My great-aunt Astrid

”I’m related to Astrid Lindgren.”

We understood early, my siblings, my cousins and I that there was something magnificent and remarkable stored up in those words. They were not used excessively, but now and then, on special occasions they were put to use and always with the same result. The age of the listener didn’t matter and neither did the subject matter of the conversation a moment ago. Every time you spoke those words everything would come to a standstill, and suddenly you’d find yourself right in the centre of all the attention.
But then followed the obvious question.
“How are you related?”
At that point it got a bit risky, and it was important to phrase the answer very skilfully so as not to lose the attention one had felt the need for at the time. For, who knows their grandfather’s sister or their mother’s aunt? Most people haven’t the faintest idea as to whether any great-aunts even exist in their family. Because, unfortunately, not everybody has access to a place like Näs. Our family does. And I think we are all well aware of how great a privilege that is.

One Saturday in August 1894, my great-grandfather, Samuel August Ericsson walked the 20km between Vennebjörke and his parents’ home in Sevedstorp. Astrid has herself recounted the story of that walk in the book, “Samuel August from Sevedstorp and Hanna from Hult”, and out of it came the Ericsson family’s taking over the lease at Näs. Eventually, Samuel August took over from his parents. Hanna’s and his four children (my grandfather Gunnar, Astrid, Stina and Ingegerd) grew up on the property, and when Samuel August got too old it was time for my grandfather to take it over. My mum and her two sisters were born there and became the second generation Bullerby children.

I myself was born and bred in Huskvarna. Almost every weekend we travelled the 110km to my grandparents at Näs in Vimmerby, and most of our Christmases were spent there with aunts, uncles and cousins – all happily crowding in together. A few times each year the great-aunts would come to visit the home where they had grown up. Astrid came a little more frequently because when Näs ceased to be a farm and the lease came to an end, the houses were bought by Astrid and my grandfather. The red house, which we called Bullerbyn, was renovated and decorated by Astrid to look just as it did in her own childhood. That was where she stayed when she came home to Näs, and that was where she used to play a game with us, her brother’s grandchildren, where she pretended to be an old witch. Well – this pretending thing – that was what made it so much fun to play with Astrid. We were kind of never quite sure that she hadn’t actually turned into a real witch because she was so good at pretending. Most grown-ups were not. In this game, the witch lived in the kitchen. Through the kitchen door she would stick out an old spatula upon which she’d placed little pieces of chocolate as bait. It wasn’t that we children didn’t know we’d get stuck to the spatula if we reached for those chocolates, but it was all part of the game to forget that from one time to the next. Once we’d been caught, she dragged us into the kitchen and stuck us in the box where the firewood was kept. With a voice like a witch, she’d say she was going to fetch the sheep shears so she could cut off all our beautiful hair. But fortunately for us, to get the shears she had to turn her back for a moment and reach up to a shelf, and that was our chance to escape. As quick as little weasels we’d seize the opportunity, throw open the lid, scramble over the edge of the box and run away. But sometimes the witch was unpredictable. Occasionally she’d forget all about the spatula and her sophisticated trapping method. Instead she would just come rushing out of her lair and now the chase was on for young and old, between the parlour, the drawing-room and the hall. The only safe place was under the beds in the guest room, and I remember lying there once trying to console my cousin who was three years younger than I. She was probably a little too young to fully appreciate that witch-game and was huddled up against the wall whimpering with fear while I was doing my best to comfort her. Perhaps not only out of concern for her, but also because I was afraid the game would stop if Astrid should happen to pop out of her witch character and discover the terrified four year-old under the bed.

I think it would be a very healthy thing for everybody to have access to a family property like Näs. A place where you can trace your roots back through the generations, and where you can wander about amongst those things that have been left behind by those who were there before you. To enjoy one another across all generational barriers, sharing life with each other, perhaps not so much in everyday life, but to be able to return on a regular basis to where it all began and to partake of one another’s experiences. Knowing that we’re all there for each other should the need arise. For me, that has always been a safety net.

As I write this, I’m sitting upstairs in the “new” house at Näs – the one that was built in 1920 when the red one became too small for the growing family. To my right stands the white display case that can be seen in so many of the old family photographs. There, on show, are all of Samuel August’s medals earned from successful horse breeding. There’s also a silver plaque from 1925 engraved with congratulations on turning 50, a framed photograph of my mum as a child, my grandparents’ travel memorabilia from the fifties and sixties, small unidentifiable figurines made of clay which are probably old Christmas gifts from me and my cousins. No particular order, just keepsakes to help remind us of our family history. And through the wall of the next room – the one that was once Astrid’s and Stina’s bedroom – I can hear my teenagers whispering to their cousins-once-removed, who are the same age. That’s the very room where I once sat around whispering with my cousins, and I feel deeply thankful for what I’m experiencing at this moment.

“They sure are a peculiar bunch of kids”, said Samuel August in the autumn of his life, pondering the fact that all of his country-bumpkin offspring were now grown up, and that they had all chosen professions that had to do with words. Morfar (my grandpa) and Astrid as authors, Stina as a translator and Ingegerd as a journalist. Morfar (on whom Lars in Bullerby is modelled) died when I was 9 years old, and the more I’ve heard about him, the more I’ve felt the loss of not having had the chance, as an adult, to get to know him. The great-aunts, on the other hand, have always had a central place in the family and they sure were a bit peculiar – but in the best possible way! I remember a trip we made over a weekend in November 1996. That was the year before Ingegerd died, and that’s why I’m particularly glad we had time to make that trip. Astrid, Stina and Ingegerd were all going to participate in an Astrid Lindgren conference in Vimmerby and I had the great pleasure of being their chauffeur for the weekend. From Stockholm to Vimmerby, to and fro between innumerable events over the weekend where the sisters were expected to take part, and then back to Stockholm again on the Sunday. In and out of the car, on and off with the safety belts and once, for a short distance, I recall we had my mum in the boot. (It was a station-wagon, so she didn’t suffer unduly). Exhausted, but full of good cheer, the sisters allowed themselves to be carted around Vimmerby. Three women all around 90, a little tired physically, but with intellects that literally sparkled. The quick wit, the humour, the intelligence. All of this was suddenly so tangible, there in the car. That weekend, I concluded that you’d have a hard time finding better female role-models than those three. And it hit me that in all the years of my growing up, I’d never heard any of them hold forth about feminism or inequality. It was as though it had never even occurred to them that everybody would not be treated equally. What they did was that they just stepped into their positions, as a matter of course and received due treatment. Instead of, at all cost, insisting on dividing up the world into “women’s rights” and “men’s rights”, I think they chose to think of everybody as “people”.

But let’s come back to my childhood, back to when we understood that there was something awesome and remarkable in those words that said we were related to Astrid Lindgren. To me, she was one of three colourful great-aunts. But things didn’t come to a standstill when I mentioned I was related to Stina or Ingegerd. That didn’t really make much sense to me. However, the older I got the more I understood. There was something most remarkable about Astrid. That she’d written all those books we loved and read, over and over, was of course in itself tremendously admirable, but it wasn’t something she had tattooed on her forehead or that she herself would sit around talking about all the time. No, it was Astrid, the person who appeared more and more unique the older I got and the more I understood.

If benevolence can be described as a character trait, then I have never met a person who exhibited so much of it as Astrid did. Always willing to help. Never considering whether there was anything in it for her – instead, it was more of a lifestyle for her to help solve people’s problems in whatever way she could, whether it be financially or simply by turning up. She had a deep empathy which enabled her to identify with somebody else’s situation, and regardless of whether they were relatives, friends or total strangers she would use all her energy in her endeavours to put things right. Big problems and small problems. If she could be of help she would be. In my own life she is there like a red thread. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see where the crossroads have been in one’s life and when I’ve been at some of my most important ones, Astrid has been there – for instance when as a 20 year-old I moved to Stockholm. Back in Huskvarna I’d been working as props manager at the Jönköping Shire Theatre and my plan was to get out there and find a job at one of Stockholm’s theatres. Astrid thought the idea was a bit dicey because who knows what kind of sleazy backstreet theatre I might end up in? (Perhaps she had in mind the warnings about the white slave-trade she’d been given when, under totally different circumstances 60 years earlier, she had moved to the capital.) Svensk Filmindustri (SF) was just about to make a movie based on All about the Bullerby Children and Astrid asked the producer if he couldn’t find some use for me on the set. I was smart enough to understand that it wouldn’t have been easy for the poor producer to say no to her request, and never in my life have I tried so hard to live up to the image of the perfect employee as I did during the making of that film. To prove I was worthy of the task. And somehow I must have passed the test because I stayed in the film-making business for twelve years. But it was Astrid who opened the door.

And then there was the time when my boyfriend and I had been renting a flat under a sub-leasing arrangement for four years, when suddenly the landlord decided to terminate the contract with the person who had the primary lease, and this resulted in our being turfed out into the street. Astrid thought this was very unfair and offered to come with us to the tenant’s association. After pacing the floor of the large premises in Hantverkar Street, she looked the man we had come to see square in the eye and said: “Well, I’d say you’ve got enough room here to accommodate a whole crowd of homeless young people”.

I could mention so many times when Astrid has been there. I realise that my life wouldn’t be what it is today were it not for Astrid and I’m deeply grateful.

There was one time in my life when I deliberately kept quiet about our being related. It was when I suddenly and without prior warning wrote my first book. It happened during a long period of illness and nobody knew I was writing a book – not even I realised it until it was finished! Finding the ability to write was for me like discovering a secret room where I’d never been before – and once I’d found it I wanted to stay there. But with no one’s help, but my own. Perhaps it would have been a natural thing to have asked for advice from Astrid, but I didn’t. Not until the publishing firm to which I’d sent my manuscript advised me that they wanted to publish the book, did I ring Astrid and tell her the good news. She was, of course, just as surprised as everyone else in the family. I had never been conscious of having any ambition of becoming an author, nor had I ever tried my hand at writing anything. So, understandably, the news caused quite a commotion. A happy one though. I asked my publisher not to breathe a word about whom I was related to. I would have been very embarrassed to think that people might get the idea I was trying to ride upon Astrid’s unique authorship. So it wasn’t until I’d had my third book published that I plucked up the courage to proudly tell people about my fantastic great-aunt.

Something that amazed all of us who knew Astrid was how she could be so unaffected by her enormous fame. As though she neither looked for it nor needed it. It didn’t move her. All the admiration and all the beautiful words – they just washed over her without ever penetrating the core of her personality or changing it. She was who she was – and that’s who she remained.

Let me borrow Hjalmar Söderberg’s famous words:
“We want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared; failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact.” [from the novel Doctor Glas, original translation: Paul Britten Austin, 1963]

If Hjalmar Söderberg was right, which is more than likely, we might have an explanation here. For as Astrid, herself wrote:
“A child who is lovingly cared for and who loves its parents learns from them how to be loving to all the world around it, and stays like that for life.”

From her earliest childhood, Astrid was wrapped up in the enormous love which was spread around in her home, not least by her father Samuel August. And there continued to be much love around Astrid because what you give you also receive. Parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, relatives and friends. Everybody loved her for who she was and not for the fantastic books she had produced. Perhaps we find the explanation right there: That love was ingrained in her at an early stage, so that there was never any need to lower herself to the place where satisfaction comes from being admired. I saw with my own eyes how powerful men in suits turned into little boys in front of her. Astrid herself treated all people she met with the same respect. It didn’t matter whether they were royalty or hobos. No matter how tired she was or how much she might have liked to shut her door and be left alone, she never let her frustration out on whoever happened to have the courage to approach her at that moment. For her then to be treated as someone “superior to” others – almost as if she were divine – must have been hard to take. I remember her saying sometimes when all the fuss around her was getting to be a bit much: “I’m so tired of that Astrid Lindgren.”

Astrid often described herself as deeply melancholic, and her sorrow over injustice and suffering was deep and genuine. Yet there was always a glint in her eye and a witty comment ready to be fired off. For me, she gave black humour a face. She went through some painful seasons in her own life, but rather than yielding to bitterness or repressing what she was feeling, she used these experiences as a help to better identify with other people’s situations. On one occasion she confessed that as a result of all the success, she’d probably developed a bit more self-confidence. Well, she certainly didn’t let that self-confidence go to waste but used it when she entered into public debate or fought against injustices wherever they arose. Even into her old age she continued to voice the things that many had been thinking but not known what to do about. She was a voice for those who were not themselves equipped to make a difference. However, it was not as many thought, that Astrid would throw herself into these debates – at least not in her later years. She was constantly being pursued by individuals and organisations wanting her to speak her mind about one thing or another. During one of her visits to Näs, at the beginning of the nineties, she was noticeably tired of “that Astrid Lindgren” who was never left alone. We then urged her to be little less amenable and to say “no” sometimes when she was tired. “You’ve got no idea how long it takes to even say no”, was her reply. “I’ve come to realise that what I say is of some value. So if someone comes and wants me to give my opinion on something I myself consider important, then I will.”

It is just this personality trait which to me makes Astrid so totally unique. That it is possible in this world, day after day, to choose the good – and to do it actively, so that it makes a difference.

It’s a comfort, though that so many people backed her up and took her to their hearts for that very reason. That by standing up for things and trying to make some change, she remains in our hearts as a great representative for justice, kindness and commonsense.

Oh, how I wish I had her courage! The courage she had to cast herself into the debate when something was upsetting her and to face things head-on instead of running for cover. I so much wish that even a tiny smidgeon of her courage might have found its way into my genes too. Because I’m related to Astrid Lindgren. Yes, I am.

- I’M RELATED TO ASTRID LINDGREN!

Karin Alvtegen

Karin Alvtegen, Astrid Lindgren’s great-niece. Photo: Monika Fransson