Sista Fågeln, “last bird”

this is how the story ends

Birds, Berta Hansson

I’d never heard of Swedish artist Berta Hansson until today, through a blog about children’s books. A recently published picture book based on Berta Hansson’s life is called, “The Bird Within Me Flies Wherever it Wants.” Born in 1910 in rural northern Sweden, Berta’s father wanted her to stay in their village and marry a local farmer, but she was determined to become an artist, and she did. Not a famous artist, but successful enough to support herself.

BERTA HANSSON (1910–94), Erik på soffan

Now Berta Hansson is gone. And so is Mom, she died in March. The other day my sister found a half letter Mom wrote to me last October but never mailed. It begins like this:

Dear Sarah,

What a weird time of life this is, this coming to the end of it. I was invited to a birthday party tonight and I fussed for most of the day trying to decide among my meager choices what I was going to wear. And, just now, the call came that the call came that call came [sic] that the party was canceled due to the death of the honoree. What a relief! Not a whiff of remorse or disappointment or even sorrow. Just relief that I do not have to think about what I was going to wear.

The call came that
the call came
that call
came
that the party
was canceled
due to the death
of the honoree.

Mom did not mean to write it like that — her marbles were loosening — she considered herself a writer, but never a poet. Poetry arises naturally from a loosening of marbles. One evening, a few months later, during another party Mom did not attend because she was dying, she answered the call.

Sista Fågeln (the last bird), Berta Hansson, 1991

Berta Hansson’s sight continued to decline during the last years of her life, and yet she gained a new world of images: birds. These were “Not ornithologically specific birds — just the mental images of birds”. As she could no longer distinguish between colors she worked in black and white. Her large oil painting called Sista Fågeln, from 1991, was Berta Hansson’s closing comment on her artistic output.

Berta Hansson died in Stockholm in 1994.

(from one of the few biographies I could find in English)

I was not expecting another bird from Mom. I thought I’d already gotten the last word. How strange. Her letter goes on:

To be perfectly honest, I am disappointed: Charlie was the man I had picked out on my arrival (at the assisted living facility) that I hoped to get to know. He seemed so interesting and maybe even that he was interested in me!!

Too bad.

Mom really wanted a boyfriend at the end of her life. She was also hoping for notoriety as an author. She wrote and self-published a memoir which she liked to hand out to anyone who seemed remotely interested, hoping for a big break. Those birds never flew.

Berta Hansson wanted children - that never happened.

Her 1984 book Kamratporträtt includes raw and loving depictions of her friendships with fellow painters. What they all had in common was that they lived alone. Berta Hansson was very protective of her ‘alone’ time. During the latter part of her life she had a long relationship with a man, but she was unwilling to cohabit with him. She believed that a woman must have time to herself in order to be able to work. “Women today, just like before, are pulled between being loyal to life itself — childbirth and caring — and their desire for artistic creation. It seems to be a permanent dilemma”. (from the bio)

Berta Hansson in her studio in Stockholm circa 1991

Mom absolutely loved having a family. She was very happy with her children and grandchildren. She got what she wanted in that respect.

Mom with her grandaughter circa 1991

My parents were Quakers. A Quaker Meeting has no priest or minister. It’s very democratic — anyone in the meeting can stand up and speak if so inspired. Mom found her voice there, but after attending for many years, she decided she’d had enough. From her letter:

When I was leaving Quaker Meeting I got up to speak and realized that whatever I needed to say, I had already done so. And that was such a relief! “Let your light so brighten the world….” and people commenting to me about some message or other that they have enjoyed or been moved by has attested to the power of that. Stop trying so hard and just go about being me! It’s already happened or happening.

Sitting across the room…. (and there the letter ends).

Mom’s last birthday party at home

The call came that
the call came
that call
came
that the party
was canceled
due to the death
of the honoree.

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Sarah Mohan

Sarah Mohan

I’m probably just making it up