Chapter 5 (Part 1) – Piece in major and minor


I am sitting on shoulders on Stortorget on the day of studentexamen

Part One: Piece in major

I was 19 and I had just graduated from Gymnasium. As is the habit in Sweden, my family had an open-house party where friends and friends’ parents and friends of my parents came and celebrate. If we were lucky and our parents were willing to pay for it, we were transported to our homes from the collective celebration area at the equestrian statue of King Carl X Gustav in the center of Stortorget, the central square in Malmö. A horse and a cart were rented for me and my friends, and the cart was decked with birch branches and balloons. Friends, many of them in the white student caps, were with me on the flatbed cart Those white caps show that the person had once passed the not-so-easy exam that we call studentexamen. Outside our apartment building, kids were assembled and more family friends were waiting for us. It’s a dizzying non-stop festivity with singing of student songs in Swedish and Latin.

Gaudemus igitur, iuvenes dum su-umus,
Gaudemus igitur, iuvenes dum su-umus,
post iucundam iuventutem
post molestam senectutem,
nos habe-ebi-it hu-umus,
nos habe-ebi-it hu-umus.

Never was the world so glorious, never were we so sure that the brightest future was ours, as it says in the standard Swedish student song. Even though the song in Latin is essentially saying ‘Let’s rejoice while we are young, for tomorrow we’ll be dead’, the second part was not on our minds that day.

In our apartment, there was lots of buffet food and lots of champagne and a cook was busy in the kitchen. We didn’t have the cheap Swedish sparkling wine that was called Knutstorps Sparkling. Oh no, we had the real thing, Veuve Cliquot, my stepfather Arne’s favorite champagne. A neighbor and friend, Anna-Lisa, walked around filling up our glasses in the crowded living room and in Mother’s little salon. When she came to me she said “Have you drunk a toast with Mamma and Pappa?” Anna-Lisa was the only one who ever referred to Arne as my father. I realized I had completely forgotten. I was so much swimming in the clouds that day that I forgot the most basic duties and politeness. I went to Mother’s room where the grownups were and toasted. On my way back, my head started spinning and I had to go to my room and lie down to get back my equilibrium.

After I got back into the party room, my boyfriend had just arrived, since he had been working at his part-time dentistry job, and we danced and danced. Oh blissful carefree joy, but oh so different from what was coming.

After the hoopla was over in Malmö, I and two friends from my all-girls school went to Stockholm to go on celebrating with a friend of ours, Inger, whose family had moved to Stockholm. I was staying in the maid’s room in the apartment of my uncle Birger, Arne’s brother. It was a whirlwind of parties and sightseeing and we were all giddy with the feeling of freedom that comes to Swedish graduates after they have passed the difficult Gymnasium exams, first the written tests in March and then four oral exams on the BIG DAY. You step out on the front steps of your school and sing the Swedish student song and you wear your white student cap for the first time. You get covered in bunches of flowers thrown around your neck by friends and family and you even wear a transparent plastic apron to protect your dress. One friend of my sister’s gave me a bottle of wine as a good joke. The papers thought that was funny and I was in the local paper the next day.

Photos below taken by Mother’s cousin Inger Johansson, photographer; The Big Day, May 10, 1952

Being a student in Swedish means that you have passed studentexamen and can now go on to the university for higher studies, the same as being an étudiant in French.

At the party of our friend who lived in an idyllic suburb of Stockholm, I had never had a happier time. At some time in the evening, quite late probably since it stays light practically all night even in late May, we went to a huge outdoor dance floor and continued dancing to a hired band. It was a dream. I may have felt a bit guilty because I had taken the boyfriend away from our friend who was the hostess, but he was a wonderful dancer and I had never danced so well before or after in my life. He taught me a folkloric dance that I’d never dreamed of being able to dance. And of course there were waltzes and polka and god-knows-what, other than the pretty boring foxtrot. But the amazing thing about this late evening was that this very temporary boyfriend of mine made me dance hambo, an old Swedish dance folklorique which is not at all easy. He was a wonderful dancer and I just followed his directions. It was great fun.

Part Two: The clouds are moving in

My very dear stepfather, Arne, had gradually come to realize that he was not as gifted a theater director as he might have hoped for. He was an erudite man, a man who knew everything about theater, who was steeped in the world of theater ever since his days at the Stockholm University, a wonderful stepfather whom we called our encyclopedia, for everything we thought was worth knowing.

Arne got to see that he didn’t really have a future as a theater director after all, and that the best solution for him would be to change professions and become a Gymnasium teacher in Swedish and history. This made for quite a bit of change in our home, and Mother left the theater too when Arne did. It was a cruel blow, to Arne first of all, but his firmly built-in self-confidence saved him. He had a most secure upbringing and that was what made him adjust to his new situation in life.

Ever since my parents’ divorce when I was ten years old, Mother had been a very unstable woman and Gun and I were often afraid of her sudden outbursts of anger. When, as I famously said with my Freudian slip “we married Arne” things improved a lot and there was now stability in our home, much theater, travels during summer vacations and a beautiful home.

When the enormous change came about due to Arne’s leaving the theater, Mother ceased to be the amazingly energetic artist and business woman she had been until then. Her days as a prima donna, the star photographer, and not the least her theater photography of course, took an abrupt ending. Her inner light went out. She was a broken woman after this drastic change in her life. Occasionally she managed with Arne’s help to pull herself together to show a semblance of mental and physical health. However, those periods were never long-lasting. Deep inside her, there was no joy or contentment in a life without stardom.

However, the big crisis for the family came when Arne had to do his student teaching semester in Stockholm, right after my graduation with all the festivities and the best French champagne. The sudden change of my own life was brutal, and it was hard to fathom that all of a sudden I was without any support from Mother or from Arne.

We had to sublet our apartment. I had no home a more. Arne was not going to be paid during his student teaching semester, a barbaric practice that has luckily changed since then. Mother and Arne never had a savings account. We were broke.

After Arne’s and Mother’s vacation in Austria, she went to her parents’ home. She, at least, had a home to go to. Arne went to Stockholm to stay with his brother’s family. Mother and Arne had made friends with a young Italian university student, named Mario, during their vacation in Austria and so my grandparents arranged to send Mother to Italy where she would spend a semester as a paying guest with Mario’s family in Tprino. As she told me later, she spent most of the time alone in their country house on a mountain in Savignano, close to Torino

Was I completely lost then? No, I had my boyfriend. I wasn’t alone. Or was I?


One day we were walking in the street alongside the Botanical Gardens in Lund, after my maidenly visit to my boyfriend’s student room. We were walking hand in hand on the warm summer’s day, when the WOMAN was coming towards us. She opened her arms to him and her bright eyes were shining with love. He ran into her arms that enveloped him. I was but a young girl and here was the WOMAN of his life.

The woman was my sister.


I was drowning in a furious storm. The sea spit me up from my shipwreck onto the shore where I was lying inert, just wanting my life to end. I had been cast around by the stormy sea for what seemed like a final blow. Now it was all over. I was nothing.

But – wait! Was everything really lost? Could I stand up? Could I walk to my own father? My father’s loving face took shape through the fog of despair. He was still there, he still loved me, even though I didn’t really know him too well at this point.

Pappa had been the one son among nine children who had a head for studies and his father sent him as a boarder to the nearest city on the west coast of Skåne. I can well see how he stood out in the math classes and I can also well see that his classmates thought his small-town-tailor-made clothes looked odd, and not like their store-bought clothes from the city. Be that as it may,  the boys made fun of him for being a farmer’s boy, probably getting back at him for being the smartest boy in the class. 

My grandfather was a well-to-do grain dealer, but even though Pappa was a good-looking boy the kids liked to make fun of him. He could not take it. I don’t know in what year he dropped out of high school, but his father left enough inheritance to all his children.  That is how Pappa could get an education after all. Since he had a head for math, he thought he would study to become an accountant. He never got to be a top-level accountant since he did not have the right basic diplomas, but he was good and he did quite well. 

My beloved Pappa about 40 years old

I remembered  the secure hand I used to hold on to so happily when I was 5 or 6, before the war, before the disaster in my family. There was a war outside and there was a war inside. Where was now that secure hand I felt so proud of holding on to? I would make my steps as long as I could, trying to keep up with his, as we were walking in front of the park next to our very modern apartment building.

Yes, there was my own father who used to laugh so happily when I said something funny. My father who pinched my nose and I laughed, looking up at him. My father who was so proud because I could read the newspaper at that early age — well, the headlines at least. My father who was proud of me.

Now Pappa had a new family, but he found room for me, even though he was not too well-off. I had found a home. Pappa’s second wife, Elsa, was very generous and did not seem to mind. I now also  had a little sister, Lisbet, who was just 5 years old at the time. She would later study medicine after a fortunate divorce which gave her two sons into her care. She would go on to become an MD like my older sister, Gun. But my father very sadly did not live to see that.

Pappa died of leukemia in 1972. John and I had seen him during the summer and he looked like a very sick man. But he knew that I had found a good man. When he died we were back in New Rochelle where I lived for nine years. I cried. I had given him a cashmere scarf for the past Christmas because he had swollen glands in his neck and I thought, a bit stupidly, that the soft cashmere would feel good. I think the world has never seen a better man. And I will never know what the reason for the divorce really was.

Meanwhile, back in 1952, I was now settled in Pappa’s and Elsa’s home. This was a peaceful haven, free from over-emotional outbursts and the kind of frequently recurrent crises that had marred my youth.

With Pappa’s wonderful help I was getting to see that my life was not over, that there was a future to prepare for. During the summer I worked at the Institute of Genetics in Lund, called Geneticum, with one of my sister’s friends who was a researcher. He went on to become a professor and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences no less.

I thought I wanted to become a social worker (socialkurator) at Socialinstitutet, caring for souls and not, like my sister, caring for bodies. To gain entrance into this institute though, you had to be 20 years old at least and have work experience, preferably in a family or with children. Therefore, I had not applied for a study loan the way most of my friends had.

Pappa and I concluded that I could go to France to do my practical work in a family (‘un stage’, in French) and improve my French-speaking ability at the same time. After five years of French in lycée and in spite of a good grade in my final exam, I could barely make a sentence orally or understand spoken French. I spoke English fluently, already after a few years in the lower grades, thanks to the most extraordinary English  teacher that ever was.

Pappa looked through advertisements in the papers and one day he found it. There it was.

I went to see a Swedish woman in a province next to Skåne. She was young and pregnant, and she was the second wife of a French businessman in a small town called Luxeuil-les-Bains in Haute Saône, not too far from Basel in Switzerland. It seemed all right. I was broke, but I was going to get some pocket money and that was all I needed. Mme Spach paid for the trip down, which I made with her and her young stepson. Pappa paid for my trip back. There were four children in the family but it was unsure how many of them were going to be living at home that year. The boy Alain was living with their mother. The young boy who traveled with us after their vacation in Sweden was Thierry who has now become a great friend. He was 12 at the time.

Continued: Chapter 5 (Part 2) — Piece in major and minor: Luxeuil

1 thought on “Chapter 5 (Part 1) – Piece in major and minor

  1. Pingback: Sketches from the Life of a Wandering Swede | Siv’s sketches from her life

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