“Goodbye, Mamma,” the immigration official smiled and held out our passports. Then it was through the looking glass into that odd space - the waiting room and flights between countries - until I stepped out into the brisk, clear hallways of Arlanda Airport. There I had been “Mamma,” someone who had earned a title of respect for bearing children. Here I was an identification number with equal rights. I felt confused. Which one did I want?
It is a difficult question for me. I grew up in several places where chaos, heat and respectful titles for women who had borne children – especially many children or more than one at the same time – were the rule. People smiled wide smiles despite the fact that poverty governed. There was color, rhythmical music, and fascinating mystical beliefs in the spirits and fates. The fine, white sand formed itself in between my toes and the aquamarine salt water washed up to recapture the shore. The sea regurgitated small shells that were like jewels on white felt. There were the daily smells of dirt and rotting in the heat, but there was also the sweetness of the frangipani flowers and the mild taste of coconut water. All of these things lived like dormant small creatures in my memory from the beginning of life in such places, but my chosen home in Sweden was nothing like this.
In the yard, busying myself about the fallen leaves on the day after returning from Africa, the light was quickly fading. It was 3.30 in the afternoon. It was a good feeling to be wearing a sweater against my warm tan. A few roses still bloomed, as though to provide a soft reintroduction to my adopted home in the cold North. The sign for the annual Christmas market had gone up across the road, and people walked home to prepare an early dinner with advent wreaths in hand.
The walkways of the park were clear and airy. There was no opportunity for anything to rot with the frost slowly encroaching upon the early mornings. Still, Lucy the dog managed to find a rotten thing or two to sniff at. She was overjoyed to have us home. I imagined her in the heat of my childhood and my recent trip to Africa. This wouldn’t suit her at all. She was like the children – a born and bred Swede – who withered in the midday sun and humidity of the tropics, and who lived up when the chaos subsided and things became peaceful and even, like the delicate browns, greys and whites of beloved Swedish linen.
I should not complain. I was lucky to live here in a place where I could drink the tap water and where someone would be there to care for me if everything went wrong. “Away is good, but home is best.” This was the conclusion of my son’s school report concerning his travels. “It’s wonderful to be home, Mamma,” he declared, ecstatic that he could once again go to the refrigerator and find the grevé cheese. Here I am “Mamma” too, but only in the quiet crucible of my family. Outside of it I must be many other things. Africa seemed to offer me a simple way out of many complex identities or perhaps this was just a mirage in the sun. Wherever there was life, there was complexity and contradiction. Wherever we were, it was our task to make them whole.
Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Other books by Julie Lindahl available are: Letters from the Island (listen also to Julie’s podcasts from this site) and On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being.
Julie Lindahl is chairperson at Stories for Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning and communication through storytelling.