My Swedish Mother — A Remembrance

My mother, Barbara Forsberg Johnson Smedley, 1923 – 2017. Submitted photo

Towards the end — for several years — mother didn’t really know anyone. But with her well-tutored politeness, kindness, and compassion, she pretended she did. She found a way around it. Mom called everybody honey. No need to recall names. If you asked her if she remembered something, she would usually nod yes. But the hard truth is, she forgot the language she had once mastered so beautifully. She forgot how to play the music she had once loved. She forgot the way home from her daughter’s house on the other side of Jamestown where she had lived for the better part of 90 years. In the end, she forgot, well, just about everything.

But she knew us when we would visit her in the calm, somewhat eerie and shuffled hallways of Heritage Gerry. As we neared her, we would lean down very close and whisper, hello, mama. Her hand would shoot up and stroke our faces. Then she would smile and murmur, hi, honey.

We think she knew us both, her daughters, even distinguished us one from the other right to the end. Maybe she was just kind and pretended to know us, but it felt real. When her grandchildren visited, she would say she knew them, but we were never sure she did. Her son in law George visited her regularly right to the end and was there when she died. She seemed to know him most of the time, but it’s hard to tell. Perhaps Vicky and I fool ourselves by believing she knew us. We hope so. In truth, we lost her in 2013.

Mom seemed to be fine until perhaps 2010, when one day she told me on the phone that she forgot the way home from Vicky’s on the South side. Mom had driven those Jamestown streets since 1945. She knew her way around well. On that day, she came to a street light and did not know which way to turn. She did not panic though, sober Swede that she was, and simply pulled over to the curb to think a while. Eventually, she refound her bearings and drove on home. In 2010, she grew wary and angry too, and often said odd things about being afraid or thinking she was in danger. But for the most part, she relied on her husband, and he kept her normal world spinning. That changed in January 2011, when he had a massive heart attack and died shortly thereafter. He never got to go home again as he cried to do, their little white bungalow on upper Dearing Avenue by Ring School where they lived since 1979. Mom never went home again either.

It seems we knew right away she was gone in her mind. She was curiously fugitive from the normal grief of Fred’s illness and death. The shock of it seemed to knock her utterly askew. She could no longer be alone and often did not know where she was. First, Vicky took her in for months; then in June, mom flew to Florida to live with me a while. But it did not work in either case. She flew into rages, threw items across the room, slammed doors, tried running away, screamed and cried. A few months later, mom went back to New York to stay with Vicky again, but the same behaviors continued and grew worse and worse. We called police. We went to the ER. We saw doctors. Nothing helped. And really, in such a situation, it is very hard to find the next rational step.

Finally, mom went to the ER during one such wild episode where a wise psychiatrist committed her for long enough to get her evaluated and sent to a suitable nursing home facility. We are so lucky that turned out to be Heritage where for the next several years, our mother seemed at peace as she declined week by week, year by year. She still loved rides in the country and eating chocolate ice cream. She still loved us.

So mom’s new home was a single room now in a nursing facility where she was always warm, well dressed and well fed, cared for and supervised 24 hours a day. She seemed to feel safe there and henceforth never raged or tried to run away. If we asked her, she would say she was “so happy,” that she “loved living there,” that she “had so many good friends.” It’s a tribute to the Heritage staff, to how well the Heritage ministries mission is carried out, how well our mother settled right in.

As years progressed, then months grew short, mother lost her language. Her communication was laughter and smiles. She would sit hunched over the tables or fall asleep in her chair in the day room. One day, she just stopped living. I found her at the back of the day room, curled up in a chair. We had her taken back to her room and put to bed immediately. In five days, she was gone. We held vigil the whole time. We held her hands as she passed away with one long breath.

Mom had been a tigress all her life, even as a young Swedish immigrant. She fought with the neighborhood boys and was tough as any of them. When our father left in 1966, she went wild with loss and grief for a long time. After that, she was different. Strong but different. She could outdo just about all of us in pushups well into her 60s. She worked all day long, keeping her house in perfect order. She rose early, 6 a.m. or so, and was the last one in bed at night, often around midnight. She never needed much sleep. Six hours was enough. I don’t recall her ever complaining of being tired or sleepy or looking groggy eyed. She drank coffee all day long. That may have helped.

In mother’s house, there wasn’t a plate or fork out of place, ever. In mother’s house, she did the dishes even if she was exhausted. She made three meals a day. She took as much pride in her huswifery as she did in her music, in her children, in her use of English. Mother was a stickler for perfection. Our days clicked to her metronome.

She kept the same dear friends for a lifetime, one of them Phyllis Bjork. Another was Lois Lofgren Quick. Beattie Hinton was her dear confidante as was Ginger Swanson. They got together as often as possible to drink coffee and eat pie, to share their ongoing stories. But mostly they laughed. How they laughed! The house would ring with their laughter.

Lois lived in Florida but drove up and stayed all summer for many years in her family house on the corner of Newton and Weeks. Phyllis lived across town in a remodeled farm house on the Big Tree Sugar Grove Road. Phyllis showed up on the swelteringly hot day of mom’s July memorial service at the Fluvanna Cemetery, walking between her loved ones. We hugged her dear and close. Lois and Ginger were gone by then. Beattie lived out of town in her daughter’s care.

My mother taught me to love language and words. She required perfection with it. My mother taught me how to ice skate and ride a bike. She said yes, of course! When I asked to ride horses and bought me several horses even when life was hard. She illustrated the art of kindness, the kind that comes from walking in others’ shoes and withholding judgment. She taught us to live in the moment, to take time with each task. We may not have learned all of these lessons, but they were good lessons. My mother recommended frugal living. She liked to say, so short! So short! Like her best childhood friend’s mother used to do. She loved animals. She was a great cook.

Much of her life, she played Chopin and Lizst on her home piano. She had learned to play as a child from a bombastic Norwegian named Professor Thorstenburg, she told us who would bang her fingers on the keys if she made mistakes. So she became a polite pianist. She would sit transfixed as she played, her long fingers graceful and confident. She would lose herself in the music for a little while. Then she would rise and put the sheet music away quietly, stand up and get back to the business of daily living.

As a child I was proud of my mother when she came to school functions. She always dressed “to the nines” as she used to say and carried a good looking handbag. I could hear the heels clicking down the corridors of my elementary school before she arrived and as she left. Sometimes she wore a fashionable hat. In the 50s, she wore white gloves, neat and soft cotton with a pearl button to close the top. I wore them too for a while in the 50s. I’m sure it’s the way she thought to protect me from polio and all the dangers of the world. She was a movie star in my eyes.

All her life, she liked to garden. Until she was nearly 90, she tended a garden behind her house where she grew orange and yellow marigolds, multi-colored zinnia, orange hummingbird vine, and scarlet red celosia. A lone forsythia bloomed early, gold and tall, in the side yard. Roses were too fancy for her. She preferred humbler flowers. Her rows were neatly drawn. We could find her on her knees, bent over her flowers, at any given hour, tireless it seemed. Red geraniums with white baby’s breath filled the wooden planters on her front porch and two or three hanging petunia plants hung by the porch swing, always deep purple and white.

In the end, she taught us how to bear illness and grief, loss, difficulty, and how to die. She left us on a June day so lovely I gasp to recall it–the wind stirring the fields of daisies on the hillside outside her window; the roses in full bloom just beyond the sill, pink as pale hearts. So short, she would say. So short, my dear ones. We finished the Lord’s Prayer. She took a last breath and passed like a breeze over us. She seemed happy to the end. She had that gift, you know, of being in the moment, of cherishing every day, of making even a ride in the country special.

Some mothers leave us fast, and some leave slowly. But they never really leave us. That’s the thing. And they embue us with all they believed; their touch on our foreheads, on our hands, lingers, like a blessing. We celebrate them all today.