We have known each other since we were 2 and 3. But it must have been a couple of years now. Maybe even three. This week though, we finally met again, my very oldest friend Ulrika and me.
I grew up in Nordmaling, a small town of then 3000 people 40 minutes south of Umeå. My father was a pastry chef, and the first five years of my life we lived at the roof top floor in a three-story building where the bakery was in the basement. The first floor hosted the café and the city post office. Across the street (which at that time was the coast highway) a similar building with a hardware store. The gas station at the left and a flower shop down the road. The yellow brick public school 1-9 grade complex (which of course was the only school) right in the neighborhood and the white 1500-century stone church to the right up the road.
My family was mom, dad, my two-year younger sister and I. Our apartment a two bedroom with a tiny kitchen under a sloping ceiling. Right across the hall was Olle and Gun-Britt and their son Michael who was the same age as my sister. On the second floor right under my family was Karin and Arnold who owned the bakery and the café, Näslunds Konditori. And to the left, below Olle, Gun-Britt and Michael was Olga and Frans Näslund, Karin’s parents who started the bakery.
The hardware store across the street was Näslunds Järnaffär, started by G A Näslund, Frans brother. Managing the store did Oskar and Erik who lived with their wives Ida and Elsie on the second and third floor. Erik and Elsie had a son, Gunnar, who was my age.
This was my universe before I could walk.
I am sure Ulrika, one year older than me, was the one who found me. Her grandparents lived in the house next to ours, and they owned the flower shop. Ulrika’s house was down from the flower shop, very far away for a two year old.
And when I was about three, my universe was extended all the way to her house, including her family and a little barn with sheep and cows.
Does this sound idyllic? It was.
Moving myself back in time the all-embracing feeling is safety. My family’s small home was a part of a bigger home. Four family cubicles in a house smelling from fresh baked bread. As everyone who lived in the building except for my mother (who was a nurse) and Olle and Gun-Britt (gold smith and teacher) worked in the building, it was never empty. There was always someone there. And with the café and post office there was life, commerce, sounds, smells, people coming and going, noise, laughter, joy and excitement. And above all, there were always grown ups around.
In the two Näslund buildings cross the street from each other there were four kids and twelve grown ups. That is only counting the people who lived there, with the businesses of course, many more. And the bakery in the basement was the grounding, pounding warm heart of life, kindness, presence, support and love. It was a small town Bullerbyn (not translatable, an idyllic village from an Astrid Lindgren story), and I am not idealizing.
In the extended universe Ulrika and I were running around. Two little girls jumping in the hayloft scared of spiders, visiting Oskar and Erik in the hardware store smelling the rubber from the bicycle spring arrivals picking our favorites, saying hi to Grandma and Grandpa busy in the flower shop, staying away from the big post buses trafficking the street, and most of all running up and down the stairs to the bakery. Cause there wasn’t only my dad and Arnold, there were also teenage boys cleaning the baking trays and making deliveries with the scooters. And those young men were our first love.
Being a little girl, having daily access to twelve descent and responsible grown ups + Ulrica’s parents and grandparents, I wonder how that has affected me. I wonder who I would have been without them. As in most families and communities there was some dysfunctional elements of course, but I would say I was blessed with care and kindness. Twenty-four eyes and ears saw me and listened too me. Twenty-four arms and hands were ready to catch me if I fell. There was presence.
Ulrika and I have kept in contact most of our lives. We know each other the way siblings or cousins do. Because we share backgrounds. Because we fed the lambs with baby bottles. Because we were forced to Sunday school in the beautiful medieval church when no one else was. Because we had annoying baby sisters. Because I learned to ride my bike before she did although she was a year older. Because her birthday presents always were more expensive than mine. Because she had a dog and I a cat. We know everything there is to know about our families, and the small town where we grew up is our shared anchor: heavy and safe.
And now it was some years since we last saw each other. We are emailing quite frequently, but we haven’t met in person. Now we finally do. Having a light lunch at a coffee shop. Ulrika had two strokes within about a year and has to think about not eating too much fat. I am sitting on a cushion fighting to focus on my lunch date instead of the pain. This is the reason to why we haven’t been able to get together. We are two, to some degree crippled middle age women. Older than Ulrika’s grandmother, when little girls in our safe universe.
But we look good! We have nice haircuts and great smiles and no one could tell our physical weaknesses. We complain about gaining belly fat more than stroke and cancer.
Sitting there, we realize we are survivors. We could both have been dead from sickness. We might very well have our final rest at the Nordmaling cemetery, but right now we are sitting together at a light lunch talking about what’s closest to our hearts.
Trouble 1 dropped me off at the coffee shop. He last met Ulrika when he was just a child. They say hello and hug and we tell him about feeding lambs with baby bottles and the running up and down the stairs of his Grandpa’s bakery. He watches two childhood friends very happy to see each other.
Out of the twelve grown ups in my first universe, only two remains. And Ulrika’s mom is still there. I wish I could tell them all how important they have been to me. And maybe I have, there have been a lot of funerals. And I wish that every child would be graced by not only one or two parents, but by a community of grown ups hearing then, seeing them, catching them when they fall. Making and keeping them safe and warm.