I was having the midmorning coffee with my colleagues at The Institute for Ecological Sustainability when the Swedish Secretary of State Anna Lindh died from being stabbed in a Stockholm downtown mall. It was September 11 2003.
In bed a Sunday morning February 28 1986 I read how the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot and killed during the night. I had been celebrating my brother in law turning 30 while Olof Palme died. I was going to be a mother in 1,5 month. It was cold outside. That’s how I remember it.
The couch in my childhood living room was dark brown. Flat and firm. It was actually a sofa bed. The texture of the fabric was rough. I can feel the marks in my hands when moving my palm over it. Right beside the sofa was a radio. A big peace of teakwood furniture standing on the floor. It was actually a gramophone combined with a FM AM radio. There was a cabinet in the furniture filled with my parents Long Play records.
That’s where I was sitting 1963 November 22 listening to the news. The president of The United States of America had been shot. He was dead. I was seven years old.
The picture is very clear to me. Next to the living room is the kitchen. That’s where my mother was. I am guessing the radio was on all day. Newscast after newscast giving updates. Telling the same story over and over again. The president had been shot and killed.
I can’t put words on the feelings harboring in the little girl that day next to the radio, more than very uncomfortable and a vague frightening fear. And those feelings were probably my mother’s, not mine really. I was only seven, after all.
It wasn’t long ago that I was struck by the fact that I was born not more than eleven years after the ending of World War 2. Eleven years, that’s nothing! And that explains a lot about the general feeling about the world and life as a scary place when I was a little girl.
My mother was an anxiety-ridden woman. In her mind there was always a catastrophe lurking around the corner. We would all die in a car accident, the house would burn down, me and my sister would be kidnapped or someone would come into our house and kill us while we were watching TV in the basement. These were the ordinary day catastrophes that could happen at any time. And then there was the World War 3.
The World War 3 was hovering over my childhood as a constant brownish-yellow nuclear cloud. Until most recently I imagined every child growing up in the sixties had that experience. I was perplex finding out that wasn’t always the case. Some, I am sure, but not everyone.
I watched the movie JFK not too long ago. And this weekend the mini series Kennedys. And I am peeking into my childhood of teak furniture, cigarettes smoked indoors and Jackie Kennedy dresses. And I am seeing my mother. And coming to understand her better than I have done.
In my mother’s condition of general anxiety it isn’t strange the sixties was a constant fear of the World War 3. The Bay of Pig’s happened when my dad was building our house. We moved in to the new and shiny red brick home of two floors and a basement right before Christmas 1961 but my mother was crying. She couldn’t be happy about the house, World War 3 was coming and our lives and the house wouldn’t last. My parents lived there until they died 2004 and 2005.
I was five and of course didn’t know anything about world politics, but I knew my mother cried. For some reason I didn’t understand. On that brown sofa bed two years later November 22 1963 there was something in the fear that I could understand. I knew there was a president in America and his name was Kennedy. I knew his face. And the beautiful wife my mother so admired, her dresses, hats and purses. There were also two delightful children, a girl only one year younger than me. And the most adorable little boy, a baby brother. He had the same name as his father. The TV in our basement let the world come into our lives. I wonder if that helped or hindered my mom.
The Cold War made us freeze. Sweden at that time was literary in between the two super powers. Norway was NATO allied. Finland was through history and border close to the Soviet Union. Sweden was a tiny neutral skinny piece of land squeezed in between. If the balance tipped over ever so little we would be crushed like a summer mosquito under an annoyed hand.
The fact that Sweden was geographically close to Soviet made us feel more threatened by The Eastern Block. There was always The Russian. The image in my little girl mind was a big brown roaring bear wondering over a snowy field, a smoky breath from his nostrils. He wasn’t that far away. He could be close.
The small town where I grew up is located on the coast of the Bothnian Bay. Finland only four hours away by the ferry. And across Finland was the infinite and until the end of day cold and dark Soviet. What kind of impact on us was it growing up at the water facing the east? I wonder how children growing up in the Swedish mountains next to Norway feel about this time in history.
When I was twelve Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were dead two. The years up to my teens were lined with the most tragically political drama and I was covered in my mother’s anxiety.
They say Sweden lost its’ innocence when Olof Palme was assassinated. Anna Lindh was a beautiful highly liked and skilled politician who was bound to be our next Social Democrat prime minister, and someone stabbed her. Just like that. The February Sunday morning in bed, the midmorning September coffee at work, these are memories that will forever be stored in our collective memory and we all have our individual stories connecting us to the trauma and to each other.
November 22 1963. A seven year-old girl on a brown sofa bed next to a big teakwood radio. Her mother in the kitchen. A little girl is defenseless. Therefore, I think, the murder of President Kennedy is the political assassination that has affected me the most.
I was in Seattle when John F Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash on his way to a cousin wedding. He was the pilot. July 16 1999. My family walked around Greenlake with friends that afternoon. It was overcast and a bit chilly. There was a tennis ball. We tossed it between each other. I was to be divorced. We had burgers for dinner at Red Robin next to the University Bridge. That’s what I remember. What did I do in the evening? I don’t know. This is how I remember it.