Before I start writing about our trip to Stockholm, there’s something you should know about me first. Actually, its more about my family then me but its also about how I approach Stockholm, Sweden, and even Europe.
Some of my people came from Sweden. Several times over actually but most recently at the tail end of the 1800’s. My father’s side of the family was proud of their Swedish heritage but honestly, I’m not sure why. It seems to go along with how my father and his two siblings sanctified their mother, who was a second generation Swedish-American. She taught my father some Swedish words and used them with him when he was a baby but so far as I know, she never saw her parent’s home country. Grandma was born in 1900 in Minnesota to a first generation Swedish mother and a second generation Swedish father. The community she grew up within may well have been West Sweden, but was still the New World.
Grandma was the eighth of nine children in a small house. I don’t have the sense there was much joy in that house but there had to have been something to have nurtured her own cheerful perseverance because she had a hard life. She married impulsively and struggled to keep skin and bone together for herself and her children during the economic depression and her first husband’s dance with alcoholism and emotional depression. I think that her children idealized her and conflated that idealization with Swedishness. My aunt gave my mother a Swedish cookbook as her welcome to the family wedding present. Yet, I don’t remember my mother cooking much from that cookbook except a few cookies. Nor do I remember a particularly Swedish table or decor at my Grandmother’s house nor at my Aunt’s home either. I do remember growing up with and then actively expressing as a young mother a deep longing for a proper Swedish Christmas.
Where did that come from?
Since moving to Germany I’ve had the chance to met two Swedish women who also live in Munich. My reaction, when I first meet them and learn their nationality is to silently ask, “Are you my Grandmother? The warm, fuzzy, happy to see me Grandmother that in fact I never got?”
Where does this come from?
It took me till my late teens to realize how much St. Grandma really had no love for her gender. This became clear as she struggled with her widowhood and again married quickly, impulsively, and poorly just so she could have an identity. It appeared to my 17 year old self that my grandmother could not honor herself as a single woman, even in her 70’s.
My brother, the only boy in our generation for about a decade and a half, could do no wrong with her. She took an active interest in him and he traces his love of painting back to her. He speaks well of her and justifiably so. She was the perfect grandmother to him. I, however, was too loud, talked too fast, jumped all over, and in general disrupted things. Everything. My cousins, both girls, didn’t experience that gender favoritism when they came to visit because there was no boy to favor on their side of the family. It was apparently my own special joy to visit grandmother in the company of a male offspring. Even so, she was the warmest grandmother I had, and I had about eight or nine which is a long story I usually save for my therapists and other genogram nerds.
Thus it is that Sweden isn’t just another country to me.
Its a mythical place, its the garden my people were driven out from and still long to return to. Somewhere along my path of growing up I became convinced that my life would be complete, it would be whole, if I could return to my true Swedish self. Somewhere in my seven year old self is the idea that Sweden is the place where I could learn to be someone my Grandmother would love without judgement and I would be truly happy and fulfilled.
Of course that’s not true. For one thing, Lutefisk.
For another, myth does not a whole self make.
Grandma’s issues were real, deep, and distorting, most especially to herself. I could have mastered the language, cooked up meatballs and mashed potatoes every day for a month, and learned all the songs and it would not have mattered to Grandma. She was trapped in her own losses. Each generation has to figure out what happened, what still has meaning, and how to heal and move forward. Grandma probably did the best she could given her circumstances. In any case, what is done is done and now its my turn to sort and find meaning.
Sweden is a nice place. I like it, especially in mid-August when the days are still long, the sky is still blue, and the aspen trees shimmer in the summer sunlight. I wouldn’t mind going back but I’m not feeling some destiny-powered urge to return soon. Here in Europe I’m still learning who I am and I am still learning that I am okay as a Swedish-Swiss-German-English-Scot-Irish-American human. I am learning I can borrow traditions or make up my own. Most of all, even when I remain a little disruptive from time to time, I am learning that I am still worthy. I enjoyed visiting Stockholm because I saw it as its own place, not the mythical valhalla of my family’s dreams. In Stockholm or Munich or even back in the USA, I am learning that I am not cut off from my true self, a self accidentally left behind by an emigrating ancestor but I am already who I need to be. I don’t always remember this about myself but I am remembering it more often.