Thursday, December 8, 2011

Swedish Christmas and The Lawnmower Man and Cat

(Two short stories by Sheryl Arbuckle-Green)


Carl and Alice were married shortly after WWII and this was to be her first Christmas with my grandparents. The bride was of Irish descent and knew nothing of Swedish traditions. As they approached Elgin, she began to rub her nose. “I think there must be something dead on the road.”
Carl asked what she meant.
"The smell! What is that awful smell?”
He replied. “That’s your Christmas dinner. It’s called lutefisk.”
My grandparent’s, Hilding and Ruth Kylberg greeted her as she walked into the kitchen. Her husband said, “Welcome to my family.”
There was no need to let local Swedes know when Q&S and Red and White Grocery stores in Elgin received it’s shipment of the Christmas cod.
Everyone in town knew; the aroma announced its arrival. It could be smelled from miles away. Inside my grandmother's store room were fish drying inside her old nylon stockings. When I was a child, I ran to my grandfather crying hysterically. “Where is Maw Maw?” I sobbed! Being a man of few words, he pointed at the kitchen. I said, “But her legs are in the store room!”

Lutefisk is a Scandanavian white cod fish that is on every Swede’s table at Christmas. It is served with white gravy and white potatoes on a white table cloth with white napkins surrounded by white Swedes. If the women didn’t make their husbands wear their Sunday black dress socks, there would have been no color at the holiday table. The fish must be treated in lye or ashes to remove the salt, then soaked in water for several days to make it edible. Otherwise, it is caustic and if eaten will be your last Christmas to partake of the gelatinous white fish. My grandmother saved ashes in her potbelly stove to use for her lutefisk. When Mr. C.O. Fredrickson came to visit, he would open it and spit tobacco inside. As soon as he was out the door she would say, “Herra Gud! He ruined my ashes! Now I have to start over again!”

The origins of lutefisk are a subject of debate. Some accounts mention a fish accidentally dropped in a washing bowl containing lye, and because of family poverty, the fish had to be eaten.
Some claim that the dish has been consumed since the time of the Vikings. The first written mention of "lutefisk" is in a letter written by Swedish king Gustav I in 1540. In other words, lutefisk has been around for a very long time. I never cared for it although I was forced to take at least one bite when my grandmother cooked it.

Christmas Eve at Aunt Annie and Uncle Herbert Fredrickson’s was what I always looked forward to. On a huge table was a smorgasbord. Everyone brought a covered dish and we ate twice during the evening; once when we arrived and again before midnight church services. My brother Russell pointed to a dessert and asked me what it was.
I said, “Osta kaka”. He filled his bowl, put lingonberries on top and devoured it. The following Christmas, he was walking around the table, searching.“Russell, what are you looking for?”
“ Rooster caca!” he replied.

Christmas was a magical time of cousins playing hide and seek around the hen house and fireworks exploding in the cold, night sky; Santa making a surprise visit wearing a homemade costume, beard attached with a rubber band... staying up past bedtime to attend Julotta and of course, lutefisk and ‘rooster caca’.
Through the eyes of our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, we revisit that special time and place.
The best gift under any Christmas tree is a family.

God Jul!  (Merry Christmas)


He wore his hearing aid every day but never turned it on. Maw Maw Ruth made him get it because he couldn’t hear her anymore.
She would yell, “Hilding! Hilding!” while he tinkered in the workshop; lawnmower parts, carburetors, transistor radios and Cat, his companions. I’m not sure if Maw Maw ever realized that the volume was always turned off on his hearing aid, but that’s probably why they stayed married. Paw Paw Hilding had a knack for taking nothing and turning it into something. He was the kind of man who knew how to do most everything. Cat watched him, never helped but it didn’t matter. She sat in his lap, silent.

He was a soft spoken Swede with a heart of gold but none in his pockets. He worked hard at every job he had and never complained about doing whatever it took to put food on the table, grateful for what he had. He lived in the same house with the same woman for fifty one years. It was a modest house and it suited him. Every door and baseboard was stripped, stained and finished with his own hands. He had a big garden and a small tool shed. He wore overalls stained with motor oil and his socks smelled like stale corn chips. He had no grand aspirations that I was aware of, but then I never asked. I wish I had.
Fixing lawnmowers on cool mornings and having luncheon meat with rat cheese at 4 o’clock in the afternoon was what made him happy. He was a man of few words, not demonstrative but his twinkling blue eyes spoke volumes. He may have hugged me, but I really don’t remember when. He sure did love me, though. His eyes lit up when I walked in the door.
Maw Maw Ruth passed away in spring and Paw Paw lost half of himself, cancer was taking the rest. Cat had to remind him at 4 o’clock every day that it was time for luncheon meat and rat cheese. He lost interest in tinkering with tools and retired his riding lawnmower inside the dark, sad workshop. He closed and locked the door.
Cat disappeared. Night after night he called for her. Night after night, she answered but he never heard her. One week turned into two.
The last time I saw him I said, “Paw Paw, why don’t we take the lawnmower out of the shed so you can work on it for a while? I think it would do you good.” We opened the workshop and Cat ran out. She had survived weeks on just rainwater and the occasional rat unlucky enough to be within paw’s reach. His blue eyes welled with tears as he placed her in his lap and started his lawnmower for the last time.

Paw Paw Hilding moved on one month and 3 days after Cat died. I wonder if they ever discussed the meaning of life when they were all alone in that workshop. I wonder if they ever spoke at all. I doubt it. They didn’t need to.
Sheryl Arbuckle-Green

More information about the Hilding and Ruth Kylberg family can be found at:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the kind comments. I intend to write about my family and the wonderful memories I cherish, passing them down to my children and grandchildren. I was honored to share them with each of you.