S k ö n a M a j. L a r r y C u r t i s - PDF

On July 4, 1970 I found myself alone in a restaurant in Stockholm, and couldn t help but notice a beautiful young woman among a group of people at a nearby table. She was tall and statuesque with long

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On July 4, 1970 I found myself alone in a restaurant in Stockholm, and couldn t help but notice a beautiful young woman among a group of people at a nearby table. She was tall and statuesque with long blond hair, a stunningly attractive face, and an infectious smile. There was disco music and a dance floor, so I gathered my courage and asked her to dance. To my delight she agreed and subsequently invited me to join their table. Her name was Maj, and as we talked, the fact that she was beautiful became irrelevant, and I knew that this intelligent, vivacious, kind, thoughtful woman was the person with whom I wished to spend the rest of my life. To my incredible good fortune, at that instant she made the same decision about me. From that moment we were soulmates, and for the next 36 years we lived an enchanted life. Together our lives blossomed with an unbroken series of personal and professional successes, international adventures amid medieval splendor, extraordinary friendships, and the simple pleasures of love and companionship. Maj was taken from me by ovarian cancer on November 1, 2006, and this memoir is written to give shared form and substance to these cherished memories. ISBN S k ö n a M a j L a r r y C u r t i s ii Sköna Maj An Enchanted Life By Larry Curtis Preliminary Draft Follows. Now published and available on Amazon.com (search Skona Maj under books. ) iii I had the joy of the love and companionship of my soulmate Maj Rosander Curtis from the moment of our first meeting on July 4, 1970 until death took her from me on November 1, From that first meeting our common wish was to spend the rest of our lives together. We shared many years of unbroken good fortune and had a nearly perfect life together, which now exists only in my memories. In order to give form and substance to my rich mental images, I have prepared this memoir. Larry Curtis, 17 February 2009 1 Summer of 1970 The joy of my life began in I was 34 years old, and had completed my PhD in I was employed thereafter by the University of Toledo, at that time as an associate professor of physics and astronomy. It was the turbulent 1960 s. I had gone through a painful divorce, we all had been buffeted by political and social turmoil, and I had become pessimistic about my ability to carry out the basic research for which my education had prepared me. Increasingly I had been drawn into university administration, and I was being pressured to assume the department chairmanship. I was at a fork in the road between idealistic dreams and pragmatic realities. As I was contemplating my future, a departmental colleague returned to Toledo from a one-year sabbatical leave at the University of Arizona. He noted that I was eligible for such a leave, and urged me to use it to travel somewhere far from Toledo. He emphasized the perspective that can be gained from such an experience, and its value in considering life-altering decisions. I was at that time in a relationship with a woman who seemed anxious to accompany me on such an adventure, so I began to examine the possibilities. I selected two laboratories that matched my research interests, one in Lyon, France and another in Stockholm, Sweden, and contacted the directors of both institutes. To my surprise, both laboratories offered me financial support as a visiting scientist, and I needed only to decide which offer to accept. It happened that Indrek Martinson, a researcher from the Stockholm laboratory, had spent a research leave at the University of Arizona at the same time as my colleague. On their way back to Stockholm, Indrek and his wife Evi stopped in Toledo to visit us. Indrek and I connected immediately, so I accepted their offer and 1 2 Summer of 1970 we began to make plans for my visit. Initially all seemed to be going smoothly, but as my plans for the leave converged, my relationship with my companion began to diverge. It totally disintegrated shortly before the end of the school year and, reluctantly, I decided to continue on alone. That summer the Stockholm group hosted an international conference in Lysekil, a seaside resort on the west coast of Sweden, at which I presented an invited talk. On the Detroit-Copenhagen-Gothenburg flights I sat next to a beautiful young Swedish actress named Agneta Eckemyr. She had been living in the US, and was returning to visit her parents in Karlsborg. She subsequently went on to a very successful career, appearing in many films (with the Disney organization and other international studios), and on US television. She also did modeling (appearing on the front covers of Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines). Currently she is a boutique clothing designer in New York City. At that time she was returning to Sweden with a large amount of checked luggage, which she asked me to help transport to her connecting flight. We continued chatting during the layover. When we parted she gave me her address and telephone number in Karlsborg, and suggested that I visit her there. It was a delightful introduction to Sweden. The kindness and sensitivity of a lovely actress toward a lonely professor gave me confidence in making friends in my new swedish environment. The Lysekil conference was held June 7-12, and at its conclusion I traveled on to Stockholm. Thus I was alone in a strange country, not speaking the language, and knowing no one other than Indrek and Evi. Moreover, in Sweden the entire month of July is the federally-mandated employment vacation, and most of the population retreats to their summer cottages in the forests. I called Agneta Eckemyr, but her mother told me that she was in London. Feeling somewhat isolated, I decided that this would be a good time to learn the swedish language, and began attending night classes with other guest workers. I started to read swedish newspapers, looking for ways to entertain myself. One newspaper announcement caught my eye. It was an organization called Club Academica, and was a social group bringing together persons who possessed an academic degree. During the summer the club occasionally held social events at various restaurants in Stockholm. This seemed like a good way to prac- Summer of tice my Swedish, and perhaps to meet some swedish people outside those at the research institute. Thus it happened that on July 4, 1970 I found myself in a restaurant called Fasching (German for carnival) in Stockholm, which hosted the club, served refreshments, and played disco music. As I sat at my table and looked around the room, I saw at a nearby table a strikingly beautiful young woman. She was tall and statuesque with long blond hair, a stunningly attractive face, and an infectious smile. Also seated at the table were another woman and a man. Gathering my courage, I walked over to the table and asked Får jag lov? ( May I have permission? - Swedish for May I have this dance? ). She responded Ja, and we moved onto the dance floor. Since I was more interested in communicating with her than with practicing my Swedish, I asked Do you speak English? With that glorious smile she responded You re not english - you re an american! She then described a recent visit to the US, and indicated how much she had enjoyed it. She pointed out to me that this was the fourth of July, and that I could instead be drinking Budweiser at a reception at the US Embassy. And, most importantly, she invited me to join them at their table. We talked for perhaps an hour. She said that her name was Maj, and asked me if I knew how to spell it. I said yes, I knew that Sammie Davis Jr. had married a swedish actress named Maj Britt, and that her name was pronounced My. Maj told me that the actress was Maj-Britt Wilkens and, like the actress Ann-Margret Olsson, she used her hyphenated first name professionally. Maj is Swedish for the month of May. The words Sköna Maj in the book title mean beautiful May and this is the title of one of the most popular traditional swedish songs. It is a stirring welcome to springtime sung by student choirs in celebration of graduation. Maj had recently graduated from the University of Lund, and was working for the summer at a hospital patient library in Linköping, a town about two hours south of Stockholm by train. She was only in Stockholm for the day, to register for classes at the Stockholm library science school. In the fall she would be studying there for an advanced degree. The other people at the table were old friends from high school who now lived near Stockholm, and with whom she was staying for the night. By this time, the fact that Maj was beautiful was irrelevant. I knew that this immensely intelligent, vivacious, kind and thought- 4 Summer of 1970 The smile across the crowded room Den första gång jag såg dig, det var en sommar dag... ful woman was the person with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. What I could not have known then is that at precisely the same instant, this mature, worldly, 24 year-old person had (for some unfathomable reason) made the same decision about me. I still find this fact incredible, and can offer no explanation other than that I am the luckiest person on the face of the earth. From the moment we met we became soulmates that even death cannot part. Maj then had a brief discussion in Swedish with her friends. She reported to me that it was now time for her friends to go home. In panic my thoughts went quickly to finding a way to see her Summer of Shopping in London. again, but to my joy she continued would you like to join us and have breakfast at my friends house? Thus the four of us took the subway to the railroad station, and then rode a narrow gauge railway train to the picturesque Stockholm suburb of Nockeby. At the Stockholm latitude, in July the sun dips for a time beneath the horizon, but some light remains in the sky until it returns with a glorious sunrise. We talked through the night, and made plans for the future. We arranged that I would rent a car and drive down to visit her in Linköping, and that she would later return by train to visit me in Stockholm. I had sublet a luxurious flat from a colleague at the research institute who was spending the summer at his forest stuga. 6 Summer of 1970 The flat was at Sybillegatan 3 in downtown Stockholm, across from the dramatic theatre and the Stockholm music museum. We talked by telephone every day during that period. We had a glorious summer, which we capped off with a vacation in England. I arranged to buy a car for export in Amsterdam. We took the train to pick up the car, toured Holland and Belgium, and then spent a week in England before returning to Sweden. In pictures from that trip we both look so young and so happy. Thus began my sabbatical year. 2 A sabbatical year in Stockholm On my arrival in Stockholm I was provided with temporary lodging in the guest apartment at the Research Institute for Physics until such time as I could obtain appropriate accommodations for the year. This was a nontrivial task, since Stockholm is a planned city, and an important aspect of that planning is to avoid urban sprawl by limiting population in the central city. To achieve this, Stockholm is ringed by outlying, localized, high-rise housing enclaves. These are connected to the city like spokes in a wheel by rapid transit links. At first glance, this seemed a stark contrast to a suburban bungalow, separated from the neighbors by a picket fence, that has long been considered the american dream. However, the conformity and modularity of these high-rise housing units possess a less obvious advantage. By taking an elevator to the ground floor and walking a hundred yards, one is in the lush forest that surrounds Stockholm. This allows an easy escape to nature, which belongs to everyone through the idyllic swedish concept of allmansrätten (an ancient custom of unfettered eminent domain that seems utopian, but somehow works in Sweden). For the summer, I had been able to sublet the picturesque apartment in the historic center of Stockholm, but I needed to find longer term accommodations by the end of the swedish vacation period. As one approach, on the advice of friends I registered at Stockholm University as an undergraduate student. Since I already had a PhD this may seem strange, but in Sweden the education is free, one can become a student merely by presenting adequate educational credentials, and lifetime learning is encouraged. Being duly registered I became eligible for a student apartment. 7 8 A sabbatical year in Stockholm This led to another magic moment. I was discussing with Maj the various options for my lodging, and she casually suggested, I already have a student apartment, so you could stay with me. She went on to point out that in Sweden the housing unit will move another bed into the apartment if we ask them. Thus, as the fall term approached, Maj obtained her apartment in a student housing complex called Jerum. My Stockholm landlord returned from the countryside, and we set up housekeeping in Maj s apartment. In Sweden the student apartments are compact, but self-contained, consisting of an individual bedroom and bathroom, and a kitchen and dining room that is shared with others on a corridor. We managed to survive without moving in a second bed. Early in the term I had one frightening weekend. Maj told me that she would be returning to her home in Småland for the weekend. She said that her former boyfriend had asked to see her, and she had agreed to meet with him. She was apologetic, but indicated that she needed to make some decisions, and it was something she needed to get away to do. I felt shattered, but by that time I had learned to take her at her word. I felt that this might be the end of a dream, but I knew that I could do nothing but wait. When she returned she reaffirmed the fact that she wanted to be with me for the rest of her life. She fantasized that we would have a child together - a daughter named Sarah, who would learn to dance ballet. We had a busy, fulfilling, and joyful life together, and somehow Sarah never came to be. My american colleague was correct - in this idyllic land, all of the fears, anxieties, and frustrations that I had felt in Toledo melted away in sublime happiness. With Maj as my guide, I learned to love the swedish countryside, the ancient traditions, and to understand the advantages of a greater degree of conformity than exists in competitive America. An ancient swedish proverb states Lagom är bäst which translates roughly to Just-right is best. Cooperation is valued over competition, meaning that sports teams are almost always balanced, with no stars and no weak players. For a competitive american alpha male this takes some getting used to, but the approach can lead to a new level of equanimity and an immensely satisfying and rewarding life. A sabbatical year in Stockholm 9 One of our first social occasions as a couple was the visit of Maj s Norwegian friend Anne-Grete. She and Maj had met when they both worked a summer in England as strawberry pickers. The three of us went to the royal summer palace in Drottningholm. We toured the gardens and Drottningholm Slottsteater, a theatre in which operas are still performed is they were when it was built in We returned to Jerum to prepare dinner, and a group of students were playing swedish folk music in the dining room. I asked one of the students if I could borrow his fiddle, and I played the folksong Gärdebylåten with them by ear. I recall that Maj was shocked that I had this secret ability. I had not previously mentioned that I studied violin as a child, and had been playing in concerts, operas, and musicals throughout my college days. I can recall saying with studied modesty, Oh, it s just something I picked up. Here I must also confess another small conceit. Many people attribute the fact that I learned to speak Swedish to Maj. In fact, I never allowed Maj to teach me to speak Swedish. I wanted to conceal from her my struggles with the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Thus, after attending some classes, I listened to the radio, watched television, and read detective novels armed with a dictionary, hoping to impress her. I recall one day when we were talking with a group of people she commented to me Do you realize that you are speaking Swedish? Again I casually dismissed it as just something that I picked up. Later we had a visit from Kerstin, another of Maj s close friends. With her we visited Sigtuna, a viking village from the 10th century. We also visited Gamla Uppsala, where ancient kings were interred in a viking burial mound, and the old cathedral where, among others, Anders Celsius is buried. Later Maj took me to her favorite restaurant in Stockholm s Gamla Stan (Old Town). The restaurant was called Fem Små Hus (Five Small Houses). A swedish troubadour named Fred Åkeström was dressed as the swedish poet and musician Carl Michael Bellman ( ), and he serenaded us throughout dinner. The songs of Bellman are not only beautiful, but they also provide vivid descriptions of features of old Stockholm that are still preserved today. Of particular interest is Haga Park, a vast nature preserve north of Stockholm. It has many lakes, woods and gardens, as well as ancient castles, pavilions, and a copper tent. One of Bellman s most haunting melodies, See the butterfly at Haga (Fjäriln vingad syns 10 A sabbatical year in Stockholm Fagerhult på Haga) is commemorated by a self-contained butterfly house in Haga. Maj and I once attended a Bellman festival in Haga Park. Hundreds of picnickers filled the hillside, enjoying the summer and singing Bellman s songs. I recall being troubled by the number of wine bottles that littered the area when the festival ended. We returned to the park the following day for a brunch of waffles, strawberries and whipped cream. I was amazed to find that the hillside was immaculately clean - a tribute to the swedish deposit requirement on wine bottles. Maj often suggested unusual activities that turned out to be unexpected fun. One day she told me that there was a kite-flying party taking place in the Gärdet area of Stockholm. She packed a lunch and we went there by subway. There in a large field were throngs of A sabbatical year in Stockholm 11 people, and the sky was filled with hundreds of kites of many sizes and shapes. The wind was blowing toward the Baltic, and many of the kites had played out so much string that each kite appeared only as a dot. It was a festive and friendly occasion, with many people enjoying companionship and a beautiful sunny day. It was a simple but highly memorable pleasure. To me, Stockholm remains an old friend. When I make return trips to other cities I am struck by the changes that have occurred. When I return to Stockholm, much remains as it was in Bellman s time and, nostalgically, as it was when Maj and I first met there. During that year we often visited Maj s parents home in Fagerhult in the Småland region of Sweden. My active vocabulary in Swedish had now grown to the point where I could express myself quite well, but I did not have a large enough passive vocabulary to completely understand what was being said to me. Maj s parents, Torsten and Maja (Johansson) Rosander, knew no English. In addition they had a delightful småland accent that was quite different from the Stockholm dialect. (It has been suggested that a language is a dialect that has an army.) I met Maj s sister Kicki, her brother Reine, his fiancé Ann-Mari, and various aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. I discovered that Swedish can be superior to English in designating the positions of relatives in the family tree. Thus I met Faster (father-sister) Helga and Faster Judith, Moster (mother-sister) Anne-Lisa and Moster Ingelil, and Morbror (mother-brother) Werner and Morbror Ragnar. This scheme can be usefully extended to delineate the linkages of cousins, such as Fasterson Birger, Mosterson Weine, and Moster
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