Today would have been my aunt Barbro’s 83rd birthday. I had planned to travel to Stockholm to celebrate with her, but she passed away a few weeks ago.
I realize that somebody making it to 82 should be cause for celebration, but I honestly hoped I would have her around for a few more years. The only comfort is that at least we spent a couple of good weeks together in November.
When I was young, I wanted to be just like my aunt, who was a single woman with a career living in a studio apartment in central Stockholm. I was a big fan of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and she seemed like a real-life Mary, making it after all in the big city, having moved there from a rural hamlet in western Sweden. She worked as a drafter for an architectural firm, a job which I’m sure now involves working on computers, but back then required low-tech tools like rolls of tape and special rulers. Sometimes she would give me some tape decorated with dots or lines to play with, but unfortunately, I never inherited her artistic talent. Until the end of her life, she would create beautiful handmade cards for holidays and special occasions.
Because she had been such an energetic person, it was apparent in the last few years how much she was slowing down. She used to belong to a walking club, but in November, she tired so easily that she was not able to make it to the restaurant just around the corner from her apartment building without stopping several times to rest. I would go out during the day and take photos on my phone and show them to her when I returned, telling her about what I’d seen. She never complained, but it must have been frustrating for her to be housebound, unable to go out in her beloved Stockholm.
One of the hardest aspects of my aunt’s death is the realization that the people I was closest to in Sweden are all gone now. My parents are planning to visit Stockholm in August, as they do every year; they assured me that we’ll be able to keep her condo for at least a few years. (When she moved in, the area was decidedly sketchy; now it’s been completely gentrified, and even her tiny place is worth a small fortune. She died without a will, but I believe the ownership will pass to my mother and her brother.) Still, I imagine going there—the apartment she’d inhabited since the early 1970s, full of her books and paintings—and no longer having her there to greet me, and it fills me with sorrow. How much of my relationship with Sweden was about the place, and how much was about the people? It feels now like I’ve not only lost a beloved relative, but my home country and culture as well.
She meant so much to me. She was my godmother, but even now, she wanted to make sure I was dressed appropriately for the weather and that I remembered to greet people properly by shaking hands. I was an adult, a middle-aged person, and it was clear she still saw herself as someone with a job to do, a godmother’s job. Now I am on my own, and I can only hope I remember everything she taught me.