Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Richard Lindberg: My Swedish Family, My American Life

A young Richard Lindberg poses with his father, Oscar, and Oscar's 1959 Lincoln. Richard's new memoir, Whiskey Breakfast, is a tale of his own experiences in often turbulent times.


"The longest journey of any person is the journey inward."
—Dag Hammarskj√∂ld (1905-1961)



BY RICHARD LINDBERG


Twenty-two years ago I had an idea for a book about my enigmatic father, the radical socialist Oscar Lindberg. It would be a book that blends memoir with a history of Swedish immigration to Chicago framed through the lens of two disparate families, those of my mother and my father. I had invented a title for this book back in 1989 – Whiskey Breakfast – then fretted that some other author would take it. Thankfully, that did not happen.

I am a Chicago writer, and the author of 15 earlier books dealing with politics, history, sports, true crime and ethnicity, all revolving around the city I have lived in all my life; a city I have come to cherish and revile, a city of great contradiction, but what a wonderful setting in which to write!

I have been writing since the age of eleven, when I began the lifelong practice of keeping a diary—a habit inspired by reading The Diary of Anne Frank in the sixth grade at Onahan School on Chicago’s far Northwest side. Those were troubling and sad years for me. I am the product of a broken home. My father, Oscar, was a Swedish socialist born in 1897. He was 56 when I first saw the light of day in 1953. He had emigrated here in 1924, ostensibly as a personal revolt against the Swedish military draft. In truth, he fled Mother Sweden for altogether different reasons, which remained hidden from my view until after his death in 1986. He had sired two children and abandoned them in Sweden. The impoverished mother of the boy Osborn (born just a few days after Oscar sailed for America in November 1924) had no money to care for the sickly child, who died in an orphanage before his first birthday. The other half-brother, I discovered between two journeys to Sweden, died before his fifth birthday, killed on a construction site. Did my father suffer any pains of conscience for turning his back in so cavalier a manner? Throughout his life, he gave no indication of any lingering regret.

The nuptials of Richard's parents, Oscar Lindberg and Helen Marie
Stone (middle), 1958.
My father was married four times. He was once a widower and twice divorced before settling in with his fourth and final wife in 1967. I was his second U.S.-born son, and my mother, Helen Marie Stone, was his third wife. She grew up on Clark Street – Chicago’s last Swedetown. Inside Simon’s Tavern on Clark Street, a relic of the Depression Era that still serves the neighborhood people, my mother’s father, Richard Stone, brokered the marriage of Helen to my father—a marriage she never really wanted.

Duty and obligation beckoned. Her family was poor, but my father was older and gave the appearance of being quite wealthy. He built fashionable homes up and down Chicago’s North Shore as he buried his family secrets and presented a veneer of probity, respectability, and good business sense. Privately, his radical Swedish socialism belied his lifestyle of conspicuous consumption in Skokie, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. My mother suffered an unhappy seven-year marriage that ended disastrously.

This is the backdrop of Whiskey Breakfast, a painful and haunting echo of the past; divorce, alcoholism, lives torn asunder, and my own experiences in turbulent times. Oh yes, Onahan School.

Wither Onahan.

I was a student there from 1958-1967. And in so many ways the pain and the hurt of being the school pariah, bullied, hectored and terrorized for eight full years shaped much of my outlook on life to the point where I never wanted to have children of my own. Nowadays we hear a lot about “cyber bullying.” Educators are much more on guard today and are better prepared to deal with this once-neglected form of child abuse – peer abuse. It wasn’t so back then and my childhood was destroyed by cruel, thoughtless and heartless children who revealed the ugly prejudices of the adult world in shocking ways. I will never forget that my champion, a Jewish girl named Marcy, was ridiculed and shunned by the more popular girls in our class for being the only Jewish girl in the school. For Marcy and me, the bullies penned their customized “slam books” – listing the 50 reasons why they hated us, and then circulated them around the class for everyone to sign. What kind of irrational hatred inspires such rabid behavior in young children? Where do they learn it from?

I have often wished that I could sit down one-on-one, as adults, with the worst of my youthful tormenters just to ask them, “Why?” What would they say to me today? How often I wonder.

Whiskey Breakfast discusses bullying within the context of growing up. Perhaps, hopefully, it may offer some fresh new insights for parents today who struggle to build up shattered self-esteem in children who suffer these same tortures. Whiskey Breakfast is also a trilogy; it is Oscar’s story, Richard Stone’s story and finally, the account of my life bearing witness to the family travail. It is my most important work, the centerpiece of my career.

I have re-written the manuscript at least four times over the 22 years. It had gone through a round of rejections in New York (beautifully written, they said, but “way too regional”); a harrowing and truly bizarre event in which I was promised publication by a large commercial publishing house by a longtime con in 2001; my having developed prostate cancer (which is, thankfully, in remission) in 2008; and nearly seven years of having been under contract and seeing the manuscript through edits and re-edits. Finally, after almost two decades since I first put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, if you will), it was and is finally, officially, in motion.

The odyssey to publication was long. I do not really know what future direction my book writing career will take me in, but perhaps when all is said and done, maybe this deserves a sequel.

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Richard Lindberg is a the author of fifteen books, including Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family, My American Life. He continues to reside in Chicago.

"Richard Lindberg does not spare himself or his ancestors in this poignant and powerful memoir of his family’s entry to the United States. I was reminded of the great cycle of emigrant novels by Vilhelm Moberg, the noted Swedish novelist I first read and so admired in my youth, who wrote vividly and sometimes brutally of the downtrodden classes of his forebears. Lindberg evokes the same haunted landscape of poverty and superstition from which his ancestors fled to America . . . only to suffer different demons in that new land. In the end his story is a redemptive one of endurance and survival."
—Harry Mark Petrakis

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