My mother’s last funeral / Gunilla Wilhelmsdotter 1949-2017
Today is the day of my mother’s last funeral.
While a funeral is how we all end, this feels very weird and somehow wrong. Not because she died or because she was my mother, but because officiating at funerals is one of the two things I associate most strongly with my mother (the other being “bringing flowers to old people”): She spent several decades as a priest* in the Church of Sweden, and in her small rural town, with its aging population, funerals outnumbered weddings and baptisms considerably.
*There was a lot more to the job than flowers and funerals, but some things simply come across in a more obvious manner to others, children in particular. Funerals also likely took more preparation than, say, baptisms, for the simple reason that is so much more important to say the right things and not say the wrong things. Much of this preparation was done at home.
It has been a long time since I had any major contact with her, mostly because my recollections of my childhood, school years, and family life in Kopparberg (for reasons that she could not control) were mostly negative, sometimes horrible. For my own peace of mind, I had an absolute need to distance myself from that world for a number of years and to build my own life, away from the past. A few attempts to re-connect per letter or email with my mother failed on our having too different interests, personalities, and opinions of how, to the point that contacts always felt like a chore to me, something more done out of duty than out of actual interest. On the rare occasion, we have likely all met someone who is a perfectly fine person, possibly someone loved by most others, but who just happens to be so incompatible with ourselves that interactions are hard or even annoying. In my case, very unfortunately, my mother was one of these rare people.*
*As with several points below, the details do not belong here. However, much of it was directly or indirectly caused by a clash between her extreme extroversion and my extreme introversion. Note that this is not to be confused with the “my parents are annoying/embarrassing/…” that most teenagers go through for a few years.
Still, this is one of the few things in my life that I have a bad conscience about and in which I have been far from a model son. In part out of necessity, true, but also in part because it was so much easier to keep certain chapters closed than to re-open them. I am well aware that my mother put in a larger effort and sacrificed more than most other parents do and that her life was harder than that of most modern Westerners.
Let me talk a little of what she did do (apart from delivering flowers and holding funerals) and what happened in her life:
When I was born, she was twenty-five years old and she and my father were both officers in the Salvation Army. My sister followed two and a half years later. Life in the Salvation Army was frugal*, the budget often tight, and I remember how my mother actually sew clothes for the family to save money. By the time I was four, we had moved twice**, which was an added stress and implied a removal from local friends and co-workers for both my parents, my mother in particular. Friends were very important to my mother and she kept in close contact with some particular friends (like Ruth, who was her assistant for a few years, a long, long time ago) over decades, even after all geographical and workplace connections were long gone.
*The Salvation Army is based on dedication to a higher cause, which includes getting by with less so that the needy can get by at all.
**The Salvation Army shares many aspects with some “ordinary” armies, e.g. in that its personnel is often ordered to re-locate every few years based on what happens to suit the army.
By the time I was five or six, my parents divorced and from here on the problems really started. The divorce was very amicable and little blame can be attached, seeing that my father was gay and eventually had understood that this was not a condition that marriage could cure.*
*I am, admittedly, not certain whether my mother ever knew this. My father only told me two decades later.
However, even an amicable divorce turns the world on its head and causes immense stress—even under normal circumstances. Here the circumstances were not normal: The Salvation Army disapproves of divorce and my parents had to leave their jobs and the apartment the Salvation Army had provided. This caused a further lack of money and yet another up-rooting, with mother and children moving back to my mother’s childhood town of Kopparberg, and my father to Stockholm. To boot, being an officer in the Salvation Army is normally a life-time career, making this worse than losing a regular job; and it requires a multi-year education that brings very little “market value” outside of the Salvation Army, giving my parents a worse starting point than if they had earned the equivalent of a regular Bachelor’s degree.
Once in Kopparberg, things were not easy:
- Employment was scarce and for several years my mother went through a mixture of unemployment and low-paying, temporary jobs. This included a stretch as leader of after-school activities, which lead her to a pun in which she took great delight: Legitimerad lekare.*
*Unfortunately untranslatable, but it is a play on “legitimerad läkare” (roughly, “licensed physician”) and “lek” (“child’s play”, in the literal sense). A Bond fan might similarly have punned on being “licensed to kid”.
I was too young to have very clear recollections or knowledge of our economy, but for quite some time second-hand and hand-me-downs dominated.* The help of her parents (i.e. my grand-parents) and, to a lesser degree, brother, who all had remained in Kopparberg, was certainly essential during the first few years, on both the material and the emotional side.
*However, this was something that we children took in stride and considered perfectly normal, not something that we suffered from—the point is rather the compromises and extra effort my mother had to go through, compared with most other families. I even remember objecting strongly when my mother handed down one of my jackets to my sister: It was my jacket and it should, in due time, be handed down to my children—not to my sister. Today I hear people debating the dangers of childhood “poverty” and how it prevents children from wearing the brand clothes their class-mates wear or how they cannot afford to join a trip abroad with the other children… Go back just another generation or two, or look at some other countries in today’s world, and even what I had might be considered luxury in comparison.
- A further major personal blow fell within just a year or two after the divorce, when her father died very pre-maturely. The emotional distress was, of course, coupled with the removal of one of her two main support pillars. I was too young to know their relationship first hand, but from what I have gathered later I believe that she had an unusually strong connection to him, shown e.g. by her changing her last name to Wilhelmsdotter (“daughter of Wilhelm”) in his honor.
Not long after that, the family dog, which had been with my mother longer than I had, likely since before she married, grew ill and had to be put down.
- Something went very wrong with both my sister and me during these first years, likely largely as a consequence of the many central people disappearing from our lives, in combination with a considerable friction between the two of us. I even had a recurring nightmare of being with my family and again and again, every time I looked away, have one of them disappear until I was all alone—and knowing that whatever had taken them would come for me next. The worst nightmare I have ever had…
Thinking back, we were so horrible that I wonder how my mother could take it. In fact, one of the reasons why I have never founded a family of my own is the fear of ending up as a parent to that type of children. While the money issues eventually passed, these conflicts and problems endured for a very long time. (Including contributing to issues like my distancing myself from my “old” life, as already described, and my sister’s dropping out of high-school and only getting a job and moving away from our mother’s in her late twenties.)
Regrettably, the stress on my mother was something I was too young to understand back then, making the task even harder for her.
(I similar failed to understand the situation of my sister, who was even younger and probably hit even worse by the family losses, especially since I got to spend a lot more time with our father than she did. With hindsight, much of what I saw as pure malice back then might have been nothing more than little girl acting out her distress, possibly even just trying to get attention and interaction.)
Attempting to get back to steady employment and reasonable earnings, my mother took up studies of Theology aiming at priesthood: Four years of studies and long travels, with the university being hours away, while being a single mother—a task that most people would not even attempt.
However, having a good head for studies was one of my mother’s particular prides and failure was not an option: She bit down and got the job done, even when the odds were against her. (As when she had to squeeze in the mandatory class in Classic Greek in half the allotted time—something she liked to brag that her professor had considered impossible.) She traveled, she studied, she graduated. For reasons of geography, she did have to delegate a part of the child rearing to her mother, who stepped in and took care of us for several days a week.
Post-ordination, things improved: The earnings were better; the job was secure; a house was bought (courtesy of the dwindling local population and equally dwindling real-estate prices) as a replacement for the too small, rented apartment; and she found a new husband—-an old friend from the Salvation Army who had been kicked out after his divorce and who had taken up studies for priesthood… (A match made in heaven?)
During the next few years, she grew to be one of the most popular people of the community, smiling, bringing flowers to old people, and gaining friends even when she was holding funerals. She worked hard for the benefit of others as a priest, just as she had as mother. Even with the problematic children and the hard work, this was likely one of the happiest times of her adult life, with exactly the effect on others and the type of recognition that she wanted.
Unfortunately, the rest of her life saw many medical problems that got in the way, starting with a car crash* that broke her leg and might have had a negative effect on her back. Irrespective of the reason, she did develop severe back problems that lead to major surgery, which prevented her from sitting for many months and hampered her ability to work for even longer. Naturally, not being able to sit made car travel hard or, for longer distances, impossible—and for someone living in a rural area of Sweden, travel by car is a necessity for many things. I remember being home from college, likely over Christmas, and finding the living room rearranged to include a hospital bed, allowing my mother to join in the interactions.
*Probably traveling on duty between Kopparberg and Hörken, where she had her main responsibilities, but I could misremember.
She bit down and got through this too, still working hard, but in her early sixties (late fifties?) developed Spinal Stenosis, which is particularly bad in a job that involves a lot of standing and walking. From here on, she was forced to cut back on work considerably, working on a part-time or free-lance basis.
Then came ALS…
ALS patients usually die within just a few years. My mother, unfortunately, was no exception, seeing her life cut short at 67.
And that brings us my mother’s last funeral.