Cross Country Checkup

How a B.C. man is documenting his late mother's 'extraordinary life of adventure'

On Christmas Day, the three-month anniversary of his mother's death, Arne Sahlen began documenting his mother's history. Going through his family's artifacts, he uncovered things he never knew.

Arne Sahlen's mother died three months before Christmas. He wants to make sure no one forgets her

Edtya Sahlen, pictured here in 1946, died on Sept. 25, 2018. (Submitted by Arne Sahlen)

Arne Sahlen sat at the piano on Christmas morning — his first without his mother — and stood some photos from her past on top of its cabinet.

The gesture would kick start his new year's plan to document the life of his mother, Edyta, who died Sept. 25 at the age of 100.

"I miss her terribly but she had a great life and a thankfully short decline," Sahlen, 62, told Cross Country Checkup guest host Andrew Nichols.

Two days before he rang in the new year, his mother's final effects — with more artifacts — arrived from Victoria, B.C., and the display atop the piano ballooned.

Arne Sahlen began filling his two pianos — one grand, the other an upright — with his mother's memorabilia and photographs. He plans to organize and write a memoir about her life. (Submitted by Arne Sahlen)

Now, with about 120 photos, documents and even lamps on the two pianos in his home, the Kimberley, B.C., pianist has resolved to document his mother's life.

"It has turned into the most inspiring and surprising feeling of joy," Sahlen said.

"That has driven my new year's plan, as the family historian, to write a memoir about my mom and continue this documenting."

Some surprises

Going through the artifacts, Sahlen has uncovered things he didn't know about his mother. At 66, after her husband died, she returned to university and got her bachelor's degree.

"She got marks as high as 97 [per cent]," he said, laughing.

Sahlen believes it's important to document his family's past, not only so it can be shared with his siblings, Hans and Allen, but for future generations.

Arne Sahlen is a Kimberley B.C.-based pianist. (Submitted by Arne Sahlen)

He also worries about what might happen to the trove of history in the event of a natural disaster or fire.

Sahlen already has a title for the memoir, I Have Opened My House to the Sea, inspired by the writer Pearl S. Buck. He plans to write about her "extraordinary life of adventure," and her "love and devotion to helping others."

"Do the documenting because you never know," he said.

"If I've sent [the documents] around to people with pictures and all, then we still have memories that track our family."

Talking about death

While his mother's death had a profound effect on Sahlen, he says he was comforted by the fact that she spoke so openly about it.

"I think I maybe took her for granted … [not] realizing how brilliant she was at preparing herself and her kids for her aging and death," he said. "We'd been chit-chatting about death for decades."

According to Sahlen, his mother wrote her own obituary and had a funeral fund.

Edyta Sahlen, right, celebrated her 100th birthday in April 2018. (Submitted by Arne Sahlen)

The day before she died, Sahlen she she was taking "lurching" breaths. She was visibly frustrated, Sahlen remembered. "She just wanted to be done," he said.

The frankness and preparation she offered — and the artifacts he's now uncovering — proved a comfort to Sahlen.

"Having all this stuff around makes me just feel her presence," he said.

Written by Jason Vermes.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?