them to begin to believe the hype and all the complements until finally they end up thinking, “Wow, aren’t I great?? I truly am SOMBODY!” And diva-ism is just one step away.

Yet still, something remarkable happened in those 4 weeks at Monroe Village. I went there to say good bye to my mother, to be with her as she lay dying – a sad, difficult, grief-filled experience. Yet I didn’t have to go through it alone. The people who had known and liked my mom took me in and gave me their friendship. The people who took care of my mother took care of me too. And I had time – time to sit and think, to use words to shape the experience of being with my mother as she lay dying into something I could understand and take with me.

And now I’m sitting here in a Wayne’s Coffee on Sveavägen, watching people and once again thinking. I was too busy at 40 being a new mom to have a mid life-crises then but now at 60+ I think I’m having a sort of 60 year’s crises instead. What is the meaning of my life? Who am I? Where am I going? I feel like I’ve become a teenager again, asking those questions – but with a lot more of life experience, with a body that is starting to show the effects of a lot of wear and tear, more tired, more cynical and more negative. And some of the questions have changed: what have I accomplished in the past 40 years, what more do I have time to do, what do I really want to do with the time I have left? And while no one really knows what the future holds, the big difference between being 18 and 61 is that there are a lot fewer years left.

So now I find myself with the next 1/4 section of my life staring me right in the face. I go towards it as a relatively new orphan, with my only child standing on the cusp of moving out on his own – to be independent of his parents, with the prospect of unfamiliar coupleness once again, with retirement from my “working” life just around the corner.

So I look at myself and ask , who am I? Am I just like everyone else? Or am I someone special in some exceptional way?  What sort of “SOMEBODY” am I in this real life?

Jul 29 2012

Its sooooo green

It was almost 20 years ago when we first came out here to Stavsnäs, the country property my husband’s parents first bought, back in the early 50s.

The old sofa

One of the many things we found out here was a teak, outdoor sofa that was very much in need of love. One of the first summers here, in between my many other duties as a mother of a young child, I spent a lot of hours sanding and oiling that sofa. For many years now, it has been one of the main pieces of outdoor furniture we have out here. We would store it indoors during the winter and take it out again when we came out here the following spring. There it would be, first on the deck outside our little house and for the past 4 years on the deck outside the new big house. Each year it would sit, soaking up the rain and drying out in the sun and one year, when we didn’t get to put it inside, even withstanding the snow. But all those years of use had taken their toll. Our once lovely bench had turned grey and rough and no longer so pleasant to sit on. So, yestarday, I decided to spend some time fixing it up again. It didn’t take as much sanding as it did 20 some-odd years ago but the oiling took longer since the oil I had was old and needed to be applied very carefully. Now, it can once again sit on the deck, dark and smooth and warm to the touch.

It’s hard to believe that so much time has gone by since I first came out here – to the Swedish countryside. I have spent many hours sitting on that bench looking out at the growing things on our property. I believe my husband often felt guilty dragging his New York City wife out of the city, first on his sailboat and then later out to his childhood’s summer paradise.  Those early years, on the sailboat, I kept up my standards. My nails were polished, I wore eye makeup and I didn’t go anywhere without my earrings. I have to admit that walking through spider webs when going ashore to tie up the boat was icky but I did it. Once the boat was anchored, I managed to crouch down on the rock cliffs next to the little grill we set up to grill on. Then, when Bevin came along, we switched from the boating life to livet på landet. There we spent our summers, in 25 square meters of house – with an outhouse to use instead of indoor plumbing. I washed dishes, outside, next to the house wall, sometimes in the sunshine and often in the rain. Wearing my first pair of green rubber boots, I used my new weed-wacker to force some semblance of civilization onto the growing things surrounding us. When the poop buckets got filled and needed to be switched I did that too. And when we were forced to compost our own poop, Håkan bought and assembled a latrine compost container and I emptied 6 poop barrels into it, garbed in old clothes, rubber boots and plastic gloves. I then washed out the empty barrels with the garden hose and left them to dry on the lawn in the sun. By now, I hardly even complain about it anymore, though of course it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complain a little bit. I still need to go back once a week to the city, to our apartment, to wash clothes, to check mail and to wash my hair in a shower that the wind doesn’t blow through and where the warm water lasts long enough.

I sit on my bench and I look up at the tall tree tops, the birches, the oak, and the pines – I watch the way the leaves move in the wind. I listen to the sound they make as they move. I watch the birds as they fly by or as they peck at the ground, hopping around. Sometimes a deer comes by. I watch the few flowers we have planted as they open to the sun. My three ölandstok bushes have burst out into bloom just last week and that gives me pleasure to look at them. Proud that I planted them and glad that they still are alive.

Long ago, before Sweden, I was visiting my friend Tom and his wife Wally up at their country house in the Catskills. Their idea of a fun thing to do on a sunny afternoon was to pile everyone into their minivan – themselves in the front and me and the dogs on the back seat and then drive around on the county roads up there in the Catskill Mountains. Up and down and around we drove. Passing unkempt houses with 3 or 4 broken down cars on the front lawn. Sometimes small, quiet villages too. Looking down into deep valleys and up to tall tree covered mountains. The goal I think was to get to some cafe or something, eventually. After about two or three hours of this, sitting in the back, fighting for seat space with the dogs, I just had to complain. I asked them in the front seat, for certainly the upteenth time, “When are we going to get there?” meaning the cafe. And when they turned to me and asked me, “Whats the matter? Aren’t you enjoying this – looking out at the nature?” My response to that was, ” Weeeeell, its OK, but its just soooo green!” To this day, they have never let me forget that.

So now as I sit on my newly oiled bench, I look out at all the green around me. I have no makeup on. My fingernails are cut short and unpolished. I have a very unflattering pair of sweatpants on, a black tank top and a red cotton shirt with paint splashes on it and my feet are filthy. The city seems so far away. I hear its call but dimly. The wish to have nice shoes on and be dressed in a great summer dress, to have my face on and earrings too, while I walk along city streets looking in all the shop windows, is still there. There is definitely a part of me that misses that life. Perhaps the fact that as I walk along the city streets I’m now surrounded by a lot of 20- and 30-something girls who look so great in their summer clothes and I am now a 60-something old lady (though people tell me, a very well preserved 60-something) who just can’t compete with all those lovely young things, makes me less willing to want to be there.

With love

So now I’m content for the moment to sit on my 30-year-old rejuvenated bench and watch the eternally old and eternally new, ever changing face of Nature surrounding me.

While deep down inside me is still that memory of my New York-self, I no longer mind just sitting and looking out at all that green.

Jul 8 2012

The fuschia coat

Hi Mom, Did you see me? I was wearing that bright fuschia jacket. You remember –  the lightweight down one which you used to wear as a winter coat. I never had a chance to ask you if I could take it back with me to Sweden. You had already left by then, but I figured that you wouldn’t mind my taking it. Its more like a jacket on me and it’s been perfect for the chilly Spring and early Summer days we’ve been having here in Stockholm. I never had a chance to say it, but thanks Mom.

I think about you a lot since those days back in December. Every time I’ve worn that jacket I’ve said a silent Hi Mom. But, mostly,  in the evenings, when dinner is done and I haven’t quite decided what to do next, I think of you. I remember how every evening, for the past 4 or 5 years, I would think “Okay, I have to call my mother now”. I admit that it wasn’t always a pleasant thought – it was more like a chore – something I felt I had to do. I always called you, because it was more difficult for you to be able to call me here in Sweden. Since you got sick and had to leave your beloved house in Homestead and moved into Monroe Village, the kind of conversations we would have weren’t really about much of anything anymore – just superficial chatter, both of us trying to be cheerful.  Before I would start up Skype I sat for a bit to try to think of cheerful things I could tell you about my life here in Stockholm.

Back when I was still young and living in New York, I called you quite frequently – just to chat or to ask you your opinion, or how to do something or just quite simply as a sounding board for some of my own thoughts. But I wasn’t able to have those kinds of discussions with you much anymore. Mainly I called just to make sure you were still answering the telephone.  I also was trying to edit what I talked to you about. I tried to only tell you good things – to cheer you up – so you wouldn’t worry about me. Successes Bevin was having in school, what I was working on at work, the funny things our cat had done and what I was making for dinner. If potatoes were involved in the dinner, I always made sure to tell you. You liked hearing about us eating potatoes. I know you tried not to ask but you always wanted to know if I would be coming to visit and when. I know it saddened you when I had to say that I wouldn’t be able to come visit until later. Sometimes I would hear the regret in your voice that you were no longer able to come to see us anymore but I would say, that’s OK we would come to visit you. Later.

If I wanted to discuss something from the past it seemed like you couldn’t remember what I was referring to or maybe it was just that you  didn’t want to remember that long ago. Your days had become a routine of indignities and infirmities and I think you were trying to protect me from hearing about them – to keep me from worrying. And you were always trying to be positive and cheerful too. You would never tell me if you had fallen or hurt yourself. I often found that out much later. I was so glad when you met Marty. The world changed then for you. You had something to look forward to each day and to brighten your life. And when it got really tough the last year, he was always there to be with you. I am so grateful for that. You weren’t so alone.

Its summer now, I’m on vacation and we are at our summer place. A few days ago I was wearing a short-sleeved, navy blue cotton cardigan over my tank top. That was also yours – found in your closet, never worn. I wear it now – its perfect for Swedish summer and I’ll wear the fuschia coat in the winter. That way a part of you is with me all year round.

Jan 4 2012


Today was my mother’s funeral. The service was at Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Wrightstown, NJ, where she will be buried alongside my father. It was a very cold, crisp day but sunny. Here is the eulogy I spoke at the service.

My mother was an artist.

Unfortunately, she was born into a time and a family where being an artist was a luxury that a girl couldn’t afford. The time was the Great Depression and the family was ruled by my grandmother Bertha Littman. When Mom was a young girl, getting a new dress that cost a whole 5 dollars was a major expense and she felt grateful that her parents bought it for her.

WWII was just ending when my mother was about to graduate from High School. She considered the possibility of going on to Cooper Union, an art college in New York City that you didn’t have to pay for. But you had to take a test and you had to have a portfolio to show in order to get in. And you had to believe in yourself. But if you had a mother who believed that the only thing a girl should do was get married, then what was the point of going to College? So, being the good girl who listened to her mother, my mom got a job right after high school and packed away any dreams she had of art school.

She went to work as a secretary for the Navy department and continued to live at home, contributing to the family budget with her salary. But a fellow co-worker suggested they run off and enlist in the Navy, in the women’s division known as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She considered it but she had just met my dad and she had my grandmother breathing down her neck with so? so? So instead of going off to see the world she got married and settled down in Jersey City, New Jersey.

7 years later the family moved to Budd Lake in Northern Jersey and there, my mom stayed for the next 34 years. She wasnt idle during those years: she worked full time. She raised 2 kids. She was very active in Temple Shalom, the Reform Synagogue which my parents helped form, several times holding the post of president of the Sisterhood and working hard to raise money to erect a building to house the new congregation.

But she never really forgot the art thing. When I went off to Pratt to study art I think, in a way, I fulfilled the dream she once had for herself. But she used her visual creativity in other ways. She, with my dad’s help, totally transformed the house in Budd Lake after we kids moved out. She used materials in unusual ways. I remember back in the 60s helping her hang wallpaper on the ceiling of our dining room. What a job that was – so unusual and it looked great. She hung exterior wall lamps on a textured, bright red living room wall creating an exciting focal point. She had my dad put up ceramic tile on counter tops in the dining room. Each piece of furniture she chose was different but everything blended together to make a beautiful unified whole. She did the same thing when she and my dad moved to their new home in Homestead. She had the ideas and my dad with his meticulous craftsmanship made it happen. I think she could have been a very successful interior designer in a different life.

I think of her and the generations that have gone before her. Our generations overlap. They are like a part of a revolving relay race through time. Each generation handing on the baton to the next. There on the track ahead of me has been my mom. She had the baton. She got it from her mother. I see mom coming around the bend. I enter the track, jogging towards the hand-off zone. We both run together for awhile until finally, the time is right and Mom hands the baton off to me. I’m off! Running my race through Art School, then life in New York City, then the really big curve – moving to Stockholm. Mom, of course, doesn’t stop running immediately after the hand-off. She keeps on going, slowing down gently, but still running along, until she slows down to stand on the sidelines cheering me on as I run my race. But now my mom is gone. Her race is done.

My mother loved ice cream. She loved potatos. Mah Jongg was her life-long passion. I remember as a child falling asleep to the sound of the tiles being shuffled downstairs in the living room. She liked reading. She liked to write. She wasnt so interested in sitting and discussing the big questions of life that I often tried to engage her in. She would rather be doing things with people. At the end of her life she got to do something she really enjoyed. She edited the Monroe Village Residents newsletter for 18 months. In that she got to write, to fix other peoples articles, to layout the pages and to draw the covers.me and mom

I remember way back in High school I had to read a novel called ”The Bridge of San Luis Rey” by Thornton Wilder. Now 40 some odd years later, I admit that I no longer remember any characters from the book or what even happened in it. But through all these years, the central theme of that novel has always remained with me: No one is truly dead and gone as long as there is still someone left who loves and remembers them.

I love you mom.