My first seven years gave no indication of the way my life was going to unfold. In fact, it’s the only time in my life that I lived in one place for more than two years.
My first home was on the fifth floor of a large apartment block. It faced a park and was backed by a garbage tip that had been converted into a grassy hill for us kids to run across in summer and sled down in winter. The apartment was just like any other Swedish apartment at the time, smallish, well heated and very functional. We had a tiny balcony and our basement laundry was shared with the other people in the building. I never felt that we were missing out on anything and I was blissfully unaware that each month my parents worried about the bills to be paid.
Some of my very earliest memories are more feelings than images in my mind. I remember feeling completely separate from the rest of my family. I didn’t have a sense of belonging to them in any way. My sister tried her hardest to pretend that I didn’t share an apartment with her, and my brother’s role in my life could best be described as the smiling assassin. He would tear around the apartment in full speed and create havoc, at the same time as laughing maniacally. He loved to antagonise, always with a smile on his face.
When I was only 15 months old my younger brother Sam was born. I instantly fell into a carer role with him and it was the first time I felt a connection with anyone in my family. As we grew I continued to be Sam’s little helper. He had a speech impediment and no one could understand him. Except for me. So my first role in life was as an interpreter for my younger brother who would implode if he couldn’t be understood. I thrived in my role as his caretaker.
When my mother described what I was like as a child she would always say that I was so content and happy without a care in the world. I’m pleased with that description. The thing is, I’m not really sure how accurate it is. I remember feeling very uneasy in my own home. My dad’s tension and anger escalated along with the pressures of a growing family and children he felt he couldn’t control. Raphael was a force to be reckoned with and my dad was out of his depth. I found the atmosphere too much to deal with. Even at this very young age I started to go elsewhere in my mind to escape the pressure.
This might sound funny, keep in mind though we were on the fifth floor of an apartment block with not many options for entertainment, but escape for me came initially in the form of snails. I would collect these snails after it had rained all night. I would then bring them up to our apartment, sit on the couch and let the snails slide across my arms and legs for hours. Pure bliss. Possibly a form of self-hypnosis. Who knows? It worked for me! I could sit on the couch quietly and escape the dynamics of my home while staring at these snails slowly moving across my limbs.
Another activity that I didn’t have available as easily, but it definitely started at this age, was mud walking. After a heavy rain, which thankfully in Sweden is a common occurrence, I would get my gumboots on and find a patch of mud outside. The deeper the mud the better. With my head down and only focused on the step ahead I would wade through the mud and love the sensation of my boot being suctioned in and having to slowly pull it out. Again, this was a form of escape for me and I always loved hearing the rain pelting down because, not only did it mean more snails for my collection, it also meant there was a chance of a muddy escape.
Although those first few years were quite uneventful, I can so clearly see that the themes that have been carried by me across my four decades had their roots in those early years. Body image is one of the most consuming obstacles in my life and those seeds were sewn when I was a very small girl.
My father had grown up in a very conservative Jewish home. I can only guess that his views on the human body were steeped in a very long history of Jewish hang-ups that were very intertwined with their biblical perception. It’s not as if my dad ever actually said that the body is evil, but to me that was very much his message. I remember being only around three years old when I was undressing myself in the living room. My dad yelled “Get away from the window!”. Now, as you might recall, we lived on the fifth floor. There was a park in front of us. The only chance of my body being seen by anyone outside our home would have meant they were in a low flying helicopter. Somehow, without knowing how, I had crossed a line and my dad made it very clear I was never to do that again. Curtains had to be drawn. The body was not to be exposed. A sense of shame started creeping up from the base of my feet.
Of course my grandparents, as well as my uncle who happened to live in the apartment beneath us, were very aware of my father’s hang-ups. They loved nothing more than making up for my father’s reservations about the body by making sure we were exposed to theirs as much as possible. After all, this was Sweden. Sweden is all about nudity and body acceptance. If my uncle and auntie knew that we were coming downstairs for a visit they would make sure to make the most of the opportunity. No matter how much we emotionally tried to prepare ourselves it never felt quite right to be greeted by our uncle and auntie with them both sitting on the couch, legs splayed, totally nude.
This happened on numerous occasions, but there is one occasion that stands out from the rest. It was the morning of Santa Lucia, a celebration leading up to Christmas when children dress up as angels and elves in the morning, and while it’s still dark, they form a line and in a very quiet and sacred manner start singing Christmas songs special to that day. Each child either holds a candle, a lantern or a tray of traditional saffron buns. The tallest girl with the longest hair gets to be Santa Lucia and leads the parade with a wreath of candle sticks on her head. It’s a beautiful tradition. Unless of course you have to do this ceremony in front of your nude uncle and auntie who are doing their best job trying to make you cringe by playing with and poking at their different body parts. There was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. I simply had to keep my tray of saffron buns steady and wish myself away.
Morfar, my grandfather was also keen to expose us kids to the Swedish values. He had no intention of catering to my father’s Jewish hang-ups. He made sure we became very familiar with the male body, his male body to be exact. One way to do this was by greeting us at his kitchen table completely nude, as we ate our muesli. Not only that, he would also make sure he got some morning stretches in while he had an audience. My face would burn as I tried to focus on the breakfast bowl in front of me. This was the proof I needed that our relatives were definitely not joining us in heaven in the afterlife. As my dad would remind us, they would be going straight to hell. Bodies were sinful and they had nothing to do with the God we served and the less attention they got the better.
Another theme that started during this time was the fact that males were better than females. Again, it was never actually said in those exact words, but the message was loud and clear. Females were weak and more prone to sin. We were tarnished somehow. These were messages that came through in my dad’s behaviour or as comments to us girls, and we grew up believing it as truth.
The irony is of course that my mother was incredibly strong. A powerhouse. She was raising four young children in a small apartment. She had a tiny budget to work with and yet she never made us feel as if we were going without. She was able to keep us distracted from a man that was still very much battling with his inner demons. Not once in my childhood did I see my mother disheveled or unkempt. She woke early, got herself dressed and presentable, with her long hair up in a bun or a braid. She then had her morning devotions with her Bible in her lap. By the time her four children woke she had already started her day and was busily organising things in the kitchen.
Every night I fell asleep to the sound of her beloved sewing machine. She was constantly sewing for her growing kids, altering clothes that had been donated to us and mending holes. Her days were spent in service to her husband and her children. There was never a moment for her. Never coffee with a friend. No splurging on an item of clothing. No hobbies outside the home. However, even with her commitment to her family she still made time to help others.
On Sundays my mother would get her bicycle, put Sam in the seat on the handle bars and me in the seat on the back. Raphael and Susanna would ride along on their own bikes, and off we would go to the hospital. Once there we would go to the ward for the very old and frail patients. We would then help them into wheelchairs and wheel them down the corridors of the hospital basement to the chapel. We then sat through what felt like a very long service only to have the excitement of wheeling them all back again. I have very clear memories of pushing a wheelchair bigger than myself along those dark corridors.
My life in our fifth floor apartment was interrupted each summer by an idyllic escape. My parents would borrow my uncle’s car and drive north to Morfar and Mormor’s summer shack. Words cannot do justice to this tiny piece of magic on the west coast of Sweden. After a three hour car trip the landscape drastically changes from the flat fields of southern Sweden to forests and huge rock boulders that roll into the sea. Our little shack, and it truly was little with only one tiny living area and a small bedroom attached, was built on the side of a cliff, overlooking the sea with an island directly across. To reach the shack we had to follow a steep path curving around mossy rocks and fallen trees. I can still smell the forest in my mind’s eye. The wet moss made my senses come alive. In summer we had the thrill of picking wild blueberries and our faces were painted blue as we filled our baskets with these beautiful berries. If we were lucky enough to visit later in the year we would also pick chanterelles. We had no idea how luxurious these mushrooms were, we simply loved bringing our golden treasures back to the shack for Mormor who would lightly fry them with butter and black pepper.
One of my favourite pastimes was making my way down the steep side of the cliff to our private little jetty. There I would lie, feeling the wooden beams warm my stomach, and try to lure crabs out from under their rocks. I would happily do this for hours on end. Our time at the summer shack was sacred to me. It was pure happiness being there. Not only did I get to spend more time with Mormor and Morfar, but I also had nature all around me and the freedom to explore.
As well as spending time with them at their summer shack, I also spent time with Mormor and Morfar in their home. They only lived about an hour away. As a child, and with no family car, that felt very far away. Their home was in the most southern tip of Sweden. A tiny little holiday town that is famous for its horse riding, boating, and most importantly the migrating birds that use this spot as a resting place before heading south for winter. I absolutely loved visiting my grandparents. We would go for long bike rides along sand dunes on the coast, winding forest paths, ride past boats at the harbor and of course stop and feed the horses some carrots at the stables. All the while watching the birds fly above us in V-formation. Again, it gave me a much needed sense of freedom and a connection to nature.
Mormor and Morfar had a steady routine to their day and I soaked up the calm. Breakfast was a sacred ritual. Nothing was rushed. First the drip coffee was brewed. As the intoxicating smell filled the kitchen, items from the fridge were put on the table. Fermented milk with my grandparents own blend of muesli, always served in the same tin. A tin that I now keep in my own kitchen as a sweet reminder. Then the selection of bread was brought out. Crisp bread, sour dough slices, flat bread, it was all there for the choosing. Then came liver paté, Morfar’s homemade orange marmalade and blackberry jam, as well as a selection of cheeses. A daily feast. All this was washed down with cups of tea. Lapsang Souchong or Russian Caravan were the favourites. Oh how I loved breakfast. Besides the initial nude appearance by Morfar, this part of the day was my absolute favourite.
After a day spent riding our bikes or going for a walk, dinner would be made by Mormor. She was known for her roast chicken and meatballs with the most delicious gravy. I make it now for the people I love, and I can hear her telling me to add a splash of soy sauce to get that extra kick.
Mormor was always a bit of an enigma. She had a regal look, as if from a faraway land. It was often a topic of conversation where she might have originated from. There seemed to be a general consensus that she was probably from Romani stock. Of course no one really knew but her elegant looks made her a Roma Queen of sorts to me. She was elegant, crafty and no one dared oppose her. Her tiny size was no indication of her strength. Her home was her domain and we all feared and loved her at the same time. In her later years she started to paint and I am so grateful for that. It means that no matter where I go in the world to visit family, there is always one of her pieces of art hanging on the wall that reminds me of her. She captured my childhood landscape. The cliffs of the summer shack. The sand dunes we explored. The cobbled streets lined with old houses that we would ride our bicycles down no matter what the weather. Her legacy lives on in her art.
Morfar was so different to Mormor. He was an academic. An imposing man with a booming voice. His two great passions were birds and Latin grammar, and he wanted nothing more than to share those passions with his grandchildren. It never ceased to amaze us how, no matter what we were talking about, Morfar was able to steer the conversation to his favourite topics. My allergy towards learning a new language started around my grandparent’s kitchen table. I became an expert at looking interested and making the right noises to appear as if I was listening but all the while my mind was elsewhere. How could there possibly be so much to learn about birds and their migratory patterns? Why is the secret to all knowledge wrapped up in decoding Latin root words? We were a captive audience and Morfar made the most of it.
I am so grateful for those first seven years of my life. I am grateful for the steady presence that my mother created. I’m grateful that I lived close enough to my grandparents so I could feel connected to them despite where life would take me.