A memory from exactly 50 years ago, when I visited our family in Sweden.
The tunnel twisted and turned through moist grey granite inside the Swedish island of Musko. Suddenly a military sign appeared with a warning: “Swedish military base ahead. Access restricted.” Hans, husband of my cousin Britta, slowed the Mercedes as we approached the security check point with another sign: “Swedish Citizens Only.”
Hans looked at me, seated next to him: “OK. Don’t say anything. Just look Swedish.”
We came to the guard gate. The guard gazed at Hans’ ID papers, glimpsed at me and muttered something in Swedish. We were permitted to go ahead.
Where were we? I knew we were passing through the inside of an island, heading toward our family island of Mansholmann. But where were we?
We had entered a Swedish underground Naval base on the island of Musko, just south of Stockholm, Sweden. I found out later from Hans that within this island were underground docks built to receive Swedish destroyers and submarines. At this time, 1966, during the Cold War, this location was secret, protected from nuclear fallout.
While I was there visiting my family on Mansholmann, the Swedish Navy was searching for a Soviet submarine, which they thought had been caught in a fishing net. Later, there were rumors that a Swedish official, a friend to the USSR, somehow manipulated things so that the submarine could escape.
Thousands of islands constitute this part of the Swedish coast. Where we were was at the very edge of these clusters of islands. Beyond us was the open Baltic Sea leading toward Russia.
Hans parked the car at the edge of Musko and honked his horn. Soon I could see someone rowing a boat toward us. It was my mother’s cousin Ingrid Lindstrom. I had dinner with her a few weeks before at her home near the Stockholm City Hall. Here she was confidently rowing toward us. Soon we were on board and heading to Mansholmann.
When we landed, we walked toward Ingrid’s cottage, painted in the traditional red. The island was lush with trees and wildflowers. I had finally arrived at the island where my grandmother Ingaborg Soderberg (mormor) was born and the family had bravely farmed for 200 years, growing barley, potatoes, and vegetables and raised livestock.
My romanticized memory from fifty years ago recalls rowing out in the boat after dinner, brilliant sunshine until 11pm, throwing fishing nets into the water. The next morning we pulled in the nets and caught fish that would be cut up and cured for later use (Swedish Sushi, I guess).
I met Ingrid’s children, Britta Haglund and Sven Lindstrom, and their children. It was pristine, beautiful Swedish summer. We climbed a hill, where there was a legend of a Viking judgment circle 1000 years ago. We walked to the old cottage where my grandmother was born. As we entered, Ingrid told me to reach up and touch the top of a ceiling beam.
“What do you feel?” she asked.
“I feel something like a large coin, but it has been painted over.”
“When your grandmother was a teenager, a young man from the University in Stockholm came here one summer to work on the farm. He fell in love with your grandmother and put that kroner coin up there and said he would come back and get that coin and marry her.”
The coin is still there.
Grandmother Ingaborg married someone else, Abel Burman from Stockholm around 1900 in the Royal Cathedral in Gamla Stan (Old Town Stockholm). They would immigrate to America, where Grandfather Abel would build pianos for Steinway and open a music store in Chicago. Ingaborg would have eleven children.
Grandmother missed the island very much. There would be several return trips to the island for months at a time. My mother Linnea would come to the island. Her older sisters would go to school on Musko in a rowboat every morning.
I never thought I would be able to return to our family island again, as travel became limited due to our care for our disabled son Erik. But one day after Christmas 2015, Janice suggested that I should take our daughter Katie to Sweden to visit our family. Katie had been working at Fountain Valley Hospital (CA) for three years without a vacation. Over the months, we created the travel plans and flew to Sweden on SAS on May 25, 2016.
After several days with my grandfather (morfar) Burman’s family in Stockholm, Katie and I took the subway to Farsta. Ingrid’s son Sven met us at the station and we drove for 45 minutes through the colorful, forested Swedish landscape to Musko.
Now I was worried. How were we going to get through the “secret Swedish Navy Base?” We entered the familiar granite carved tunnel, twisting and turning through dark shadows. I looked for the military signs, but nothing. I asked my cousin Sven about this.
“The Government concentrated the Swedish Navy to two bases at Karlskrona and Berga. So this Navy base was closed in 2004. But now the Russian subs are probing the area again and the Government is talking about reopening the navy base and even joining NATO.”
At the end of the island, we carried our backpacks toward an old rowboat. I offered to row, but Sven took over. Here was an 88 year old man rowing with beautiful smooth movement effortlessly.
When we arrived, Cousin Britta was there with her two daughters Helena and Eva. Imagine, the last time I saw these folks was 50 years ago. Britta is now 90, but she says she still rows around the island every morning for exercise.
Islands are spirit places with Nature densely compacted. Christian monks sought out islands as places for solitude and prayer. Henri Nouwen writes about this as he recalls “The Three Monks of Tolstoy”.
(The Only Necessary Thing, Afterward).
“Three Russian monks lived in a faraway island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived he discovered that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer.”
“So he spent all his time and energy teaching them the “Our Father” and then left, satisfied with his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water – in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop, overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!” The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your island and be at peace.”
After a festive Swedish lunch at the home of Sven and Gerd, I sat outside on the porch, gazing at the landscape around us: the ancient cottage home of my grandmother, and the Baltic Sea in the distance. Late afternoon sun bakes my old bones. This is when the nine hour time change usually hits.
My mind travels back in time. I see huge wooden Viking warships cruising toward the island for a council meeting one thousand years ago. I see my great grandfather, wearing a battered blue seaman’s cap, moving a wooden scythe with sharp shinny blade side to side, harvesting golden ripe grain; my great grandmother and grandmother as a young girl on their knees planting potatoes in the moist, tilled soil. Cattle munch grass in a grove of aspen trees. I see the seasons: surrealistic summer, golden leaves of autumn, raw arctic cold winds of winter and snow, spring flowers and bursting Nature. My heart is filled with gratitude to return again on this pilgrimage to our family home.