In August of 2003 I finished writing something I titled: “Relative Strangers.” The booklet had over a hundred double-spaced pages. Copies sold: zero. Copies given to family: six. My mission when I began writing: family history. The actual result, as I wrote back then: “…elements of autobiography and memoir, seasoned with what I know about the family.”
In other words: not a family history. So at this point the title “Relative Strangers” I thought was such a tidy play on words really doesn’t deserve more than an awkward and slightly embarrassing glance in the rear view mirror. Besides, since the title I thought was clever there have been (at least) one movie and two books that use that very same title. The movie is a 2006 comedy with Danny DeVito, Kathy Bates, Christine Baranski and others, including Academy Award Nominee Neve Campbell. The books include:
– “Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes & Donor Conception,” 2004, and
– “Relative Strangers: A Modern Vampire Story,” also 2004.
All came later, no doubt influenced by the six copies of my earlier work – seven if you count the one I have but can’t find. (Please hold up the laughter and applause signs.)
In the twelve years since my earlier work I have learned a bit more about my father’s side of my family – the Swedes – and precious little about my mother’s side – the Irish (with a small, unknown English ingredient, and possibly a pinch of French).
The intervening years also produced a collection of photos and family history worksheets on the Swedish side from Lillian Wiborg Bohlin, my stepmother, obtained because Jane Barshay Bohlin, my older son Einar David’s wife, somehow found Marshall Bohlin, one of my half-brothers. I have photos and worksheets, but nothing to tell me if the Swedes in those photos were plumbers or politicians, lawyers or laborers, foresters or felons.
On the Irish side, if I can find it, I have a diagram I put together after spending a few hours with my mother at Fairfield Street kitchen table in south Chicago. I had convinced her that at the age of fifty I had reached that magical time she often referred to when she said: “I’ll tell you about that when you’re much older.”
Having spent considerable time growing up in the company of Irish streetcar motormen, policemen, cooks, tavern owners, singers and poker players, and virtually no time in the company of the Swedish family members, I have long since concluded the most Swedish thing about me is the name Einar. And I didn’t even know my name was Einar until I obtained a copy of my birth certificate in June of 1957, four months after my seventeenth birthday, for the purpose of enlisting in the U.S. Air Force to learn how to repair aircraft electronics and possibly jet engines. The family called me “Skip” or “Joe.” Now the grandkids, and by extension my own “kids” call me “Papa Bone,” which was what first grandchild Brendon created before he could say “Bohlin.”
The reasons I am revisiting this subject are to correct an error in the earlier work, set out an update or two, and expand upon some of the relationship issues that made me think of the title of the earlier work in the first place.
First, the error.
The reasons behind almost every motivation I have for ever writing about this are the circumstances surrounding and following the death of Einar Axel Bohlin, my father, November 20, 1955, at the age of forty-two.
Until recently I thought he had died in 1953. I don’t have any idea why I made that mistake for so many years. I was fifteen when he died, not thirteen. Suffice it to say there was so much turmoil in my life during those years it’s more than a little likely that the two-year difference meant nothing to me then and I just never focussed on the difference until recently.
At fifteen I was entering my junior year of high school on Chicago’s south side. My father and his wife and two sons lived on the north side. In those days the distance might as well have been the same as between New York and Boston. In later years I would marvel at my father’s patience, his persistence, in driving the hours it took for him to see me every other month or so. To be sure, when he did make the drive he also saw his mother and father, more south siders. But I did climb into his Chevrolet for trips to White Sox baseball games, visits to the Museum of Science & Industry (still my favorite), and once to a football game between the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cardinals. He even came with me to a football game played by Mt. Carmel, the Catholic boys’ high school I graduated from in 1957.
And as I wrote in my earlier work my father visited me in hospital the day after I was put in the hospital by a group of neighborhood thugs. I was a few months shy of my fourteenth birthday at the time and the injuries included a broken bone in my left hand, several stitches in my scalp, and varous cuts and bruises.
My dad drove me back to his house in Lincolnwood once for an overnight visit. That’s when I saw his sons for the first and only time until recently. Matthew Brian was probably no older than three; Marshall Scott two. I would not see Marshall until roughly sixty years later and Matthew not at all at this writing.
In fact, after my father’s death I would not see or hear from a single member of the Swedish side of my family until the spring of 1981, when I saw the Lincolnwood exit off the freeway and took a chance by exiting and looking for the address I remembered on Karlov Street. I had been visiting a friend in Glenview from Air Force days and was on my way back to my mother’s home. I found the house and rang the doorbell. As luck would have it, Lillian answered the door and we had a short but very nice visit. That was the first time I had seen her since Einar Axel’s funeral and last time I saw her, although we did exchange a few phone calls, holiday cards and letters over the years. Lillian later mailed me the only photos I ever had of my father until a few years later, as described below.
After my dad’s death I heard not a single word from Grandpa Charlie, Grandma Helmina, Uncle Elmer, Aunt Dorothy, Aunt Elsa, or Uncle Emil, other than a call from Elmer that my mother relayed to me advising of the deaths of Charlie and Helmina less than a year later.
I don’t recall how or exactly when the connection between Marshall and me got started, but we have exchanged holiday cards, emails, Facebook posts, family news, and a phone call or two over the past few years. My suspicion is that Marshall responded to a letter I sent to him and Matthew after I’d met with their mother as described above. I deeply regret that I never had the pleasure of meeting Marshall’s wife Su. I am saddened to include here that Marshall and his daughters Colleen and Kaitlyn recently lost their wife and mother.
Out of the blue of few years ago Bruce Bohlin, son of Elmer and Dorothy, my dad’s brother, and my first cousin, found me on Facebook a few years ago and we have since been in touch and shared visits twice: once for lunch near Naperville, IL, and last week at our home in Wake Forest, NC (September 11, 2015).
Gayle Whitmer, daughter of my Aunt Elsa, also found me on Facebook a year or two ago and we have exchanged emails and Facebook posts. Gayle lives in Utah.
And after sixty years, on September 12, 2015, Marshall and I met in Winston-Salem, NC, for a nice visit over lunch and a bit of touring with my wife Karen and Marshall’s brother-in-law Jim King. And now I have three new Facebook friends: Jim King, Colleen Bohlin, and Kaitlyn Bohlin. I hope I’ll have the pleasure of meeting my nieces in person sooner rather than later.
There is no one alive today who could explain why I never heard from grandparents, uncles, or aunts following my father’s death in November of 1955. For my part, I tried to see my grandparents a few months later. I did get the timing on that right in my earlier work; that is, a few months after my father’s death I rode my bike to my grandparents’ apartment building on 79th Street and was told that they were no longer there. As mentioned above, my recollection is that my Uncle Elmer called my mother to tell her Charlie and Helmina had died. The call came after a week or two after they both were gone.
So I ask myself, less and less as I am halfway through my seventy-sixth year, why do I dwell on all this? It’s ancient history and nothing will come of guessing about why my father’s family clearly had no interest in their grandson, stepson, and nephew. A family argument? Suspicion or fear that I might have some claim to my father’s earthly possessions? The famous and stereotypical Swedish indifference or cold heartedness? A deep and abiding hatred of my mother and her family, the Irish, the Catholics, something else?
So why do I continue to try and find answers that no longer exist? Besides worrying for many years about dying young because my father died young, there has always been my wondering about whether I would have taken different roads along the way had I been able to ask for a father’s guidance. But writing doesn’t solve that one.
Why do I write? The only satisfactory answer I am able to conjure is that by writing I am able to set it all aside once and for all.
As I concluded in the earlier work, the author of a wonderful book titled: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” provided a Zen quotation I have been very fond of for many years:
After enlightenment, the laundry.
I’m heading to the laundry room as soon as I hit the publish button.