“Hello! Are you there? Hellooo! Can you hear me? . . . There you are! Hi! So good to see you again! . . . Yes, I’ve mixed my gin and tonic. Can’t wait to try it. Skål, my little Lola! Mmm, so good, but maybe a bit chilly this close to Christmas. Maybe next week we try to warm up with some gluhwein instead. . . .”
Unfortunately, my best friend, Lola, doesn’t live close by me in Sweden, but in France. It’s a pity. On top of that, when we were in the middle of the pandemic it was hard, well, almost impossible, to meet up. I missed her.
But then again, now that technology has given us wonders like FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp, and other fun things, unexpected possibilities have opened up. It’s important that we who are past 80 keep up-to-date with technology; otherwise we risk missing out on so much that makes modern life both easier and more enjoyable—not to mention we don’t want our children and grandchildren to think that we’re too old and square to participate.
All this new technology is also good for our friendships: now Lola and I can see and talk to each other as long as we want to on WhatsApp. And have a gin and tonic—or a gluhwein—together while we’re chattering away. The warm and sweet gluhwein has kept people in the Alps alive for ages—it should work for us.
Lola and I have known each other for almost eighty years. When she was eight years old, her entire family moved to Gothenburg, a town on the west coast of Sweden where my family also made its home. Lola started in second grade at the same school as me.
I remember her being tall and thin, and that she almost always wore a dark blue dress with little white dots. I myself almost always wore a sensible skirt and sweater, which probably is why I remember her much cuter, prettier dress. Not because I wanted one too; it would not have suited me—but it was perfect for Lola. I was sure I wanted to be her friend.
We went on to spend our entire school life together, even though we chose different academic focuses—I explored art and design and Lola went to secretarial school. Lola had three great kids, and I had five. When I got married, I chose a man who would have to travel the world for his profession: we lived in the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Sweden of course. No matter where we ended up on the planet, Lola and I always stayed in touch.
Later she became godmother to my second son, Jan (pronounced “yohn”), something the other four kids were deeply envious of. Somehow, Lola was more of a movie star than my other friends who got to be godmothers for the rest of the brood. Lola always wore the latest fashions, had a loud voice with a special international accent, loved to dance, had amazing hair, and looked great in a party hat.
During the summers when Lola and I were growing up, many who lived in the city moved out to cottages in the countryside, where they led easier lives and inhaled fresh air into their lungs. The cottages were often off by themselves, near enough to go to the little village to buy your food and basic provisions but not very close to other people. Being so far away from the crowded city was delightful, even though you of course occasionally longed for your friends.
Our family had a house some thirty to forty kilometers outside Gothenburg. As kids, we loved being there during weekends and holidays, and so did our aunts and other relatives who often came to visit. Friends visited too, including Lola.
In the spring we usually picked flowers, especially wood anemones. Lola was a star when it came to gathering them. No one understood how she did it. She would appear with beautiful, perfect handfuls of the pretty white-and-yellow flowers. Did she grab a fistful of flowers at once, and then another? No, she picked them one by one, quickly, and with great concentration. Then, because she was a good guest with a generous heart, she gave them to my mom, who put them in vases—one large bouquet from Lola and a smaller one from me.
We still laugh at all the things we got up to back then. Up in the attic, there was a big trunk tucked away. It wasn’t left alone for long once we found it. The trunk contained very old clothes—long, tattered evening gowns that no one would want to wear today, hats decorated with flowers and veils, and one of those fox skins that ladies used to carry over their shoulders, complete with tail, paws, and a flattened head. What people won’t do to be fashionable. But of course we played dress-up! It was such fun and how we laughed at ourselves for the way we looked. Then we clomped downstairs in our finery and went to greet neighbors and any guests who could bear us. Mostly only my mom could.
Lola and her family’s summer home was on an island in the southern archipelago of Gothenburg. You got there by one of the white steamboats that departed from the “stone pier” in Gothenburg. Today it’s the site of a fancy ferry terminal and the ferryboats are now much faster. You don’t really have time to have lunch on board as we did back then. Just traveling on the steamboat for a while felt like an exciting beginning to your stay. As soon as the boat left the harbor, I could feel that salty, wonderful wind that only exists on the west coast. I was a very independent little person, or maybe the times were different. I remember taking the tram to the ferry stop and getting on the boat by myself before I was even twelve years old.
Lola and her little brother met me at the tiny island jetty and then we took our time going to their home as we wandered through the island’s small village. On the way they showed me the dance hall, the tennis court, and the house where another classmate, Erik, lived.
Some days we climbed the rocks to get to Erik’s, to go swimming with him and his sister in the cold North Sea or sail in their dinghy. At times, we would crush a clam with a stone and fasten it to a string. We would lower the bait into the water and lie belly down on the dock for hours waiting for the little crabs to arrive and start to feed. Then we yanked them out of the water. After, we cooked them with dill and had a crab feast.
We would catch masses of crabs each summer. To this day still, I find them delicious.
Like me, Lola also moved around to many places in the world with her husband and kids, but we always tried to keep in touch. We managed to visit each other in Mölnlycke and Nice, Brussels, and Minneapolis. Even once in Dubai!
In those days, calling someone outside Sweden or in another country than where you were was something you didn’t do unless it was very important. It was simply too expensive. Sure, we could have written letters, but in between infants and moving vans it was hard to find the time to sit down, or the peace of mind to collect my thoughts. Many times, so much had happened that I didn’t know at what end to begin.
But Lola and I made the effort to get together. When you’ve known somebody for so long, it’s very easy to pick up where you left off, even if you have not seen each other. You know each other’s backgrounds and families and how everything used to be. So, it is almost as if your conversation continues on like it was never interrupted at all—you talk again about events, both happy and tragic, travels, the children, schools, new acquaintances.
Wherever we lived we tried to come back to Sweden at least once a year. Coming back felt important to me. Not that I needed to feel like I was Swedish or belonged to the country but to meet up with family and friends and hear what they had been doing the past year.
Once in a while an elderly relative might have passed during my absence. It was sad and I tried to understand it was nature’s way, even though I never fully got used to the shock of coming home to find they were not around anymore.
Now that I’m over eighty, it’s becoming more common for people I know to suddenly not be around anymore. And it still doesn’t feel natural at all. Most of us understand that nobody lives forever, but it’s still a shock when the friend I recently spoke with is suddenly no longer available. Ever. The emptiness is at once so infinite.
Memory helps us retrieve events and people we want to remember. But my closest ones are always within and next to me—I don’t need to think about things we did or said. Some people just become part of you. That feels comforting.
Anyhow, now it’s gin and tonic time and I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a whole week. It’s going to be so much fun. I can hear Lola’s voice, hear the ice cubes clinking in her glass:
“Do you remember when we were twelve years old and—”
“We were Scouts and learned how to tie knots and dress wounds.”
“And we went to camp with big backpacks, put up tents, and made big campfires. At night we’d sit around the fire and roast bread-on-a-stick.”
“They were usually more burnt than tasty, but it was very cozy and we made a lot of good friends.”
We toast, have a little sip, and laugh.
“Do you remember that time we traveled to Aix-les-Bains to do a language course?”
“Almost everyone fell in love—”
“We got to know a lot of boys, but not that much French.”
And so on we went, picking up where we left off, recalling memories that only we remember. Soon our drinks are gone:
“Take care of yourself. . . .”
“We ’ll talk again soon. . . .”
Sometimes I wonder which one of us will be the first to not answer.
Excerpted from THE SWEDISH ART OF AGING EXUBERANTLY by Margareta Magnusson. Copyright © 2022 by Margareta Magnusson. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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