Memories of My Mother and the World She Made

Bente Wohnsen Carlsson
November 5, 1936 – October 28, 2019

Me and my mom on Mother's Day, May 2019.
Me and my mom on Mother’s Day, May 2019.

My mother, Bente, died October 28, 2019. I am very sad and will miss her forever. Losing a parent is the most normal of human experiences, and among the most daunting. She was nearly 83, and I thought for a number of years that she or my father could drop unexpectedly at any time and I needed to be prepared. Two weeks before she died she took a bad fall, and as so often happens when the very elderly take a fall, things unraveled. I wrote this a few weeks ago, but wasn’t ready to make it public til today, a month after her death.

During her two weeks in the hospital, we learned a lot about Kaiser’s assembly line medical care, the erroneous assumptions it produces that lead to degraded care at skilled nursing facilities (through no fault of the individuals who work in those understaffed, under-resourced facilities) and how hard it is to properly advocate for our parents when things start breaking down. The saddest loss is the relationship between my mother and my granddaughter, which had just begun to solidify. But relationships between great-grandmothers and great-granddaughters are rare, and almost by definition, cannot last. They played together for two and a half years—pretty good really, but my granddaughter’s memories of my mom will be fully shaped by the many videos and photos we have of them. She’s a child of the digital world, the over-documented childhoods that will allow little to disappear in the fog of memory. She will “know” her childhood in a way that few of us born in the 20th century do (unless our parents made home movies of our earliest days).

Mom and Halloul when she was just a few months old in 2017.
At my dad’s birthday lunch in January 2019.

My mom came to the United States after marrying my father on December 22, 1956, when she was already 6 months pregnant with me. At a memorial we held on Day of the Dead, my father surprised us with his account of their serendipitous meeting at the end of a train line in northern Germany where he’d overslept and missed his connection. After traveling together to Copenhagen, he left as planned to visit his relatives in Sweden, but came back after a few days and went straight to my mother’s parents’ home at the edge of Dyrehaven in Klampenborg, a suburb north of Copenhagen. After he was well received and fed dinner, my mother, who was working as a nurse trainee, called in and told her parents to have my dad meet her at Hellerup station at midnight. He was there, and after walking around a bit in the warm Scandinavian midsummer middle of the night, in a passionate interlude my mother and father conceived me in a public park. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 11, 1957.

My mother and father on their wedding day, Dec. 22, 1956
My mom, dad, grandmother, aunt, and grandfather, Dec. 22, 1956, in Denmark.

I have no memories of my first couple of years in Brooklyn. I have a dim memory of flying to Denmark in 1960 or 1961 on Scandinavian Airlines to visit my mother’s mother (MorMor in Danish). The plane had white linen tablecloths and full silverware, including a special “pusher” for kids in lieu of a knife, a utensil that remained in our kitchen drawer for another decade. At my grandmother’s I had to sleep in a crib for which I was already too tall, my head and feet uncomfortably smashing the top and bottom. My earliest memory in Chicago, after we moved there in 1959, was when my father carried me up a rickety wooden stairway to see fireworks shooting off over the opening of a nearby Co-op grocery store. Later, redevelopment bulldozers leveled many square blocks across the street from our place in Hyde Park, and I vividly remember an old-fashioned circus setting up its BigTop tent in the vacant lot, with elephants and caged tigers, clowns and acrobats and the whole bit. I was taken to see the show and my mother bought me a small stuffed bear that was attached to a dowel. It slipped from my grasp and fell through the bleacher seats into the darkness below. It felt like the end of the world as I bawled in abject despair, until a nice person brought it out and gave it back to me.

I also have dim memories of laying in a bed or a couch, or maybe a mattress on the floor, in the middle of the oppressive heat and humidity of a Chicago summer and having my mother put a wet facecloth on my forehead to cool me down. On steaming summer mornings we would walk a couple of dozen blocks to go to the Museum of Science and Industry, or to Lake Michigan, with my younger sister in a stroller, at 7 a.m. soon after my father left on the El to go to his downtown insurance job. My mom taught me to “swim” by encouraging me to walk on my hands in the very shallow Lake Michigan waters on the wavy sand. Another early memory: going to sleep on a muggy late afternoon, probably a nap, and waking up around 8 pm in the evening light and being sure I’d slept through an entire day (my mom had to assure me that I hadn’t).

I remember scaring the hell out of her during a powerful winter storm. We lived on Ridgewood Court until I was about 7, and there was a large vacant lot next to our apartment building, and Murray Elementary School where I went across the street (I also remember walking home after JFK’s assassination in November 1963 and finding my mother weeping at home—the only time I saw her react to a political event). During the snowstorm I went to a friend’s apartment, also on the third floor, and diagonally across from our building. As the storm howled I stood in the window and waved at my mom peering out of our window across the street, assuming she was seeing me. She was not. When I finally came home hours later, she was in a panic and very angry with me.

In that same period, when I was between 4-7, I was playing dodgeball in someone’s basement. There were I-beam iron girders holding up the apartment building, and as I dodged a ball I whipped around and smashed right into a flange on one of the girders, cracking my forehead open. Bleeding profusely (it must have been spring or summer) I eventually walked home holding my t-shirt out in front to catch the blood, and appeared at our front door, my face covered in blood and my shirt soaked in it! I don’t recall how my mom reacted, but I can imagine she must’ve been scared to death.

Were kids heartier then? We were certainly given a lot more space to go out and play, and whatever dangers we got into were mostly never known, until something bad happened… I vividly recall being told by friends to never cross 47th Street (by then I lived at 5006 S. Dorchester) but once, around age 8 or 9, I rode on the back of a bike as a friend dared to pedal into the forbidden zone. Within a few minutes unknown kids were running at us threateningly. One kid suddenly threw a hammer and it went tumbling over and over in slow motion right at my head until I ducked at the last second and we somehow got away.

Maybe it was scaring her that led her to one of my more hilarious memories. I went with the YMCA’s Kids Day to see the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field when I was about 6 or 7. It was a big expedition with thousands of kids on buses, and my mom wasn’t taking any chances that I might succumb to a blizzard or starvation. She sent me with a huge shopping bag stuffed with blankets, a warm coat, and enough food to last a week. At the game I struggled to find a place to stash the giant bag under my seat. It was a typically hot and muggy Chicago day and I didn’t need any of the stuff she’d packed in the bag. I was embarrassed of course, but that was a typical experience for anyone with an immigrant mom. She just didn’t understand a lot of things that other kids’ moms knew. I never resented her for that, but I did have to learn to accommodate her penchant for insisting on things that were far outside of what most people thought ‘normal.’

When I was about 8 and my sister about 5, we came home with my mom into the lobby of our Dorchester Street building. As she opened the mailbox to get our mail, a young man came into the lobby and mumbled some kind of question about directions. She pointed him in a direction but a minute later he burst back into the lobby brandishing a pocket knife and demanding my mom’s purse. She flew into a rage, while we cried our eyes out, scared out of our wits. The guy took her purse and bolted, and she went after him yelling, running back out to the sidewalk. Incredibly as he ran away, my mom’s wallet fell out of the purse so she grabbed it from the sidewalk, and came back in, having only lost a cheap purse and some random items. She certainly didn’t flinch when faced with a dangerous assailant!

Before we moved away from Chicago in 1967, my parents became founding partners of a new small fabric and yarn store called Fabyar. They had no money and my mom was one of four women who started the business together (the others put in money—my parents, sweat). My mom had the most experience and knowledge about the yarns, fabrics, and notions that made up the bulk of their business. I think my dad was the bookkeeper. It was kind of fun for me and my sister as we had the run of the place, and got to know well the brand-new ice cream store that opened nearby with a whopping 31 flavors called Baskin-Robbins! (Somehow I had a lot of experiences that later became massified: in 1974 I worked on opening two new suburban malls southwest of Philadelphia, stocking shelves and eventually sales-clerking for Waldenbooks which became the McDonalds of the book world for a couple of decades.) It was in front of that Baskin-Robbins that I got bit in the face by a dog, probably the source of my life-long allergy and antipathy to dogs. It’s also where presidential campaigners for LBJ in autumn 1964 passed through and promised me a white plastic ten-gallon hat, that they of course never returned to deliver to me. Back in Chicago in 1966, the mini-mall my mom’s store was in also housed a restaurant called Chances R, which I loved because it was a dark, smoky place with bowls of peanuts on all the tables. Everyone was encouraged to eat as many peanuts as they wanted and to throw the shells on the floor, which I found incredibly cool at age 9…

We moved to Oakland in 1967. My dad’s new job was in downtown San Francisco. When we first arrived in the Bay Area to look for a place to live, we stayed with friends from our Chicago apartment building who had already moved to San Francisco. They lived on Guerrero near 18th Street, and I remember at age 10 being completely blown away by Dolores Park, a green oasis with an actual train running through it! I also remember KFRC AM radio blaring from everywhere all the time, usually Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane singing “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love?” which was the Top 40 #1 hit… my friends’ dad who we stayed with, Skip Ashby, I found out much later, not only fully embraced the drop-out counterculture of the moment, but eventually became an activist with the remnant IWW (the Wobblies). When I dipped my toe into those waters in 1978, his name somehow floated by…

We settled at the north edge of Oakland on Dana Street a block from White Horse Liquors and the bar of the same name across Telegraph Avenue, a half block from Berkeley (not having a clue that the White Horse Bar was a key gay gathering spot in the mid-1960s). I spent a lot of time playing board games with my family in those early days, collecting baseball cards, and running my own baseball league on the Cadaco spinning Major League Baseball game (I kept a profusion of statistics!). I also played basketball at St. Augustine’s playground a block to the south, and frisbee with my dad in the street in early evenings during daylight savings time. We weren’t more than a mile from Bushrod Park, a no-go area for me in that era, also close to the Black Panthers’ headquarters that was attacked by the police. When I got to my first day of 5th grade in October, after a month-long delay with bad asthma, my future friend Clifford Fortune tortured me by repeatedly asking me in a taunting way, “Hey man, can you dig it??” I had no idea of what he meant… thus began my ‘tweener life and early adolescence immersed in black Oakland while at school and in the neighborhood (a “ball of confusion” that I slowly learned to navigate, including the Temptations and James Brown—I’m Black and I’m Proud—playing at all the school parties). At home, my mother shaped and maintained a cozy, art-filled home, inspired by her Danish aesthetics to put local lamps everywhere and never use ceiling lights, a preference I still adhere to.

My mom eventually took a job at Sears & Roebuck at 27th and Telegraph where she worked part-time for a few years for $1.90/hour. She regularly came home enraged about how stupid the store was run, how petty and capricious her bosses were, how obnoxious and impossible the patrons could be, how crappy the products for sale were. She modeled a bad attitude about the stupidity of modern work life long before I had to taste it directly.

Meanwhile, though we never had much money, my life was very cozy. My mom, the Dane, was weird. She had a weird accent (always had trouble with ‘th’ and said ‘renember’), made weird food, sent me to school with weird lunches, and maintained a house unlike other family’s homes. We had Danish and American flags on our birthday cakes. We ate herring and pork roast and rice pudding at Christmas (not together!). I have no memory of being picky about food, since I have no memory of there ever being any choice about what to eat. We had a small black and white television, and I remember sitting around as a family watching F-Troop, Hogan’s Heroes, Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, and when it came along, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (which I somehow thought was edgy, an experience that I unconsciously internalized as an act of political disobedience, even subversion). My mother and I would exchange calf massages while we watched TV. When The Prisoner aired in the early 1970s, the ultimate saga of anti-state paranoia, we loved it! (Earlier, in Chicago, I remember watching the Smothers Brothers when it was on, but that it was considered a bit risque for a child—not that I understood anything they were talking about. I remember Ed Sullivan too, though I don’t recall seeing the Beatles on his show.)

I guess these anecdotes say more about me and my early perceptions than they do about my mom, except by implication. Trying to imagine what she thought, felt, or experienced when I was a child is quite difficult. Years later, I went through years of Talk therapy and my shrink challenged me to remember my earliest experiences of both mom and dad. After weeks of puzzling through various memories he proposed that my mother must have been very depressed when I was just born. My father recently confirmed that the early years of family life in Brooklyn and Chicago were difficult, and he and my mother were never happy at the same time until they joined the fabric and yarn store “start-up” in Chicago.

I can only imagine how difficult it must’ve been to come to the United States at the beginning of 1957, six months pregnant, just married to a man she hardly knew. His commitment to the expected role of family provider meant he commuted to work every day, while my mother was left to take care of me and figure out life in the U.S. by herself from a residential basement in Flatbush. She made friends with a neighboring new mom, a woman from India, and she recalled near the end the fun she shared of trying on her sari. Therapeutic inquiry led to the plausible conclusion that I spent my pre-language infancy learning to please my distressed mother, a kind of “wiring” that affected all my subsequent primary relationships.

I didn’t fully grasp my mother’s method of managing life until I was in my 40s. Her anger at me when I was breaking up with Caitlin, my first long-term partner (and the mother of my then 15-year-old daughter) shocked me, primarily because she wasn’t the least bit interested or curious about what I was feeling or going through. It was just a bad thing, and since I was responsible, I was wrecking my family’s life. As far as she was concerned, I should have decided to feel differently, and stick to the life I had. I realized later that she was angry with me because I was violating her preferences, her way of coping, her view of me as the perfect son. Months later, the cold shoulder she had been giving me softened and eventually she accepted my choices, though with frustration, sadness, and palpable disappointment. I don’t think I ever fully reconciled with my mother because she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, meet me on my terms at all. I loved and respected her on her terms, but deep inside I knew I was unknown to her. As long as I met her hopes and expectations as a man, as a father, as a grandfather, she treated me with great love and affection. But there was no way to open a more complicated conversation about the choices I’d made, about the choices she’d made, and how those choices precluded other paths and closed off other lives that might have been. That’s ok, after all it is rare to have that kind of frankness or openness with one’s parent. But from time to time I would notice it, I would chafe a bit at how little she really knew me, and feel disappointed at her lack of curiosity. But I forgave her for this, since both of us tended to tolerate the other’s interests, rather than take a genuine interest ourselves. In spite of this we talked every few days for the last years of her life and I visited at least monthly.

My mother had a fiercely independent and self-assured face through which she navigated the world. When things didn’t conform to her preferences, she would do her best to ignore what wasn’t “right” and carry on as though everything was fine. She would unhesitatingly pressure me, other family members, or people in the world with whom she had to engage, to adapt to her sense of the way things should be, and she always felt completely “right” and justified in this insistence. This was most noticeable on not just punctuality, but being early for everything all the time. Whenever my parents were coming for a visit, we always knew they’d arrive up to a half hour (or more!) early. Sometimes we’d make light of it, but she would insist that she was in the right, and we really had to be more organized.

Hilariously, she packed bags weeks in advance for the many vacations she and my father took. We were blessed to share several epic journeys with my parents that they generously paid for. We took a last tour of Scandinavia in 2012, a month-long journey around France in 2015, and a memorable holiday drive, “puebleando” through central Mexico. On that trip we booked a horseback ride up to the Monarch butterfly reserves in the Michoacán mountains, an experience that nearly killed my parents as neither was really capable of an hour-long steep mountain horseback ascent. Once we returned to the car, we rushed to Mexico City, a two-hour drive, to get my folks to a good restaurant with a bottle of white wine as fast as we could! Nothing settled rough patches on long journeys like a good meal with decent wine!

My mother was a fighter. She never let anyone get away with giving her bad service, a bad product, or anything she deemed “wrong.” Her hyper-efficiency made her a problematic employee wherever she worked, from Sears to the Franklin Mint in Philadelphia, to an antique restorer where she learned the tricks of the trade, how to “distress” objects by beating them with a chain, or fixing cracks with cheap glue. Her employers tolerated her since she got so much done, so efficiently, in such a short time, but eventually she left every job she had. The expectations of deference built in to the constraints of hierarchical labor processes always baffled her, since they made people do things that served no purpose, or actively prevented the job getting done properly. Looking back, I have to give her a lot of credit for shaping my expectations of work, quickly confirmed after my early years temping around corporate San Francisco. I have a vague memory of my mother trying to enlist her co-workers at Sears into some kind of organized refusal of the stupid rules imposed by management, and I think they succeeded in getting some changes. Now I wish I had better knowledge of what happened back then. She was a natural resister, but was too frustrated about how passive other people were to be effective, or even to stick around and see a fight through.

She never became a U.S. citizen, preferring to remain a Dane all her life. Curiously she really disliked Danes, and whenever she became acquainted with other ex-pat Danes she kept her distance. Neverthelesss, she considered Danish food and Danish aesthetics self-evidently superior (the latter focused on the untranslatable concept of “hyggly,” pronounced approximately “hooglee” with the gutteral vowels typical of Danish—pointing to a kind of “coziness” produced by harmonious colors, light, and design). (By the way, Danish is a language characterized by the neighboring Swedes as a “sickness of the throat!”—Even though the Scandinavian languages are very similar in structure and vocabulary, they sound quite different. Danish is the least musical of the three, and my mother’s Danish was frozen in the late 1950s—when she went back to Denmark over the years, she was surprised to realize that the language had moved on and her comprehension was being left behind.)

She produced an endless stream of beautiful objects, gifting us countless unique creations, and passing on bags of raw materials to family and friends. She even painted for me a collection of dinner plates that we still use every day, with images of 19th century bicyclists juxtaposed to the names of cities that had a Critical Mass ride (usually ones that I had visited). She was proficient in a number of traditional Danish crafts, from knitting, crochet, needlepoint, and sewing, to more complicated (and occasionally toxic) activities like porcelain painting, jewelry making, clay sculpture, wooden constructions, and more. Her workshop was a cornucopia of raw materials just waiting for the next inspiration, which was never slow to erupt. Her art and her culinary creations never stood still. Throughout her life, right to the last months, she played with new materials, new ways of making beautiful objects, and constantly tried new dishes on us when we came over for meals. She was a profoundly restless spirit, driven to experiment and innovate. While occasionally encouraged by us or others to try to sell some of her burgeoning output at art fairs or local consignment shops, she rejected the reduction of her creations to commodities. She didn’t want to sell things because then she’d have to keep making the things that were popular—her worst nightmare was having to sit and do the same thing over and over.

I’ll forever carry on her fierce independence. My daughter and grand-daughter both carry their own versions of her self-assuredness and uncompromising independence. Both my daughter (now 35) and I are committed to some kind of stateless communist utopia that we should get on with making sooner than later… our relentless, individualistic self-confidence makes a future of cooperation and subordination to shared decision-making difficult to imagine. My mother, a direct descendant of Hans Tavsen, the man who brought the Lutheran Reformation to Denmark in the 1500s, was a person who would never be subdued, never stop resisting the stupidity that dominates modern life, and who always knew better. She was always right, whether we agreed, or accepted her terms, or not. She wasn’t going to budge. Now she’s gone and we’ll always have our memories of her uncompromising insistence on living well, making life beautiful, and sharing it freely—even if you didn’t really “get it.” I loved her. She stood by me all the way, whether she really understood what I was up to or not. My life will never be the same without her constant presence, her regular phone calls, her weird self-serving generosity that made us need her, depend on her, and wonder how we could live without her. Now we’ll have to find out.

Bye Mom. You were such an amazing person! Thank you for bringing me into this world, and (perhaps unconsciously) promoting a revolutionary refusal of the limits of the life we’re expected to accept as inevitable and normal. It never was inevitable or normal, and you helped make that clear, without ever uttering a directly political thought… You surprise me in death, as I ponder your life, and I wish I had been bolder, and tried to talk about all this with you before you left. But maybe it’s better that I take your example, your remarkable life, and the legacy you have left deeply implanted in me and my daughter and granddaughter, and make of it my own meaning, my own sense of “knowing” who you were and what you gave us. It is plenty. You deeply enriched this world while you were here, right to the end.

Burying her ashes in the backyard.
Our impromptu grave markers.
A spectacular sunset followed our Thanksgiving meal and the burying of the ashes. This was easily one of my mom’s most cherished qualities of her home, these incredible views.
At about 17 years old, c. 1953.
On her 80th birthday, Nov. 5, 2016.

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