On August 19, 1999, my sister Bibi and I lost our mother, Ulla, without warning.
Her death made no sense—I mean it was shocking. After leaving me a phone message, she suddenly vomited blood and died, still on her feet, in her bathroom.
It was August 22 before we got somebody into the apartment, in Karlstad, Sweden. On the evening of the 19th, I started calling. Woke up the next day, continued. I called and called and called and called and called and then started smashing the phone into the floor. I called myself into a frenzy: Every hospital, police station, neighbor, even reached her neighbor’s son in Saudi Arabia, somehow, but no answer. No mom’s voice. The trauma of calling and calling and calling is seared into my memory, and has forever changed my relationship to phones, ringing phones, not being able to reach people.
I woke up Sunday morning feeling I had a truck on my chest and knew that would be the day we got the truth I had, in a way, avoided with my web of phone calls going everywhere and anywhere. I remembered that Mom had called the friend who watered her plants, from Barry’s fax phone in his kitchen. The phone company gave us the number and when she answered, she said: “I haven’t heard from Ulla since she got back from New York and I have been worried too.”
That’s when I knew. She would never not thank her friend who took care of her plants right away.
“I have the key, I’ll go over,” Viola said. “Call the apartment in 10 minutes.”
I called my father and asked him to take a cab over immediately, as I knew I was not capable of making that last phone call. I never really stopped to think how Barry felt about it. I just told him he had to make the call, and he did. And as soon as I heard him say in Swedish, “Hi Viola, this is Barry calling…” I was hanging onto the inside of the door frame, trying to disappear into the wall, when I saw Barry’s jaw go down as it does when he is trying not to cry, and he said the word “no” in Swedish, over and over.
Mom had just returned from a 3 week visit to see us in New York. She hadn’t even unpacked her suitcase. All the details about that shattering day are as vivid as if they happened yesterday. But perhaps I no longer need to “try to describe” it.
Better to describe her.
In the photo above, she is teaching me how to skate, probably in Central Park. You can see her spirit in that picture.
Once, around 2010, a book agent asked me to write a book about my life and when she rejected it she said I’d written a book about my mother’s life. Well—yes. I did. Because my mother is how I think and see the world. So of course it was about her. My mother was the event—I was the shadow. Something like that.
The book agent even asked, via email, if I wanted her to recycle the paper my novel was printed on “for” me. I thanked her, and said yes, can you believe that? Then I went into fetal position for 2 days, and never attempted “fiction” again.
I don’t like writing, fiction, books, book covers, any of it!
That agent asking me if I wanted her to re-cycle the manuscript ‘for’ me—That is exactly the kind of hideous thing my mother would never do. Those tiny cuts people inflict. No, no.
Not Ulla. If Ulla was going to cut you she would use a large blunt instrument and you would not be confused. This part of her I am not intending to soft-soap because it was unbelievably harrowing when she went nuclear.
She was also very effusive in her enthusiasms, (I think she was Greek, somehow) praises, obsessions; When it was time to have a rage, the paint came straight off the walls and there was no wolf-smiling to contend with.
My mother told me she had saved my life, and that my father repeatedly tried to have me killed. The reason I was a so-called journalist was that I know how to listen to people. That’s another thing I can’t forgive: People who don’t listen.
“Copper,” said Dr. Joan Matthews Larsson, when I sat in her Minneapolis office, circa 2013. “Copper?”
“Yes, your mother had excess copper. Everything you tell me sounds like excess copper.”
I immediately accepted this theory.
When we write about our parents we “spare” them, but really, we love them. You’re allowed to love a goat, a machine, “love is love,” etc— but you’re not allowed to love an “abusive” parent. What about a traumatized parent?
It’s normal to love your parents.
Not, I would argue, because they were either good, or great, or kind, or non-maiming—but because they claimed us, shaped us, stayed with us.
My love for my mother had a desperate quality. I only ever wanted to usher her out of rages and back into happiness and hope, our dream world of some kind of “house in the country” when the war was over. (The war with my father which was not really a war he was engaged in.)
There are two things I struggle to forgive, one is coldness and the other is: People who never let you know how they really feel. How they actually really feel, I mean. Ulla did this all the time.
Ulla had no filters—she could rage, laugh, be the most loving person in the world or tear you to shreds, but never did you not know how she truly felt. I think this is why I survived it all. She taught me how painful it actually is to be human, because it is. And if your mother didn’t fall down drunk, sob, break things, set herself on fire, as mine did, maybe she didn't actually tell you the truth about how painful it is to be human. Because it is.
I saw a human being, all my life, not a “mother.” Isn’t there something to be said for that? Probably Alice Miller would call this “sparing.”
I began that (rejected) memoir with a story that haunted me all my life: When my mother was growing up in central Sweden, in the mountain region of Närke, during the war, her grandmother Evelina, (a tobacco industrialist) had managed to get her a red bathing suit, which she cherished. I think it was made of wool but I’m not sure. I just see the redness, as a radiant, lingonberry red, an impossible to get-hold-of-during-the-war red.
She was 8 years old. On the first day she planned to wear it, she hung it on a hook in the changing room by the lake and somebody stole it. My mother was devastated. She cried her eyes out, but there was no getting it back.
I was never able to recover from this story, and I still haven’t. That bathing suit has been wounding me my whole life.
I wished I could go back in time, to that changing shed by the lake in Närke, and quietly put the red bathing suit back on the hook where it was supposed to be.
Then go back to waiting to be born as Ulla’s second child.
My thinking was, maybe this would close the portal, through which so many of her later losses came. Everything may have turned out differently, if she didn’t lose that bathing suit during the war.
I’m not being silly. I’m not being materialistic either.
Do some people just get their bathing suits stolen and others don’t? Was there a malevolent spirit involved? Something that came after her?
I always delete the passages about her actual death, and what happened to me, what happened to Bibi—it’s too much, even 23 years later. When we told Bibi, when Bibi learned of it, she was working a gig as a stilt walker at a children’s fair upstate. We drove up to tell her in person, but didn’t have any way to first get her down off the stilts and then tell her, so she had to find out while she was up there, in full costume, wig, long sparkly blue eyelashes, and children waiting for her to blow balloons. It was my father, myself, my son Jeremy, 5, and my then husband, Bob, gathered at the bottom of her stilts, looking up at her and trying to explain. I remember her tears through the sparkly eyelashes, and thinking: “This you will remember, forever.”
She said she would change and meet us in the bar. She’d been checking her messages on every break, as Mom had been missing for 3 days already. My father tried to cheer me up on day 2 by saying: “Maybe she ran into a friend and went to the country for the weekend.” I told him she would never do that, and wondered why he thought she would do that. Mom would never ever ever do that. Return from New York to Sweden after a 3 week visit, and go off for a weekend with a random friend the same day she returned? I got mad at him, quietly. For not knowing her.
Granted they’d been divorced for almost 30 years. His second wife would do something like that.
My mother was inconsolable. Through this profound wound, (and in it was sexual abuse, violence, abandonment, divorce, a father being sent to prison, committing suicide, nobody showing her real love, the war…and that’s only what I know about.
To whom am I writing?
Maybe my sister, maybe my son? Maybe my friend Anne, who always asks: “What would Ulla say?” when we get confused and lost.
Anne has decided: ”Ulla was always right.”
She carries two photos I’ve given her, of Ulla, in her wallet. If those two ever met they would definitely stay up all night talking, and they would decide I’m kind of lame.
My mother spoke to me about the kinds of things that came out in 2016, Wikileaks, The Podesta Files, when I was 7. She always said I had to “watch out” and keep my eyes open, and listen to my inner voice.
This not a story about a “wonderful” mother or a “terrible” mother. It’s a story about Ulla.
“Ulla was always right,” Anne says, though she never met her.
But I still have to think about this.
No, she wasn’t.
You know The Who song “I Can See For Miles?” Ulla was like that.
She saw things other people didn’t see, and she had electrical fires in her brain, also known as epilepsy. She developed epilepsy after a head injury sustained in a near plane crash.
Oh that reminds me of a great Ulla story.
She was a Pan Am stewardess in the late 1950s, in New York. Once, she smuggled a few cans of her beloved“surströmming” out of her native Sweden, and attempted to bring them to New York via Karachi, but chickened out and put them in a garbage can. “Surströmming” means ”sour herring” in Swedish, but it’s not sour, it’s fermented, it’s clinically rotten! It comes in bulging cans that hiss when you open them and the smell is so vile, the stuff is literally outlawed outside Scandinavia. No exaggeration in any of that.
The way Ulla’s mind worked was: “Smuggle several cans of surströmming through Pakistan, why not?”
Well, in the heat, in the outdoor airport garbage can, the cans exploded. She was well on her way out of there when she learned they had closed down the Karachi airport due to “exploding sewage pipes.” I assume she never confessed.
She always had schemes, ideas, things we just had to do, like this, and I was her defender and partner in crime, as I virtually had no mind of my own. Bibi had to balance out the irrationality, frankly, the insanity. There was no man, no husband, no father. Same thing three generations back, on my mother’s side. I think they socially engineered all this manlessness in Sweden a good 100 years before they got it going here.
It was a kind of trend, in the early 60s, for brilliant Jewish men to marry Swedish women, almost on a lark of some kind. I am the byproduct of this post-war trend. It really really didn’t work and was highly irresponsible. I wake up every single day to a mind that still has no idea which language to think in—an alien lost between cultures.
Once I found a letter from my father to a divorce lawyer, over 20 pages long, typed, detailing how he suffered being married to my mother. (They divorced when I was 3.) He made a huge stink of the fact that when he tried to bring his boss home for dinner, “Ulla would be carving a Viking ship out of a cantaloupe at 11 pm with no food served and the boss passed out from cocktails.”
Part of me feels like: So?
Wasn’t anybody thrilled to see the Viking Ship when it was done?
I guess not. Imagine these bosses, coming over unannounced for dinner in the early 1960s, and expecting miraculous meals, proofs of feminine organization and calm. Meatloaf and peas? Barry should have understood that no Swedes ever serve dinner in this sudden American way; They plan dinners for weeks.
The only thing I know—seriously—about my parent’s married domestic life, is that they timed Barry’s eggs to a record they had— a rendition of Rule Britannia! I mean to say they put the record on every morning, on a sunken record player, and Barry insisted his eggs were never quite right unless this took place.
That’s the only “scene from a marriage” I have, and I love it more as time passes. Society centrifuges away its “wasteful” gestures, along with its beauty, humor, eccentricity, and inside this time capsule, Barry and Ulla are in their old Upper West Side kitchen, timing Barry’s eggs to Rule Britannia!
My son pleads with me about this trait—the “over-doing it” trait.
We go back and forth.
Another time, we had the Viking ship story in reverse:
Ulla told Barry “company” was coming, and it was “family,” so he should hurry home from work. He came home from the radio station, she was wearing a gown, hair coiffed, the house was gleaming, candles lit. He asked who was coming for dinner? He recited every relative on both sides of his family, into third cousins once removed, she kept shaking her head— and finally, after what he swears was hours, and the candles sputtering out, he cottoned on and his jaw dropped.
“I didn’t say when they were coming” Ulla said, in her bouncing Swedish accent, so full of excitement and innocence.
The relative was their first child— my sister Bibi. That was how Ulla chose to reveal her pregnancy to Barry.
Oh world, world, lost crazy, colorful, world of things that weren’t to do with “transmission” or “risk” or “vaccines—” please come back. Well, as long as we are remembering Ulla, we are back there, and things are still funny. The terrifying aspects seem all the less important, while the funny parts only more important with each passing day.
I no longer care. No longer “mind.” No longer yearn for “self esteem.” Or a “childhood,” or the right to have been close to my father. I just want their world back. Even their bad night with the gun, Barry handcuffed in a tuxedo—hauled off the jail. End of family but beginning of Barry sleeping better, which is all he ever said when he spoke of that first night in jail.
I don’t want my childhood back, make no mistake; I want the world of individuals to come back, and save us from these boring masked zombies, obsessed with “risk.”
Ulla wasn’t like these mothers today on Instagram who are so crazy about their kids and never seem to even get mad at them.
Ulla was more the Scorched Earth type. Zero pandering. No apologies. Dark visions, shocking accusations, but somehow or other, I think it was character building.
She was a Red Cross nurse, in Sweden, and a Pan Am stewardess, in New York. Barry Farber’s glamorous Swedish wife, briefly, then an embattled divorcee going up against Roy Cohn. (!) Hence the sudden and in no way planned or warned about move to Sweden.
I guess, I’m really just trying to entertain you. This doesn’t have a purpose, a reason, other than to say how over time, we see our parents differently, appreciate them more, forgive them more.
Many of the surviving legendary anecdotes about Ulla come from the man she battled with the hardest—her husband, my father.
Barry was never one to not tell a great story about a person, over and over. Some of his Ulla stories:
Once Ulla was working an overnight shift in a mental hospital in in Sweden, when she heard heavy footsteps approaching down the corridor. She was alone on the ward. The heavy steps came closer and closer until he was standing before her. He had committed rape, this much I know, and was a very large man, but with an underdeveloped IQ. He’d gotten loose.
”May I lift your skirt?” he said slowly, in a deep, gravely voice, to Mom, alone, backed against a wall.
What did she do?
She smiled the brightest smile she had ever smiled and answered:
”Yes… of course you can. But not today.”
”Tomorrow?” he said, smiling broadly, with hopeful delight.
“Yes, tomorrow,” she said, and slowly placed him back in his straps, and walked him back to his room.
My father loved, loved, loved people who could stay calm and think on their feet like this, who could deploy a kind of psychological jujitsu and figure out how not to hurt someone.
He also told a story that was his favorite Ulla story, for reasons that will become clear. Bibi was a toddler, and had locked herself into a hotel bathroom in Atlantic City, which, horrifyingly, had an open window. The way Barry told it they could hear Bibi climbing toward the window. Barry just went unconscious, white as a ghost, hysterical—and who can blame him? But Ulla did this: She called through the door: “Bibi, do you see the chocolate bar in the bathtub?” [Barry must have been calling hotel security at this point.] Bibi could be heard pausing. “No,” she said.
“Bibi it’s there. Don’t you see it?”
“Well, I hid it extra carefully so you had better keep looking, Bibi.” She kept this up for the critical few moments.
BOOOOM!! Hotel security kick down door, Bibi is scooped up.
I love to imagine their hearts in that moment.
Another story Barry told was the time she, as part of her test of nerves for her nursing degree in Sweden, had to carry an amputated leg down a long corridor. I don’t think any of us could do that. I mean of course we couldn’t.
Also there was the time…they were in Cuba, a man was standing on the beach shaking his head and saying “sharks,” in Spanish, looking at a man out at sea seeming not to be doing so well swimming. Ulla dove in, swam out, brought him back under her arm. Another time Barry told of, they were in communist Yugoslavia, at an train station, and a man was beating his donkey with a stick. Ulla turned furiously to Barry and said: “Are you going to let him treat that animal like that, and not do anything about it?”
Barry would comment: “Here we are without passports, in Communist Yugoslavia, in the late 1950s, and your mother wanted me to start a brawl with a farmer over his treatment of his animal, can you imagine?”
Once in Copenhagen, Denmark, at an amusement park called Tivoli, she saw a “game” that involved mice having to stand on their hind legs and reach for strings. She flew into a rage, denouncing the cruelty, and marched us out and back to the hotel. We never went to zoos or circuses. She wasn’t de-sensitized. She was a strange combination of brutal and empathic. Her most epic quote was something she said to me about 6 months before she died, while setting her hair in rollers, in her kitchen in Karlstad, Sweden.
”The only things I really regret in my life are the times when I did not show enough love.”
She was quite right. Those really are the only genuine regrets.
There was the time she brought a 7 ft pine tree, a Christmas tree, from Sweden to Barbados as a Christmas gift to her dance teacher Willie. Why do all these details strike me as more and more improbable as I write them down, and yet I witnessed them. I remember when the thing came out on the conveyor belt half wrapped in burlap sack.
Ulla wanted things to be fun. And so do we.
During thunderstorms in New York, on Broadway, she told us to put our bathing suits on and go out into the storm. Just to splash around and probably get ourselves ionized and charged. No over-protective parenting. Parental alienation? Off the charts, no apologies. I had to hide my love for my father, or perish. I hid my love for him in what I call a “ghost heart” that sort of drifted out to sea. I learned to have her feelings. I actually think we shared one nervous system. Whatever she felt, I felt. My life revolved around quelling her anger and raising her hopes. Again, I actually think this is rather natural and normal. It’s just not how things are in today’s world, where parents are like discarded Amazon boxes.
Ulla went through a phase of needing to get us into the Sahara desert so we could see the stars properly—this was when I was 14, and we lived in Sweden. She did this on a nurse’s salary, working 3 jobs. I salute her for thinking in this way.
She absolutely loved Tunisia.
We went back to Tunisia a second time, and brought Bibi, the next year. This time Mom had scoped out a “paradise island” we were to make a special uncharted trip to. None of the buses, boats—none of it bore any relation to any information we had gathered. We were one Swedish woman and two teenage girls in sundresses alone in an Islamic country by darkening roads. Lost, in a word. Then I got a massive, massive ear infection. Things happened that caused our guardian angels to have to work overtime. We wound up begging the police to let us stay the night in the police station in Sfax, but settling for a broom closet in a hotel lobby, or was it a small room? I remember Bibi not being amused and me being in too much pain to blame Mom. The next day we were somehow airlifted back to our hotel and I got medical attention. And Mom was chastened, that time. She admitted she was truly truly scared. I was always too out of it to be scared, as if I had some kind of stuffing material left where my brain was supposed to be. Mercury, I suppose.
Well, guess what? The stars were astonishing. When you laid down on your back in the Sahara desert at night it was as though they were right over you, like you could reach out and touch them.
I am planning to get out of this Covid prison zero-joy mentality soon and get myself to North Africa. I’ll pick up my son, and his girlfriend, in Andalusia, and I’ll tell them about the stars in the Sahara desert. This time we will have a 6 ft 2 male with us.
Nothing is wrong, really—things are just waiting to turn. I wrote this because Ulla, it turns out, was the opposite to and the antidote to Covid. The boring, frightened, lifeless, accusatory, piddling, stingy, passive aggressive, mirthless, humorless vicious mindset that is “Covid.” She was its antidote.
Jesus, Ulla didn’t even call an ambulance when she was actively being possibly poisoned to death by a mushroom she mistook for a safe one. She just endured the violent expulsions from her whole body and waited to see if she would die. No, she didn't care what I felt about it. Once when a plane she was flying, as a stewardess, lost both engines over the alps in Switzerland, she got very still, and just thanked God for everything she had been given in life. I actually had the identical thing happen, with her, and my son (as an infant) en route from Puerto Rico to New York. Our plane just started falling from the sky. I did as Mom had instructed, started thanking God, and hoped my son didn’t wake up before impact. As I was focusing on this prayer, Mom was actually demanding a cocktail, even though the carts were crashing all over. I think she may have scored us two small bottles of vodka, as that plane fell, and fell, and the Puerto Rican ladies called out to a litany of saints. Because I felt as she did, I wasn’t afraid. Mom had persuaded me that fear of death was for ninnies and losers and people with no imaginations and no sense of God.
My son was always the heaviest sleeper. He slept in my arms, as the plane fell, as the ladies screamed.
Then it stopped. The plane stopped falling.
We had passed the test, somehow.
Ulla’s lesson was so sound: You don’t thank God when things go well, you thank God also when they don’t, even more ardently.
She loved real people, she hated snobs, she liked people who had tender souls, like the Tunisian man on crutches, who she met at a bank in Örebro and invited to our home for Christmas.
Photo below is me in Tunisia, on a camel, circa 1979.
In Saudi Arabia, by the way during MERS, the camel farmers kissed their camels when the BBC came around, and sang to them, to show they had no fear of catching “MERS” from their camels.
Can somebody tell me why, how, when, we agreed to stop living?
In Ulla’s honor, let’s have fun again. Let’s not let them get us to agree to these socially re-engineered Covid souls. Let’s get back to being people—the way we were.