Oct 7 2011

A good man

October 15 is the yahrtzeit or anniversary of my father’s death. He died in 1997. My mother called me here in Sweden a few days before, to tell me that the doctors had said there was nothing more they could do for him and she had decided to unhook him from the machines he was attached to. My husband booked me on a flight to the States the next day. Mom picked me up at Newark airport and we drove directly to the hospital. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sitting there next to my dad, holding his hand. I don’t know if he knew if I was there or not, but I like to think he had been waiting till I came. That night, sometime around midnight or so, the hospital called to say my dad, Milton Cutler, had peacefully passed away.

me and my dad

me and my dad

While my mom kept herself busy making funeral arrangements, I sat down at her computer and wrote a eulogy for my father. I thought those words had been lost long ago on some old hard disk. Recently, while I was helping my mom move, I found a printed copy of the eulogy and brought it home with me to Stockholm. Now on the anniversary of his death 14 years ago I want to give that eulogy once again. Here it is.

My father was not the kind of man who created a stir when he entered a room. He was a little man, almost petite, and spoke softly. He wasn’t the kind of person who could tell riveting stories or captivate an audience. But I remember when I was little, he used to read to me before I went to sleep. He didn’t read to me ordinary run-of-the-mill bedtime stories. He read me Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and Aku Aku, the book about the statues on Easter Island. He liked those kind of stories and that was what he found interesting to read to me. For my tenth birthday I received a subscription to National Geographic from him and long after I moved away from home, the issues kept coming every month to the house, with my name on them, but not really for me.

He also loved Science Fiction and that love I’ve inherited. I read my first Sci Fi book when I was 11 – The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, it was Daddy’s book. After that I read every Sci Fi book Daddy had till I started to buy my own.

He was a quiet man who rarely voiced his own opinions or demanded to have things his way. I think he came from a generation for whom the expression “self-fulfillment” would cause a feeling of discomfort and the idea of “doing your own thing” was an alien concept. For him, it was more important, to do the right thing. He didn’t drink, he didn’t gamble, he didn’t chase after women. His life wasn’t easy but he stuck with it. He worked hard and tried to give the people he loved in his life as much as he was able to. And when his time came, there wasn’t much time left to do the things he had wanted to do.

My father was one of those small, inconsequential men that the world out there doesn’t take much notice of. But he was a good man and in this day and age, just simply being a good man is something worthy of our respect, deserving of our praise and should be cherished in our memories.

Jun 29 2011

The big six oh

Tomorrow I am going to be 60! How did I get this old? Where did all the time go? I still remember the days when I lived in Brooklyn, when the slogan going around at that time was, “Never trust anyone over 30.” For that reason, my thirtieth birthday was a hard one for me. But it was alleviated by the fact that I spent it on a sailboat out in the Stockholm archipelago. It was my first visit to Sweden. A man named Håkan took me sailing for a week and he gave me a box of chocolate with a picture of Silvia, the Queen of Sweden, on it. That was a great birthday, in spite of my no longer being trustworthy. And that birthday was 30 years ago. I’ve spent 30 years of my life connected to Sweden. And now I sit, out at our country place in Stavsnäs, in the little house that was the original house on the property, typing these words. My husband, the same Håkan from that sailboat ride, and my son are just across the yard in the newer, bigger house we built together. Probably wondering why am I sitting out there and why am I staying up so late. Actually, probably not. My son is sitting peeled to his computer screen and definitely isn’t thinking of me and I can see my husband watching TV.

A bunch of friends, most of them part of the “family” that I created here for myself, think I should have a big party to celebrate. A number of them have had big blowout celebrations for their 50th birthdays, recently. (Most of them are younger than me, you see.) But to celebrate what? That I’m not dead yet? I feel sort of dead though. I feel like I’m at some sort of crossroads, with so many different things all tugging at me, trying to pull me in so many different directions. I want to yell STOP! Leave me alone! But life doesn”t do that. All that tugging and pulling is what life is about.

A like-aged friend from childhood, told me about a birthday party she recently attended. The theme of the party was “I Am 60 Going on 17”. I love that idea. In a way that’s how I feel – like a teenager all over again. Like during my teenage years, my body is metamorphasing into something I don’t recognize. And its not a good thing, let me tell you. The hair that I used to have to shave off my thighs is gone now. Great you might say but it seems to have moved over to my chin and upper lip. Who asked for that? And when I spent my teenage years waiting for all those new bulges to appear, it seems like they are now appearing but in all the wrong places! But the main similarity with teen years lies in those big questions: Who am I? What do I want to do with the rest of my life? What do I want to be when I grow up (or older?) I’ve given up on the growing up thing. I didn’t want to when I was 10 and I don’t think I want to even now.

Some of my friends in my age bracket talk about how they are so looking forward to retirement. But what does that mean? To stop working and spend time playing golf? I hate golf! And to stop working is something I cant imagine. Its like declaring that what I spent my life doing wasn’t worth anything. Maybe if I worked on an assembly line or in the post office sorting mail all day I might want to stop doing that. But what I work at is what I do, its who I am. I want to be able to continue doing it till my hands freeze-up from arthritis or my mind stops working. So imagining retirement doesn’t take up a lot of my time.

Other questions do though. What is my role as a mother to my son, now that he doesn’t need me so much? I spent 20 years being a mother. How do you just stop being one? How do I reinvent my couple-ness with my husband? How do we become a twosome again? And then, there is my roll as a daughter to think about. How do I help my mother as she ages? What do I need to do for her? How do I offer my help without making her feel like she is losing her independence and self-reliance? And how do I do it from so far away as I am?

Mother, daughter, wife, artist, creator, friend. All of these things are pulling at me, tugging me into the future, putting demands on me to make decisions, to be responsible. But I don’t know what to decide. I don’t know where I’m going.I don’t know what to choose. Who the hell is this person?
All I know is that I want to eat princesstårta on my birthday. Cake made of layers of whipped cream and yellow cake with light green marzipan smoothly covering it and a yellow marzipan rose on top. That’s what I want for my Birthday – the big six oh.

And now its the next day. While I was writing this the clock turned over to June 29. And now I am 60.

Apr 3 2011

The relay race

My mother was recently in the hospital. She’s back home now, but not really home, not in her own apartment but in the rehabilitation health-care center of the independent-living facility that she has been living in for the past two years or so. It seems she had a pelvic fracture and had trouble standing up or walking. So she is there for them to look after her and give her physical therapy to help her heal. When they are not busy torturing her with exercise she spends most of her time in bed watching the television. I call her most every day and talk to her, ask her how she is doing, telling her about small things happening here in my home. Its really all I can do, living so far away. She sounds tired as I talk to her. She still manages to be cheerful but often she sounds tired. Anyone who has had to spend more than a few days in bed just watching TV knows how tiring that gets to be after awhile. You start wanting to be able to leave the bed and get on with your life. Start doing things again. But doing things has been getting harder and harder for her to do.

Talking to my mom makes me think of my grandmother. Not that my mom is anything like Grandma, she is definitely much nicer than my grandmother ever was. But the tired thing. It reminds me.

I remember a day, standing in front of the large bathroom mirror in my parents house with Grandma, looking at our reflections. We were dressed up for some holiday family get together. Grandma is in her 80s. She looks at herself and says she doesn’t recognize the person she sees there. She doesn’t feel as old as that person looks. She talks about how she used to be as strong as an ox but not anymore. I didn’t really understand what she meant then. After all, I was barely 30, strong and healthy, still.

I recognize my grandmother in the black and white photographs that I have from her. I see her in my mind’s eye in the story she told of herself, newly arrived and processed at Ellis Island after her 2 week-long journey from Poland in 1920. She was 20 years old then, just a few months older than my son is now. She sees her brother Nathan, standing there in the large hall, tall and well dressed, waiting for her. She runs into his arms, knocking off his bowler hat in the process. Her life is just starting. She has almost a decade of good years after that, and then the Depression starts. Her married life during the 1930’s, her thirties, bring with it all the years of economic hardship, but she struggled through it. Followed closely by the 1940s and the discovery that almost all of her family left behind in Poland were gone. In 1948, she and Grandpa made a nice wedding for their daughter and saw Evelyn start her life as an adult with my dad.

I didn’t know Grandma then. I was born when she was already in her 50s and probably younger than I am now. I can remember her loudly arguing in Yiddish with Grandpa in their kitchen in their house in Budd Lake. I was over their house when I was a kid, playing in the backyard. I saw a snake crawling through the grass. I ran into the house screaming, afraid of the snake. My grandmother ran out, grabbed a hoe and killed the snake. I thought she was the strongest and bravest person I had ever met. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old.

I think of my mom. I turn over in my mind, memories of her, mind photos you could call them. I think of her when she was a young woman and I was just a kid, in her 30s and 40s, active, working, volunteering, raising children. Competent, taking care of things. Getting on with her life. I knew her then but didn’t give her much thought. She was my mother. I took her for granted. When I was 18, my father and mother drove me off to Brooklyn with all my transportable belongings and delivered me to the dormitory at Pratt – starting me on my journey towards adulthood. They continued on their trip back home to Budd Lake to live their life, to retire, to move to a new home in Columbus, New Jersey, taking with them boxes of my stuff I had left with them in Budd Lake.

I’ve known four generations of my family now – Grandma Bertha, my mom Evelyn, myself of course and now my son. I’ve seen these generations as they go by. I’m 10 years older now than my grandmother was when I was born. I’m almost the same age as my mom was when I moved to Sweden. I’m at the age I am now as my son is starting his first tentative steps into adult life. Our generations overlap. They are like a part of a revolving relay race through time. Each generation handing on the baton to the next. A real relay race has an actual begininning, at the sound of the starter’s pistol. But this generational relay race has no real beginning – before my grandmother started, there were her parents and before them more parents; and hopefully, it has no end, though sometimes it does when the next generation isnt born. But my personal race has a beginning. It started with the oldest family member that I actually got to know – my grandmother and is continuing with my son. That is my snippet of the eternal ever-revolving relay.

In my snippet, my grandmother stands at the starting line, waiting for the sound of the gun. Off she goes, running as fast and as strongly as she can. Sometimes the path is straight and easy, sometimes it’s curving and difficult but she keeps on going. There ahead of her she sees the next member of her team. That’s my mom – there, jogging along the track in the hand-off zone. They run together for awhile, both running strong, working together. And there it is – the hand-off! Now its Mom who has the baton. She’s in the field now, running her own race. Grandma of course doesn’t stop running immediately after the hand-off. She keeps on going, slowing down gently, but still running along. Now Moms coming around the bend. I enter the track, start jogging in the hand-off zone. We both run together until finally, the time is right and Mom hands me the baton. I’m off! Running my race through Art School in Brooklyn, then life in New York City, then the big curve – moving to Stockholm. I’m now approaching the next hand-off zone. I see him there entering the field, my son Bevin. He’s starting to jog while I come up along side him. We run together a good pace while he comes up to speed. Soon, very soon, I will hand him the baton and he will be off on his own race as I wind down, slowing my pace, preparing myself to stand on the sidelines cheering him on, as my Mom is now doing for me.

This race of ours is a good one, as we all make it around our track in our individual legs of our journey. I hope my son gets to run a good race on his leg of the track and as he runs, remembers the runners he has met that have helped to hand him the baton.

Jan 28 2011


“You shouldn’t feel guilty for not being there to help her. You shouldn’t feel guilty that she is ill and elderly and alone, without family near her or many friends nearby. She made her choices and you do what you are able to do, when you can do it, to help her as much as you can. She’s where she is because of the choices she made.” This is what a friend told me recently.

But what kind of choices do we make in our lives? How much thought do we give them? How free to choose are we? And how responsible are we for our own choices and the choices of those near and dear? And even those far away?

I go into the supermarket to buy food for dinner. If I’m just coming home from working hard all day at my job and its getting late and I’m tired, Ill be looking for something quick and easy to make. Perhaps I buy a package of Bratwurst, enough for all of us and a box of instant mashed rutabaga. The bratwurst just goes in under the broiler for 10/20 minutes and the powered rutabaga only needs to be poured into boiling water and stirred and allowed to sit for 5 minutes. Voila! A tasty meal in under a half hour. Add some sliced raw carrots and you are all done.

But if I know that Ill be home most of the day and can spend some time and energy on making dinner then I will buy a different sort of ingredients. Perhaps I want to spend the time making a stew or even a roast. Maybe with a creamy potato casserole to go alongside the roast. For those kinds of meals I buy different ingredients. For the stew, I need to get enough stewing meat, a lot of nice potatoes, a bag of carrots, some onions, preferably the red kind, and maybe even mushrooms. For the roast and casserole I need to find a nice chunk of beef, a bag of potatoes, onions, cream, and a nice cheese to grate into the casserole. Ill also pick up veggies to include in a good salad and maybe even stop off at the local bakery to pick up a nice crusty fresh baked bread.

But for all three of these meals, the fast food and the slow food, I’m required to make choices. For the slow food dinners I might use a cookbook to guide me. It will tell me how long the roast should be in the oven and what temperature for it to come out good. For the fast food, I might read the ingredients on the package of the bratwurst and decide which brand of bratwurst based on what it says on the package. The box of rutabaga will give me instructions on the side of the box and might even give me ideas how to improve it.

But where’s the instructions for life? Where’s the cookbook that tells us what to do, in what order so that when we’ve cooked our life we haven’t burned the meal and ended up hungry?

When I moved to Sweden 23 years ago, both my parents were still alive, still living in the house I grew up in and still working. I admit I didn’t give them much thought when I decided to move so far away. I was more concerned about leaving my friends behind. Now things are different. My dad is gone since 1997 and my mom has moved twice since I moved to Sweden. The 10 years she and my dad had at the 55+ place called Homestead were good years for them and the 10 years there after my dad died were also pretty good. She had lots of friends and activities to keep her busy and I would come to visit once a year, usually dragging my family with me. Two years or so ago, she graduated from Homestead’s 55+ to Independent Living at Monroe Village. There she started off her stay by editing the Resident’s Newsletter, following a life-long love of writing, and she met Marty. Life was good and still independent was a key idea. But last week she ended up in the hospital because she had trouble walking. Now she is spending some time in Monroe Village’s health care center where they can keep a close eye on her and give her physical therapy to get her legs working again. I try to call her everyday. But life in the health care center is pretty boring. While she still sounds cheerful when I talk to her, she also sounds tired. Like life is getting too complicated, with all the medicines, and doctors and feeling in pain and not being able to walk or be in her own apartment. And I feel guilty that I’m not there to be of help to her. And here we come back to the choices we make in life.

I don’t mean only my choice to move to Sweden but also my mother’s choice to live where she lives. She chose long ago to live in Budd Lake NJ. That was pretty far from much of her family which were centered closer to New York. But it wasn’t really her own choice. It was made more by her parents who had bought a summer cottage there and eventually both my parents and grandparents decided to permanently move there – away from the rest of the family. Then when my grandmother died, my folks found Homestead and moved there, even further away from New York. But they loved living there so it was a good choice and an independent choice. Now she lives where she lives. Still independent.

And I feel guilty that I am so far away.