Birthday surprises usually come in the form of parties or gifts. I’ve received both. But last year for my birthday, I was surprised to learn about a new relative. And fortunately, it came as a welcomed surprise.
The news arrived not with someone standing on my door, but in the form of a large mailing envelope sent from Sweden. I immediately recognized the return address as that of Bo, cousin to my aunt Marie who was married to my father’s brother, Dale. I’ve known Bo nearly my entire life. His family and my own have become like extended family. I spend time with them whenever I go to Sweden, as I did earlier this summer.
When I opened the envelope from Bo, I expected to find a birthday card, but was surprised to find much more. Inside was a letter that read: “As you are very like Pippi Longstocking in many ways there is some connection to her in you I must say…As the author Astrid Lindgren who wrote the book is a kind of relative to your mother.” Along with the letter was a family tree linking my mother to the Swedish author as a fourth cousin. My mother’s fourth cousin?
What a discovery! Astrid Lindgren is one of Sweden’s most treasured authors. Her books about the freckled-faced, pig-tailed girl, Pippi Longstocking, has become a children’s classic throughout the world. Her books have been translated into 70 languages and made into several films and television series. There is even an Astrid Lindgren’s World, a children’s theme park and a popular family destination located outside Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby.
Lindgren herself was honored last year when her picture was placed on the 20 Swedish kronor, replacing that of another beloved Swedish children’s writer, Selma Lagerlöf. Bo had enclosed one of the freshly printed bills inside my letter. In addition, Lindgren and the characters from her books became the subject of a set of shiny silver commemorative coins. One of these, along with the folder with spots for the other coins, I also found in Bo’s package. I want to collect the entire set.
Having learned about my Lindgren connection, I of course made it a priority on my recent trip, to visit Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby where she was born, where she is buried and where Pippi’s adventures are set. It was a part of my trip to which I was most looking forward.
I drove into Vimmerby mid-afternoon on a Saturday. It was only a 48 minute drive inland from Vastervik, where my husband and I had disembarked from the Gotland ferry. The shops in Vimmerby’s town square had closed at two o’clock. I would not buy any Pippi Longstocking souvenirs to carry home. We strolled into the charming square, empty except for a handful of visitors like ourselves.
At one end of the square sat the old, mustard-colored Town Hall and opposite is a lovely hotel with patio tables on the porch. In the center of the square, near the hotel, are several small play structures taken from Lindgren’s books: a sailing ship,a cottage, Kindergarten-sized children were crawling in and out and climbing up and down in delight.
On the other side of the square, nearer the Town Hall, is a life-size sculpture of my famous cousin sitting at desk with a typewriter. It felt a little odd to meet my newly found relative in this way, but was quite an honor at the same time.
I next sought out her resting place in the neatly kept, hilltop cemetery. Thanks to some local residents, I found her gravestone, alongside that of her parents and sister. It was a simple stone for such a celebrated figure, quite humble and unassuming. I wondered if it reflected her personality in life.
As we walked back through the streets of Vimmerby we noted the spots where Pippi and her sidekick, Tommy, had their adventures. Then we headed out to the Lindgren family home, where Astrid was born and lived as a child. The little house is located on a farm known as Näs in Vimmerby. It stands exactly as it was when Astrid grew up there, having been restored by Lindgren herself. Tours of the house are available almost daily except when closed for the winter from mid-December until March. Unfortunately, we arrived after hours. Had someone been around I might have told them that I was a ‘cousin’ from the U.S., in hopes that they would take pity on me and allow me inside.
Also on the property, owned by the city of Vimmerby, stands a modern glass-walled exhibition hall where her life and achievements are displayed. But again, we were too late and unable to go in. I was disappointed but until only a year ago, I didn’t even know that the woman remembered here was even remotely related to me. Now that I do, I will return the next trip to see both the house and the museum.
Back in Stockholm, three long, large banners hung down from the city’s concert hall. On two of the red banners were the words: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award with the name and image of the winning author—Meg Rosoff—printed on the center banner. The award is presented annually to presented to authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and reading promoters to honor her memory and promote interest in children’s and young adult literature. It is the largest such literature award in the world.
Lindgren’s apartment in Stockholm where she lived for 61 years, is also open for tours but reservations must be made in advance. Even though we were unable to secure reservations, Bo accompanied me to apartment. The apartment itself looks out over a large park, Vasa Park, bustling with children. Lindgren would be pleased, I’m sure, to hear their gleeful shrieks and young laughter outside her window.
Next time I visit Sweden, I will return to these places for an inside tour. For now, however, I have the commemorative coins Bo sent to me and the 20 kronor bills that I collected and carried home to share with my family. How many people can say that their cousin appears on their national money? What a birthday surprise that was!