As I remember, it was early autumn, those hot, dry Santa Ana winds blowing in from the California deserts. It made my skin itch and breathing the air was like hot pokers going up the nose. But the smog was gone at least and the majestic backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains was pristine and clear, so clear that Mount Wilson seemed much closer than it really was.
It was 1961 and I was in my world history class, Room 215 in the C Building at newly completed Pasadena High School. This was a special day as my cousin, Kerstin Lagerstedt, from Stockholm, Sweden, would be visiting my class. She was staying at our family home in Hastings Ranch, after completing a program at University of Indiana.
Two thoughts come to me as I remember that day. As she stood in the front of our classroom, sharing her Swedish experience in America and answering questions, I remember she looked exactly like Audrey Hepburn: the same cropped hair and tall, slim figure that you would recognize in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The second thought came like a flash as I gazed at her in our classroom: “How I wish I had an older sister like Kerstin.” As a 15 year old, I was having my struggles as oldest child. It would have especially been terrific to have had her friendship and counsel.
We would meet again in 1966. I finished my junior year at University of Southern California. It was a time of “troubles” for me. On the one hand, I was wrestling with the call to become a priest. I had applied to the long, grueling discernment process in the Diocese of Los Angeles. There were many tests and interviews, but it was the encounter with the psychiatrist that resulted in the Bishop’s denial for consideration for postulancy. In June, after stealing books from the University Library, I was told not to come back to USC.
Meanwhile, a family friend secured a summer job at Heimbs Kaffee, a coffee production company in Northern Germany, where I could further develop my German language skills.
As I set off for several months in Germany, I had no idea about my future. Turned down by the Bishop and kicked out of USC, things looked bleak and uncertain. After my time in Germany, I traveled on a boat from Bremen to Stockholm.
My cousin Kerstin’s mother Ingaborg Lagerstedt welcomed me at the Stockholm train station and brought me to the family home, where I received wonderful hospitality and friendship. This was also a time of change for Ingaborg, as her five daughters were off to school, careers and marriages; her husband, a distinguished Swedish educator, was leading a program far away in Afghanistan. So I guess I came into her life at a good time for her also. What a kind friend she was. We connected to some of my mother’s father’s family (Morfar Burman).
At night a strange illness frequently came over me. As I remember, it might have started when I was delivering coffee from the Heimbs factory in Braunschweig to a distributor in Berlin. We had to take the truck on the autobahn through East German territory (it was the Cold War in 1966). At a rest stop I went into the woods to relieve myself and I think it was there that the East German tick got me. For weeks after that, a fever would hit me at night and the sheets would be soaked in the morning. I didn’t know enough to go to the doctor.
I remember a weekend when some of Kerstin’s sisters and their boyfriends/husbands took me on a sail boat trip through the waters of the Swedish Archipelago. At night we tied up at an island. In the morning we walked through a meadow near a dense forest and picked soft, ripe, sweet red lingonberries. I remember eating a lot of sill, the raw, pickled Swedish herring.
At the end of my time in Sweden, I took the train from Stockholm south to Malmo and Lund, where Kerstin was in school and her fiancé Johan Munch was finishing law school. Kerstin again seemed like the guardian older sister to me, especially in that emotionally vulnerable time for me, as the future was so uncertain. We toured Malmo and Lund. She was like a watchful mother hen, taking good care of me.
The next year, my brother Mike visited Ingaborg in Stockholm and Johan and Kerstin in Lund. The following year, Johan’s parents stayed with my parents at our home in Hastings Ranch.
But by 1970, after I finished seminary, I lost connection with my beloved cousin Kerstin. Life became very busy at church and raising a family.
Through the years, I tried hard to reconnect with her, but old addresses no longer worked. Where was Kerstin? As the Internet became more developed, I tried many searches, but no results. Kerstin had disappeared.
As we developed the planned trip to Sweden that my daughter Katie and I would take on May 25th this year, I made one more try. I did a search for Johan Munch and saw that he was on Wikipedia. The young Swedish attorney I had known, through the years had a very distinguished career. For the past twenty years, he was a judge on the Supreme Court of Sweden and the last seven of those years he was Chief Justice. I found Johan on Facebook. He and Kerstin had divorced, but were still good friends and they had a son David. So Johan helped me find my long lost cousin Kerstin, just in time for our trip to Sweden.
On May 27th, daughter Katie and I walked down the marble staircase of the venerable Queen’s Hotel in Stockholm. In the lobby, waiting for us was my beloved cousin Kerstin and her son David Munck. What a joy to see her, as she and I age into the seventh decade of life.
One of the signs of true friendship, I have been told, is the ability to be with one another as if the long separation of fifty years were only yesterday. We are family and that has not changed.
Our first day together was a journey by ferryboat to the historic outdoor park Skansen, across from the Royal Palace. Katie, Kerstin, son David and I climbed the hill to the tree enshrouded cluster of farm buildings, village shops and wooden churches. Some of these buildings were three hundred years old; all had been transported from the countryside and preserved as a living museum. David was a joy to meet, full of enthusiasm for American rock music and popular culture. We found that we had similar views about politics and social justice. Another cousin found.
On another day, Kerstin guided Katie and me to Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm. As we entered the gate leading to narrow medieval streets, volunteers handed out information warning tourists about active, aggressive pickpockting. Kerstin brought us to the Royal Cathedral, where grandparents Abel and Ingaborg Burman were married in 1900 (morfar and mormor). Elaborate rococo carved wooden decorations embellished the pulpit and royal boxes.
On a third day, we journeyed to Gripsholm Castle, outside of Stockholm, with cousin Per Nylen, professor at University of Stockholm, who worked on the development of the flat screen TV in Silicon Valley. Katie experienced her first royal castle. The English tour brought us into a great hall of royal portraits. The tour guide shared stories connected with each portrait. King Erik was especially notable, as he and his brothers lived out an intense battle for royal power, imprisoning and poisoning one another. After Katie heard this she said, “Sounds exactly like the plot for ‘Game of Thrones.’”
As we walked back to the Queen’s Hotel, I could hear a sigh from cousin Kerstin. “I am beginning to feel the sadness of saying goodbye to you.” At the hotel lobby, we embraced in gratitude for this precious time together. Cousins once lost, now found, and friendship that will continue.