Why a 20th Memorial Anniversary Dinner was a Fabulous Idea
“Will you come?” her daughter asked.
“Of course,” I said.
And here we all were. A group of eighteen people whose only common denominator had been dead for twenty years, to the day, since that sunny Maundy Thursday in 1996 when hot tears finally flowed at the hospital for Agneta Millqvist J-son Berg.
And while she may have lost that ultimate battle, she had certainly won the courage war by staring down the enemy over and over and over again; by cocking a snoot at pain, fear and the sheer inconvenience of radiation, wigs and fatigue while running a home and business. By continuing to live life to the full — cigarette in one hand, whiskey glass in the other — and by remaining one of the best friends everyone sitting at that table ever had.
And looking around, I realised, she had the strangest collection of friends. I’m talking unconventional. From all walks of life, cultures and age groups. A lady in her social position would usually be found surrounded by, umm, ladies in her position. But not our Agneta.
With a twinkle in her eye, she was a seasoned system bucker. A linguist. A connoisseur. An entrepreneur. And a mother hen who took folk, like me, under her ample wings and then proceeded to feed them literally (she ran a fancy catering business) or figuratively with anecdotes from her riotous youth and titbits of good advice. In between helping out anyone else who needed help.
“Pass it on,” she would say when one expressed a desire to return a favour. “Just pass it on.”
I met Agneta by sheer dumb luck. There was a twenty-year age gap between us, which was perfect. She was old enough to play surrogate mother; marking my card and teaching me Swedish social etiquette: how high to hold my glass during a toast, how to lay a formal table, and the ins and outs of Swedish politics and culture. And she was young enough to remember how it was to be my age.
For my part, I was young enough to step up as surrogate sister to her two hilarious children, and old enough to appreciate Agneta’s motherly wisdom.
One mid-February, she advised me to get my foot on the property ladder. Very scary thought. Never crossed mind. I evaded, and said I’d look that autumn. She lent me an expensive coat for an appointment with the bank. “You need to look as if you can afford a mortgage loan”, she said. I moved into my first own pad on 1st April.
“Now what you need,” she said, wagging a hardworking bejewelled finger at twenty-four-year-old me, “is little men all over the city.” My eyes must’ve widened because she hurried to clarify. “An electrician, a carpenter, plumber, good jeweller. People who know you that you can call when you need them.” Good advice.
But Agneta was no saint. This was the same lady who, one infamous Sunday morning, told her husband to grab his jacket because they were going to the airport. To collect an au pair. He knew nothing about.
Her household had a revolving door.
“Can you go and count heads?” she said, one summer’s afternoon, when the house was dripping with folk popping in and out of the pool.
Eye roll. “Find out how many are staying for dinner!”
So imagine our collective surprise and dismay, when her funeral lacked any form of personal touch and entirely disregarded all things Agneta. The priest spoke long and generically about life and death, slotting Agneta’s name into the prepared gaps in his off-the-peg eulogy. The disbelief and mounting anger was tangible in the packed pews. This man was related to the family, what the hell, yes, hell, was he thinking?
Twenty years later, we were in a position to put his wrong right and reach a different kind of closure.
The dinner party, held in Agneta’s honour — and more importantly — in her spirit, morphed from an initial hugging orgy among people who hadn’t met for two decades into a complete boozy hoot. Everyone had plenty to say. We’d heard it all before, yet everyone wanted to listen. So memories were shared and tales were told again. And just when we thought we were done, one cousin produced an old newspaper cutting — and there was Agneta in all her fifteen-year-old glory. More tears of laughter and emotion were shed. The former outnumbering the latter.
And suddenly four hours had passed, and Agneta’s children — now successful entrepreneurs with every ounce of their mother’s social panache — were thanking us for coming.
Thanking us? How wonderful to be given the chance to wallow in the good memories of a great friend — with people who were there at the time — without the raw pain of recent loss. What a gift!
And that evening of perfect, satisfying celebration made me stop and think whether there are others who might be celebrated in the same way. By others who miss them in the same way we all miss Agneta.
Which is why, with the permission of Agneta’s children, I’ve shared this story.