Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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A few thoughts on traditions and Christmas (and some personal memories)

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With Christmas upon us, I find myself thinking about traditions* again. This especially with regard to the Christmas traditions of my childhood, in light of this being the first Christmas after the death of my mother.

*Mostly in the limited sense of things that e.g. are done once a year on the same day or in a certain special manner, and as opposed to the other senses, say the ones in “literary tradition” and “traditional role” .

It has, admittedly, been quite a long while since I “came home for Christmas”, as she would have put it, and, frankly, the circumstances of my family had made Christmases at my mother’s hard for me to enjoy long before that. However, while the practical effect is not very large for me, there is still a psychological difference through the knowledge that some possibilities are permanently gone, that some aspects of those Christmases would be extremely hard to recreate—even aside from the obvious absence of my mother, herself. Take Christmas dinner: Even following the same recipes, different people can end up with different results, and chances are that even a deliberate attempt to recreate “her” version would be at best a poor* approximation—just like it was an approximation of what her mother used to make (and my father’s draws strongly on his childhood Christmas dinners). There is simply yet another connection with those Christmases of old that has been cut. In fact, when I think back on the most memorable, most magical, most wonderful Christmases, there are two versions that pop into my head:

*Note that a poor approximation does not automatically imply a poor effort. The point is rather that there are certain tastes and smells that can be important to us for reasons like familiarity and associations with certain memories, and that there can come a point when they are no longer available. I need look no further than my father to find a better cook than my mother, be it at Christmas or on a weekday; however, his cooking is different, just like his signature is—and even if he deliberately tried to copy her signature, the differences would merely grow smaller.

The first, predating my parents divorce, with loving and (tautologically) still married parents, a tree with a certain set of decorations, in the apartment we used to live in, and a sister too young to be a nuisance or even to properly figure in my recollections. I remember particularly how I, possibly around four or five years of age, used to spend hours* sitting next to the tree, staring at and playing with the decorations, and listening to a certain record with Christmas songs**. There was one or several foldable “balls” that I used to fold and unfold until the parents complained, and that fascinated me to no end. I have no idea whether the record and decorations exist anymore, we moved from the apartment almost forty years ago, the parents are long divorced—and I am, obviously, a very different person from what I was back then. With my mother dead, Father is the only remaining connection—and my associations with him and Christmas have grown dominated by those Christmases I spent with him as a teenager. (Which in many ways were great, but could not possibly reach the magic and wonder Christmas holds to a small child.)

*Well, it might have been considerably less—I really had no sense of time back then.

**In a twist, my favorite was a Swedish semi-translation of “White Christmas” by the title “Jag drömmer om en jul hemma”—“I’m dreaming of a Christmas back home”.

The second, likely* post-divorce and living in Kopparberg, where my maternal grand-parents resided, featured a setting in the grand-parents house and the addition of said grand-parents and my uncle and his family to the dramatis personae. Well, the house is torn down, most or all of the furniture and whatnots are gone, the grand-parents are both dead, and on the uncle’s side they started to celebrate separately relatively soon (and I was obviously never as close with them as with my parents or grand-parents). Again, I am a very different person, and with Mother dead, there is virtually no connection left.

*With the long time gone by and my young age, I cannot rule out that some pre-divorce Christmas also fell into this category.

However, memory lane is just the preparatory road, not the destination, today. The core of this post are two, somewhat overlapping, aspects of most traditions that I find interesting:

  1. What we consider traditional is to a very large part based on our own childhood experiences, both in terms of what is considered a tradition at all and what is considered the right tradition. Comparing e.g. my Christmases with my father and mother post-divorce, they had different preferences in both food and decorations* that often (cf. above) went back to their own childhoods. Similarly, U.S. fiction sometimes shows a heated argument over “star on top” vs. “angel on top” (and similar conflicts)—let us guess which of the parties were used to what as children…

    *Although some of the difference in decorations might be based less in preference and more in inheritance of specific objects.

    As for the very young me, I often latched on to something that happened just once or twice as a tradition, being disappointed when the “tradition” did not continue, say when the paternal grand-mother came visiting and did not bring the expected little marzipan piglet.

    Indeed, many traditions simply “run in the family”, and are not the universal and universally central part of, e.g., a Christmas celebration that a child might think. I recall visiting another family at a young age, thanking for dinner like my parents had taught me, and being highly confused when their daughter laughed at me. With hindsight, I cannot blame her: The phrase, “tack för maten och kamraten” (roughly “thanks for the food and the friend”), makes no sense, and is likely something my parents just found to be a funny rhyme—it is certainly not something I can recall having heard anywhere else.

    Even those traditions that go beyond the family can still be comparatively limited, e.g. to a geographical area. Christmas it self has no global standard (even apart from the differentiation into the “Christ is born” and “time for presents and Christmas trees/decorations/food” celebrations). There are, for instance, weird, barbaric countries where they celebrate on the 25th and eat Christmas turkey instead of doing the civilized thing and celebrating on the 24th with Christmas ham. The “Modern Family” episode dealing with the first joint U.S.–Columbian Christmas gives several interesting examples, and demonstrates well how one set of traditions can be weird-bordering-on-freakish to followers of another set of traditions.

  2. Traditions, even those that are nation wide, can be comparably short-lived. Christmas, again, is a great source of examples, with even e.g. the Christmas trees and Santa Clause being comparatively modern introductions, especially in countries that they have spread to secondarily. One of the most important Swedish traditions, for instance, is Disney’s From All of Us to All of You*—first airing in 1960 and becoming a virtually instant tradition, often topping the list of most watched programs of the year.

    *While this might seem extremely surprising, it can pay to bear in mind that Swedish children were starved for animation for most of the remaining year, making the yearly showing the more special. Also note the slow development of Swedish TV, with the original broadcast taking place in a one-channel system, and a two-channel system being in place until well into the 1980s—implying that the proportion of children (and adults) watching was inevitably large. That a TV broadcast of a movie or similar becomes a tradition is, obviously, not without precedent, even if rarely to that degree, with e.g. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” being prominent U.S. examples; and e.g. “Dinner for One” being a New Year’s example in several European countries.

    The entire concept of the U.S.-style Halloween is another interesting example, even when looking just at the U.S. and children (related historical traditions notwithstanding), but the more so when we look at adult dress-ups or the expansion to other countries, including going from zero to something semi-big in Germany within, possibly, the last ten to fifteen years. Fortunately, we are not yet at the point where we have to worry about children knocking on doors and demanding candy, but this might just be a question of time.

    Many traditions, in a somewhat wider sense, are even bound to the relatively short eras of e.g. a certain technology or other external circumstance. Consider, again, TV*: It only became a non-niche phenomenon in the 1950s (possibly even 1960s in Sweden); it was the worlds most dominant medium and one of the most important technologies by the 1980s, at the latest; and by 2017 its demise within possibly as little as a decade seems likely, with the Internet already having surpassed it for large parts of the population. By implication, most traditions that somehow involve a TV can safely be assumed to measure their lives in no more than decades. (Often far less, since many will fall into the “runs in the family” category.) If I ever have children and grand-children (living in Sweden), will they watch “From All of Us to All of You”, punctually at 3 P.M. on December 24th? The children might; but the grand-children almost certainly will not—there is unlikely to even be a broadcast in the current sense. (And even if one exists, the competition from other entertainment might be too large.) Looking in the other direction, my parents might have, but my grand-parents (as children) certainly did not—even TV, it self, was no more than a foreign experiment (and the program did not exist).

    *It is a little depressing, how many traditions in my family have revolved around food and TV—and I doubt that we were exceptional.

    Similarly, how is a traditional cup of coffee made? Well, for most of my life, in both Germany and Sweden, my answer would have been to put a filter in the machine, coffee in the filter, water in the tank, and then press the power button—for a drip brew. However, the pre-dominance of this mode of preparation (even in its areas of popularity) has been short, possibly starting in the 1970s and already being overtaken by various other (often proprietary) technologies like the Nespresso or the Dolce Gusto. The dominant rule might have been less than 30, certainly less than 40 years. Before that, other technologies were more popular, and even outright boiling of coffee in a stove pot might have been the standard within living memory*. Possibly, the next generation will see “my” traditional cup of coffee as an exotic oddity; while the preceding generations might have seen it as a new-fangled is-convenient-but-not-REAL-coffee.

    *My maternal grand-mother (and several other family members) was heavily involved with the Salvation Army. For the larger quantities of coffee needed for their gatherings, she boiled coffee as late as, possibly, the 1990s. While I do not really remember the taste in detail, there was certainly nothing wrong with it—and it certainly beats the Senseo I experimented with some ten years ago.

All of this runs contrary to normal connotations of a tradition—something very lengthy and, preferably, widely practiced. Such traditions certainly exist; going to church on Sunday being a prime example, stretching over hundreds of years and, until the last few decades, most of the population of dozens of countries. However, when we normally speak of traditions, it really does tend to be something more short-lived and more localized. I have e.g. heard adults speak of the “tradition” of dining at a certain restaurant when visiting a certain city—after just several visits… (It could, obviously, be argued that this is just sloppy use of language; however, even if I agreed, it would not change the underlying points.)

Excursion on other areas and nationalism:
Of course, these phenomena are not limited to traditions, but can also include e.g. national or other group characteristics. A common fear among Swedish nationalists (with similarities in other countries) concern the disappearance of the Swedish “identity” (or similar)—but what is this identity? More to the point, is the identity that I might perceive in 2017 the same that one of my parents or grand-parents might have perceived in 1967? Great-grand-parents in 1917? There have been a lot of changes not just in traditions, since then, but also in society, education, values, wealth, work environments, spare time activities (not to mention amount of spare time…), etc., and, to me, it borders on the inconceivable that the image of “identity” has remained the same when we jump 50 or 100 years*. Or look, by analogy, at the descriptions of the U.S. “generations”: While these are, obviously, generalizations and over-simplifications, it is clear that even the passing of a few decades can lead to at least a severely modified “identity”.

*Looking at reasonably modern times. In older times, with slower changes, this was might have been different. (I use “might”, because a lot can happen in such a time frame; and, at least in historical times, there was always something going on over such time intervals, be it war, plague, religious schisms, …, that potentially could have lead to similar variations.)

I strongly suspect that what some nationalists fear is actually losing the familiar and/or what matches a childhood impression: When I think back on Sweden, I often have an idealized image dominated by youthful memories, and this is usually followed with a wish to preserve something like that for eternity, the feeling that this is how the world should be, and this is what everyone should be allowed to experience. While I am rational enough to understand both that this idealized image never matched reality, even back then, and that it there are many other idealized images that would be equally worthy or unworthy, I can still very well understand those who draw the wrong conclusions and would make the preservation a too high priority.

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 24, 2017 at 7:37 pm

Finally writing again!

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As the subscribers and recurring readers might have noticed, I have posted at an unusually high rate lately, especially compared to the near dormancy of 2012–2015. This post actually sets a new “personal best”* for a month with 16 posts and counting—and it is admittedly gratuitous, made mostly for the purposes of getting that record out of the way.

*Which is not to say that it is the month I have written the most in: During the days when I actively worked on my website, this was not a remarkable number.

There are several reasons for this increase:

  1. I have been reading a lot of other peoples opinions lately, which always makes me itch to write.
  2. There has been a welcome slowdown in my current project and I am already “writing checks” based on having a lot of vacation in December.
  3. Writing more again has made me remember how rewarding it can be in terms of gaining a better understanding of the world or myself, clarifying and developing thoughts, re-evaluating* my opinions, etc. Most of the time, this is the reason why I write—self-improvement. If I am able to change the mind of the odd reader, show a new perspective, seed a little doubt, …, that is just the cherry on top.**

    *This is something close to my heart: Re-evaluation with an open mind and a willingness to change is at the core of intellectual development, a sine qua non. The result of the re-evaluation need not be a change of mind, but it must be undertaken with such a change as a possibility. (Indeed, the unwillingness of others to do so is directly or indirectly connected with the majority of my criticism of e.g. the PC crowd.) Incidentally, I have a post on this topic in preparation.

    **Which is a good thing at the moment, because the visitor numbers on this blog have yet to recover and I still have not gotten around to fixing my website.

I plan to go on writing, but I suspect that the post numbers will drop down a bit in the following months; and I hope that I will be able to take my ridiculously delayed* mini-sabbatical in the course of 2018, during which I will likely switch my main attention to where it belongs—my long neglected website.

*Originally planned for the autumn of 2016…

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November 23, 2017 at 6:59 am

A few thoughts around childhood recollections

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Through a somewhat random chain of association, I find myself thinking about one of my childhood’s favorite objects: Skåpsängen*.

*I am not aware of an English translation. Literally, “säng” is “bed”, “-en” is “the”, and “skåp” can, depending on context, translate as e.g. “cupboard” or “closet”. Below, I will speak of “box” for the “skåp” part, because this matches the internal structure best, even if it was larger and more finely worked than what I picture when I hear “wooden box”. I keep the word with a capital “S” because it always came over as a proper name to me—not a mere noun or a mere description. (This was often the case with me. Cf. “mormorsfranska” below.)

This was a foldable bed-in-a-box, that I used to sleep in when visiting my maternal grand-parents as a young child. As a result of the construction, I lied down with my head well within the box, which was something of a world of its own. Not only did the walls and roof shelter* me, but I often found myself just staring at the walls for minutes at a time, following the grain of the wood, especially the brown patterns formed by wood knots, or admiring one or two little pencil drawings (possibly drawn by my mother in her youth)—almost as good as TV. My positive associations are strengthened by how grand-parents spoil their grand-children and the “exotic” overall environment, with its new smells, different and older furniture**, different food***, toys that once belonged to my mother and her brother …—and, obviously, the grand-parents themselves.

*In my subjective impression. There was, of course, no actual danger or discomfort to shelter against.

**Including some actual antiques that had been handed down from an even older generation than my grand-parents’.

***Including what I thought was named “mormorsfranska”, but was actually just a descriptive “mormors franska”—“[my specific] grand-mother’s [style of] bread rolls”, often given to me while tucked into the bed.

While a trip down memory lane is all fine and dandy*, it is not something that I often write about. However, there are a few thought-worthy things and my mind kept wandering back to other childhood memories and potential lessons, a few of which I will discuss below.

*Or not: By now, I am actually feeling quite sad, seeing that the grand-parents (and mother) are all dead, the house was torn down decades ago, Skåpsängen probably does not exist anymore, most of the other things likely have gone the same way, the innocence of childhood has long passed, …, One of the risks with looking back at happy times gone by, instead of forward to happy times to come or at the happy times of the now, is that the element of loss can ruin the experience—and the happier the memory, the greater the loss.

The most notable is how my child’s mind could be so fascinated with the walls of the box, where I today might have had a look around and then immersed myself in a book or my computer. This is largely because a child is easier to amuse and stimulate than an adult, who (often) needs something more challenging, and whose curiosity has moved on to other areas. Not only are such contrasts between the child and the adult important in order to understand children and (e.g. in my case) developing a greater tolerance for them, but when similar variations are present in the adult population they can become a tool to understand humanity as a whole better. Consider e.g. how a difference in intelligence levels can cause one person to view a certain activity as too easy to bother with, while another might be challenged and stimulated, and the activity that challenges and stimulates the former might simply be too hard for the latter; or how some might be more interested in stimulation through thinking and some more* through perception, and/or the two having different preferences for channels of perception.

*At least here the “more” is of importance: There seems to be quite a few people who really do not like to think, but few or none who are entirely cold towards sensory perceptions. More often, it is a question of prioritizing them, or some forms of them, lower than other things.

However, another partial explanation is likely the modern tendencies to crave more active forms of stimulation and not appreciating the little things in life: There can be a benefit found in, for a few minutes a day, just relaxing, cutting out stronger sources of stimulation (e.g. blogging or TV), and just focusing on and enjoying something small in the moment. (While I have resolved to deliberately and regularly do so on a few occasions, the resolution has usually been forgotten within a week. It still happens, obviously, but more accidentally and likely not as often as it should.)

Yet another contributing factor, especially for an adult, is today’s intense competition for our attention: There is so much entertainment, so much to learn, so much to see and do, that a dozen life-times would be too little. Back then, for a child, shortly before lights out*? The competition might have been re-reading a comic or just letting my thoughts wander while staring out into the room…

*Possibly more metaphorically than literally, since I was afraid of the dark and usually insisted that the lights be left on—which could, obviously, have prolonged the time available to look at the box…

An event that took place in Skåpsängen during my very early childhood is another good illustration of the difference between more childish and more adult reactions, resp., among adults, more emotional and more rational ones: The most favorite object of my childhood was a toy penguin. At some point after dark, one of its button eyes came off. I raised hell, annoyed my grand-mother (who, understandably, did not see this as a big deal) severely, and ended up being ungrateful when she sew another button on, without locating the original. (My memory of the exact details is a little vague, but I strongly suspect that if I had seen the “injury” as less urgent and waited until the following morning, the original button would have been used.) Apart from the repeated implications on understanding children and, possibly, humans in general, there are at least two lessons: Firstly, that someone who is very upset and/or makes a lot of noise does not necessarily have a legitimate complaint, or a complaint more worthy than that of more reasonable protesters. Secondly, that we should not expect gratitude from these people if we try to satisfy them…

Importantly, however, I did not complain loudly and stubbornly because of any calculation*—I did it because I was very genuinely upset: I was unable to comprehend that this truly was no big deal. Even if we allow that a child can have a very strong emotional connection to a toy penguin**, this was not a damage that was noteworthy, debilitating, or hard to fix—a few minutes with needle, thread, and (preferably the original…) button, and everything would be fine. For I all know, exactly that could have happened to the other eye at some point when I was asleep and unaware of the events, having no way to tell after the fact. This type of inability to make correct assessments is regrettably very common among adults too, if not in such extremely obvious cases.

*In contrast, I suspect that e.g. a large part of the PC crowd is driven by calculation when it comes to their style of protest. I use similar tactics, on occasion, when dealing with e.g. spamming companies-where-I-placed-a-single-order-and-never-consented-to-any-advertising: Reasoning very obviously does not convince them that they are doing something grossly unethical, so let us see whether they pay attention when a customer leaves in (apparent) anger. (To early to tell, but I am not optimistic.)

**Which we certainly should: Even now, I find myself having a surprisingly strong reaction when thinking back, stronger than e.g. when thinking of the real-life people that I later went to school with… Similarly, one of the most enduringly popular songs in Sweden, since before my own birth, is “Teddybjörnen Fredriksson”, dealing with the nostalgic feelings of a grown man towards his childhood teddy bear (named Fredriksson). I suspect that it is better known and more beloved among Swedes that the top hits of ABBA and Roxette.

Children do provide many, with hindsight, ridiculous examples. The proudest moment of my life came when I, about four years old, gave my grand-father a tip on how to repair a broken (probably) 16mm film—and he, an actual adult!, followed my tip. Did I save the day, like I thought? No: As I realized later in life, he would have done the exact same thing anyway. (As implied e.g. by the fact that he already had the right equipment for the repair.) Similarly, the first, and possibly only, time I played croquet, at about the same age, I was very proud at having beaten my grown-up uncle. (He claimed that I did, and who was I too disagree, not even understanding the rules…) Can you say “Dunning–Kruger”?

The pride aspect is yet another case where children could differ from mature adults: I am not necessarily free from pride, but this particular type of pride (as opposed to e.g. contentment) over a specific event or a specific accomplishment is comparatively rare, and it seems pointless and vain to me for anything but the greatest accomplishments (major scientific break-throughs, Olympic medals, …) Then again, I need not be representative for adults. For instance, while I keep my college diplomas somewhere in a stack of paper, many others, including my mother, have theirs framed and hung on the wall.

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November 22, 2017 at 10:03 pm

Follow-up: Differences in how our lives play out (geographic mobility)

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As a brief follow-up to my previous post:

I have received some additional information from my father. While I will keep most of it unpublished, having no bearing on the main points and being mostly of personal interest, it appears that I have severely underestimated how much my paternal grand-mother moved.

For starters, she did not actually spend her childhood in Sala, but in Säter—something I actually knew but somehow had suppressed. She moved to Sala as a young adult, then studied in Nyköping*, moved to Eskilstuna with my grand-father, and only then settled in Högsby. She eventually moved back to Sala as originally stated, but apparently the first of the two retirement homes she later lived in was not in Sala but a neighbouring village**. This makes for at least six different places in eight different phases (not counting any intra-town moves that might have taken place)—many of them in the days of her youth. Grand-father had a similar history in his youth, and I might have understimated the mobility of this generation. (Although it remains lower than today, considerably so when foreign countries are included.) Still, this actually strengthens my original point, in as far as there being great differences even within a generation (as e.g. with me vs. my sister, or my maternal vs. paternal grand-parents).

*A study stop does not surprise me, and was the main reason I said “at least” in the original post. However, I had imagined something along the lines of Sala–X–Högsby. (And might have guessed that the X was Uppsala.)

**With hindsight, I recall that there was a “rural” drive to reach it, and I possibly should have remembered this too.

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November 6, 2017 at 10:55 pm

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Differences in how our lives play out (geographic mobility)

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Some paperwork concerning my mother’s will* has landed with me for signing, and I find myself pondering the different ways lives play out, e.g. when I compare myself to my sister, us with our parents and grand-parents, or anyone of the aforementioned with my one cousin on my father’s side, who died tragically in his twenties.

*She died early this year

One notable example is where we have lived our lives (until now, for those still alive):

The grand-parent generation (born between 1907 and 1924) was obviously far less mobile than today. My paternal grand-mother changed towns at least twice, from her childhood Sala to Högsby, where she spent most of her adult life, and then back to Sala to live out her old age, some time after my grand-father’s death; however, my maternal grand-parents spent their entire lives in or around Kopparberg, a town of some three thousand citizens. (I honestly have no idea about my paternal grand-father: He died when I was a very small child and never got around to talk much about him when I grew up.)

My parents both followed a similar pattern until their divorce: Childhood in Kopparberg resp. Högsby, move to Stockholm to study for the Salvation Army, and then half-a-dozen (or a little more) years moving around as officers in the Salvation Army (most of these together, as a married couple, but there might have been some initial stations apart). Post-divorce, my mother moved back to her childhood Kopparberg where she remained until the hospitalization preceding her death. My father, in contrast, moved to a little island* (Kurön) close to Stockholm and, a few years later, on to Stockholm proper. (In some sense, he has stayed put too, since then. However, his two or three intra-Stockholm moves cover a lot more ground and people than does my mother’s one intra-Kopparberg move.)

*Writing this, I have a brief recollection of visiting him in Stockholm prior to Kurön. Possibly, he briefly lived in Stockholm before Kurön too; possibly, my memory is off—I might have been six years old at the time.

My sister has so far followed mother and grand-mother in being Kopparberg centric: She had a few childhood stops with the Salvation Army and spent possibly six months of high school in Örebro—the rest, too my best knowledge, has been all Kopparberg.

I moved to Germany aged 22, and has since lived for years each in Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt (Main); a year each in Munich and Darmstadt; and months each in e.g. Zweibrücken, Stuttgart, and Chemnitz (formerly the GDR Karl-Marx-Stadt). And then there is Wuppertal… Before that, in Sweden, I had a few years in Stockholm as a student, the long stay in Kopparberg, and the ever recurring stops with the Salvation Army.

*Mostly for work reasons while having an official longer-term main domicile in Cologne or Düsseldorf.

Throwing the net a little wider, my mother’s brother is another die-hard Kopparberg fan—while my father’s sister has moved a fair bit, with stations including Högsby, Västervik, Östersund, and Bålsta, for an impressive geographic spread (and I doubt that this is the complete list).

An interesting twist is how “close” foreign countries are nowadays when contrasted with situation for the grand-parent generation. Actually moving to another country was a rarity; today it is nothing special. (I do not know e.g. how many of my old class mates have moved abroad, but I can say that roughly a quarter of the developers on my current project are immigrants.) Even visiting a foreign country was often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, increasingly becoming a once-a-year experience in the 1980s and 1990s. My maternal grand-mother (the only one to remain alive and mobile past the early 1980s) likely saw more foreign travel post-70 than pre-70 (corresponding to the year 1994). My father has conceivably visited more continents* than his father countries…

*Interestingly, I have myself never left Europe, usually preferring to spend my vacations at home; I have had greater means to travel than my father at any given age, but have not had his interest. Even so, I have managed to visit at least seven countries for several days or more, not counting Sweden and Germany. (With shorter visits to at least four others, including the hour-or-so spent in Poland, crossing over from Frankfurt (Oder) on foot during an otherwise intra-German vacation.)

As an aside about Kopparberg: My first recollections of Kopparberg involve visiting the maternal grand-parents. At that young age, I was fascinated by the name and expected to see what it said—a mountain of cups. (En kopp—a cup; många koppar—many cups. Berg—mountain.) To my disappointment, no such mountain was present. As I later learned, the name refers to something far more boring to a child’s mind—a mountain (a long time ago) mined for copper. (Koppar—copper.)

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November 5, 2017 at 1:23 am

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My mother’s last funeral / Gunilla Wilhelmsdotter 1949-2017

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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 17, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Absence/little blogging

with one comment

As the recurring reader may have noticed, I have not spent much time on my blog lately. This is due to a mixture of work and travel, me partially moving to Düsseldorf with my computer still in Cologne, preparations for my main move, etc. Seeing that the Internet provider for my new apartment has so far failed to activate my connection, there may even be a complete break for some weeks after the move.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 28, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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