Voices from the Past

by Rita Leydon ©1996
 

I had arisen earlier than I usually do so I would have time to get my morning run out of the way along with the requisite shower and of course a leisurely breakfast reading The People’s Weekly World. Thus fortified for what I thought would be a run of-the-mill sort of day, I stuck my nose into the wind and headed south for my 11 a.m. appointment with Margaretha Talerman, curator of the Swedish Museum in Philadelphia. Occasionally I help the museum with design projects for various exhibits. Today’s meeting was for the purpose of going over details and requirements for an upcoming special exhibit dealing with Swedish traditions and celebrations. I am always keen on new challenges—this time I have been asked to create four banners and one three dimensional “Påskkäring” (easter witch) flying on her broom. The witch will be delicious fun to make—she already flies around in my mind’s eye, a familiar figure as she is perhaps part of myself. I’ve felt and behaved like a witch many a time and I’m sure my wardrobe will provide suitable garments for my alter-witch’s flight to Blåkulla (Blue mountain). I have the perfect “kvast” (twig broom) hanging on my wall as an art object (!) and the copper kettle is ready to go in the kitchen.

After meeting with Margaretha, I looked forward to going through the current exhibit—Voices from Our Swedish Past—primarily moved by the desire to see how my own six-legged rocking chair had been placed as it hangs out for a couple of months in the company of other precious relics at the museum.

I was totally unprepared for the serendipity that took over my whole being as I began my “motsols” (counterclockwise) journey through this modest exhibit. The title—Voices—is more than apt, it is inspired. The items on display are ordinary personal items on loan from 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Swedes—items that were important enough for their owners to take along to America when most things had to stay behind. I found myself strangely moved and more than once felt tears in my eyes. You see, each item had a story—a voice—a reason for being precious to its current and/or past owner. I became privy to these stories as I read my way around the room. My heart gasped more than once in recognition or remembrance of something from my own Swedish self.

My emotions first fell from my eyes as I encountered a 1948 vintage maroon girl’s bicycle loaned by Karin Bergesen. “I got this bike on my tenth birthday and it became an important part of my life. It still has the yellow numberplate from being registered with the police in Örebro where I grew up. The bike took me to girl scout meetings, piano lessons, friends, stores and picnics. In the summer it accompanied us to the west coast of Sweden where it took me to the beach, the everyday food shopping for my mother and on excursions with my family. Every April my father took the bike apart and cleaned it in our kitchen to my mother’s dismay. When moving to the United States in 1972, I could not part with the bike. I kept it for the memories.” My own bike had been blue and I could feel the breeze and freedom it had afforded me in my sweet youth—it stayed in Sweden when we moved here in 1960.

A green berry picker (lingon plockare) with a few missing teeth flashed me back into the deep woods where my own family picked blueberries as well as lingon. These same woods also beckoned my parents with the wonderful mushrooms that were to be found everywhere. Compass in hand and a backpack basket strapped on we’d trudge off in search of the treasured yellow chanterelle, anticipating the rich aroma and taste of the sautéed gold later in the evening. I remembered so clearly.

The preciseness of our “modersmål” (mother tongue) struck home as I read that a large silver spoon had come from the lender’s “farmors morföräldrar”—translated as “grandmother’s grandparents.” The english version simply tells you that the spoon came from two of a possible eight people four generations removed. Whereas the Swedish version zeroes in on exactly which two of those eight persons four generations ago—father’s mother’s mother’s parents). Great language! Why can’t English be more like Swedish?

Peering into a Saami baby’s portable cradle, I expected nothing other than a curious and unfamiliar environment for the sleeping infant. The outside was exotic with its reindeer hide wrapping, bright yellow and red ribbon decoration, hide laces to secure the child and lovely handwoven ribbons, both functional and decorative. The inside was padded with a mattress pad which to my astonished delight was instantly recognizable to me from my own non-Saami past. There was the very same woven fabric—blue and white, diamond with an eight pointed star motif—that covered every mattress and pillow I ever encountered as a child. What was this familiar fabric doing in a cradle made for a nomadic Saami child? It was jarring to see, yet wonderfully familiar and universal at the same time. The fabric’s pattern is synonymous with sleep and security and certainly every infant deserves no less.

Perhaps the most poignant item was a round of bread (rågkaka) baked in 1882. A round loaf with a hole in the middle and little dimples all over. My own mormor in Västergötland baked these, and I bake these now from her recipes. This particular loaf was 114 years old as I gazed upon it in wistful recognition. It was baked in Mariestad, Västergötland by the mother of Frans Emil Särd—she wanted her son to have good sustenance on his long journey to America and baked as much love as she could fit, and he could carry, into her loaves.

I had heard about the visual spectacle and exotic grandeur of the Royal Palace guards going through their exercises on horseback from my friend Thor who witnessed this event daily for a period in his youth—circa 1930. Today I came upon remnants of the real thing on loan from Carin Foster. There in front of my eyes were an elegant saber and a stunning casque—or helmet—of golden polished brass emblazoned with the royal shield enameled with three crowns in a field of blue and topped with a crown enameled with bright red. That was just the helmet part; rising from its top, dead-center, was a brass pillar the length of a virgin pencil; and atop that was attached a great bouquet of long dark (horse?) hair which hung down all around the helmet in a great show of manhood. It was breathtaking simply sitting there looking back at me. “These items not only symbolize my father as a young officer with the Cavalry in Stockholm, but also the changing of the guards at the Royal Palace with the sun reflecting on the water, music playing, horses stamping and flags flapping in the wind. Happy memories that always bring a smile to my face.” I am smiling as I read this for I am also seeing and hearing in my own mind the neighborhood children running along with and mimicking the guards and making noises with their “snattepinnar” and receiving encouraging winks and salutes from the amused guards. My friend is among those children.

This day was truly wonderful in a way I had not expected at all. The exhibit “Voices” is a treasure not to be missed if you can possibly manage to get to Philadelphia. It runs through December 1st. Your heart and spirit will feel at home and be enriched.

 

top of page

LXlogo1