There’s a photo of my cousin next to her namesake, Moder Svea, a bronze statue in Berga Memorial Park in Linköping, Sweden. It bears the inscription On Guard for the Motherland. Our Svea is blond and already a little buxom for a twelve year old. Unbeknownst to her she will soon be motherless and on guard for her younger twin sisters, Lilly and Anna. She will be on a flight with her father and sisters over the North Pole to Winnipeg then on a CN train to Edmonton where we will pick them up. This was the year that Ingemar Johansson knocked out heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and my father and Uncle Peter celebrated their arrival by listening to the fight and getting stinking drunk. Svea looked to my mother with sheepish eyes. In turn my mother sent us outside to have a picnic on the lawn.
We ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches, which was a first for Svea and her sisters and their favourite for months to come. After we overheard Uncle Peter waxing on Swedish royalty we turned our picnics into royal affairs. In 1958 the remains of mad King Erik XIV, who apparently lost his mother before the age of two, were examined and found to contain high levels of arsenic, probably added to his final bowl of pea soup. As well there was evidence of a blow from a sword. He died in 1577 but was proven murdered 400 years later. The year 1577 was a total abstract in our girlish minds. It fell into that vague era of “the olden days” and at Svea’s urging we drank “arsenic water” from the garden hose to accompany our sandwiches, being royal to the core.
Death was a popular subject for the twins. They liked to lie prostrate and still on the grass for as long as possible while we used dandelion flowers and long blades of grass to tickle them back to life. They still had half notions that their mother would reappear as well.
It was fun to have them stay at first. Being an only child I fancied having sisters and Svea and I each had a curly haired twin to possess and lead around. We often competed over who would claim Lilly or Anna for the day. It depended on which twin seemed the most chirpy or malleable at the time. Eventually I yearned to have my own room back, to have my parents’ undivided attention and resume my favoured status in our home.
And, like King Erik’s father, Gustav I, Uncle Peter soon took up with a Margaret, though his Margaret was not a noble woman like Gustav’s Margareta, who Gustav actually married. We called her Margareta when adults were not around but she was plain old Margaret Strand, widow of Albert Strand, left to manage The Strand movie theatre and rumoured to have special showings up in the projection booth. Uncle Peter, who seemed unable or unwilling to manage a place of his own, moved into Margaret’s modest two-storey Victorian and Svea and Lilly and Anna became versed in movies of the late fifties and early sixties before they were of age. Lilly and Anna often reported seeing their mother in movie scenes. Uncle Peter got a job at The Creamery and worked The Strand on weekends. Svea became chief cook and bottle washer (Margaret was not known for her housekeeping as it turned out) as well as surrogate mother to the twins. I remained the slightly naïve, only child, with few responsibilities. Svea was way ahead of me in so many ways.
While they sat at The Strand (the twins armed with colouring books and crayons to keep them from watching) they saw movie queens like Elizabeth Taylor in incomprehensible films such as Suddenly, Last Summer where Elizabeth was institutionalized for mental illness after witnessing her cousin being ripped to shreds by a swarm of Spanish boys. At the urging of her aunt, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth faced a lobotomy. Katharine Hepburn tried to nullify the fact that her son had baited young boys until he tired of them and refused to give them more money. He was cannibalized as a result. It was all very weird. Then young brain surgeon, Montgomery Clift, saved Elizabeth Taylor with a serum that allowed her to bare the truth of it all. Svea told me all about it, in detail. Who knew men could favour boys? Who knew boys could eat men?
In contrast I was allowed to watch Sandra Dee in Gidget with her teenage crush on James Darren. Sandra tried to make James jealous by throwing herself at Cliff Robertson and she dabbled with the idea of losing her virginity to Cliff as an appeal to James. Of course she didn’t follow through and James Darren gave her his class pin. I favoured getting a class pin myself, going into high school.
I wanted to be sweet Sandra Dee. Svea wanted to be glamorous, sexual, on the brink of danger Elizabeth Taylor. Lilly and Anna thought maybe their mother was being held in an institution with a hole in her brain which would explain why she had not yet reappeared. All this in spite of the fact that I, unlike Sandra Dee, had dark hair and had never kissed a boy, Svea had blond hair, unlike Elizabeth Taylor, and actually felt sorry for Debbie Reynolds who looked a bit like Svea’s mother and whose husband, Eddy Fisher, was stolen by Elizabeth. And this, in spite of the fact that we had explained to the twins that their mother was in heaven and would not be back on earth but would see them again much much later when they were really really old.
Svea already had the body of a woman, curvaceous and motherly – you could imagine her giving console to boys and girls alike. In fact she embraced Anna and Lilly with fierce devotion. Amongst thirteen year olds, however, she seemed a little fat. In our minds she was bigger than a teenage girl should be. Although I couldn’t read the minds of sixteen year old boys they seemed to fall for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and our Svea. Apparently so did married men.
In a funny twist, around age fourteen, Svea decided to change her name to Sandra and practised signing her name as such, to fend off comments about her unusual (to us) name. Her accent, however, could never be displaced and years later when Britt Ekland who only changed a vowel – Eklund to Ekland – became the token sexy Swedish Blond, famous for marrying and divorcing Peter Sellers, for becoming a Bond girl and later cohabitating with the mod Rod Stewart, Svea was already back to being Swedish full tilt. She was no longer the bigger girl with the big heart. We all passed through puberty and caught up to her size, developing hips and breasts like our mothers. She had already abandoned Sandra to become Svea again. It was cool to be a Swedish blond.
Svea, of course, proved to be far too mature for the boys in high school. She already knew the complexities of carrying for young children, of anticipating Uncle Peter’s benders, of skirting Margaret Strand’s propensity for finagling them all. By the time Britt Ekland was in the tabloids and I was off to university and other girls were going to nursing school or beauty school or agricultural college Svea was holding the fort, waitressing at Maxies Cafe by day, helping the twins with homework at night or cruising with Randy Fuller in his Ford pickup truck. Randy lived west of town on his parents’ cattle farm although he was away working on the rigs for weeks at a time to finance his eventual takeover upon his parents’ retirement. We all assumed that Svea would end up on that farm as well.
Sad to say Svea was the victim of town gossip and Randy was unable to ignore it all, perhaps with good reason on everyone’s part. Working in Maxies Cafe exposed Svea to people in town and from miles around and her easy sensuality did not go unnoticed. Though she had little known reason to hang out at Lens Menswear the story goes that she slipped in there right at the end of a day and further that a last minute customer walked into that store, after closing time, with the door still unlocked, to find Svea bent over the oak desk at the back, naked from the waist down. She had been seduced by the comments of a married man. He ordered his coffee and complimented her daily on her elegant posture and her sultry hip sway. She was curious about his abilities. For Svea it would have been but a blip on the radar if it had gone undetected. She maintained her usual poise at work which helped keep some suspicious minds in check but at home Uncle Peter, in his inebriated and embarrassed state, upbraided her to the point of sending her fleeing back to our house. Randy Fuller was soon engaged to another. Too soon by most people’s reckoning. This was the year that Elizabeth Taylor married Richard Burton after she starred in Cleopatra and cheated on Eddy Fisher.
The shock for me wasn’t that Svea was having sex. I already knew about her and Randy. It was that image of Svea being exposed and more to the point being watched by another. There were too many details told for just a fleeting glimpse.
This brought Anna and Lilly full circle back to our house as well since the twins were used to following Svea and by this time they were tired of the misdoings between their father and Margaret Strand. I became the weekend visitor going from a shared room in university residence to a spot on the couch at home. My mother became their substitute mother and Uncle Peter in his knowing heart felt this was for the best. The twins had just turned thirteen and you might think given the times that they would be a challenge to their father and to my parents but family scandal can have a sobering effect and encourage conservative behavior, at least for a time.
My mother determined that Svea was a born nurturer, as if she had a choice in the matter, and advised both Svea and Uncle Peter of the new Nursing Aide program in Edmonton and that it would be a crime if Svea did not go. The next fall Svea and I found a basement apartment near Whyte Avenue. Sandra Dee was long gone in my head and Julie Christie, with her wide sensual mouth, was her replacement. I wanted to be Lara to someone’s Doctor Zhivago. Now we were both identifying with ‘the other woman’ although a fraternity pin and some kind of commitment would not have been out of the question for me. That gadfly Britt Ekland was ‘the party girl’ in Do Not Disturb at this point, then the kid sister, Gina, to Peter Sellers in After The Fox and it would be another nine years before she was assistant to Roger Moore in The Man with The Golden Gun. That about measures the time it took for Svea to make her final transformation, going from bed pans during the week and party girl or devoted sister on weekends to full time medical assistant and eventual clinic director.
I know. She surprised us all. Her qualities, that we all took for granted, of courage in the face of loss and judgement, sensitivity to the needs of others, quiet responsibility and thicker skin than her fresh faced aura implied set her up for managerial success. And she was determined to have a better life for herself. I, of course, had taken it all for granted.
Elizabeth Taylor had already divorced and remarried Richard Burton but I don’t think Svea cared too much anymore. Whereas Elizabeth relied on serial marriages we rode the wave of the sexual revolution with serial dating.
Svea’s new venture began with The Pill, first prescribed by Dr. Jensson who she deemed less judgemental than Canadian born doctors. Before long Dr. Jensson had a parade of Svea’s friends and acquaintances, including myself, going through his office. Then Dr. Jensson, who obviously recognized Svea’s strengths, hired her as his aide. This may seem inappropriate in this day and age but it all made sense to us at the time and it was on the up and up between the two. This was how Svea began to ‘associate’, that is go out with, medical sales and marketing associates who came to the office to promote their wares. This was how she learned about balloon-catheter inspired IUDs, and how she determined that women could be free of The Pill’s high dosage side effects such as weight gain and nausea and blood clotting, weight gain being her major issue. She was fitted with the Dalkon Shield (a source of sadness and irony for the rest of her life) but kept abreast of the latest pill packaging. Ads promoted the “perfect pack” and the “dial pack” and there was the addition of placebos to round out all the days of the month and maintain a regular intake by forgetful women. Options and forms of birth control marketing interested her.
The tipping point came when Uncle Peter, with his ever increasing alcoholic flush, cut ties with Margaret Strand and her ever increasing jaundice eyes and moved with the twins to a two bedroom bungalow with a fenced-in back yard of his own. He was free of The Strand on weekends but the girls were left too much on their own. Soon Anna was pregnant and came to live in our basement suite in Edmonton while Lilly stayed in school with Svea’s advice and Dr. Jensson’s prescriptions to protect her. Svea took on as much of the guilt as anyone. She had failed to pass on her knowledge to the twins. It dawned on her that there were countless young women, and young men too, who needed information and care. Dr. Jensson, who had promoted the idea many a time, obtained the new government grant and along with Svea established a birth control clinic on the edge of the university campus. It was not without controversy but not without plenty of subscribers. Free prophylactics were a steady draw and medical marketing firms recognized the opportunity of supplying the clinic with a multitude of samples. Eventually students would move on to find jobs and fund their own sexual desires and hopefully they would rely on these familiar products.
In 1984 Elizabeth Taylor organized and hosted the first AIDS fundraiser, Britt Ekland published a fitness book called Sensual Beauty and Svea began a low key campaign against the Dalkon Shield, calling into radio talk shows whenever the topic touched on birth control, pregnancy, infertility or false and dangerous pharmaceutical advertising to women. She not only had the depth of experience from the defunct birth control clinic (grants had been phased out) she was devastated by the device’s effects on her own body. Svea, earth mother to her sisters and the sisters of others, and Aphrodite to countless men, was infertile due to the Dalkon Shield’s faulty design and shady promotion. A multitude of law suits supported her stance in the following years.
I was never comfortable with controversy. Julie Christie (dubbed the anti-goddess) with her simmering energy and ongoing affair with Warren Beatty, haunted me from time to time but I cozied into the life of a teacher, a wife and the mother of two spirited boys. Anna, single mother of sweet Emmy, curly-haired like her mother, went back to school earning scholarships and a degree in dental hygiene, ensuring her own marketability. Lilly became a lawyer advocating women’s rights, inspired by Svea’s slow but sure awakening to the roles of sex and fecundity in women’s lives.
And remember that farm boy, Randy Fuller, who dropped Svea over her menswear scandal. He had an awakening of sorts as well. His hurt pride had not held a candle to the pain of being married to a woman he truly disliked; the one he had hastily married after Svea’s notorious fuck (as women now freely call it), bent over that desk in Len’s store. Svea met up with Randy at our school reunion. Along with others he was again entranced by her goddess persona. As a woman she more fully resembled the statue of her namesake Moder Svea (Mother of Swedes). She was no longer the young girl in the photo who was destined to fly to Canada, clueless about her future. With his wife gone and his children grown Randy met with Svea as two adults can do, knowing they each have interesting flaws and a lot of history to talk about. They chanced marriage, Randy for a second time. Svea was soon enthralled with the breeding of purebred cattle, of identifying the udder quality of cows and the efficacy of the semen of champion bulls. She learned to perform artificial insemination and to market embryo transplants. Who knew that women could manipulate and restrain the instincts and copulation of cattle?
By Barbara Biles
Barbara Biles lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her stories have appeared in several Canadian and international magazines, more recently in publications of FreeFall, The Steel Chisel, Words, Pauses, Noises (WPN), Turk’s Head Review and The Nashwaak Review.
Photography by Laura Brown, from her collection ‘Island Thirty’
Laura Suzy Brown is a visual artist/image maker working in Brighton and London.