Ulla, my mother. Sept 13, 1931-Aug 19, 1999.
For so many hours I have tried to find words that aren’t false, for she hated falsity. Inconsolable, is a word that comes to mind. Also: Pure joy, like a child.
I offered consolations that were not backed by turns of events in this life.
I think of her standards: That you bring gifts, help, uplift, gold-sprinkle the atmosphere. Die sooner than be an ungracious house-guest.
Thank people with gusto, greet people warmly, POUR, she used to tell me, BEFORE your guests have reached empty glasses. NEVER ask a guest: “So, are you hungry…?”
No, you anticipate needs, and meet them.
Oh she would have lost her mind in this PC sourpuss era.
Traveled the world as a Pan Am stewardess–managed to cause an airport to shut down by chickening out of a plot to export rotten explosive herring from Sweden, via Karachi. Was it?
Her favorite country was Haiti, hands down.
My whole life was following her way of thinking and now I am stuck without her and nobody thinks this way and it’s awful. Everybody wants to do things the rational way. I can see her eyes sparking with contempt.
She got my sister and I to the Sahara desert twice on a nurse’s salary as a single mother because we “had to” see the stars. Once there, we “had to” go to a deserted island virtually off the map (almost ended very badly) and we “had to” purchase several large birdcages and send them to various people in the US, including her estranged husband’s parents in Fort Lauderdale–and bring a few home. When we went to visit her dance teacher (yes, dance teacher) Willie, from Barbados, she thought for a long time about a suitably spectacular gift to bring and settled on a full size fir tree, Christmas tree, which traveled from Sweden in a burlap sack to Barbados, and when it emerged on the conveyor belt…I just can’t tell you. Everybody was like in stitches. The customs official, I can see him before me: “A CHRISTMAS tree?” Her sense of humor and adventure were limitless.
She and her mother Ingrid, on a trip to Haiti, rented a motorcycle to speed up a mountain to a voodoo ceremony, which I wish I’d questioned her more about. She made my father demand of the radio station WINS that they release the gift monkey a sponsor had sent as it was animal cruelty, Max. He became my parents monkey, but turned against my mother when he fell for my father and lived on his shoulder.
Max tore up a friend’s daughter’s bedroom and Mom had to yield. Max went to a zoo.
All I know of their short lived marriage, in terms of domestic detail, just about, was that they played “Rule Brittania!” on the record player to time my father’s eggs to perfection.
Sublime sense of humor.
Temper? Oh yes.
But you know—I get it, now. Roy Cohn was my father’s divorce lawyer, which means now we all speak Swedish. No concept such as warn us we are moving to Sweden.
It’s ok, Mom. Trauma is trauma. She set only one small fire, to my father’s second wife’s experimental noir downtown…um..ah never mind. Nobody was hurt. It was this ex wife of my father’s who told me the story, with a smile, kind of. (Yes, I know, it’s not funny. But nobody was hurt, thank God.)
She rescued at least two drowning men, once from shark infested waters. She was asked to carry a leg down a corridor when in Red Cross nurse’s training, to test her nerves.
She made my father confront a man beating his mule at a train station in Yugoslavia, “Are you going to let him treat that animal like that Barry?”
My father recalled, shaking his head:
“There we are in communist Yugoslavia., and Ulla wanted me to pick a fight with a farmer!”
In the Soviet Union, so they did not have to ask, as they could not, she wrapped gifts for the girls in US fashion magazines.
And when she walked in on my father interviewing an important member of some royal family, realizing his secretary had made a mistake, she invented a crisis in New York, to explain the intrusion, and spare the secretary a major scolding. When my sister, her first child, was on her way, she decorated the house, put on her best dress, and made my father guess for two hours WHAT relative was coming to dinner. “Uncle Ellis?” “No” “Aunt Hick?” “No.” He had to exhaust every possibility on all sides of both families before she gave him the critical clue:
“I didn’t say when they were coming.”
That’s how she told him she was pregnant. Elevate, always, was her motto. She had not one snobby bone own her body and you always knew what she was feeling. She did not believe some people are more important than others.
I’m not saying she was some kind of mother angel person. But she was real, as real as real gets. I wished she could be fake sometimes but no.
When we were on a flight that began to plummet from the sky, my son was one year old, she turned to me when everybody else was screaming for saints, (we were flying back from Puerto Rico) and she told me to “SAY THANK YOU” to God. And I did. That was what she said you do in these situations, and it was not her first. She broke her back, and suffered a concussion, in an airplane incident.
How did she live all these lives?
The line I recall, the thing she said, that kills me the most, was about 6 months before she died. She was setting her hair in rollers, and tossing pins into a pan, and she said, “The only things I regret in my life are the times when I did not show enough love.”
This is me often, now, but I am exhausted and I can’t “show love” anymore. I’m trying to, but everybody is psychotic at the moment.
Mom, this is ridiculous, what were you thinking? Living without her is a bleak slow hell. Living with her was a wild hilarious traumatic ride.
There was a Tunisian man–a Muslim in Sweden named Mohammed, who was paraplegic; He came over sometimes, including, on Christmas eve.
“He’s a man,” she said.
She said that also, about Peter Olsen.
When my son was due, and I was packing for the hospital, she raised the issue of the importance of a NEW nightgown and robe.
That was another one of those things that just did not end well.
I learned nothing about how to keep the peace, everything about how to keep the….something. What was it? SPIRT.
Now I am a spiritless furless squirrel, gasping for solace in a destroyed, cold world.
“Drink!” she said once, admonishing me for drinking with bird like sips. Go ahead. Say it’s not healthy. I haven’t the strength to argue.
God made my mother, as an antidote to political correctness.
No, that’s not true.
She was Ulla. She was my mom. And I loved her beyond measure, no matter how many times I object to how I was traumatized by it all.
Just told my father I can’t come cook dinner. Can’t move.
Mom, I wish we could spend the night yelling at each other. We could smash some plates. We could clean up. We could laugh again. She would have been SO proud of her grandson, Jeremy, now 22.
And when I am an overbearing tyrant telling him he has to TAKE the gesture, and make it big, it’s her I am channeling.
The only sin in her book, was coldness.
On the last night I would see her alive, I bought her a dozen red roses and Beluga caviar–we partied, and also argued. And then she packed for her trip back to Sweden the next day.
Those roses outlived her. I never tortured a telephone like those two long days when she just did not answer the phone. With each ring, I begged. “Answer Mom. Answer.” Finally smashed it into the floor.
On day 3 we managed to get the lady who watered her flowers into the apartment. I made my father make that last call. His face fell, and in Swedish, he just said the word “no,” over and over. I ran out of the room screaming, and threw up.
She was always, since I was born, my world, my light, my teacher and my greatest ally. We have fallen apart since she died. This is what happens, when you lose a mother. Nobody is there, telling me we have to go to Tunisia…and “DON’T THROW OUT,” the plastic monkeys from the margaritas at Banditos.