WW II – 4

[This is the fourth of five postings about my growing up in Sweden during WWII.]

Previous posts in this series:  WW II – 1     WW II – 2     WW II – 3

Needless to say, my life in neutral Sweden was not the grinding hardship that it would have been in occupied Norway – or any other European country stolen by the Nazis or some wretched polity ‘invited’ to share membership in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. I am thus ashamed to bring it up, but I should say something about food during the war.

Most of Europe, including neighboring Norway, Denmark and Finland, was starving, and though we never actually starved in Sweden, food was severely restricted and carefully rationed.  I still remember the differently colored rationing coupons that every household got:  yellow for dairy products, blue for meat, red for sugar, and so forth.  We ate a steady diet of fish, fish being plentiful in the innumerable lakes and the Baltic.  I grew to loathe fish – shame on me, for at least I had food to eat! – and it wasn’t until the mid-eighties that I was prevailed upon to try fish (grilled tuna) in a Chicago restaurant, and changed my mind:  it is now a favorite food!  But fruits were rare (except local products in the summer), as were pastries and desserts (sugar and flour both being rationed, as were cream and butter).  Subsequently, probably at some point in the late seventies or early eighties, I read a study that claimed the Swedish people had never been healthier than during the Second World War, precisely because they ate very little of those ‘bad’ foods and had to walk or bicycle everywhere they went.  Irony of ironies!

I previously mentioned a person named Ingemar.  He was one of a number of friends that my Mother had and who, for the most part, hover hazily in my recollections of that era.  I think he was a high-school (‘gymnasiet’) pal with whom she had kept up over the years.  I remember him as being a snappy dresser with a flashy hat, and he had a mustache.  He walked with a noticeable outward splaying of his feet.  In later years I have wondered about some of the friends my Mother had, and I’ve wondered if this one was gay.  I have absolutely no evidence for this, nor could I possibly at that age have been aware of this sexual predilection, much less sexuality as such.  But in thinking about him I see him as rather effeminate in his mannerisms, and hence offer up the possibility.  I do not think he was ‘involved’ with my mother, though it must have been hard for her, in her early thirties, to have been celibate (as it would have been for my father in California) for five years.  I have no real proof of any such engagements by my Mother, but it would not have been unreasonable.  It’s possible she was involved with someone in the publishing world, since she wrote articles for popular magazines as well as romance novels in those years.  On one of my birthdays she wanted very much to go to a big bash Bonniers (her publisher) was throwing on that day (19 May), and I recall her asking me in some detail if I would be upset if she went to it rather than stay home with me, it being, after all, my birthday.  I had no objection and don’t recall feeling strongly about it one way or another, and she did go.  But she had said a person was going to be at this party whom she liked very much – and that may be all that was involved – and my retrospective musings have led me in my own mind merely to wonder and question – no doubt uselessly – what was going on.

She also had a number of woman friends, of whom the closest were Berit (who had a daughter a year or two older than I and with whom I played – the haziest of recollection on this one!) and Lisabet (no H – I think that was her name).  The latter was from southern Sweden originally and spoke with the typical accent of someone from Skåne.  She was tall, single, and had at some point experienced some kind of injury to one of her facial nerves, with the result that her face was always twisted in a certain grimace.  My Mother told me that Lisabet was extremely intelligent and, if I recall this correctly, that was the putative reason she had never gotten married.  As I say, I believe this is a correct memory, and even then that didn’t make much sense to me, given the obviously disfiguring distortion of her face that seemed,  even then, a more likely raison d’ être for the woman’s marital status.  I should add here (building on earlier passim comments about women) that ever since I can remember I  have been acutely aware of girls’/womens’ looks, and, at least initially, have always made sweeping judgments about women on that score alone (so sue me!) – until subsequent and corrective disillusionment set in.  I kind of liked Elizabet in spite of her appearance because my Mother was so fond of her and always spoke so highly of her.

Berit, on the other hand, was a genuine, almost regal beauty.  Her face always made me think of the little statue copy, well known throughout the world, my Mother had of Nefertiti – the long neck, the perfect facial symmetry, the smooth skin and striking beauty of this ancient Egyptian queen.  Berit was married to a titled man (greve [roughly, a count or earl]) whom I never recall having met, though I am sure I must have on one of my Mother’s many visit to their estate.  I think the friendship was genuinely close, having developed at a post-secondary school they both attended in the late twenties (my Mother finished gymnasiet in 1926), and on more than one occasion my Mother would disappear for days on end to spend time with Berit and her husband at their place.  My Grandmother always explained these absences as warranted by my Mother’s need ‘to rest’ up from all her hard work on her writing.  This never struck me as unreasonable, for she would often shut herself in her room for endless hours and I could hear the chattering of her typewriter (which, incidentally, she gave to me and I used for the agonizing task of typing up the final draft of my Ph.D. dissertation in the spring and summer of 1963 – if that seems credible in this markedly easier age of word processors, computers, etc.).

But – one time she returned from one of these visits with her face all covered in black and blue marks, and I do recall definitely not believing my Grandmother’s quick assurances that she had merely gotten up one night to get a drink of water and, in the dark, walked into a door jamb.  That just didn’t make physical sense to me, and I remember at one point even walking up slowly to the edge of a door to see how it ‘hit’ me – and it certainly would not have explained the dark blotches on my Mother’s face.  It was a great puzzle to me, but it was not talked about;  I stored it somewhere in my memory, and even today the ugly sight of her face and my first real questioning of an adult’s explanation of events are both vivid in my mind.

It was only years later that I began to piece together a plausibly coherent ‘story’ to myself.  What follows is sheer speculation, but nonetheless speculation triggered by real events that were definitely not accounted for by the adults in my world in a reasonable way.  Nor, I admit, would it probably have been reasonable for them to have done so, for I was, after, only about six or seven at this time (for some reason I locate the event to early 1943 or 1944).  In any event, here is my thinking about all of this.

I believe my Mother had one of several nervous breakdowns, and in order to get her away from my brother and me, my grandparents had Berit invite her to their place for rest and recovery.  During this stay there was a great deal of drinking, and my mother got drunk more than one evening, during one or several of which she got literally falling-down drunk and hurt herself seriously.  She may have walked into a door or two, also.  Did she likewise walk into the fist of Berit’s husband?  I have absolutely no evidence for this, but I have often wondered about it.  Later in life I saw how naturally skillful my very passive-aggressive Mother was at provoking my Father into one of his rages (but I never saw him hit her nor, I suspect, did he ever do so though I am certain he was more than tempted on several occasions), and I myself sometimes found it difficult to deal with her ‘helplessness’ raids on me as an adult.  Or, could it have been Berit and my Mother who got into a fight, drunk, jealous (of her husband?)?  Another possibility that has occurred to me is that my Mother had a beau who was at this ‘retreat’ and somehow they got into an argument with each other that ended in a violent outcome.  But while, unequivocally, I don’t know what really happened on that visit, I do know that my Mother came home with her face beat up and, as noted, the explanations offered me for this ugly condition were sufficiently unsatisfactory that even at that age I had dismissed them out of hand and did not stop thinking about the matter.

My mother kept in contact with Berit until she (Berit) died, of cancer, long after Lisabet had succumbed (by suicide, I believe).

There were at least two other incidents of this kind of ‘retreat to rest’ that I actually recall from these years – and probably others that I do not.  In one case Mother had had to be taken to Mörby (the local hospital) to be cared for.  I remember going to visit her with my Grandmother, who cautioned me that I had to be very quiet and not make any noise.  My Mother struck me as being sort of out of it, casting me a cursory glance and then rolling over with her back to me.  I don’t recall what Mormor said, but we got out of there in rather of a hurry.  The other occasion involved a disappearance not of my Mother but the removal of my brother and me to some kind of children’s home (there were probably twenty or so other kids roughly our age there).  I think we stayed there about a week, and once our Mother came with Mormor and Gunnar (my Mother’s youngest [by eight years] brother) to visit us.  All I recall is that I was lying on top of a bed next to a girl with my arm under her neck and hers under mine (we’d obviously ‘hooked up’ for the duration) when the adults came in.  Other kids were playing all around us.  My Mother looked rather slack-jawed and made some kind of mean-spirited comment about the inappropriateness (“så ska man inte göra” – ‘people shouldn’t do that kind of thing’) of my disposition on the bed; my Grandmother rose to my defense and noted that there was nothing wrong with it.  Again, my post-dated reconstructions of these two events entailed a strong surmise that my Mother had had more nervous breakdowns and needed to be away from everybody, including my brother and me, of course, in order to get herself together as best she could.  Events – both witnessed personally and related by my Father, not, I believe, with mendacious spin, but strong factualness – that took place in later years in La Jolla and even after we’d gone off to boarding school and, later, college, would seem to corroborate the existence of very real and long-standing emotional deficits of one kind or another in my Mother that gave some credence to the possibility that my a posteriori excavations and interpretations of those earlier maternal behaviors might well not be that far from the truth, which of course I shall never know with certainty.

What has by now emerged to my awareness from these and many other events is the inestimable debt I owe to my maternal Grandmother (Mormor).  We lived with my Mother’s parents during the war.  My Mother was busy writing novels to support us (though her parents would gladly have done so) and busy with these ‘rest’ recoveries – and I suppose like anyone experiencing a genuine nervous breakdown, she is in no way culpable on this score, nor have I ever harbored any resentments on that score.  But it was Mormor who fed us, dressed us, got us off on our skis to school in the pitch-black snow-packed days of Swedish winters, was always “there” when we needed her.  She was an intelligent woman but essentially uneducated (certainly common enough with women born in the Sweden of the late 1870s), and, to my recollection from the war years and later, a deeply kind and generous human being – though one with enormous, even over-powering (for want of a better word) psychological presence.

My uncle Sven, my Mother’s oldest brother, who was four years her junior, was just finishing his medical school when we came on the scene in 1940.  At this time the Finno-Russian War (1939-1944) was in full swing, and he was sent off to the front to help patch together the wounded and the maimed.  We in turn on several occasions went in to large department stores (NK and Pub) in Stockholm to toss gifts of blankets, socks, and mittens into a huge ‘basket’ where contributions to the Finns fighting the war could be made.  This brutal war (which war isn’t?) made a strong impression on Sven, who at the time was in his late twenties.  My Mother used to buy us model soldiers (and American Indians and animals) made with an extreme realism I have never since seen in such toys, and among them were sets of wounded soldiers being carried on stretchers, complete with blood-red bandages;  I recall Sven’s howling denunciation of these when he was home on leave once, and his threats to trample them into the floor.  It was, he felt, perhaps with some justification after what he had seen, an outrage to make toys out of this inhuman misery (my first wife’s father was killed in this war [see below]).  While my brother and I quickly gathered up these toys and swept them out of view — for we both were crazy about them and certainly didn’t want to see them mashed into the floor – my Mother tried to calm her brother down.

Sven was kind of a hero to me, a model of what I all my life had been told was my destiny:  to become a doctor.  Sven, his father [my Grandfather], and his father [my great Gradfather] in turn were all MDs, and much later my cousin, Sven’s eldest daughter, Eva, living in Göteborg [Gothenburg] also became an MD , with a specialty in rheumatology.  But he was only kind of a hero.  He had a volatile personality and, typically impetuous, would rush into things, seeming not to give much thought to what he was getting into, perhaps a function of the quick decisiveness that was required of him as a battle surgeon on the Finno-Russian front at the start of his career.  But there was always this hurriedness about him, as if one were going to be left behind, and I felt certain reservations about him.

A sidebar:  when Sven was district doctor (provinsialläkare) in a town called Vadstena in 1943 he once took me into the operating room and let me watch him do an appendectomy – since it had been made clear to me that I was supposed to carry on the family’s medical traditions, he wanted to give me a head start (he actually did say that to me).  I had just gobbled down a bunch of “5-öre kola” (a popular caramel candy) and almost threw up in the mask I had to wear in the operating room.  Sven had wisely insisted I not get too close to the operating table.  A woman was laid out there.  He measured with the span of his hand from a large tuft of dark pubic hair marching along the lower right quadrant of her belly to a point higher up and distal down from her umbilicus, and there he put down the first stripe of ‘paint’, swabbing her belly at about forty-five degrees with yellowish-red vertical markings.  As he did so he was explaining to me that this was so that when he sewed her back up he would join the edges of the incised flesh in the right places. To this day I recall these procedures vividly and graphically, and in particular the woman’s exposed, hairy nudity.  He’d slapped a mask over her head and fed her ether, and there she lay, ‘a patient etherised upon a table’.  He had two nurses assisting him with instruments.

I don’t think I’d recommend any of this for a seven-year old.  I recollect all too clearly how his knife went into the softly yielding ventral flesh and left a glistening track of very red blood as he worked down the white curvature of her pliant belly maybe ten or twelve centimeters, a nurse dabbing the blood.  Spreaders were put in place and gave wide access to the surgical field, the inflated appendix sitting in a pool of bright blood, a huge, darkly blue and swollen sausage.  Sven began to cut its moorings from the woman’s belly, grabbing instruments from one of the circulating nurses and handing them back to the other one as he finished with them.  He kept up a kind of running commentary for me amid his instructions to the nurses, occasionally shooting me a glance over his mask to see if I was OK.  After this murky purple thing came out and was plopped in an enamel tray, he began stitching up the woman, observing again how important it had been to make those paint marks so he would know exactly what parts of the edges of the cut he should to fit together.  When he finished, he took me, by now convinced, beyond all possibility of human dissuasion and appeals to family tradition, that the last thing I ever wanted to do with my life was be a doctor, into another room and showed me the appendix, opining that it was really a pretty big one, and then slicing it lightly so a puss-like exudate poured out of it.

I’m not really sure why he did all of this, but my Mother launched pretty much like a nuclear-tipped cruise missile when I told her how I had spent the afternoon with her least favorite brother, Unca’ Sven.  From today’s perspective I’m inclined to agree with her!  She took him seriously and vociferously to task and called him, to his face, a thoughtless sadist (a designation for him – and her father — that she repeated on more than one occasion over the years, claiming that the practice of medicine, especially by surgeons, was little more than a socially acceptable means for channeling a deep-seated sadism), and he tried to play it all down, rather sheepishly, as I recall.

A few years before Sven died (in 1998), I had for some reason had a brief correspondence with him and had happened to mention this emphatically memorable event from my childhood in a letter.  He wrote back that he likewise remembered it, all too well and with much regret, and suggested that he should never have allowed it to happen.  Today, he wrote, he would surely have lost his medical license for doing something like that, and perhaps even been charged in law with something like child endangerment.

So much for my germinating medical career which, as shall be revealed in due course, was administered its final death stroke some twelve or thirteen years later at Stanford when, at a library ‘clearance’ sale, on a whim I bought for 10¢ a weathered tome (Hadley’s Greek Grammar) published in the late nineteenth century, and fell madly in love with its pages and pages of endless listings of paradigms of Greek nouns and verbs in those exquisite letters I could not yet read … .

Thanx, Sven!

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One Response to WW II – 4

  1. heather says:

    I am amazed at your memory, your recall of detail. Such events would make a lasting impact on a young child.

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