How do we become what we are?
Giving equal due to environment and genes, I’ll stipulate that the latter gave me a pretty good start, at least in the mental arena. The former is a more complicated affair. During my formative years, for reasons of World War II, my father, an American, was in the United States, but I grew up in Norway and Sweden. In the latter country I lived in the household of my maternal grandparents, and they both – but my grandfather in particular – left an indelible impression on me in more ways than I can count: even now, some sixty, seventy years later.
My grandfather, who was born in 1875 and died in 1953, was a medical doctor, but as with doctors of that era he was also a deeply educated – as opposed to trained — man (not that this cannot be the case today but I’d say it is less common than it once was) in history and literature and languages (I still have his exercise books in Latin composition from his grade school years in the 1880s, and they would give some of today’s graduate students a run for their money). He had a huge library over and above all his medical texts (most of which were in German), and this thesaurus was freely available to my brother and me. I still remember the little stools one had to stand on to reach the higher shelves (which were, as a practical matter, out of range for a child). It was in the course of browsing in this vast library that, I think, my life-long passion for art (not to mention reading, and my helplessly ongoing support of Amazon-dot-com) was first awakened in the form of old prints illustrating scenes from the bible and folktales. In later years I came to appreciate that these were the striking drawings of Gustave Doré.
My grandfather had been an amateur botanist his whole life, and he had a huge herbarium of dried and pressed plants carefully labeled in his small, exquisite hand. Date and location of collection, common (in Swedish) and Latin names, and any other relevant information would be noted on each page. He also had many botanical illustrations of great beauty and accuracy, and these, I am sure, helped, specifically, to engender in me a passion for botanical and ‘scientific’ art, and, more generally, to foster my own interest in realism and craftsmanship in art (I do not recall ever having seen illustrations from any of his medical text, and that may well have been because he thought them inappropriate for a child). Since his library originated at a time before photography had made its way into general publishing, such illustrations as appeared in his books were all based on ink drawings, and to this day I find such art emotionally quite gratifying (e.g., those magical things that Dürer and Rembrandt could do with pen, ink, a little color). For all of this, I am forever indebted to my grandfather and his interests.
When I lived with him, my grandfather was formally retired, although he did have a small clinic on a lower floor where he saw occasional patients. Since he had much free time, he also indulged his abiding love of just reading – books (e.g., my Mother’s novels, like Man Faller Så Lätt,) newspapers (Svenska Dagbladet [still very much with us] was his favorite), magazines (Allers [ditto]) — here, again, I see a profound influence on me! My general mental picture to this day is of him sitting in his favorite easy chair in his large study and living-room with a book or a newspaper in front of him, billows of cigar-smoke circling his head and spiraling slowly up to the ceiling. At six o’clock every evening he would turn on a radio and listen to the latest news of the war (this was during the Second World War), and often I would sit on his lap and listen with him. Especially towards the end of that horrible war, he would always tell me how the Americans would pretty soon get to Berlin and put and end to the madness. His own interest in current events certainly stuck with me!
He liked the outdoors, and as a youth he had been active in swimming and gymnastics. Many times he would walk with my brother and me to a large lake near where we lived, and then we would go swimming and diving. The trip to the lake took us through a forest, and on the way he would point out plants to us, comment on the songs of birds, show us where the wild strawberries (in Swedish, smultron) were hidden, and in general keep up an informative flow of talk about everything under the sun.
Something else he was in the habit of doing that I recollect with great pleasure was reading to my brother and me before we went to sleep. He would come up to our bedroom, and I still recall – pleasantly — the smell of cigar smoke emanating from his clothes as he sat next to us. He was very fond of Hans Christian Andersen. Some of these stories are pretty grim, if truth be known, and he had a great sense of their theater as he read them to us. I preferred it when he would read from some of the children’s books that was enormously popular at the time (e.g., the Pelle Svanslös series, in the event any readers out there can make that distant connection); they eschewed the grosser cruelties in which HCA seems to have taken such delight.
It is a curious thing that the influence of all his academic and intellectual interests did not manifest itself for many years in terms of my formal schooling. I was a very indifferent student, both in Sweden and in this country, and that did not change until I hit ninth grade at La Jolla High (a tale connected with a teacher I had in Algebra and another one in Latin, but I’ll save that for another posting, another day.)
I consider myself most fortunate to have had such a grandfather during this fatherless period in my life – another one of those things that benefited me hugely but for the arrangement of which I can claim no personal credit whatsoever – I was just incredibly lucky, which is probably among the best thing you can be! He played a powerful part in helping me become what I am.
Everyone should be blessed with such a grandfather!