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.

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.

Jul 25 2010


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 22 2010

Laundry day

I did laundry today.
If you are alive and live in our modern world its safe to assume that you wear clothes. Perhaps, if you live in Florida, you probably wear fewer clothes than if you happen to live in Sweden like me. But since one can’t go around naked you will be wearing clothes of one sort or another. And if you wear clothes there is a really good chance that the clothes you wear will eventually get dirty. And unless you are someone who is a bit strange, you will also eventually want to wash your clothes. That’s what I was doing today. I washed a whole week’s worth of dirty clothes for 3 people.

Many years ago, when I first came to Sweden, I got invited to a dinner party. One of the guests there was a man who had spent some time living in the US. For some reason that I no longer remember, the conversation turned to American washing machines versus Swedish machines. This guy said that he felt that American machines didn’t do a good job washing clothes. After all, they only take 20 or 25 minutes for a complete wash cycle and they don’t have very high water temperatures. I couldn’t take this lying down. I asked him how dirty did he feel that his clothes actually got in this day and age. I said that 150 years ago, when most people worked in the fields, took a bath maybe once a month, and washed their few items of clothing when weather permitted, then, yes, clothes got really dirty and probably were very hard to clean. But today, we sit in offices, rarely working up a sweat, we generally shower every day and we own a lot of clothes, changing them often and washing them frequently. How dirty can they possibly get?

Now an average Swedish washing machine takes about an hour (sometimes more for the higher temperatures) to run through a complete cycle. It uses very little water and can wash at temperatures as high as 90 degrees centigrade (194°f). The wash tumbles around and around banging against the bottom of the drum as it falls down. I likened it to a mechanized version of when women (it was always the women) went down to the riverside to wash clothes by banging them against the rocks near the water. I guess this guy felt that high temperatures, a long wash cycle and hard treatment was what was needed to wash clothes. I think of that discussion each time I turn on a washing machine here.

In my apartment I have one of those washer/dryer towers in the guest bathroom. Not all apartments have them. If you don’t have one then you have to go down to the laundry rooms on the first floor to wash your clothes. In one room there are 3 washing machines in varying sizes and a large tumble dryer. The washing machines are not like the large American top-loaders. They are front loaders and once you close the door and start the machine, if you forgot to put something in, a sock let’s say; well, that’s too bad for the dirty sock – it has to wait for another machine load in order to be washed. In addition to the washing room, there is another room that has a big heat fan blowing into it and plastic-covered cables strung up above my head that you can hang clothes on so they can dry in the heated room. I usually let stuff dry for a bit in the tumble dryer, to get most of the wrinkles out and then hang them up to finish drying in the drying room. My building has a system whereby you book a day and time that you will be doing laundry by locking your laundry room “key” into the appropriate slot. There are 5 available times each day, seven days a week to pick from. It’s not permitted to do laundry after 11pm or before 7am. You might not always get to choose exactly the time that you want to do laundry because someone else’s key might be in the slot you wanted to take. But I guess that’s what you have to put up with if you live in an apartment building. It’s sort of like having to accept living next door to a noisy neighbor.

I started the previous paragraph by saying that I had my own washer/dryer in my apartment. So, if you were paying attention, you probably are wondering why I do laundry down in the laundry room. It’s because I like doing laundry down in the laundry room – or, at least as much as anyone can like doing laundry. Each week, I do anywhere from between 3 loads to as many as 6 loads of laundry. I will have the entire drying room filled with hanging pieces of clothing. I’m very organized about the way I hang stuff up. Things like my underwear that dry easily can be hung up in corners which don’t get a lot of heat. Things like jeans and heavy shirts get hung up right in front of the fan. And I’m very careful how I hang each piece up – I don’t just throw it over the cable. I carefully stretch it out over the cable so it hangs as straight as possible. I have a very strict no-iron policy in my home. If a few minutes in the tumble dryer isn’t enough to get rid of the wrinkles then it doesn’t get bought. If something actually manages to get past the no-iron radar then it rarely gets worn or it gets worn wrinkled.

After a couple of hours hanging in the drying room everything is dry and ready to pluck. Or at least, that is what I imagine I’m doing as I go through the room taking down the dry clothing. I imagine myself walking through an orchard picking apples. I then take the newly washed and plucked clothing to the mangle room. I forgot to mention there is a third room – the room with the mangle in it. The mangel. You wind fabric around a large wooden roller and then it gets rolled between 2 large grey marble slabs, flattening the fabric. A mangle here in Sweden is a machine that is used to press flat bed sheets, pillowcases, curtains, and tablecloths. The one in my mangel room dates back to the 40s when my building was first built. It’s now out of order and I have never used it. But the room has a long table that is perfect for folding clothes on. After folding all the clothes in neat piles I carry everything back to my apartment and I don’t have to think about doing laundry again till next week.

Now if you are still paying attention you will realize that I never said why I don’t use the washing machine in my own apartment. When we renovated our apartment 12 years ago I thought it would be great to have my own washer/dryer. Then I could do laundry when ever I wanted or decided to. And of course I did. I would be doing laundry 2, 3 or even 4 times a week. There was always some form of laundry in process. There might be wet stuff in the washer, drying stuff in the dryer, half dry stuff hanging on the rack, (even up in my apartment I didn’t dry clothes completely in the dryer because they either shrunk or got very wrinkled and I already told you how I felt about ironing), or piles of folded stuff waiting to be put away. I was doing laundry all the time! I was thinking about it all the time. I was at the mercy of dirty clothes! I had lost control of my life. I started to hate the sight of my laundry hampers! Five minutes after one hamper was empty it started to fill up again. I started to feel like the Greek king Sisyphus, doomed to push a huge rock up a mountain only to have it roll down to the bottom so that he would have to do it all over again, day after day. That was when I decided to go back to the peace of the laundry room. I might not always get the exact time I want but its close enough. While it does take me 5 or 6 hours from start to finish, its over in a day and I don’t have to think about laundry for a whole week. With my memory I usually am able to completely forget about dirty laundry until the overflowing hampers remind me that its time again. And if there is some sort of laundry emergency I still have the machines in my bathroom that I can fill up whenever I want to. Once again, I’m in control and for a recovering control freak like me, that’s a good feeling.

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.
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.