I’m a quarter Finnish. My maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Finland to Saskatchewan, Canada, where they lived surrounded by vast, rustling fields of yellow wheat. My great-grandfather, I’m told, was murdered there, shot dead by another man. The remaining members of the family no longer know his story, so I have no idea why or how it happened. Even great-grandfather’s name is gone.
My great-grandmother remarried after a time, and it was her second, non-Finnish married name I knew her by. She remained in Saskatchewan, outliving her second husband by decades, and went on to live independently well into her 90s. She died only a few years after she was finally forced by great age to live with relatives.
My mother remembers her as a tiny powerhouse, a tyrannical woman who swept into her childhood Idaho home like a scolding whirlwind. She didn’t come to coo over or cuddle her young granddaughters, but to put them to work scrubbing already spotless floors on their hands and knees. My mother, now halfway into her 70s herself, still speaks of grandma-great not with love but with wide-eyed awe and nervous humor.
I met her once when I was a child. We went on a vacation to visit Mom’s relatives in Canada and we stayed for a couple of days at an old, plain, wind-scoured two-storey farmhouse in the middle of the wheat fields that belonged to one of the relatives. There was nothing else out there – just the narrow road through the wheat and then a spinning windmill and the house, rising out of the flat, tan-colored dirt like a minor miracle. It was scorchingly hot.
Grandma-great was there. I remember being very shy around that powerful old lady. I wanted her to like me, so I drew her a picture of Baba Louie. Drawing was my claim to fame back then. I believe she may have patted my arm and I think I tried to talk to her a little, but I couldn’t understand what she said. Now I wonder if it may have been that she had a thick Finnish accent. I didn’t really “get” any of it back then. At the time, Canada felt so far removed from my familiar, suburban Northern California home that it seemed like another planet entirely.
It was the1960s, but there were no toilets in the farmhouse. Just chamber pots. I imagine there must have been outhouses, as well, but I never saw any. Using the chamber pot was a messy, humiliating disaster for me. In two days I think I peed once.
I was a young teen when grandma-great (pronounced ‘grammagreat’) passed away. I’ve always wished I was a braver child and that I could have somehow gotten to know her better.
And, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much more curious about her and her first husband, the young couple who emigrated from Finland. Why did they do that? When I think about how brave they were to leave the country in which they’d been born to travel to another country they’d never seen before and probably didn’t know much about, I have to smile. Did they know then that they’d never go back to Finland, even to visit?
My mother remembers grandma-great as tough as nails and mean as cat-spit. Maybe she needed to be. It would take great strength and determination to survive a lifetime of bleak brown dirt, endless wheat fields and no trees for miles around after growing up surrounded by thousands of blue lakes, evergreen forests, ice-bound seas and the midnight sun.
Now I dream of going to Finland to see the land she was from. I’d like to validate and acknowledge the strong blood she and my unknown, murdered great-grandfather left coursing through my veins.
I’d like to start my journey in Bremerhaven, Germany, mainly because I would like to see that city again and perhaps visit some old friends there, but also because it was there that I first conceived of this particular journey. Although I was living and working in Bremerhaven, I didn’t have the vacation time or the money I’d need to make the trip. It was – and still is – far beyond my humble means. But the dream took shape there, and it’s stayed with me ever since.
Here it is: It’s late fall. I’ll drive the long, two-lane surface roads north from Bremerhaven and Lower Saxony into Schleswig-Holstein, my destination the harbor city of Kiel and the Baltic Sea. I’ll take my time and enjoy the road and the countryside. Perhaps I’ll stop in Haithabu, like I did so many years ago, and visit the Viking museum there. I’d like to see, once again, the ghostly Viking long ship which floats on the lake behind the museum. With its tall, graceful dragon-head prow, it looks as if it could set off on its own journey at any moment.
I visited Kiel once and loved it, a small, beautiful, gleaming old city on Kiel Bay. It was bright and sunny and very cool, with a brisk wind snapping the flags flying over the harbor. I ate fresh fish for lunch and enjoyed strong coffee and a delicious slice of chocolatey torte in the afternoon.
But it’s here in Kiel that my journey to the land of my grandma-great turns to fantasy.
I imagine boarding a ship and sailing out onto Kiel Bay, where the wild swans flock. I’d watch the islands of Denmark go by to the north as we make our way out into the Baltic Sea, and once we reached open water the ship would turn due north again.
North has always been my favorite direction.
It would be a sea journey of about 600 miles, my destination Helsinki, Finland. During the journey the landmass of Sweden would slip by, unseen, to the west and to the east, the mysteries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and finally, Estonia.
And then, Helsinki. My mind holds a few images of it, snatched from photographs perused in books and more lately, on the Internet. Other images, more alive somehow, have come to me courtesy of the Finnish-American poet and memoirist Stephen Kuusisto, who describes wandering Helsinki with his scholar father when he was child in his book, Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening.
We turned back and walked toward the shore. A troupe of women emerged from the mist. They were indistinct, liquid, black and green. These were old women from the neighborhood unfurling their carpets on the shore of the frozen sea.
Lordy! Then they sang!
The tree women sang and beat their carpets in the Baltic wind.
My father told me to listen.
“These are the old songs,” he said.
The women croaked, chanted, breathed, and wept.
The women were forest people. They had survived starvations, civil war, and then another war, the “Winter War” with the Russians.
Their carpets swayed on wooden racks that stood along the shore. They sang and beat dust from the rugs with sticks.
They sang over and over a song of night. The song unwound from a spool. I remember its terrible darkness. They were together singing a song that rose from a place deeper than dreams. Even a boy knows what this is.
From 1958 to 1960 my parents and I lived in the south harbor of Helsinki, just a short walk from the open-air market where fish peddlers and butchers had their stalls. We walked across the cobbled square and I’d tilt my head in the gray light and listen to the gulls and ravens. The gulls sounded like mewing cats and the ravens sounded like hinges in need of oil. I walked about listening to polyphony of hungry birds.
The Russian Orthodox Church had mysterious chimes.
And winter wouldn’t give up. We traveled into the country and I heard the reindeer bells. At an old farm I heard the runners of a sleigh crossing ice. What else?
A woman who sold flowers outside the railway station sang just for me. And her little daughter played a wooden recorder…
Wind poured into the city through the masts of sailboats.
There was an old man who sold potatoes from a dory in the harbor. His voice was like sand. He talked to me every day.
“Potatoes from the earth, potatoes from the cellar! You can still taste the summer! You can still taste the summer!”
Later I would think of his voice when reading of trolls under bridges.
Thank you, Mr. Kuusisto. This is the Helsinki I see in my mind’s eye as I disembark my imaginary ship, now berthed in Helsinki Harbor, where there are icebreakers and cranes and old gray buildings with winking windows and at ground level, the smell of fresh-caught and smoked fish and snow, and saltwater and evergreen forests.
After some time in the city, wandering, drinking tea, checking out the beds in old hotels and eating unfamiliar but delicious meals in restaurants, after attempting to talk with people even though I have no Finnish, I want to board a train.
I love trains. I love the pace they set, I love the countryside they glide through, I love the opportunity to get up and walk around while still moving ever forward. I dream of the chance to watch the Northern Lights from the window in my berth, listening to the wheels clackety-clacking into the night.
The train, that wonderful thing, will once again head north, taking me up the length of Finland. It’s another 600 miles as the crow flies, but I’d like to crisscross the country, so in reality the journey would be hundreds of miles more than that. Along the way I’d like to stop in towns and villages, and see forests and lakes, and if the snow has come, perhaps spend some time snowshoeing or Nordic skiing to the song of the wind in the treetops. Kuusisto’s reindeer bells? I hope so.
I want to see it all. I want, when I’ve gone nearly as far north as its possible to go before falling into the Arctic Ocean, to see Lapland, where there really are reindeer in herds and people travel by sleigh. Where was grandma-great from in Finland? Where was her home when she was a young girl? Where are my ancestors there today? Do I look like any of them? I’m short, blonde, blue-eyed and fair-skinned. I bet I look like a lot of people in Finland. And Sweden, and Norway and Denmark, too.
But I don’t know, really.
After I’ve petted some reindeer, ridden in a sleigh and seen the snows, I’ll board the train again and head west to Norway and Sweden. I’d love to see the Norse fjords and the Swedish forests. I’d love to see the Gulf of Bothnia from Sweden and the Atlantic Ocean from Norway. And finally, after hundreds of miles of travel, even thousands of miles, I’ll end up in Malmo, take the ferry to Copenhagen, and then back across the Baltic to Kiel, and my car, and the leisurely drive back to Bremerhaven in Germany.
I imagine a journey of months, not days, with lots of spent stopped in villages and towns, visiting local sights, taking photographs and notes, talking to people, and writing the whole thing up at night before I sleep.
I guess what I want to know is if I go there, will I feel like I’m coming home? Is there enough Finn in me to trigger ancestral memory? Will my molecules hum, soothed by the flickering, unearthly silence of the aurora?
One day, I’ll find out.