[This is the second of five postings about my growing up in Sweden during WWII.]
In the neighborhood where we lived there was the sad case of a girl (she was probably in her early teens at the time) who was on the wrong side of normal. Her name was Eyvor, and she lived at the bottom of the hill in a large home about four houses from the shore of Edsviken, the offshoot of the Baltic in which we swam and boated. She was tallish, blond, and rather severely ‘differently abled’. She did not go to school, but just hung around near her house. Both children and adults tended to be cruel to this unfortunate defective (I use this politically incorrect terminology for the express purpose of conveying something about the sensibility of an era in which we had not yet become justifiably sensitized by social and legal sanctions regarding the world of the so-called differently abled).
She was often teased and toyed with – I remember once when some older kids took some object from her that she had been holding, and they surrounded her as she loped about in her clumsy way trying to get it back while they tossed it over her head to each other. I remember reporting this event at the dinner table. I also remember how angry my grandfather got (in general he was a very mild and laid-back person). Like everyone in the neighborhood he was familiar with Eyvor’s case, and I suspect that as a doctor he may have had some more detailed knowledge of her circumstances. Here he was certainly ahead of his time, announcing that it was “alldeles oförlåtligt” (‘utterly inexcusable’) that people treated her the way they did. She was, he continued, in no possible way responsible for the way she was, but had been born that way. Apparently (this is something he may have said at some later point, but I do remember his statement in connection with Eyvor) she had gotten stuck in the birth canal too long or had part of the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, but in any event the result was that her brain had been deprived of oxygen for just a little too long, and she would never be normal but remain as she was the rest of her life. Morfar said the girl was completely harmless.
In this, however, he was not entirely correct. Children did play with her sometimes, and though my mother’s admonitions had made me rather wary around her, I did too. But Eyvor had a volatile temper, and on a number of occasions when she didn’t get what she wanted I saw her haul off and whack a couple of kids in the face, hard. Then she would laugh in a blunted, drooling kind of way that suggested she didn’t actually realize what she’d done. Once a parent or aunt came rushing out of her house to upbraid her with a powerful “örfil” (slap in the face) for hitting someone, and then Eyvor and one of the children she’d hit both were bawling their heads off until Eyvor was tugged by her ear back into her house, all the time shrieking and gushing tears.
I had very mixed feelings about Eyvor, a jumble of awe, fear, and failure to understand or appreciate her condition. She came to figure prominently in a recurrent nightmare I began to have at that time (?1941?) and had for the last time in the fall of 1963 or spring of 1964 after I had gotten a job in Iowa City. I am standing at the railing at the top of the stairs up to the second floor at Knogisro. It is midnight, pitch dark, and the large clock hanging on the wall above the stairs is sounding its twelve strokes. I am peering down into the bottomless black of the stairwell from which are emerging slowly up the stairs about three or four huge humanoid figures covered in thick black hair, much like gorillas but they are upright, their eyes red in the dark. In their midst is Eyvor, totally bright, her wet lips spread in an idiot’s grin, looking up at me, and saying, “Hej, Erling” (‘Hi, Erling!’), as she and her companions continue the slow inexorable ascent to where I am standing. At this point I wake up screaming and panting. The dream is remarkably consistent over the years, and – horror of horrors – once it begins, it sometimes happens that I can somehow stand outside myself within the nightmare and realize that I am caught up in the start of a horrible dream whose outcome I know but am incapable of arresting or extricating myself from. Even as I sit now in 2011/2012 and write about this experience I feel real chills running up and down my spine and offer up a silent hope that my having touched in detail on this dream will not somehow prompt it once more to visit me tonight in all its vivid dreadfulness. I have enough nightmares as it is.
For I have all my life been given to nightmares. I don’t know how common they are (my wife – now gone — claimed never to have had a nightmare, and my first wife rarely), but they infest my nights – not so much these days, but, yes, they do come along, and my wife is shaking me awake. I don’t know what that Eyvor dream means – if anything (though I am inclined to believe, with Freud and the Oneirocritica of the ancient Greek writer Artemidorus, that dreams are not entirely without relevance to the dreamer’s interior life). I’ve thought about it, but have never satisfied myself on that score. Other dreams I have usually involve being trapped in, or needing for some reason to crawl through, narrow defiles or underground caverns of limited size; or trying to escape from someone chasing me but not making sufficient progress to get away (Homer’s simile of Hector in Book 22 of the Iliad trying to escape from Achilles is cast in one of those escape dreams where your feet slow down, and not only does it resonate with me but also assures me – for whatever that is worth — that it must be one of the most common and oldest of nightmare genres among human kind).
I don’t know what happened to Eyvor in the end. I have the sense that at some later time when, grown up, I was in Sweden I was told by Mormor that Eyvor’s family had been compelled to put her away in some home as she had become increasing difficult to handle as she grew up – no doubt an extension of those violent flare-ups on her part I had witnessed as a child. She obviously made an enormous impression on me in her passive way. The whole business leaves me feeling unsatisfied and vaguely anxious, but it was something I now felt an inner coercion to confront and discuss in these pages. Maybe it is a kind of catharsis.
But let me now move on to a less ambivalent recollection: the Bergqvist girls! I began first grade in the fall of 1942, and the middle Bergqvist girl, Stina, was in my class. These three sisters were absolutely gorgeous, each more than the other as you moved down in age. Anne-Lisa, the oldest, was a two or three years ahead of me, and she had a soft, round face with a Botticelli smile that closed and crinkled her eyes in an incredibly appealing way (the only other woman I’ve know to smile that way with her entire face was a young lady I knew – in the fifties and early sixties — but never got anywhere with named X Y whom I thought incredibly sexy); Stina was even sweeter than Anne-Lisa, blonde and cute as a bug and bubbling over with personality (the actress Amy Carlson, late of TV’s “Third Watch” and subsequently a star on “Law & Order: Trial by Jury”and other popular series, reminds me of Stina at least in appearance); and the youngest, Gittan, was a truly to-die-for looker even at that early age. The promise in pulchritude they evinced in the early forties when I first got to know them was more than fulfilled as they grew up, for I was able to verify the fact when I ran into them several times on trips to Sweden in the course of the fifties and even in the early sixties. They actually lived near Eyvor: you walked up the road towards the hill and took the first road to the right and continued for two blocks up that road until it ended at the edge of a thick forest (today dotted with ugly high-rises). Their house was the last one on the left as you approached the forest. It always has struck me as odd that these girls were so beautiful (and also good people) but had parents who were quite common in appearance, and their mother, a small bitterly acidulous woman, was kind of mean – she once gave me an “örfil” (slap in the face [today, had it happened in America, I would have owned her house for that!]) for something I did or said that I no longer remember. Perhaps she had reason to be wretched: her husband was killed around 1943 in an industrial fire in Sundbyberg, a Stockholm suburb, where he worked. My grandmother told me that Fru Bergqvist (the girls’ widowed mother) had as a result of this loss become ‘väldigt gudfruktig’ (‘very religious’), almost as if this were a sad consequence of personal tragedy.
As a sidebar here one has to appreciate that the Swedes are (or at least were in those days before the depredations of affirmative multiculturalism has torqued the country beyond recognition) essentially pagan, having become nominally Christian very late – ninth century – at the hands of (as every child learned) Ansgar, Nordens apostel (Ansgar, apostle to the Northland). Even my grandmother, who did from time to time go to church, appeared to find it odd that anyone should elect to seek refuge in such relief. I had been in a church only twice (for the weddings of my two uncles) by the time I came to America, a fact for which I, observing how ‘religious’ upbringing has (in my view) sorely screwed up some Americans I’ve known, have been eternally grateful. At the same time, in school we did study the bible (a course we kids called ‘bibbe’ < bibelkunskaper = bible study), but strictly in a non-devotional sense, rather as part of general education, the way we studied the geography of South America or the history of the Swedish kings.
In school all the boys were crazy about Stina, and I never remember her as being snooty about this but seemed quite comfortable with this spontaneous adulation. We went to classes six days a week, not a full day on Saturdays, on which toward the end of the school day we had what was called “Barnens timme” (‘the Children’s Hour’). You were supposed to write letters to friends and the recipients would come up in front of the class and read the message when selected by the ‘postmaster’ (a highly sought-after position usually assigned by the teacher to her class pet ['gullgrisen']. I remember with deep mortification the first mail call, as it were. Boys had written only to boys and girls to girls, and then here came I with my letter to Stina. I still see her standing in front of the class, blushing, but smiling, and reading the little poem her 6-year old admirer had put together. I forget exactly what endearments I wrote, but it ended with the refrain
Hej hopp, min sköna,
Kom så ska vi dansa i det gröna.
(Roughly: Hey there, beauty mine,
Let’s go dancing on the incline.)
When she finished there was a moment of deathly stillness in the room, all faces (including hers) on me, who wished, for the first but certainly not the last time in my life, that the earth would sunder right before my feet and swallow me up along with my devastating embarrassment. Need I say that for years afterwards I was mercilessly teased for this heartfelt expression of interest in and admiration for one (remember Viveka!) of the first ‘women’ in my life? Years later Stina and I talked about this one time, and she said she had never forgotten the event, having been as surprised as she was flattered and pleased at the letter, and wished she had saved this, the first love letter she ever received.
For me, in retrospect, the experience said something important to me about myself. I have always liked women and been fascinated by them. Maybe because of my Mother, or my Grandmother, or whatever? It makes no difference: I’ve always liked women. I do know that a lot of men, deep down, do not. They may hide this attitude, especially in today’s super-sensitive times, but it is there. I know it. Nor am I trying to drape myself in some lapdog cloak of feminist approval – I think vast areas (but not all) of feminism and its ‘philosophy’ are unadulterated bullshit, largely the evacuative whining of pampered, pseudo-intellectual egocentrics who couldn’t care less about all the world’s girls and women who truly are oppressed, repressed, and exploited in unholy ways. The fact is simply that as a general principle I like women, and I don’t mean just in an erotic or sexual way, though these are certainly not forbidden territories in my roaming imagination.
Another incident I recall about Stina has to do with one of those physicals and vaccination programs school children were subjected to in those days. All the kids in a given class would be taken into a large kind of auditorium and told to undress to their underwear. There was no (gasp!) distinction made between boys and girls – ironically, just the kind of gender leveling that American feminist have been shrieking about for the past thirty years but would hang any contemporary school official who allowed it to take place. Each kid was taken into a separate room and examined and vaccinated, and then came back into the main hall. For some reason when Stina emerged from the inner sanctum, she did not have her panties on but stood a brief minute stark naked facing the other kids. Both the girls and boys stared at her, and she smiled sweetly and went to her seat to put something on. Nobody – including teachers in the room – made any deal out of it, but it’s stuck with me. It reminds me how utterly different today’s American sensibilities are from the Swedish ones of the early forties. Today this would clearly have turned into a federal case with falling heads, major firings, lengthy prison sentences, massive civil suits – a remarkable example of the American obsession with a pathological fetishizing of the innocent nudity of children (and adults), all created (if we are to believe God’s very own words as reported in that favorite of Christian vademecums, the Bible [Genesis 1.26]) in accordance with His pronouncement: ” … Let us make man in our image, after our likeness … .”
I believe I remember correctly that in the early forties I went to several birthday parties Stina had, and that she came to some of mine. We did not live exactly close to each other, but in the same direction from school, and over the years we did play together quite a bit. I don’t remember much of her younger sister Gittan until the teen-years and later, when she had blossomed into a stunningly beautiful woman. My impression is that Anne-Lisa was the smartest of the three, but that may simply be because she was relatively so much older. I have only good memories of her, among which is a kind of amused tolerance for the many foibles of the young. She was not above kidding around, either. Once, for example, when my brother was sitting on the ground near Edsviken (the ‘lake’) staring at the ground for whatever reason, she asked him with a certain pleased condescension whether he could see the ants smiling – “för dom gör ju det, vettu!” (‘Cuz they do do that, you know!’) I distinctly recall believing her uncritically, bending down, and asking my brother if he really could see any ants smiling. He looked from my eager face to Anne-Lisa, who was ready to burst into laughter, and vaguely shook his head. I guess Anne-Lisa was sort of another Björg (see the [chronologically earlier] Norway section to follow at some point!).
Sometimes we (Anne-Lisa, Stina, Gittan, my brother, other kids, myself) would row over to an oblong little island called Kaninholmen (Rabbit Island) that sat in the middle of Edsviken. At one end it harbored a wonderful, sandy beach that seemed to slope forever down into the sweet Baltic water, and at the other end there was a huge sand pit that towered up over the ground. We would clamber up to the top and then jump into it and go rolling, almost as if we were skiing down a long slope, down the center and end up all covered in sand at the bottom. Then we’d head for the water, and sometimes we’d have to take down our trunks to shake out the sand, and the girls didn’t seem to have any embarrassment about doing this with the boys right there. Again, no big deal! I remember one summer evening when our families had packed a kind of picnic for us, and we all rowed over to the island and seemed to stay forever, eating, swimming, chattering. One has to realize that at Stockholm’s latitude the summer nights never got totally dark, just kind of like dusk, so it was hard to keep track of the time. But I remember with extreme pleasure these kinds of events in the company of the Bergqvist girls, other kids, and my brother, and they constitute some of the truly sweetest memories of any from my childhood.