Min Otroliga Svenska Resa: Återvinning i Två Delar

AKA My Incredible Swedish Journey: Recycling in Two Parts

In this Allt för Sverige scene, I’m wearing a sweater (Kriss) and top (H&M) from Scandinavian thrift stores.

PART 1

When my daughter was in middle school, she started asking to go to the Value Village and Salvation Army stores and, if she had some gift money, the Buffalo Exchange boutique. I took the chance to investigate her favored destinations and discovered that I had been missing out on one of the greatest inventions of trickle-down economics, the resale culture. I was an instant convert to the practical nature of one person’s discards becoming another person’s new party outfit or office apparel or gardening garb.

These days, I limit my wardrobe options to three nearby Goodwill shops and the American Cancer Society Discovery Store, which is now my favorite place to reward myself for just about anything. Writing for five days straight, making a week’s worth of check-in calls to Mom, laying the rock borders for the new wildflower bed — any or all of those triumphs buys me a ticket and a twenty-dollar bill to spend on recyclables for our kitchen, my slouch drawer, or my gift stash and gives me the immediate pleasure of speaking to one of the volunteer clerks who work there, connected as we are by cancers, cures, and thrift.

The Allt for Sverige adventure began with my packing list. The genealogy-based, family-friendly reality show gave only vague clues about the best outfits to bring, but I vowed to pack only resale clothes on the trip, and with a closet full of them, it wasn’t hard to succeed. However, I realized a couple days before departure that one thing I needed to refresh was my underwear. No resale options there. When my sister called to wish me a safe journey, I confessed to her that I had made an emergency online order. “New panties,” I admitted. She laughed and said they better be animal print or something wild. “You don’t want to be the old bitty with the solid underwear.” I blushed into the phone. Too late, I thought.

After our flights from points across the U.S. into Copenhagen, the cast waited out our COVID-19 quarantine time for three days in Helsingør, Denmark, a quaint city on the Øresund, which connects the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and across which Sverige is visible. Little by little, one by one, we ten cast members emerged from our separate sequesters and crossed paths in the gravel parking lot of the motel or in the breakfast dining room or at the picnic table near the woods or on the side of the road leading to the street that offered the option of a shopping center nearby or a downhill walk to the middle of the historical town. I learned we ranged in age from 26 to 63 and the decades between. Six women and four men, our U.S. homes stretched from coast to coast, and we each had a burning desire: to have a reunion with our distant Swedish family. Only one of us would.

One sunny afternoon, four of us gals walked together (in a socially distanced sort of way) to a resale shop that Brittany the Coloradan had already checked out. Together we loaded up our arms with Scandinavian steals and some of us headed for the changing rooms where Brittany “yayed” or “nayed” our choices like a true fashionista should. I ended up with a shirt, a sweater, and a pillow cover, all of which added to the bulk of my packed belongings. You better slow down, I told myself. You aren’t even in Sweden yet! My thrift shopping adventures didn’t end in Helsingør, but those stories will have to wait. Suffice it to say, my penchant for resale was supercharged in Sverige’s secondhand shops.

I limited the rest of my Helsingør time to historical enrichment, taking the two mile walk to Kronborg Slot (Hamlet’s Elsinore castle) with Bret the Washingtonian, my counterpart as the elder of the males. He kindly photographed me there for some of the last phone photos my family would receive from me for a while. Once we were loaded on the production’s cast vans, we were required to give up our phones, to give up our rights to social media and GPS. For the duration of our stay, we would become time travelers back to the days without the baggage of a personal device stealing our attentions and keeping us tethered to the ones we love.

PART 2

Grandma Sig, daughter of Karl Johan Leo and Anna Eugenia Ahlström Leo, collected teacups. She kept them in a glass cabinet in her dining room. I never saw them hold coffee or tea. When I grew old enough to be trusted, Grandma unlocked the cabinet and let me hold them in my hands. I felt their delicate weight, their fragile vulnerability to accidents. When grandma died, the only thing I wanted was the teacups.

I’ve displayed them for years now like she did, behind locked glass. The only liquid they’ve felt is the water I’ve used to clean them after months of attracting whatever dust arrives in sealed spaces. A while back, I pulled an empty box from the garage and lifted the plates and saucers from their lofty resting place. Floral interiors, Chinese dragons, paisley swirls, I stacked into sturdy cardboard and wrote FRAGILE in Sharpie on the side of the box. Life has been crowded with acts of filling and emptying, packed with other people’s precious belongings. The future asks for none of these treasures. Who needs china that never holds kaffe? My children have no interest in fancy things. They are not fragile creatures afraid of breaking. They are practical souls. They drink from what can be easily replaced, recycled, reused. I am learning to listen. Learning new ways to fill empty spaces.

Except that something went missing without Grandma Sig’s gems in my view. After some months, I rescued the box from the garage and opened it on the kitchen table, lifting every saucer and cup like buried treasure. “Hello, sweet things. Welcome back,” I whispered, running my fingertips over their edges, holding their translucent curves toward the light. I reunited the vessels inside the glass doors of Grandma Sig’s secretary hutch and sighed with relief. The teacups serve me now, not as practical objects but as receptacles for an irreplaceable grandmother’s love.

Historical note: Signe Elmelia Leo’s grandmothers were Britta Stina Larsdotter (born 1835 in Österplana, Västra Götaland) and Stina Kasja Solberg (born 1859 in Alnö Parish, Västernorrland). Britta Stina died in Sweden in 1922. Stina Kasja immigrated to America with her husband and children, one of which was Anna, Signe’s mother. Below is a photograph of Stina Kasja (76) with her granddaughter Signe (33) and Signe’s 2-year-old son (my father) a year before Stina Kasja’s death.

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