In the late autumn of 1974 I was born in a quaint university town in the southern tip of Sweden. My parents had only recently returned after trying to make a life for themselves in the United States where my father was from.
Legend has it, and to this day my mother claims this is truth, a strange event took place right after my birth. I was two days old. My mother was still in hospital with me, recovering from the birth, and possibly delaying returning home to a demanding four year old daughter and two year old son.
It was All Saints Day, a day to remember the dead and pray for their souls. The maternity ward was quiet and my mother was looking out the window at the massive cathedral next door to the hospital. She could hear the bells ringing for the Sunday service. As she stood there she noticed a woman entering the ward. She came on her own and looked out of place. The only way my mother can describe her appearance is that her skin had a very unusual tone to it, a greenish hue that gave the woman an eerie appearance. My mother kept looking at the woman wondering who she was there to visit. As she wandered down the hall past the rooms with new babies, my mother decided to follow and see where this very unusual lady was going. Much to my mother’s surprise the woman walked into the nurse’s kitchenette, opened a drawer and pulled out a knife. My mother froze. How could this possibly be happening? She instinctively started running for help, hoping to find someone who could stop this lady. As my mother ran down the hall she passed my room, and quickly turned to check that I was still safely in my crib. My mother was shocked to see that there were four beings in the room. Four giant beings. So giant their proportions didn’t fit in with the dimensions of the room. They seemed taller than the ceiling. There was one on each corner of my crib. They were radiating light and despite the crisis unfolding, my mother felt an instant sense of calm and knew I was safe.
As it turns out, my mother found someone to help, and the woman was immediately removed from the hospital grounds. Serenity was restored. Most of the other mothers on the ward hadn’t even realised what had taken place.
I grew up hearing this story. It was so familiar, and it was never really made a big deal of. Of course I had had four giant beings protecting me. There was no drama in it. Nothing spectacular. It was just another birth story.
It would probably help to explain that my parents had recently stepped into the Christian faith, and angels and demons were very much part of their world. It’s not that they had any encounters with them as such, but if the Bible says there are angels, then so it is. Having four of them rock up to protect their daughter on All Saints Day didn’t seem that far-fetched.
When I say that my parents had recently ‘stepped into the Christian faith’, I don’t think I’m doing justice to what actually took place. I feel I need to share the background to their story.
My mother was the firstborn child and only daughter in her very typical Swedish family. Her father was a proud Atheist. An academic. He was a school principal as well as a teacher of seven languages. He had high hopes for his very bright daughter who was the apple of his eye. She was the top student in her class for all of her schooling life and well ahead of her peers academically. Once she finished school she moved to Lund, the quaint little university town where I was born. She was working hard on her law degree and very much following on the path her parents had intended for her.
My father was also the firstborn child and the only son in his Jewish family. He was born in New York to hard working parents. His father was away serving in the war so for the first two years of his life he lived with his mother and her parents. His grandfather worked in the synagogue and my father, being the only grandson, had very high expectations placed on him. When my grandfather returned from the war I can only assume that he was traumatised by it. Of course there was no help for young men like him, he was expected to assimilate back into society and put the memories behind him. I’ve never been given many details except that my grandfather would take out his trauma on his two oldest children. My father and his sister were on the receiving end of a lot of anger.
My father’s escape was his guitar, and he would play it for hours every day. His hard work paid off when he was accepted into the very famous Juilliard Private Conservatory in New York City. The pressure was mounting though as he entered his late teens, with so many expectations from his Jewish family. The constant questions of what path he would follow and the feeling that he was restricted by a religion that he hadn’t chosen for himself. Being the sixties, he was not alone with his internal struggles, and through his musical connections my father found a new freedom in the young people around him who had stepped out of the shackles society had been placing on them. So instead of studying, with the help of drugs and free love, my father hopped on the hippie bandwagon. His family was devastated. He had so much potential. He was so gifted and bright.
The drafts for the Vietnam war were becoming more and more of a threat to my father. To him the answer was clear. He had to leave the country and go somewhere safe. Somewhere he could continue on his new path and, not only be left alone from the government, but also from his family.
The answer was obvious. Denmark! Surely Danny Kaye knew what he was talking about in the song “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen”? And confirming how perfect Denmark was as a choice was the never-ending blonde beauties and gourmet cheeses that would be waiting for him on arrival! My dad quickly packed his backpack and his guitar and bought a one-way ticket. He had no plans of returning to the constraints of home. His mother was heartbroken. She adored her son and as far as she was concerned a part of her died that day he waved goodbye.
Alas, Copenhagen was not quite the haven my father had dreamt of. The drug scene was ruthless. The women were harsh. His fairy tale quickly vanished and my dad needed to get out quick. At the time, the cheapest place to go from Copenhagen was Sweden a few miles across the water. He arrived in Lund with no money, no plans, and his guitar strapped to his back.
Was it destiny? Was it chance? Who knows. As far as my Swedish grandparents were concerned it was an absolute disaster.
Because not many days later my parents met in a university loft and instantly fell in love. My gorgeous mother with long, blonde hair and the face of an angel and my foreign dad with a mysterious presence were both smitten. My dad’s philosophies and mystical dimensions drew my mother in, and she knew in her heart that a law degree could never provide the life she now realized that she craved.
What followed next were a couple of years my parents refer to as ‘The Search’. They sought the Truth. They tried a little bit of every religion, cult and faith they stumbled across. Drugs helped them in their search. They found different ways to pay for their basic needs, making little wallets out of leather, working in ‘herb gardens’ (or so we were told as kids) and busking with my father’s guitar.
My father was a complex man with so many unexplored dimensions. He had such a desire for truth yet a feeling he was trapped in the mundane. So when my mother announced she was pregnant, my father felt that this was a good time for him to explore his Jewish roots and hitch hike to the Holy Land. A baby wasn’t going to hinder his search for the Truth! He ended the relationship with my pregnant mother and left her in Sweden to fend for herself.
After weeks of hitch hiking across Europe he arrived in the land of his forefathers. My dad had been hoping to finally experience the Truth he had been seeking. It was exactly the opposite! My father instantly hated the place. He hated the religious oppression that simply reminded him of his childhood. He hated the aggressiveness of the people. The final straw came the day he nearly got stabbed while walking on the beach in Tel Aviv. He had to get out, and get out quick!
After a few weeks of hitch hiking through Europe my dad arrived at his Danish friend’s home. He knocked on the door, and lo and behold, who came to open the door? My now very pregnant mother! Out of desperation, and not knowing where to go, my mother had sought refuge with my father’s friend in Denmark. My parents were reunited and decided they would raise their soon to be born baby together.
They took the ferry across to Sweden to see if any friends there might be willing to let them stay with them. They had no other options and felt desperate.
While living in a friend’s apartment in Stockholm, sleeping on a bed under the kitchen table, my sister Susanna was born. My father started making and selling knick- knacks in order to support his family. He made little wooden boxes with tiny segments in them. He carefully filled each segment with a different grain or legume, then covered it in glass for people to hang on their walls. Not surprisingly the money wasn’t exactly rolling in.
It was during this time in Stockholm that my father had a bit of an epiphany. If marriage was as meaningless as he thought it was, then why not get married? Marriage meant nothing, so why not go ahead and do it? Once this new truth had settled in his mind the next step was to provide his bride with a ring. With his grain and legume display case sales he couldn’t really afford anything remotely metallic as a ring for my mother. Instead he put his few coins together and in the middle of a very cold February in Stockholm 1972, my dad went and bought a very expensive juicy peach that had been imported from a faraway land. The perfect gift for the mother of his child.
After my mother ate the luxurious fruit my father kept the peach pit and allowed it to dry for a few days. He then got busy and started smoothing the pit on both sides until he eventually reached the bitter almond in the middle. He then popped out the bitter almond, got my mother’s hand and tried the ‘ring’ on for size, and with a bit of sandpaper my father was able to create a beautifully unique ring for his beaming bride. Off they went to the Stockholm registry and made their ‘meaningless vows’ while wearing t-shirts and jeans, with Susanna as a two year old flower girl.
Not long after their wedding my mother noticed those distinctive signs. She was pregnant again and they would soon be a family of four. The pressure on my father was tremendous. How was he meant to provide for his wife and now two children? After a few months of trying to become more financially stable in Stockholm my parents finally surrendered. They swallowed their pride and returned to southern Sweden to see if my grandparents would let them stay with them. At least they would have a roof over their heads and regular meals.
It lasted three days. Morfar, my grandfather, then kicked my father out. He just couldn’t handle seeing his precious daughter with her drug-addicted loser of a husband. Surely she would now see the light and let her man move on? She was still young. She could finally complete her studies, find a sensible Swedish man with a career, and all this could be put behind them.
Instead my mother took my sister by the hand and followed the man she loved out the door. Again they were on the streets. They tried reconnecting with some friends in Lund who allowed them in to their apartment. Instantly my parents knew that they couldn’t stay. This drug den was not a place for a pregnant mother and a little girl. Instead they found themselves walking the streets of Lund trying to find something or someone that would provide shelter for the night. It was getting late and they were all hungry and exhausted from their search. Earlier that day they had walked past a little white cottage with a tiny note glued to the corner of the window. The Truth will set you Free it said in someone’s handwriting. My mother reminded my dad of the note they had seen and suggested that if the family who lived in the house were Christian they might be good enough to allow them to sleep there for the night. After all, Christians are meant to look after the needy.
It was worth a try. My parents and my sister walked back and found the white cottage. They knocked a few times until the door was finally opened by a young woman similar age to them. They explained their predicament. She wanted to know if they were Christians. They tried to say yes they were kind of Christians because they were seeking the Truth, and if she could see it from their perspective they could in fact be considered Christians, if Christ is the Truth, and surely we are all children of God, and so on. I doubt she got the answer she was looking for but she could sense their desperation and she let them in. The cottage itself was actually the front part of a small courtyard that was edged with other homes. They had in fact landed in a hippie commune called the ‘Jesus House’. Leah explained that she was the only one there and the rest of the community had gone away for the weekend to a ‘Jesus Festival’. When the group of young people returned the next day my parents were blown away by this happy group of people who were ‘high on Jesus’. Their joy was infectious. They were hippies just like my parents with the guitars out in force, the long braids, and the lentils soaking for the communal dinner, but there were no drugs. No hopelessness. And they had community. My parents were in awe.
My sister was instantly surrounded by a group of long haired uncles and aunties who adored her. Meanwhile my parents were fed, listened to, and they no longer felt alone. It didn’t take long for them to have what they called “a born again experience”. For my father, this new birth was cataclysmic. I can still hear him, in his heavy Brooklyn accent, telling anyone he could about what happened as if he was recounting a story that took place a day earlier. His passion for that moment of salvation never dwindled. He was born again! He was a new man! The Truth had set him free!
My brother Raphael was born not long after. They were now a complete family. They had a daughter, a son and a new faith. Life was good. My grandmother offered to pay for the airfares so my parents could move to America and start a new life. The offer was too tempting to resist. My dad cut his long hair, shaved his very big beard, and bought himself a suit. His uncle, who was Vice-President for Warner Brothers, offered him an accountancy job. Things were finally coming together.
They moved to Florida to start their next chapter with a new found excitement for what God would do in their life. As it turned out, Florida was hell on earth. The extreme humidity took its toll. So did the scorpions and the alligators. It eventually got too much for my mother and her nerves. She was now pregnant with baby number three, and all she wanted was to be back in the comforts of Sweden. My father was still struggling with the demons of his past. Coming off years of drug use, he was still having hallucinations, disturbing dreams and visions. He also felt that he couldn’t be the accountant that his family had seen in him. My parents bought one-way tickets to Sweden and returned in August 1974. Two months later I was born.