Jul 19 2018

Summer 2018

To simply sit. To do absolutely nothing.

The air outside is warm – so warm that I don’t feel it surrounding my bare skin. I should get up and do something; sweep the deck clear of all the brown dried pine needles, put away the wood sander, coil the garden hose back on its holder, wash the dinner dishes from last night. So much that could be done. But I don’t move. The chair cushion is soft and encompassing, almost too warm under the shadow of the umbrella spreading its rust-tinged grey fabric over me. I don’t want to move.

High above me, in the upper reaches of the trees, the sunlit, dry and yellowing leaves of the birches flutter in a breeze that barely works its way lower, to move my hair against my neck and whisk away the dampness from my skin.

One time Jersey girl that I am, I close my eyes and imagine that the sound which the leaves make as they rustle against each other is the sound of salt water boiling up against the wide white sand of the Jersey shoreline. All that is lacking is the rhythmic pounding of the waves. But I can pretend, can’t I?

Last week, we washed the dirty grey from the deck’s wide boards. They look almost new-laid except for the uneven warping and dry fissures that give away the fact that they’ve been there a long time. In the sun, the wood is almost too hot to stand on with bare feet. They remind me of the Boardwalk, running along the Brooklyn beaches from Brighton to Coney Island, that I walked on with Grandma long ago. If I descend the staircase leading from the deck, will I arrive at the dry patchy grass of our sorry excuse of a lawn or to the blinding hot, white sand which leads to the far away water’s edge? My eyes are closed. Who can tell what I will find?

I still remember the summer of 1997. My son was only six years old then. We had an inflatable wading pool, nestled on top of the uneven moss and grass-covered rock below our tiny cottage, for him to splash around in. The summer was hot and long and dry. I emptied everything out of the mildewed tool shed, laying all the junk on a tarp spread on dried moss, without fear of anything getting rained on and wet – it hardly ever rained that summer. All summer, my husband and son spent hours lying in a hammock suspended between two birch trees, using paddles to swing themselves back and forth, pretending to be sailors on the open sea. That was also the summer we built our Friggebod. Or at least, the carpenters we hired built it. For many years, it was the only mold-free house on our property.

One of the birch trees gave up and died many years ago. We no longer have a good place to hang the hammock,so it sits rolled up on a shelf, in the over-crowded and still musty tool shed.

Five or ten years from now, I’ll sit with a cup of tea in my hands and remind friends of the summer of 2018 – how long it was, how hot it was, how sunny it was, and how dry it was. How wonderful it was. Hopefully, it will be the occasional exception to the rule, worthy of remembering and not become the expected normal Swedish summer.

It rained this year on Midsommar afton. It was practically the only rain we have had all summer. But, then, what would Swedish Midsommar be without a little rain?


Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com 


Jan 28 2011

Choices

“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.


Jul 25 2010

Family

You can pick your nose.
And you can pick your friends.
But you can’t pick your friends’ nose.
That rhyme has rattled around in my head ever since I was a little kid. I don’t know why. So much other stuff doesn’t seem to be able to stay in there but that little ditty does. I always thought it was funny for some reason. The idea of picking one’s friends. It’s not the same with family. You can’t pick your family. They become attached to you the moment you are born. And they follow you for the rest of their lives. When I was much, much younger I used to wish that we could also pick family. One goes through a certain period of one’s life when FAMILY is either embarrassing, annoying or just plain irritating. It isn’t until you move far away from them that you realize just how important FAMILY really is.
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Apr 16 2010

Back to the country

Last weekend, we drove out to our house in the countryside. It was the first time we had been there since winter started. November had been unusually warm and we waited till almost the end of the month to finally close up the place. Since we didn’t want to be paying for more electricity than necessary during the winter, we lowered the thermometers on the radiators to the lowest possible temperature, a few degrees above freezing, and we said goodbye till spring. Because we only have running water in the summer and that comes to us pumped up from a lake a few minutes away, the place is truly only a summer house. The water is only for washing and the pump needs to be taken out of the lake before it has a chance to freeze. Drinking water we have to get from a hand pump down the road. Our toilet facilities are equally antiquated – just an outhouse, which isn’t so much fun to use in the winter.

This winter, however, was one of the worst I can remember in the almost 30 years since I first came to Sweden. As soon as December started, it hit us with a fury. All through December, January, February, and even into March, temperatures rarely rose above freezing, often being far below and we have been covered with deep snow continuously even into April. So as we drove out to Stavsnäs, we were wondering how it was there. Here in the city, except for small patches on northern slopes and the slowly shrinking piles left from the snow plows, most of the snow is gone. But as we drove east towards the Stockholm archipelago, we saw more and more snow cover still on the ground.
driveway
At the bottom of the driveway is a mound of snow blocking our entry but after a couple of attempts, we get the car over the mound and drive up the hill. A soggy winter wonderland meets our eyes! In the middle of the property is a half-frozen lake. Puddles, ice and snow greeted us.We see patches of deep snow in some places and bare ground or rock in others. Going from one place to another means hopping from one semi-dry patch to another semi-dry patch. Poor judgment results in wet feet but we make it to the house.

snow piled up on the deck under the roofOn the deck, in a line parallel to the house, just under the edge of the roof, is a high pile of snow. It’s what’s left from the snow that slid off the roof, probably all at once, when the weather got a bit warmer and the melting started. On the other side of the house is a similar pile and on that pile lies the steel-plate chimney that surrounded the kitchen fan’s exhaust pipe. The pipe itself is still on the roof but bent double. chimneyThe chimney however, is a mangled piece of metal. It seems that the heavy mass of snow, as it slid off the roof took the chimney with it. We go inside to see if there was any water damage there but the wooden inner ceiling and the hole around the pipe seem OK. That’s a relief. We spend the rest of the afternoon spreading a tarp over the hole and tying it down till we have time to come out and do something more permanent about it. We will definitely be buying a new chimney. Oh, the joys of owning a house. Everyone we talked to about it, kept saying that we are supposed to periodically shovel the snow off the roof. Who wants to shovel snow off a roof?! That’s what I like about living in an apartment building in a city. Someone else gets to take care of that kind of stuff.

After a short walk all around the property to see if any trees have fallen down on anything important, we get into the car and head back to civilization.