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 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?


Feb 25 2018

Minyan

My minyan - from a while back
My minyan – a while back


Minyan is the Hebrew word for a quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations. The most common activity requiring a minyan is public prayer.

According to the Orthodox view a Minyan requires 10 Jewish men to be official. The Reform movement says it only needs to be 10 Jewish adults, either male or female.  I’m on the side of the Reform movement and I feel I can be flexible as to the number 10.

Rosh Hashanah was just around the corner. This is the Jewish holiday celebrating the arrival of the Jewish New Year. It comes around just as the leaves start to change color every fall but it’s not always on the same day in the ordinary calendar so it can be hard to keep track of, if you are not actually looking for it. Together with Yom Kippur, it is one of the most important of the Jewish holidays. It’s usually celebrated with other Jews by going to synagogue, to pray together. When I was a kid, I would be dragged along by my parents to the relatively new Reform synagogue they were members of. In my early twenties, I would sometimes come home to visit my folks for Rosh Hashanah and spend the day with them in synagogue. After services, when we got home in the afternoon, we would eat dinner together. I never belonged to a congregation when I lived in New York – didn’t seem to feel the need for it then – I had my family to be with.

The notion of family has always been important to me. In my twenties, I might not have wanted to admit that to myself. At that point in my life, it was friends that seemed to matter more. And… it wasn’t like I came from a family that was all warm and encouraging and accepting, building self-confidence and creating harmony, kind and loving. No, my family was none of that, though occasionally, some of those things peeked out when the coast was clear.  We weren’t a very big family, just my parents and me and my brother and my mom’s brother and his wife and their kids and of course, Bertha, my maternal Grandmother. My family was a typical Jewish family, loud and noisy and opinionated and not too accomplished when it came to diplomatic skillsets. As my mother used to say about her mother, “Bertha always thought it was better to give a knock than a praise.” Maybe that was good though. It made you strong – able to take it. It certainly didn’t build self-confidence though. But you did learn to talk back and speak up….eventually. That was, after all, your only defense. So, family gatherings were often loud argumentative affairs with people talking all at once, no one listening, no one given the time to finish a sentence and often someone’s feelings getting hurt and ending up crying in the bathroom. Those were the good gatherings. Sometimes, you just remained at the table, cowering, hoping no one noticed you. And no one ever said “I’m sorry.”

But in spite of all this I still wanted to join our family get togethers, especially the big ones, Passover and Thanksgiving. Those holidays were celebrated either in my parent’s home or my uncle and aunt’s home. On smaller holidays such as Mother’s Day, we would all meet up in New York City at Radio City Music Hall and see a show. Then we would drive down to Chinatown for dinner. When we were out in public we were more civilized; though I do remember an interesting argument between my grandmother and her son, my uncle, about how to use chopsticks. I remember sitting there, as others talked about what to order – always a lengthy process – watching the two of them; just waiting for the irritation to build up into an explosion. I really wanted to be sitting at a different table with other diners during that meal.

After us kids started to move out, live on our own, there were less and less gatherings. We still met for Passover and Thanksgiving though. I always took the bus from New York City home to New Jersey, to my folks or to my uncle and aunt’s. But then, I moved to Stockholm and that was a lot longer than any bus ride could take me.

For the first few years I would return once a year – to join my family for Passover in the spring or Thanksgiving in the fall. They would catch me up on what they had been doing and I would tell tales of life in the foreign land called Sweden. In 1988 my cousin Karel hosted the family Passover gathering for the first time, in her small New York City apartment. She showed great bravery in doing that. Our grandmother, Bertha, insisted Karel could not host the Passover Seder because she was still unmarried. And Bertha insisted she would not come to it. Karel ultimately managed to squeeze a lot of people into that space. We weren’t a very jolly bunch that year due to the fact that Grandma Bertha had died just three days prior to the event. The funeral had been the day before. So, we sat there, reading our Haggadahs and eating our chicken soup and matzah balls, feeling the lack of our Matriarch who had made us feel Jewish with her Yiddish accent. Luckily for us, my cousin had a two hour long video tape of an “interview” she had done with Grandma just six months earlier. We all sat and watched it while we drank our coffee and ate our flour-free desserts. “Why are you so late? What kind of jalopy are you driving?” were the first words out of Grandma’s mouth when Karel walked in the door of her apartment. No hello. No how are you. No I’m glad to see you. In the following two hours, Bertha managed to say something uncomplimentary about every single person in that room. We all felt much better after that. Someone summed up the movie by saying, “Yep, that was Grandma.”

The years passed and my son came along. I discovered there was a Jewish Center here in Stockholm and when my kid was a year old I started taking him there to a mother/toddler sing-a-long group once a week. I could speak Swedish by then, though fluent was not a word I would use to describe my skill. I learned to sing baby songs in Swedish. I had no idea they were also in English – well, maybe I recognized the Swedish version of Itsy Bitsy Spider. The older my kid got, the more I started to feel the need for family – Jewish family – on my side of the ocean. And I needed it in English – because Moses said “Let my people go”. He didn’t say “Släpp mitt folk”. So in 1997 when my son was almost 6 years old, I put an ad in the American Woman’s Club magazine saying I was looking for other American Jewish mothers to join me to celebrate Jewish holidays with our small kids. The 6 or 7 women who responded were women who I had met occasionally during the past few years at one thing or another. We always said we should get together but we never did.

Finally that fall, on a dreary grey day, we all met and celebrated Rosh Hashanah together. We started with Tashlich, the ceremony where we “cast our sins into the depths of the sea”. Together with our kids, we walked down to a nearby lake and threw our bread crumbs, symbolizing our sins, into the water. Just as we were about to leave, the sun came out from behind the clouds and shined down on us. I couldn’t have ordered better special effects. I figured God was giving us his approval. Back in my friend’s house, we lit candles and said prayers over challah and apples dipped in honey and sweet red wine, in both English and Hebrew (I had to do some research for that). Then we ate chicken soup, and brisket and chicken with honeyed almonds and sweet noodle kugel and teiglach. All made from Jewish recipes we had to look up because most of us had never bothered to ask our bubbies how to make these dishes. It didn’t matter. They were all wonderful.

That was 20 years ago and we have been meeting to celebrate the New Year and other holidays ever since. My baby boy is now a tall thin, 26 year old computer programmer with a full time job and I am retired. I named my group Jewish American Parents in Stockholm or J.A.P.S. for short. Through the years, we have joined together to read the Haggadah at Passover Seders. We baked tons of hamantaschen for Purim. We shared an amazing variety of latkes at Chanukah. We tasted cheese blintzes with hallonsylt at Shavuot. And at every holiday, I gathered our kids around me and watched as they pulled out objects relating to that particular holiday from the Holiday Bag; a Lego horse, a wooden apple half, a small portrait of a woman with a crown, a mini menorah, a draidle. I explained to them what each object they were holding stood for and what its significance to that particular holiday was and why we were even celebrating that holiday. (I have to thank Rabbi Google for all the help. I couldn’t have done it without you)

We have also joined together for Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs and school graduation parties. We have consoled each other over dead or dying parents and have rejoiced with each other for birthdays and anniversaries. And we have eaten many, many more helpings of brisket at our cyclical celebrations of Rosh Hashanah. I had found my family. I had created a minyan – on this side of the airplane flight.

This past fall, the leaves were starting to turn color and it was Rosh Hashanah season once again. A few weeks earlier, Janet, one of my J.A.P.S. since the very beginning, texted me to ask what we were doing for Rosh Hashanah this year.  She was the only one who asked. I realized I didn’t really have an answer for her. It wasn’t like I didn’t remember that it was coming up. It was sitting there in front of me like a giant sign on a highway in Kansas. But I just wasn’t feeling very Rosh Hashanah-ish.

Every year I invite my J.A.P.S. to my place for Rosh Hashanah. I live right near water so that makes the bread crumb thing easy. People bring tons of food with them. We go down to the canal in front of my building and throw our sins out to the ducks who greedily eat them up. Then we trek back up to my apartment to say our now memorized blessings over the wine and candles and challah and apples. We eat and schmooze; until the food is done and it’s time to go home. But this year, I didn’t send out any emails asking who can come. I didn’t tell people what time it would start or what food they should bring. My apartment was a mess and I had no desire to clean it for company. I just didn’t feel like doing any of the organizing that I always did to make sure our get-togethers got together.

Throughout all the years we have been meeting, it’s always been me who organizes each event. Regardless of what day the holiday falls on I decide for us to meet on a weekend. That usually helps to assure attendance. First, I send out SAVE THE DATE emails. Then I send out emails asking who can come. A few years ago I started sending the emails directly to the kids who have their own email addresses. They are now old enough to decide for themselves. Often I don’t just ask. I coax and cajole and wheedle them into joining us. I feel it’s important to get as many as possible to come. I organize the symbolic food we need to celebrate the holiday and the food we just eat and I suggest who should bring what, based on understanding of each individual’s cooking skills. The Holiday Bag no longer appears – the teens started to revolt – so I stopped with that. And to be honest, I now have trouble remembering all that information I once taught them, so it’s easier not to bother. So… mostly… now we just gather together with all our food, say the blessings and then we eat. (and schmooze of course. It wouldn’t be Jewish if there wasn’t a lot of talking) I know everyone has a great time and enjoys being with each other in spite of my bully tactics. And it’s usually only at Passover that I get so over-stressed that I start yelling at people. Eventually some brave soul dares to take me by the arm and bring me over to a quiet corner to sit and calm down. But this Rosh Hashanah I was already really tired and I hadn’t even started. I didn’t have the energy to herd cats.

I don’t think any of my J.A.P.S. are particularly Jewish in the sense of religious. They are like me – a pretty secular bunch. But over the years, many of them have said to me how glad they have been that we meet, that I organized these holiday events, that I taught their kids some Jewish knowledge. They appreciate and thank me for what I did for them! I try to respond modestly.  But the truth is I didn’t do it for them at all.

I did it for me! I did it because I wanted a family here. I wanted a small community of English speaking Jews like myself to raise my child in, to be Jewish with. Hilary Clinton wrote “It takes a village” and I built myself a village. I finally understood the meaning of the concept of a minyan. It had nothing really to do with men – and the number 10 is simply an approximate tipping point for being able to build a community. The J.A.P.S. became my Minyan, comprised of Jews and Goys and our children, who I hope learned to feel Jewish because of what I did. I never bothered to count the number of Jewish heads.

But now what? My child is grown. He is as Jewish as I can make him. The members of my Minyan have also become my friends. So I ask myself, “Do I still need a Minyan and how big does it have to be?” Maybe the real question is, “Does my Minyan need me?”

Back in the states, my parents are gone. My Uncle and Aunt are over 80 and not up to having big family events at their home. Some of my cousins have taken over the task of family gatherings, at least for Passover and Thanksgiving. Not being there, I don’t know more than what Facebook tells me as to what other sorts of family shindigs get organized.

At this point in my life I can do pretty much anything I want. So what is it I want? Probably what I always wanted – to be wanted, to feel needed and to feel part of a community.

So instead of the usual big gathering we were just a few. I made a big batch of honeyed chicken and rice. Janet came over with a bag of salad. Her boys came too. Risa came by because she called at the right time. She brought brownies. And Evelin, another of our youngsters dropped by at the last minute. We blessed apples and honey. We ate Challah that Håkan baked. We sat and ate wherever there was room in my messy living room. And as I sat there with the others,  I decided that my Minyan was just the right size.