Sonja Fredriksen Downey
On September 19, 2021, Sonja Downey passed on peacefully in Thousand Oaks, California after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. Sonja was a loving and compassionate person who enriched the lives of all around her.
Sonja and her twin sister Swanhild were born in White Plains, NY, of Norwegian immigrant parents, Astrid and Gjert (Jerry) Fredriksen. Their home on Midland Avenue was a lively one, as Astrid ran a convalescent home for injured Norwegian sailors during the war and after, and Jerry ran a painting and contracting business. There was always a pot of coffee on the stove, and the kitchen overflowed with laughter and banter, in Norwegian and English. They were founding and active members of the Sons of Norway Club, with Jerry, Astrid, and later Irish husband Jim all presidents.
Sonja was truly a free spirit. She and sister Swanie were known throughout high school as the “dancing Fredriksen sisters”, as they toured the state almost every weekend, dancing and singing in hula skirts and tutus, and playing piano duets together. Sonja would often say later in life that she would have preferred staying home and reading a book. All her life she was a voracious reader and a spiritual seeker, reading books ranging from Carl Jung and Mormon religious texts to Patricia Cornwell murder mysteries. She was also a wonderful pianist, continuing to practice and delight friends and family for much of her life.
Sonja met Jim at White Plains High School, and at Mohawk Day Camp, where they were both counsellors. They married in 1955, and raised four children, first in White Plains, then in Armonk, NY, but always spending weekends and summers at their summer house on Mecox Bay in Water Mill, NY. Jim was an estate lawyer in NYC; Sonja stayed home with the kids, but also found time to teach piano lessons, join the PTA (even becoming president) and support her children’s sports activities. Later when the children went off to college, she got a Masters degree in English at Manhattanville College in Purchase NY. During her studies, she read the complete works of Dickens and Plato, and became quite a scholar of Jung. Her Masters thesis was on “The Parallel Journeys of Odysseus and Leopold Bloom.” Later in life, she served on the board of directors of her beloved Westchester Conservatory of Music, and became an accomplished and convincing fundraiser for the school. She received their Orpheus Lifetime Achievement Award, of which she was quite proud.
Sonja was a loving mother who created a warm and nurturing home; Jim called her “the glue that held the family together.” Jim and Sonja were never empty nesters. After their children fledged, a succession of people were beneficiaries of their kind hearts and hospitality, first with Norwegian “niece” Nina and then her friends, neighbor’s sons recovering from bad backs, and Norwegian Uncle Tommy in Armonk, followed by children and grandchildren who would crash, sometimes for months, in their spare bedroom on 35th St in Manhattan, after they gave up the place in Armonk. All were welcome. During this time, they also traveled widely, to Russia, Greece, Italy, Norway and Ireland, to name a few. Sonja especially loved Santorini, and claimed she would move there to write her books. We would be remiss to not mention that their love and hospitality extended to dogs as well, sometimes having four at a time. In the mornings, Dad would often bring coffee to Mom in bed, and the dogs would join her. He would complain that there was no room for him, and finally told her, “Sonja, it’s them or me!” She replied, “Jim, don’t make me choose…” He didn’t.
Sonja was a unique combination of brilliance, spiritual goodness, empathy and humor. Dubbed by one friend as “wifty and wise”, everyone came to her with problems, and she dispensed a loving ear and good advice, albeit sometimes with creatively mangled phrases that she was known for. Her family kept an index card of “Mommisms”, and daughter Laurie’s poet friend in college waited eagerly for the next one, such as, “Julie, you are blind as a door bat!” and “Jamie, please let out the garbage…” Other examples of her sense of humor involved her beautiful piano playing. Upon request from husband Jim, she would play his favorite Chopin piece, Traumerei. But, occasionally, a la Victor Borge, she would play strategic wrong notes with a straight face (often suspensefully waiting until the very end), upon which Jim would yell agonizingly, “SONJA!” and the kids would all laugh.
Sonja and Jim’s life together was a true lifelong love story. It was a relationship of great respect for the other, as Sonja often jokingly said, “We let the other have all the stupid opinions they want.” (This philosophy came in handy, given that Jim was a longtime Republican and Sonja a committed Democrat.) Sonja was, as she called herself, “a true rebel” who did exactly as she pleased. At parties, even in the 1950s, she would spend time trading recipes with the women, but at a certain point would cross over to the men’s side, smoke a cigar if she could find one, and discuss politics. Jim reveled in the outrageous things she would say to his law partners, and with her beautiful and earnest face, get away with it! At the summer house on LI, they welcomed all and held court on the porch in the morning in the sunlit corner with coffee, and in the evening with cocktails at sunset. Conversations ranged far and wide for hours.
Sonja and Jim leave behind four children (Laurie Downey, Julie Mankiewicz, James (Jamie) Downey, and Beth Fehmel), ten grandchildren (Kate and Maeve Downey, Phoebe and Ty Mankiewicz, Austin, Keagan, and Ryan Downey, Connor, Brody and Bryce Fehmel), and two great-granddaughters (Claire and Cameron Fehmel). We love and miss them, but are happy they are together again.
A private family memorial service is planned for the late fall. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (www.aspca.org/) or to Shorter College (www.shorter.edu/)