A Swedish Birthday Surprise, Relatively Speaking

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?

The books of Astrid LIndgren on display here in a shop window in Vimmerby have been translated into 70 languages.
The books of Astrid LIndgren on display here in a shop window in Vimmerby have been translated into 70 languages.

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.

Families leave Astrid Lindgrens World after a day at the popular theme park.
Families leave Astrid Lindgrens World after a day at the popular theme park.

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.

Children's author Lindgren was honored in 2015 when her picture was placed onto the Swedish kronor. There is also a commemorative coin set.
Children’s author Lindgren was honored in 2015 when her picture was placed onto the Swedish kronor. There is also a commemorative coin 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.

Play strutures like this child-size cottage sit in Vimmerby's town square for children to explore.
Play structures like this child-size cottage sit in Vimmerby’s town square for children to explore.

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.

I meet Astrid LIndgren's lifestize sculpture which sits in he hometown of Vimmberby, Sweden.
I meet Astrid Lindgren’s life-size sculpture which sits in he hometown of Vimmerby, Sweden.

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.

The famous author's grave stone is a simple stone in the Vimmerby cemetery.
The famous author’s grave stone is a simple stone in the Vimmerby cemetery.

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.

In the Exjoibit Jaöö. Lindgrenäs life and achivements are presented for visitors.
In the exhibit hall. Lindgren’s life and achievements are presented for visitors.

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.

Banners of this year's Astird Lindgren Memorial Aware stream down in Stockolm's Concert Hall.
Banners of this year’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Aware stream down in Stockholm’s Concert Hall.

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!


A Whole New Normal for Marla

I remember the day that my friend, Marla, told me that she had been diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma.  It was at a monthly breakfast meeting of women that we both attend.  This group has been gathering once a month for the past 13 years.  typically sometime during the breakfast, we take time for anyone with an announcement about an upcoming performance (most of us work in the arts field), exhibit, or event in which we think the rest of the group might be interested. This time Marla revealed that she was going to have surgery to remove a 2.8 centimeter tumor–about the size of a walnut– that doctors had found.

It was a benign tumor, 2.8 millimeters in size, Marla explained.   As with any surgery, hers would involve some risks.  Those risks included complete hearing loss in the ear by which the tumor was located, possible loss of sight in one eye and possible partial facial paralysis.  We all kind of stared at her, perhaps a little shocked by the news.  Then the questions came.  When and how did she learn about it? When was the surgery to be?  Who was going to perform the procedure?  Had she checked for a second opinion?  And so forth.

In retrospect, I am sure all of our concerned, well-meaning questions seemed like a bombardment to Marla.  But she had done her research.  Once she received the diagnosis, she too had a flood of questions to which she sought many of the answers on-line.

After diagnosed with acoutic neuroma, Marla keep a journal of her experience which she now shares with others in her  book: "A Whole New Normal".
After diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, Marla keep a journal of her experience which she now shares with others in her book: “A Whole New Normal”.

She had weighed the consequences and the treatment options and decided, based on her specialist’s opinion and her own, to have the surgery.  For Marla, coming to this conclusion was no small matter, as I’m sure it must be for others in the same position.  Besides her job as the development and membership person for Bellingham’s independent film theatre, the Pickford Film Center, Marla is a theatre director and actress who appears in many local productions.  Facial paralysis or even a loss of hearing could impact that avocation, one that she loves, greatly. Not to mention her daily life.

She had given her tumor a name, “Norman,” perhaps because it was easier to live with it that way.  She had interviewed several surgeons and settled on one with whom she felt both comfortable and confident.  The research, in her case, paid off. She did experience hearing loss in the one ear, but no permanent paralysis or loss of sight.  And the incision site wouldn’t be visible.  Perhaps best of all, she learned afterwards that she would not need radiation treatments either.

Naturally, she was relieved and thankful, as were her family and friends.  She has resumed her ‘normal’ activities and life without Norman.

Just last month, Marla made another announcement to our breakfast group.  She was publishing a book about her experience.  She had told no one, up to this point, except for the editor and designer with whom she was working and her immediate family.    As Marla explains on her book’s website:

Marla's book about her acoustic neuroma can be purchased on-line or through Bellingham's bookstore: Village Books.
Marla’s book about her acoustic neuroma can be purchased on-line or through Bellingham’s bookstore: Village Books.

“I kept a journal, which I have now turned into a book! Not because I am so incredibly full of myself (ahem!) but because when I was on my journey, I needed to hear a story with a happy ending while I was living my own. Thankfully, on the way, I met a few people with their own happy endings, but mostly I heard from and about people with complications and post-surgical, ongoing issues.  I wanted to share a story of hope, to balance out all of the stories otherwise available on the internet.”

I was honored  to photograph her for the book:  “A Whole New Normal–An Acoustic Neuroma Journey”.  She wanted to stage the photo session at Boulevard Park where she had spent most of the time writing the journal.  That’s exactly what we did.  I chose a spot down on the beach where we could work undisturbed and undistracted.  I tried to create an image for her that captured the Marla I know, with a warm, friendly, genuine smile that says “I care.”Marla’s hopes her book will encourage people who have been diagnosed with the same condition to seek out the best care, to struggle through the hard decisions and to face the challenge knowing that happy outcomes do exist.  All profits from the book are being donated to the Acoustic Neuroma Associations of US and Canada.

To help spread the word about her own experience and the book, she’ll be in Los Angeles, where she grew up, attending the Acoustic Neuroma Symposium August 9-11.  She’ll have free copies available to newly diagnosed attendees.

You can check out her story for yourself on her new website and blog at: http://www.awholenewnormal.com/  or on her book’s Facebook page at:  https://www.facebook.com/AWholeNewNormal.

You can also order a copy for yourself or someone you may know who has an acoustic neuroma on-line by clicking on this link:  http://www.villagebooks.com/book/9780615852133.

Although “Norman” is no longer a part of Marla, it has become forever a part of her life.

Book Aids Cancer Survivors

Here’s a second post to  my “Author! Author!” blog series.

Nancy Keene didn’t set out to become a published author about childhood cancer.  It was probably the furthest thing from her mind as a young mother.  But after her own daughter, now 24,  was diagnosed with cancer, that all changed.

Nancy, along with Wendy Hobbie and Kathy Ruccione, is co-author of the book:  “Childhood Cancer Survivors  A Practical Guide to Your Future.”  The book was first published in 2000 and instantly landed as number five on the Library Journal’s Best Consumer Books of  the Year.

I recently photographed Nancy in the studio for her promotional use for the new issue of her book: Childhood Cancer Survivors–A Practical Guide to Your Future.

The book has just recently been re-issued and updated in its third edition, published by Childhood Cancer Guides.  “This book is not just about science, but about the experience of survivorship,” writes the authors in the Preface.  “It blends basic technical information in easy-to-understand language with stories and advice from more than a hundred survivors and parents of young survivors… We wanted to explore the richness and variety of the survivorship experience and help survivors feel less alone in their journeys.”

Their book covers a variety of topics, including how to navigate the legal, educational and medical systems,  how to handle relationships and  how the disease effects different parts of the body–all intended to educate and provide information to families who have or had children with cancer.    It is written in a straight-forward, well-organized style that should be accessible to all.  In addition, it offers an extensive list of resources available, along with a description of what they do and how to contact them, for those coping with childhood cancer.

The third edition of this book is now out and available. It’s first edition was named one of the Best Consumer Health Books of 2000 by the Library Journal.

On Tuesday,  Oct 30,  Nancy and her co-author, Wendy, are leading a webconference called Staying Healthy After Childhood Cancer Treatment,  sponsored by the National Children’s Cancer Society, a nonprofit organization. The audience is survivors, parents of survivors, and healthcare professionals (nurses and social workers) who can get continuing medical education credits for participating. The PowerPoint program with audio will be archived on the NCCS site at http://www.thenccs.org/web_conference_archive after the presentation.

Childhood Cancer SurvivorsOn November 7 through the 9, she’ll be in Atlanta at the annual conference of Critical Mass: The Young Adult Cancer Alliance (http://criticalmassevents.org/about-us/), a consortium of individuals, organizations, and governmental agencies currently supported by LIVESTRONG to present a poster about the book.

Nancy has a hefty background as an editor and writer who heads up a 30-member team responsible for producing multiple projects for agencies such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA]), Administration for Children and Families, Indian Health Service, and others.  She has been the primary author of more than 50 books, E-books and articles for consumers and health professionals.

As an advocate for those with childhood cancer, she works to keep books in print about that topic through the nonprofit Childhood Cancer Guides.  “When your life is turned upside down, your need for information is great,” reads the final section at the back of the book from Childhood Cancer Guides.

This is one book that is essential for anyone who has a child with cancer or who, like Nancy, has  a childhood cancer survivor.

You can learn more about the book on Facebook at:  Childhood Cancer Survivors.  Here’s the link:  http://on.fb.me/Rtc3k

*Cheryl Crooks is a former journalist and medical reporter for TIME Magazine who now owns her own portrait photography studio in Bellingham, WA.