Nov 27 2014

Giving thanks

Today is Thanksgiving. At least in the United States it is. And it is one of my very most favorite holidays.

When I moved to Stockholm over 27 years ago, I made a vow that I would celebrate Thanksgiving here every year, with a big turkey and all the fixings. I couldn’t do it on the normal Thursday it was celebrated because that was an ordinary working day for those of us living here in Sweden so I did it on Saturday. For my very first Swedish thanksgiving, I had to special order a turkey. Large turkeys on the American Thanksgiving scale were extremely rare here. I went to Östermalms Saluhall, a pricy, old fashioned food hall. There they had a shop that sold all sorts of fresh fowl. When I placed my order with the clerk he asked me how large I wanted my large turkey to be. He suggested an 11 kilo bird and I could come and pick it up the next week. Now you have to understand that at this time I had only lived in Sweden for less than a year and my grasp of the metric system was a bit hazy and 11 kilos sounded like a small, reasonable size. After all, I was used to my mom’s 24 to 26 lb turkeys from my past. Well, imagine my surprise a week later when I went to collect my bird. 11 kilos is about equal to 24 lbs! I barely managed to lug it home on the subway. It barely fit in my small apartment stove – the pan sat on the bottom of the oven and the stuffed bird had less than half an inch of clearance all around it. But it all worked out. We invited 2 other Swedish/American couples to share our Thanksgiving with us and we had leftovers to keep us happy for a long time.

Since that first time, I have made a bird every year but one. Some years I only roasted the bird and then Håkan and I drove it and ourselves to someone else’s apartment or house which was bigger than our little 1-bedroom place. After we enlarged our apartment 15 years ago, I have only had to move the turkey from the oven to the kitchen counter. Every year we invite the two families we have known since Bevin was little and who have kids he counts as friends. And each year we add a couple of others to fill out our table.

The one year I missed was the year Bevin was born. He came along in November and we were so stressed with our newborn we had no time or energy to think about dealing with a turkey that was bigger than our new little darling.

And today is Thanksgiving once again. I haven’t ordered a turkey this year. I told our friends there would be no invitation to sit around our table with us this weekend. Like that November day 23 years ago, I’m not up to doing a big shindig. Tomorrow, Friday, Håkan is coming home, after almost 2 months of being in hospital and rehab. So our little family is going to take it easy this weekend. Maybe I’ll just buy a large fresh turkey breast and some sweet potatoes and make some gravy – just for the three of us – for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Because this year, at this time, I am really very thankful.

Apr 11 2013


It’s now been 26 years since I left New York City and moved to Stockholm, leaving behind friends and family. For the past 15 years, I have been celebrating Jewish holidays here with a group of Jewish/American/Swedish families which, except for some occasional changes, have stayed pretty much the same. When we first started gathering, most of our kids were about the same young age. Now, a number of those kids are no longer kids but young adults starting their journey of independent life.  Throughout the years, we have tried to gather together each year to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover. This year we managed it once again. Everyone contributes something to the evening and I’m the one who assigns out the jobs – what to bring, who helps with what, etc. I am also the one who leads the service. I usually try to say a few words before starting the age-old ritual of telling the story of the Exodus to our children. The following is what I said this year.

Hi Everyone,

I am very glad to see you all here. Just in case no one remembers, I’ll remind you all that I usually like to tell a little story as an introduction to our Seder celebration. Last year, we didn’t have a Seder because it was fairly recently after my mother died and I didn’t feel up to organizing one.

I wasn’t sure if I was up to it this year either but here we are. I seem to have learned something this year and I think it relates to the reason we are here now, today and I want to tell you about it. One of the main characters, in the story we are about to tell, is this guy named Moses. Now while Moses ended up becoming a great leader of his people, he was far from perfect. He had a temper, got mad at things which he thought weren’t right, and wanted things to be done the way he thought they should be done (or depending on what you believe, the way God told him they should be done). Well, the past few weeks I’ve been feeling a bit like Moses. And I want to explain why.

This year the process of getting all of us to this place, here, this evening, had quite a few twists and turns. When I first floated the idea of doing our Seder again this year, I was very hesitant, but I was told “Don’t worry Hilarie, you don’t have to do it alone. We will help you.”  So I gathered my strength and decided to go ahead with it.

In an effort to be democratic and not dictatorial I asked which day would the group prefer to meet – Thursday or Friday. Pretty much everyone, except Janet (who told me she had to work a half day that Thursday) said both days would work fine. So in trying to be considerate towards Carly’s plans for vacation, the Shevin’s plans for the countryside, Risa’s undecided vacation plans, Marina’s busy schedule and Barbara’s, too, I choose Thursday. But then 2 weeks later, after I’ve sent out the plans for the day, suddenly everyone is coming back with telling me that they are working on Thursday. And will be late, and don’t have time, and can’t do the complicated things. As I sat there reading these emails, I wondered how come no one told me this earlier? Where was all the help that I was promised?

And like Moses I got angry, and annoyed and very disappointed. I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. So last week I spent my whole session at my shrink’s talking about it. First she asks me, “But why do you have to be the one to do all the planning and organizing?” I sat there and looked at her for a while. It’s not the first time I’ve discussed this group with her. Finally I said, “Because it’s my tribe, I’m their Rebbe.” Now like Moses, I too, am far from being a perfect person. One of my less likable traits is that I often have a hard time accepting people as they are. So my shrink listens to what I said, and she sits back and says, “hmmm… But you know these people Hilarie, you know what they are like, who they are, what to expect from them. Why can’t you accept them for what you know they are?” I sat there and suddenly this calm came over me and I realized she was right. And all the anger, the annoyance and the disappointment disappeared. So I set to work to solve whatever problems there were to organize this evening. And here we all are. I am among my family, surrounded by them. 

So let us now start to tell the story of how a much more important, imperfect leader led a very unruly folk out of slavery in Egypt to freedom.

And we did. We told the story of freedom, we asked the 4 questions, we talked about the 4 types of people and we blessed 4 glasses of wine. And then when the ritual was all over we served up the dinner and ate, food from our memories – hard boiled eggs, gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzah balls, lamb with roasted potatoes and parsnips and lots of desserts. Our children ate and talked and joked with each other like cousins. And these friends, these parents, these new “siblings” that I have gathered and brought together to eat with me and share with me. My minyan, my Jewish family here in Stockholm. And it was a very good Seder.

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.

Dec 22 2011


Tuesday, December 20 – the 12th day I am here with my mom and the first night of Chanukah. And I am not with my son or husband this year to take out the candles and organize the celebration or even to make latkes. But my husband called me on SKYPE and asked where the menorah was and if there were any candles. I told him where the menorah was kept and that candles were in the same place. So after about 15 minutes he SKYPED me again and I could join them for the Chanukah candle lighting and watch Bevin say the prayer. Its a Star Trek world and videophone is alive and well. But as far as latkes are concerned they will probably have to wait till I get back home.

Last night I met with my mom’s doctor. I want him to tell me how my mom is. Actually, I want him to play God – to know how long she has left, to tell me for certain. But he isn’t God – just an ordinary, geriatric specialist type of doctor and he doesn’t know. I asked him if we could take a few blood tests to see how her body chemistry is but he said if we do that and discover how badly she is doing then he would have to do something to try to fix it. Because he is a doctor. So we will just let her be, let her body do what it has to do.

So I wait. I sit in her room, sometimes next to her bed, sometimes in front of my computer. I help to feed her. She is given puréed food now. She would at least open her mouth when she felt the spoon near her lips. But now she is hard to wake up for meals. She sleeps. Peacefully. Seemingly without pain. And I wait.

December 30th keeps coming closer. That’s the date on my return ticket. Whenever I think about it I get very anxious. Worried. Scared. What will I do if she keeps continuing this way? I can change my ticket but not for too much longer than that – I have a job I need to get back to. A life. Do I leave, only to have to return a week later? Do I stay longer but its still not long enough? I can feel the anxiety building. So once again, I tell myself “One day at a time, just take it one day at a time.”

And tonight has become Wednesday already, the second night of Chanukah, commemorating God’s miracle of light.

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.