Monthly Archives: July 2016

Cherish your Mentors – Part 2

My Swedish maternal grandmother (mormor) died today.  Ingrid Lilly Margareta Dandenell née Gerdner was born on Oct 1, 1910.  She studied four languages in finishing school (Swedish, German, English, and Latin), married a gentleman farmer, and served as matriarch to a mostly tight-knit and happy clan.

She was also a mentor. She wasn’t a writer, but possessed an amazing spirit.

Among other things, she taught me to eat leeks, to appreciate the imprecise recipes of her delicious baking, to drink dry & sweet vermouth (“mormor’s blandning“), and to listen to stories.

Ingrid (Inga) was the oldest person I knew, and one of the happiest.  She inspired me to embrace my culture and to sing even when I didn’t know the words.  (She herself was a fearless singer, and always knew the lyrics and the melody.)

She drove her own car until she had a series of strokes at age 95, but continued to live on her own well past the century mark.  Every summer, she made the pilgrimage from Jönkoping or Linköping to the west coast where the family maintains a house on Särdal strand (near the medieval city of Halmstad), taking up residence in her “apartment” while the rest of the family took turns crashing in the other bedrooms and sleep spaces.

It was her absence from the beach house these past two summers that told us she was truly slowing down.  It wasn’t the arthritis or the deafness or anything in particular.  It was just age. She was older than God. She outlived a husband and her youngest daughter.

Despite the immense love and light and energy and support of all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, Inga simply drained her batteries. She’d reached the end today, and passed away, attended by her first-born son and a respectful coterie of relations.

I knew this woman for my whole life — more than half a century. But her favorite story about me comes from my first visit to Sweden, when I was about 4 years old.

Like many other children, I fell in love with the hampis — the stone quay that lies a short walk from the beach house.  The granite blocks of the hampis create  tide pools where you can fish for crabs using the time-honored technique of a bit of scrap fish and some string. I spent significant portions of my mornings filling up a plastic bucket with the tiny crabs, which mormor would then cook with mounds of fresh dill.  Hardly enough to eat, but that didn’t seem to matter.

On the day of our return flight, my parents called us down to breakfast and told us we were leaving.  According to mormor, I refused. “No!”  We could go home anytime, I said, but today we are fishing for crabs.

She always laughed when she told that story, and eventually I stopped being embarrassed when I heard it.

I have visited that beach many times since,  eventually bringing my fiancée, and then my daughter, Lilly-Karin — her namesake.

The next time we visit that beach, I suspect we will fish for crabs. And remember my mentor.

Photo credit: Anna Dandenell

Mormor Inga

Cherish your mentors – Part 1

Carolyn See, Ph.D., died on July 13, 2106.  That bastard cancer struck her down at 82. (For a more official appreciation, you can read Mary Rourke’s column in  The Los Angeles Times. This is my bit.)

Carolyn was a quintessential California writer, a literary sidhe of Topanga Canyon, and she was the first mentor who took me seriously, and more importantly, forced me to take myself seriously.  She stood at the front of a creative writing course at Loyola Marymount University and said “Oh my dear” — her students were all “dear ones” — “you can do better than this.”

She introduced me to the 1,000 words a day or 2 hours of editing rule.  She taught about the value of villains, of finding characters in the every day, and Getting It Done.

She told her students to write thank you notes to editors, even when they reject you.  She encouraged us to go to book launches, and even slipped us the occasional $20 if we couldn’t afford the hard cover.

When I was a struggling, unfocused underclassman at LMU, Carolyn gently pushed me to apply to the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.  Unbeknownst to me, she also submitted one of my stories to John Rechy, one of the writers in residence.  I don’t remember the exact cover note, but it basically said, “Keep an eye on this one.” (To this day, I’m not sure if she meant “encourage this guy” or “this one is trouble.” Probably both.)

John Rechy returned the story to me —with a wink — during my first graduate seminar.  He eventually became my thesis advisor, despite his acknowledgement that he “didn’t do ‘fantastic fiction.’ ” (That was a polite lie.  He wrote amazing literary fiction, but not science fiction or fantasy.)

After I graduated, I kept in touch with Carolyn, and had the delightful experience of transcribing the first chapters of her collaborative novel Lotus Land (written with long-time partner John Espey and daughter Lisa See).  I will always cherish the memory of sitting at Lisa’s house, typing up the hand-written drafts.  I’d never seen writers actually write before.  It was alchemy.

Over the years, Carolyn and I met occasionally when she passed through town on a promotional tour, and she was a tireless supporter of my fiction, always ready to give me firm but gentle feedback on my writing.   She also gave me valuable advice during my brief tenure as an English teacher.

Her notes and book inscriptions often included the phrase, “To Karl, my almost-son.”

Goodbye, almost-mother.  And thank you.