Book review: “Don’t Cry, Pappa”
Arden Hills, Minn.
The birth of Gunnar Skollingsberg’s first son was filled with unbelievable happiness. He promised his little boy a better life than he had lived, or rather endured. Erik “would know that he was wanted and welcomed.”
Life was not good to Gunnar Skollingsberg. He has written a memoir about a very dark subject. The author openly and painfully probed the deepest part of his being, giving the reader an unsettling look into the dark night of his soul. He has dwelt on the sadness and depression that began for him at an early age and controlled his life.
The author recognized that his feeling of loneliness was based on many factors; chief among them was his immigrant family from Norway. As a sensitive child Dr. Skollingsberg internalized his differences and felt unlike all the others, both in school and in his surroundings. As he got older he came to know that many felt as he did, but at his young age he lived with a sense of devastating isolation, which had a long-lasting effect. His childhood had shaped his life.
Children become what they are called. For Gunnar this was difficult. He writes, “I cannot remember a time when I was not yelled at and barked at by my parents. I never recall hearing any words of thoughtfulness and consideration uttered by our parents, either in English or Norwegian. Civility was not part of our childhood experience.”
Because Norwegian was the favored language, Gunnar recalls that his mother seemed to enjoy calling the children bad names and chastising them in public because she thought others would not understand her.
Feeling so different from others and unworthy of good things, he questioned his own worth and self image. He grew up “feeling demeaned, worthless and unwanted.”
Building any kind of relationship with either male or female was difficult. Gunnar wanted a normal life with wife and family. He entered into his first marriage with “a fatalistic attitude, not expecting the marriage to last.” A very precious son was born to the couple. His father deeply and dearly loved Erik. Gunnar remembered thinking, “My dear Erik; you are wanted, loved and the most precious thing in the world to me.”
The marriage ended. Erik’s mother, perhaps out of spite, took full custody of their son. For Gunnar the times with his son were special even though they were limited, until a tragic auto accident changed everything: Erik was killed. Always one to blame himself, Gunnar’s grief became unbearable and finding someone to understand seemed nearly impossible. Suicidal thoughts entered his mind as he tried to work through his grief.
Wanting to once again build a normal life and thinking that being a husband and father would be his answer, Gunnar set about finding a suitable partner.
He could not believe that Mary, an outgoing, religious woman deeply loved by his family and others, would willingly build a loving relationship with him, marry, and have a family, but she did. The family grew to five children. Tragedy struck again when one of his daughters drowned while on a camping trip. Gunnar blamed himself for the deaths of both his children. He tortured himself with the thoughts, “if I hadn’t taken Erik in the car; if I hadn’t let Lisbeth go camping.” Guilt consumed him. Depression, never far from his doorstep, filled him with despair.
Although recognizing that depression and despair had been with him all his life, Dr. Skollingsberg has also found ways to overcome the engulfing feeling of hopelessness. Music had become a good friend. Proper medication was important along with activity. He recognized that making a list of everything that bothered him and then separating the good from the bad allowed him to discard what he couldn’t control and to manage that which he could.
As a notable academic, holding many degrees, Dr. Skollingsberg’s passion for education and mental-health awareness led him to focus on making differences in kids’ lives on a daily basis. Semi-retired and now living in Norway, his influence is still felt with his supporting message to other bereaved parents. “We can survive.”
I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this book when I began reading it. Depression and discouragement are hard to embrace. Because of the author’s writing and because he always pointed to hope, I found this to be inspiring, especially for anyone who feels all is lost. I also felt I got a little insight into the difficult time Norwegians experienced when they first came to the United States. Looking into the past helps one to understand the present, and this is a book worth reading.
Don’t Cry, Pappa is available through Amazon.com in the U.S. and worldwide from Gunnar E. Skollingsberg.
Rosalie Grangaard Grosch was born into a Norwegian/American family in Decorah, Iowa. A graduate of Luther College, she taught music and English in American schools, taught English and developed a team teaching program at Trinity School, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was a drama/music/English teacher at Balob Teachers’ College, Lae, Papua New Guinea and Activity Director/Consultant for a long term care facility in St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN. She is a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul and has written numerous articles for publication.
This article originally appeared in the July 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.