My maternal Grandfather, Oscar Israelsson, was a tall and stately man and seemed to be born to become a leader of men. He came from a family of small factory owners, an occasional engineer and big farmers in Småland, a southern province that borders on Skåne, in the very south of Sweden where I grew up. Only the fields in Småland were known to be extremely stony, so farming was hard work. For many generations back the farmers had had to clear the fields of stones and so had built beautiful stone walls around their fields. That hard work seems to be the origin of the legendary stinginess of the Smålanders. I will always remember my grandfather as a handsome and proud man who always walked very upright, and I felt proud of him. Especially when I saw him dressed up for a dinner out or a party. In fact, the next to the last time I saw him with my niece Kajsa, when he was still up and walking every day in the park at the retirement home, he was still holding himself perfectly straight.
People who grew up in small towns and villages in those days – Oscar was born in 1881 – did not as a rule go to the bigger towns or cities to get secondary education. Social democracy hadn’t been invented yet and the intelligent ones got a sufficiently good basic education in elementary school to continue on their own developing their minds and their knowledge of the world. They could on their own find out about the basics in scientific and humanistic fields, and they could develop the everyday good sense that serves us well as we go about making a niche for ourselves in our environment.
Oscar had known my grandmother Bertha Johannisson from the small town of Lenhovda from his early youth. She was a fair maiden from a proud and well-off farmer’s family and her parents were all set on a good marriage for her. Maybe a bit better than the young suitor who had suddenly come into the picture. However, this was going to be another marriage for love and there was no convincing lovely young Bertha that Oscar was not good enough for her. Bertha’s parents, Lovisa and Fabian, were not going to regret their acceptance of the young man as their son-in-law.
Grandpa first had a starch factory in Blekinge, close to Småland and all seemed to go well for the young couple who had now become a family of four. But one hot summer’s day the factory burned to the ground. There was no telling what caused the fire and Grandpa, like so many small business men in those days, had no insurance.
They moved to northern Skåne and heaven only knows how Grandpa managed to make a new start in life. He somehow bought a mill and a saw-mill in the neighborhood of Kristianstad. The mill was run by a steam engine and so was the saw mill. It had once been intended to be water powered, but there was not enough water in the little stream and so the steam engine had been installed. The farmers delivered their grain under a covered entrance to the mill and there was a lot of friendly chatting about the weather and the harvest that could go on for quite a while. Machines were constantly grinding away in the two-floored building. We could see the grain going into the grinder and thought it somewhat of a miracle that it came out on the ground floor as flour. Grandpa had his own electric generator. Grandpa and Grandma both descended from stingy Småland farmers and anything they could produce themselves, be it electricity or eggs from their chickens, was part of their way of life.
They had a big house and Grandpa had an office where the telephone was and a leather sofa that to my surprise could be made into a bed. In a corner there was a black iron stove and on the wall behind it was an iron decoration with two standing-up lions turned towards the center. I once saw the identical decoration piece in a museum somewhere. In these old houses there would be a fireplace in every room, most often tiled stoves that went up to the ceiling.
The sofa-bed was handy when there were big family gatherings, such as Mother turning 30 or Grandma turning 60. There would be evening gowns and all sorts of finery. A movie was taken for Mother’s 30-year celebration and it still exists. My nephew Måns rescued what was left of old movies by putting them all on a DVD. Gun and I run into Mother’s arms and our Dad is very much part of the happiness. Very staged, but it still makes me feel good to watch this.
The sawmill was of more interest to us little girls than the mill, whenever we spent our summer vacations with our grandparents. We would play in Grandpa’s lumber yard and you could do a lot with the boards sticking out on the sides at various lengths and heights from the ground. It was easy to make seats and tables from those board ends, and from there many games were invented. Those games were accompanied by the piercing sound of the saw wheel that cut through the big trunks of wood.
My grandpa talked about inches and feet, which was old-fashioned even in those days in Sweden, and probably only used by lumber dealers. An inch we call a thumb, since that was the origin of this measure, and a foot was a foot also in Swedish.
Grandpa was the President of the Southern Swedish mill owners’ association and after each yearly get-together with dinner and dance (and evening gowns!), Grandma wrote a short article for the mill owners’ monthly magazine. She would ask Gun and me to proof-read it for the spelling and usually we did find some spelling mistakes.
Grandma had a small library in Grandpa’s office where Gun and I could always find books to read during our summer vacations. It contained books like The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, Ben Hur and such — good reading for young children.
One of my fondest memories from summers with our grandparents was hearing Grandpa, when he was in a good mood, tell us about glass-blowing. His family descended from the Belgian Walloons who had been invited in the 17th century by a Swedish king to settle in Sweden and to teach the Swedes various skills having to do mainly with iron but also with glass. An uncle of Oscar’s had a glass works factory and as a young boy he liked to watch the glass blowers turning, turning, turning their pipes and miraculously creating the different shapes from the molten glass. The best part of it was Grandpa’s gleaming eyes when he told us the stories from his youth. Those were good days.
I think Grandpa and Grandma too liked to have us spend our summers in their big house, playing in the lumber yard and running around barefoot.
Oscar loved music. He learned to play the violin more or less by himself and he even played the piano as far as simple songs went. He was no Isaac Stern, but he enjoyed playing his violin and we all liked to hear him play, on the rare occasions that he did. It meant that Grandpa was in a good mood when he got his violin out. One day he took down a long hunting horn that was mounted on the wall in the huge entrance hallway, above a little group of wicker chairs and table. He put it to his mouth and produced some beautiful sounds, really making you feel as if you were in a forest where hunters were closing in on a poor hunted beast.
There are many old movies from that time taken with Mother’s 8-mm movie camera. Some of them have sadly been ruined with time, but since my nephew Måns managed to rescue quite a few we still have a few pieces of movies from those days left for posterity, since they are now on a DVD. The quality is far from the best – no sound of course – but in one of them Grandpa is playing the violin. A lady I don’t recognize is playing the piano and lots of couples are dancing in the salon, a large room that was Grandma’s great pride. We were rarely allowed into the room unless Mother had come for a visit. Then the salon was opened up. Magda had been a very spoiled child and she remained that way throughout her life.
My great-grandmother, Lovisa, was quite a character. She lived to be very old and we all loved her. I will never forget her wonderful smile, but neither will I forget how she snored. We had to share a room, which was Grandpa’s office – she, my sister Gun and I – for the celebration of her 80th birthday. The big white house, as I call it, Oscar’s and Bertha’s house in northern Skåne, was cram full of family. Gun and I shared the wide sofa-bed, but Great-grandma was sleeping in a bed that had been set up in this room for the event. And how she snored. She clearly slept on her back and as she had been a widow ever since her husband Fabian died many years earlier, nobody had obviously ever told her to turn over on her side. The severe-looking leather-covered sofa in Grandpa’s office could fortunately be made into a wide bed, which I didn’t even know until that day.
The story goes that when she prepared for a dinner or a reception in her house in Lenhovda in southern Småland, she would light a cigar and go from room to room smoking it to spread the pleasant odor of cigar smoke throughout the house.
Also, having very frequent childbirths and ultimately eight children, she occasionally tried to get rid of a pregnancy by riding a bicycle. This would have been around 1900. How many great-grandmothers from that era do we know who would ride a bicycle uphill to get rid of a pregnancy that came too soon for comfort?
After he retired from work in his business, my grandfather began to read very seriously. He didn’t go for novels of the kind my grandmother liked to read. He wanted philosophy. He bought a full set of books by all the major philosophers and he read them all, according to Arne who liked and admired my grandfather very much. No, Grandpa Oscar didn’t like fiction. The serious thought-provoking philosophers were his thing. He lived to be 101, outliving his wife Bertha by quite a few years. His 100th birthday was a big party with flowers almost covering Oscar himself in the photos. He also got a telegram from the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, which was the tradition in those days. That was in 1981 and there were not as many centenarians as there are today and the custom has most likely gotten lost.
My grandparents sold the big white house many years after their retirement, and they rented an apartment in a town close to my younger uncle’s house in the vicinity of Ystad, on the southern coast of Skåne. However, when they got to be too old to manage even an apartment, they moved into a very comfortable retirement home, where each one had a comfortable room. They were not spoiled and that was all they needed at their age.
I went to see them both quite a few times and they were very pleased with the excellent care at the home. They had some of their favorite furniture, Grandpa his library with, among other books, the entire set of the philosophers’ writings, and Grandma her beloved rococo-style dresser, which I never much liked.
I usually went to see them with my sister or with a niece or two. The flowers I brought them always pleased them greatly. Once when Grandma had taken to her bed for good, I hugged her and remarked on the pretty pearl necklace she was wearing around her neck. It was actually a gift from us all. Except one little gold chain I often saw her wear when I was a child, the only piece of jewelry Grandpa ever gave her was, probably for their 60th wedding anniversary, a diamond set in platinum ring that was so exquisitely made that, even though the two diamonds are quite small, it looks beautiful. I now have both of those, the little pearl necklace and the ring. Gun has Grandma’s confirmation gold watch, the kind that hangs in a a chain around the neck. Both my grandparents were very economical in the Småland fashion, so the diamond ring was an exceptional gift from Oscar.
On that visit, Grandma said she would so much like to give me something. Then her face lit up and she pointed to a shelf in a bookcase where there was a beautiful wooden bowl my uncle had just given her.
”I want you to have that bowl Gösta gave me”, she said.
It was just after Christmas. Gösta was my younger uncle and I was sure she had enough gifts from him, so since she wanted me to have it, I accepted it happily and gave her another big hug. Now every time I use that bowl for serving food in, I think of Grandma.
When I brought my husband John to meet them for the first time, Grandpa was so delighted with the visit that he went to his room to get his violin. He came back and said to John, “I hear you are very fond of music so I want to play a piece for you.” Which he did. John was very moved. Oscar was 92 at the time. And he was still very much the stately man he had always been.
On one visit by my niece Kajsa and me a couple of years later when Grandma was gone, Grandpa talked a lot about all sorts of things, about how careless and demanding people had become, he said. They are just never content with what they have. They always want more and more and it’s just buying and buying. I could only agree, even though I knew that Grandpa was against social democracy. I knew well what he meant and of course he was right about increasing materialism and excessive buying, even though we would not agree on political issues in general. I could have argued with him that when he grew up there were lots of really poor people, particularly in stony Småland, and that at least in Sweden there is no poverty any more. But I chose not to argue. My grandpa was a proud and honest man, and I admire him still today.
As Kajsa and I were leaving, Grandpa said with a big smile “Well, come back when I am 100 – if you are still alive and in good health.” This was a couple of years before he turned 100, but he still took his daily walk in the grounds belonging to the retirement home.
The next time I visited Grandpa with John, he was in the hospital and he was now 101. He was asleep as we came in. I sat down gently on his bed and stroked his shrunken and bony body under the blanket. His strong frame had shrunk to what was not recognizable any more in that bed as the strong and tall man I knew. Suddenly he woke up. As I had been living abroad for many decades, he hadn’t seen me more than a handful of times since I was a young girl. So how surprised I was when he opened his eyes, and right away said, “Siv”, without a moment’s hesitation, as if he had been expecting me. Then I knew that he loved me.
Continued: Chapter 1 (Part 2) — Mother