On a warm Saturday evening, we all huddled around my grandparents’ wedding photo and raised a toast. Birger had a high forehead and eyes so light that even in a black-and-white photo you can tell they were cornflower blue. My grandmother, Vendela, had wavy hair, full lips and a watchful look. They married and had five children in rapid succession. But in 1945 she died of meningitis, at age 33, leaving my grandfather with the children, ages 2, 4, 7, 9 and 11.
After the death of his wife, Birger tried to get help. In the newspapers of Gothenburg, he advertised for a full-time nanny, and a series of hopeful women took trains up to the farm. One after the other was interviewed and deemed acceptable by Birger, but then after taking the job, quickly scared off by the children. It was “The Sound of Music” without the money or Julie Andrews. To frustrate the candidates, the siblings played loud music and invited their friends over for dance parties. They shoveled snow in the fireplace, making it impossible to light a fire.
“Enough,” Birger said, after the third woman left. There would be no nanny. They had their father to themselves, and Birger had the five children to himself. He never remarried.
The local government decided to intervene. One day two men in suits came to the farm accompanied by a nurse (municipalities in Sweden had official nurses responsible for children). My mother and her siblings watched from an adjacent room through a crack in the door. Birger sat down at the kitchen table with this nurse and the two men. They informed Birger that the oldest sister would be allowed to stay at home, but that the rest of the children should be split up and taken care of by other families. Birger said nothing, but his hands clenched into fists. Really, the nurse insisted, it’s in everyone’s best interest. There was a long pause, during which a fury gathered in Birger’s blue eyes. He raised his fist and brought it down so hard on the table that the floor shook. “Out!” he commanded. “All of you, out of my house!”
Those people never returned, but others in the village helped. The kids knew which farmer’s house to go to when they wanted cookies; whom to go to when they wanted jam. Each morning, Ulla-Britt, the oldest sister, made sure their hair was brushed and their clothes were clean. Each evening, a local schoolteacher came over and gave them baths.
The kids picked berries in the fields, swam in the lake and skied to school. They look back on their childhood as idyllic, despite the many hardships. When the youngest, Marianne, was 2, her leg was run over by a tractor, and thereafter, she wore a brace. My mother’s older brother was born with polio and walked with a limp. Ulla-Britt died of cancer on her first wedding anniversary. She was 29.
After that, most of the siblings scattered, but Marianne stayed on the farm with her husband. My uncle Rolf died two years ago, leaving only the three youngest Mellegard sisters. As if clinging to what they have left, the three sisters get together often, sometimes sleeping in the same room, the way they did as girls, and talk into the morning.
After dinner on the last night of the reunion, we sat outside by the lake, drinking coffee and eating strawberries with cream. It was 9 p.m. and bright out, the midsummer sun still a few hours from fading. As I sat there watching my children play in the same place Birger’s children had played, I wished I knew more about his wife, my grandmother, whom I was named after and whose wedding ring I wear (it was given to me because it’s engraved with my name). And I wondered what Birger would make of this gathering, if he would consider his stubbornness justified, his sacrifices after her death worthwhile. As if to answer these questions, my mother looked at her sisters, curled her hand into a fist and banged it on the table triumphantly. “What a success!” she said.