Finnish Fandango
 

SAFETY IN NUMBERS?


The Aeroflot plane landed. In Moscow. 

A sight I had never seen before in my life greeted me in that terminal building: a number of hefty, unfriendly-looking soldiers with real rifles. They were positioned at strategic locations: top of a stairway, bottom, around the corner. You get the idea. 

I remember the starkness. Everything was gray in the terminal. Cement-colored. 


It was winter in the late 1970's. I lived in Denmark at the time and could book a fairly cheap charter flight to Moscow, yes in the middle of winter. I had wanted to see who these Russian people were, that, in 1941 in the Continuation War between Finland and Russia, had shot and wounded my father in the mouth and jaw so severely that he spent over two years in a field hospital because of his "Russian dentist", as he called it. Of course it was only one Russian soldier that wounded my father, not the entire city of Moscow, but still.... I wanted to get a first-hand look at the country.


Perhaps a naïve notion at the time. To go to Russia, of all places. 

My thought was, that being an American citizen, I would never likely travel from the US to Russia. That seemed too crazy. However, since I could take a charter flight with a group of sensible, helpful Danes, why not? No one in Russia would start shooting Danes (had I seen too many espionage movies?), and therefore we would have safety in numbers. I'd be safe enough in a group, blend in with the others. After all, being a Finn, I too looked Scandinavian, like them.


It was a cold winter with lots of snow in Moscow. I had good warm boots with me and my mother's old mouton coat to wear; I could weather the weather, so to speak. 


From the airport terminal, we were driven by bus to Moscow-proper, passing huge apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city. Stone. Cement. No color anywhere. White snow. It sure looked bleak. We were finally dropped off at our hotel. From traveling to other countries, I had experienced having to turn in my passport (my American passport) at the hotel desk, only to get it back the next day. So we all handed over our passports as requested, and I thought nothing more of it.


I think the hotel may in actuality have been a dormitory of sorts. I had a single room on the second or third floor. A bed, table with a telephone, chair, rack with some hangers. A window looking out to nothingness. I can still envision the room color -- a drab green. The communal bathroom and shower were down the hall. And... were overseen by an old, round woman, sitting on a wooden chair, and wearing a rough woolen dress, shawl about her, and babushka on her head. She sat watch in the hallway, sort of like a housemother. She seemed to be there day and night. Maybe that's why she never smiled.


It was late evening and I was getting ready to finally go to bed, and the phone in my room rang! 

What? Who would be calling me?

I answered. A man's deep voice spoke in what I assumed was Russian. Of course I couldn't understand a word. He spoke several more sentences. I said in English, "What are you saying? Who do you want to speak to? I don't understand you!" Again, he spoke in Russian. I tried again with the same phrases in English. Then in Danish. Then in Finnish. Then in some weird concoction of high-school French. He presumably didn't understand any of my languages. And I didn't understand him. He then hung up.


Needless to say, it took me a while to fall asleep. I checked the lock on my room door. And wondered who in heck was calling me. And why. I certainly couldn't be of any interest to anyone in Russia. Here I was, a mother, a wife, a nurse. Living in Denmark -- a safe place.  But....yeah OK, an American in Moscow!....Oh for heaven's sake, I said to myself, I am a nobody in the big world, and I finally fell asleep.


The next morning, I asked at the main desk if anyone knew anything about a phone call to my room the previous night. No, I was told.

And we did not get our passports back.


That day, we saw some sights with a tour guide. The beautiful, and finally full-of-color, onion domes of Saint Basil's Cathedral (now a museum) in Red Square. We waited in line to see Lenin's embalmed body on display in a mausoleum, also at Red Square. We walked some streets, looked in some half-empty store windows, and did stop at a totally dismal-looking, greasy-spoon-type of food establishment. No tables, just stand at a counter facing the window, look out at the snow, the slushy sidewalks, and the smiling people bustling up and down the street... AND...while eating THE most delicious borscht soup and chomping on perfectly crusty fresh bread!


The next morning, no passports back.


We went on a tour-bus to some kind of old art museum outside of the city. The only thing I recall is that there was another old woman with a shawl and babushka sitting in a wooden chair inside the museum, and it felt really cold in there. Several of us commented on that fact and asked if that was so good for the paintings on display. We could see some antique-looking temperature- or humidity-controlled machines that were turned on and making noise. But we only got the answer that the dials were set where they were suposed to be set.


The next morning, no passports back.


We were to take the famous Moscow Metro to a place on the other side of the city.  Well... I tell you! I have never been on such a steep escalator in my life. And long. It was going down, down... into the veritable bowels of the earth it seemed!  We were going so far underground, and it felt like straight down. It was creepy and frightening and freezing down there, and half-dark. And full of people, but not a lot of noise. So, very weird indeed.

We saw some sights that day. But what I will always remember, is how far underground I had been, and that I didn't like it at all. I recently read that the deepest section of the Moscow Metro is 276 ft underground at the Park Pobedy Station, one of the world's deepest.


Either the next day or day after, we finally got our passports back. And had only another day or two on the trip. I didn't think about it then, but many times in the last 20 or 30 years I have thought that it was quite chancey to relinquish my passport like that. Another time, I should stand and demand that I get it back the next morning, or right then and there. After all, I had been amongst several hundred strangers in Red Square, most of whom spoke no English; had been on a Moscow Metro train in the underworld; had walked unknown streets in Moscow in the frigid winter; had ridden a bus to some unknown location outside of the city.  What if there had been an accident? Or I had gotten sick? Yes, people should think things like that, especially in the world today. I had NO identification on me to speak of. Oh, and no cell phones then. My passport was in a hotel, which name was written in the strange letters of an alphabet I knew nothing about. On the other hand, I was with others in the group. Safety in numbers? .... I guess.... But I doubt I'll be doing it in that way ever again!


----2.6.2019


WHAT'S THE RUSH ?


    Imagine not having to constantly check the time...your time...the correct time...important time... meeting time...time is flying...it's late...you're late...I don't have time...it's time to go.

Imagine not having to "keep an eye on the time". But, you say, there are important appointments, important meetings, important activities...important this...important that.  


   
How many timepieces do you have anyway? Your regular watch, your Fitbit, the clock on your laptop, PC, TV, cell phone, landline answering machine, clock radio, car radio, stereo, living room wall, oven, kitchen wall, alarm clock, and the list goes on and on. Isn't that ridiculous? Go ahead, count your timepieces! Then there are the clocks on streets, on highway signs, at the gas station, at the post office, inside stores. Every which way you turn, you become at least reminded of, or irritated with, if not actually obsessed with, time!


   Imagine instead, listening to your body's signals as to when you're hungry and should eat, when you're tired and should sleep or nap, when you really should turn off the blue light from all your devices that are messing with your ability to fall asleep. Doing all those things without looking at a timepiece.


   Imagine relying on your memory regarding that list of VERY important things you just have to do tomorrow, and falling asleep instead of going over and over it all with your closed eyes and your wide-awake mind. Don't you think you can remember anymore? 


   Imagine actually noticing that it's becoming dusk. Or dawn. The light is different. The sounds are their own. What were the colors of the sky this morning? How did the clouds look at sunset? What kind of bird was warbling outside your window at sunrise -- did you listen to it?  Did you hear the screech owl in the neighbor's backyard tree this evening? 


   We are all so Busy. Busy With Important Things...therefore, We Are Very Important People!


   That is the fallacy in our thinking. We, you and I, are no more important than anyone else. Where did this narcissistic focus come from?


    We surely didn't learn it from our parents. Their life-times are referred to by many as "the good ole days", "back in the day", "when life was simpler".   Well, I don't really think that life was simpler then. On the contrary. They tended to their jobs, their homes, their yards, their families, their friends, their neighborhoods. As do folks today. 


    But there were major differences too.

   

   There was no 24-hour a day news programs like we have today on TV, radio, and on our tekkie devices. Twenty-four hours a day, we can get news on every killing and major auto accident in the state and beyond, every natural disaster in the world in real time and with photos and live films, every crime of known and unknown persons also worldwide. I think today it is all far, far more than the human brain AND heart can tolerate. 


   Multiply that with the gross and disgusting current political climate with all the name-calling, lies, bigotry, and racism, and the fundament for stress, worry, and anxiety is thoroughly primed! And when stress, worry, and anxiety abound, we tend to think a lot about ourselves. More and more. And that actually increases our worry and anxiety because we know deep down inside that that's not good. So then we turn into one anxious and -- to the rest of the world -- unappealing narcissist.  (That's one progression in a nutshell, of course.)


   There was no constant "checking" with each other back then, like there is today with texts and cell phones. There was a phone at home. If someone called and you were home, you answered and talked. If you weren't home, they'd call later, or another time if they really wanted to talk to you. (OK, that WAS in most ways 'simpler' than today.) Today folks are calling home even from the supermarket, "Was it the red can of that, or the green?... Should I get the large or the medium?...What kind of cereal was it again?...Wait, I'll send you a photo and you can see what I'm talking about!"  


   How do I know this? Because I hear these conversations, just like you do, and none of us like hearing them. I think in the old days, folks knew what they were going to buy, they had a list either on paper, or yes, they had it in their head!  The constant checking up on everything definitely approaches the neurotic. 

   Take a stand and make a decision instead! Some would say that people can't think for themselves anymore. That they have no common sense anymore. That it's a society of wimps.  That's what some people say!

 

   Back then in our parents' time, there was a custom of "dropping in" on friends. Yes, really!  No text message first, to see if someone was home, no phone call, no text message, no email. Wow, that's crazy, huh? Friends would just pull up in your driveway and knock on the door... "Oh hi, come on in!"....But heavens, try doing that today with many of your friends and acquaintances and you risk getting a sourpuss-look, a glance at the ubiquitous timepiece, or even the passive-aggressive retort of: "Gee, I didn't know you were coming. You didn't call or text!"  And another glance at the timepiece (meaning: you are interrupting me, intruding on the Important Person.)  Well, you experience that a few times, and you stop "dropping in" on people, don't you.  


   So, frequent human contact decreases, and people end up sitting and twiddling their thumbs. Bored. Lonely. Some would say they do not want to "bother" other people, so they just stay home, alone. But that's just not good for the human heart! I see plenty of these people in my work as a visiting nurse. The most heartbreaking situations are older or handicapped people who live alone, but their children or other family, some of whom live within 10 miles, hardly visit or actually just do not visit.  "You could ask them to help you out with this", I say.  "Oh no, they have their own lives. They're SO BUSY."  Now that just isn't right, is it.


   There was more politeness and kindness back in the day. Someone held the door open for you because you came after them into a store, the post office, a house. This was just done, no question. AND it was done with a smile.  Remember the smile? Hmmm...I'm seeing fewer and fewer of those out in the community these days. And I hold the door for plenty of people going into the Post Office, and Vroom....they've whisked right by and through the door without a word. I sometimes say cheerily, "oh you're welcome", under my breath, but also at times fairly loudly when I spy a 'hotshot'!


   There was more "please" and "thank you" then... OK call me old-fashioned, I don't care.  But it does not take any great amount of energy to smile, or to hold a door open for someone, or to say "please" or "thank you".  It DOES, however, apparently take a GREAT amount of energy if you are a grump by nature, or if you didn't listen to the birds this morning, or if you have followed in someone's narcissistic footsteps and only think of yourself, or if you are so arrogant that you believe that you are better than others. For example, better than us "commoners" or "locals" when you come to vacation on Cape Cod and think that the rules or laws around here do not apply to you, and that it's almost painful for you to smile!... There, I got that out -- whew! (as a big rewarding smile comes across MY face).


   I think some very deep breaths could be taken by all of us right now. And they are especially needed during this holiday season, which historically is fraught with the metaphorical pulling-out-of-the-hair, stomach aches, stress, not enough time for anything, old family arguments, poor sleep, too much sugar and too much drink, and a vast array of other negative influences on our so frail and crumbling bodies. As a kind of "Tonic for the Times", I suggest the following:


   Take a walk -- frequently, daily -- in nature. And turn off the darn phone in your pocket for that 1/2 hour or full hour or more. Rest assured, you WILL survive, as will the rest of the world without being able to contact you for that -- in the big scheme of things -- fleeting nanosecond in history.


   Take a break from the news. Whatever form is your favored form: TV, radio, device, paper newspaper.  And it is well-known that watching/listening to any negative news (and isn't it 99.9% negative news, disasters, and horror stories?) within a few hours of bedtime is detrimental to falling into a lovely slumber... "Miles to go before I sleep..." and all that.... Why punish yourself? You can hear the news in the morning when you have many hours ahead of you, during which you can spar in your thoughts with the news-reporters, and get all in a twit about something during the daylight.


   Try doing the shopping, either with a complete list on paper or in your head, and without one single call or text asking a question about the list.  It's good mental exercise. Then at the end, if you're paying in cash (oh, remember cash?), calculate in your head how much change you should get back and see if the cashier can do it too, or if he or she has to look at the screen for the answer.


   Try smiling tomorrow every time you pass someone on the street or the parking lot -- or while you hold the door for someone!  Smiling costs you nothing, it just may be the only eye-to-eye contact that a lonely person experiences in the course of the entire day full of passing by Busy Important People.


   When you can (because of your job or family), do take your watch off and refuse to be a slave to it and your other numerous timepieces that are keeping you all wound up, much like these objects are.

 

    I'll close this article with my own free translation of an appropriate short passage from a Danish book entitled "De Måske Egnede" by Peter Høeg. This novel is about three teenagers with behavioral problems at a private school in Copenhagen in the '70s, and their discovery of the school administrator's plan for them. Høeg has many references to time in his book. The following passage has to do with a type of timepiece and how it affected the population from that time in history until now:


   "In 1370, a Frenchman, Duke Jean de Berry, paid for part of the construction of a very large clocktower in Poitiers. This was probably the first place in the world that a measuring device that registered the passing of time was available to the public.


   But even then, the time that the clock measured was not used for anything. The majority of Europe's population, those that lived outside of the cities, and even those that lived in the cities, began their day at sunrise and ended it at dusk, and work itself was regulated by the changing seasons. People's thoughts were not occupied by time itself, because time was determined by other factors. What occupied their minds was the clock.


   The regularity of the clock was a reflection of the precision of the universe. Of God's creation. The clock was first and foremost an image of something.


   Like a work of art. That is the way it was looked upon. The clock had been like a work of art, like work in a laboratory, in other words -- a question.


   At some point this all changed. At some point, the clock stopped being the question. Instead, it became an answer."


----12.10.2018



Apple-bobbing and Remembering the Dead


   I drove past the house the other day.  It looks unchanged -- maybe just with a newer coat of paint since then -- has the same doorway and front facade at least. It's old, but sits solidly down a small embankment and is surrounded by some lovely old trees.  In fact, it didn't look spooky at all. Just rests quietly off the old winding road with the other houses.  Norma used to live in that house.


   
My mother was a head nurse at the then Barnstable County Hospital, and Norma also worked there as a nurse. I had met her a few times as a kid. My mother always said, "Oh she's such a character, so much fun. And what a great nurse." I only remembered that this Norma would say things very quietly and without much expression, and it would make other adults laugh and laugh. But I never really got the gist of it then as a kid, because she barely smiled...though she did have a certain twinkle or blink of her eyes, as I recalled later in life. I suppose you could say she had a dry wit, or a droll sense of humor, like so many real New Englanders. But basically as a kid, I was a bit intimidated by her. 


   In the gloaming of one Halloween evening, my mother drove my sister and me to Norma's house, because she was having a Halloween party for some of us kids in the village. I was 9 or 10 at the time, and very impressionable. So when I saw the outside decorations in black and orange, swaying in the orange-tinged lights, and then saw Norma at the door dressed up in costume -- maybe a witch, but now I'm not sure -- well, let's just say then I was royally spooked!


   We went inside. I still remember the location of the creaky stairway to the dark upstairs, and the arrangement of the living room and kitchen furniture. Everything was decorated Halloween-style. I saw the other kids and we started having fun playing some games, eating corn candy, popcorn, and drinking soda pop. We all had rudimentary costumes on: a paper bag over the head with holes for eyes and mouth, or a sheet with ditto. Nothing like the $50+ costumes these days.


   Then it was time for bobbing for apples! That was the best part of the entire evening! The big galvanized tub was on the floor, and the red and green shiny apples were floating in the water. So we knelt down on the floor, hands behind our backs, heads down to the water, and bob, bob, bob, invariably getting water in our noses and mouths, coughing and sputtering, laughing hysterically, but finally each of us sitting up with an apple in our mouth.


   It was all still pretty scary, I thought, but at least the games and the laughter took the edge off of the spookiness of it all. I was happy to glance over to the adult contingent every once in a while, and see that my mother was still there, smiling and chatting away with Norma and the other parents. This whole scenario is what comes to my mind before every single Halloween since then... not only with a feeling of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood, but also with the remembrance of the many ambivalences of feelings in certain situations.


   Somewhere around 10 or 11 years ago, in my work as a visiting nurse, I was to see a patient at a facility that has secure units for dementia patients.  I went down the hallway, and happened to glance at the bulletin board outside of a room of another patient. There were photos of the woman both in nurse's uniform and army fatigues. I would know that wisp of a smile anywhere and the twinkling eyes. Sure enough, there was her name up above: Norma Phillips! 


   I knocked on her door, peeked my head around the corner, and saw her sitting in an easy chair. It was Norma. The Norma I knew as a kid and the Norma I had gotten to know a bit more when I was in junior high.  I called her by name and told her my name. Then I said, "Do you remember working with my mother, Elsa, at Barnstable County?"  "Oh sure," she said, "Those were some days!"... we chatted for a bit, then I said so long. She had looked some older, but I could easily recognize her; and she had that same quiet voice and dry wit.


  I knew Norma had been in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in the Philippines and Korea. Then in the U.S. Army Air Force in Germany as a Captain in the early 50's, before starting at Barnstable County Hospital with my mother.... What I didn't know, was that she returned to a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in 1964 in Germany and Fort Bragg. And this was followed by Vietnam, where she was head nurse on a medical ward at a field hospital at Can Tho in the Mekong Delta from 1969-1970.  She later was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was honorably discharged in 1978 with many medals and commendations. One of the staff at that facility where I saw her again, told me that they had seen photos of Norma, legs-a-dangling from a helicopter, rifle in her lap, flying out to pick up some wounded soldiers in Vietnam. Then I just cried.


   I lost track of Norma because she was transferred to another facility in another town.


   Now you may be asking, what is my point in all of this? Well, I'll tell you. It's about memories of Norma and Halloween.


   Halloween in many parts of the world is celebrated not as a Trick-Or-Treat, multi-million-dollar holiday with costumes, parties, and all manner of scary ax-murdering movies, but as its original 'All Hallows' Eve' or 'All Saints' Eve'.  For a fascinating and comprehensive history of Halloween (October 31) and All Saints' Day (November 1), go to Wikipedia, and type in 'Halloween'. Then look up 'All Saints' Day'.  There is also 'All Souls' Day' (November 2). 


   The dead are celebrated in many parts of the world still today around this time, October 31 to November 2, and in some countries like Sweden and Finland between October 31 and November 6.  In many European countries, including Scandinavia, it is a tradition from October 31 to November 2, to place wreaths, fresh flowers, and lit candles on the graves of one's loved ones, and to remember all deceased.


  In Mexico and Latin American countries there are elaborate celebrations of the 'Day of the Dead'.  This has also most recently been celebrated, for example, in San Francisco CA and Provincetown MA with various parades, events, and educational sessions prior to October 31st.  In some countries the celebrations are strictly based on religion; in others, it is a combination of religious and secular celebrations. 


   The practice of trick-or-treating can be traced back to going 'souling' in England in medieval times. 'Soulers' were mostly children and the poor, going from house to house begging for 'soul cakes' which were actual cakes made with spices. And in return, the 'soulers' promised to pray for the people in the household and their deceased family members on 'All Souls' Day'.  There is a traditional soul-cake song that was made popular by the singing trio of Peter, Paul & Mary, called "A' Soalin' ".  Remember?  They sang all three verses and the chorus.

The chorus of the song goes:


 A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!

Please good Missis, a soul-cake!

An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,

Any good thing to make us all merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul

Three for Him who made us all.


   So regardless of whether you consider yourself religious or non-religious, spiritual, agnostic, atheist, or 'other', I have a few suggestions for all of us for this All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day, and/or All Souls' Day that maybe you would consider pondering. 


   This is prompted by my fond recollections of the deceased Lt.Col. Norma Phillips and her Halloween party, and her caring for wounded soldiers in Vietnam.

   It is also prompted by remembering those I have known that have died in wars of all kinds in various countries.

   It is also prompted by remembering those that I have known that have died of chronic and acute illnesses.

   It is also prompted by remembering those that I have known that have taken their own lives in desperation, loneliness, and disillusionment with life. 

   It is also prompted by remembering the innocent people in the Pittsburgh synagogue who just yesterday were needlessly and senselessly murdered in the name of anti-Semitism.


   Can we all take time from our so incredibly "busy" days, to examine our own consciences regarding what it is that we consider to be morally right and wrong?

   Can we decry hatred in all its forms and be verbal about that fact? 

   Can we refuse to accept fear-mongering?

   Can we demand a civil tone from all -- from pre-schoolers up to the highest office in the land -- and stand up for human dignity?

   Can we demand laws for the good of humanity itself and for the survival of our planet?


   If we can do our part for these, then perhaps we have a chance of cherishing and taking care of all of our souls...along with those of the dead.


—10.28.2018



BUT (YOU SAY) IT'S ONLY A BOOK !


   Some selected quotes by Joan Didion are presented in the "Passages" section of this magazine. And speaking of her, I understand she's very perceptive about many things. However, I had such a weird experience with one of her books, that I cringe from referred reference to her! And I'll tell you why, before you even say, "Oh, don't bother"!


   My father lived here with me for over four years before he died. I took care of him, food, transport, doctor visits, cleaning, plus I worked my nursing job. The year after he died, which brought us to 2007, I got a package in the mail. It was Joan Didion's book, "The Year of Magical Thinking", along with an envelope and card from a guy I'll call Q., who lived somewhere out West, at least at that time, as I recall.


    We had both been in the same class in Elementary School here in 5th and 6th grade, also in Junior High (7th and 8th grade). After that, he and his family moved away. So I had never seen him or had contact with him since 8th grade, some 40+ years earlier, and I really only knew him as a schoolboy for a few years.

  

   This Q. was a smart kid, yes. A "Mr. Perfectly Dressed", always in an ironed white shirt and pressed trousers --- unlike what other boys wore to school in 1957-60.  I didn't like his grin, and I just did not like him at all...So I thought, what the hell was he up to, sending me something, popping out of history from elementary and junior high school like that.  And where did he have my street address from. (Of course, I have since discovered that one can find all manner of addresses on the Internet!)


   I read his short note which was very fishy indeed -- he professed to be researching his family's gravesites after his mother had at that time recently died, and "came across" the obituary of my father the year before. He says "it occurred to" him to send me the book...because it had helped HIM to recognize some of the same experiences that Joan Didion wrote about in the book.


   Unbelievable .... This Q. knew absolutely squat about me, my life, my father, my grieving at the time, etc. And whether or not this book would be meaningful to me. And did I even want to see if I had some of the same experiences as the author and him? How could he possibly know that answer. In fact, I had no need to read about other's grief during my own; it gave me no solace whatsoever.

....I mean, the gall. The nerve. And he was being so incredibly presumptuous to think that this was a kind and helpful thing to send me. I, of course, disagreed with that idea wholeheartedly, if that's what he, in fact, was thinking. And basically, I did not care to find out one iota.  


   It made me angry, and I knew then, and still know now, that he was trying to connect with me -- hit on me by postal mail, no less! --  for some future romance via this very weird common grief thing, which probably we did NOT have in common at all, at least not in the same way.  Well.... all of that certainly did not fly with me.


   So I still have his note inside the book -- which book I still cannot bring myself to read!  I keep it as an example for me of the desperation of some people. And I know that some would say "Oh, but it's only a book. He was just trying to be nice."  Right.... After never knowing me since 8th grade? ....Come on now!.... And to that I would say what a load of BS!


   The moral of that story, for men (and also women, for that matter) is about what NOT to assume about a grieving person:  "Don't think you know my grief!" And for heaven's sake, do not use the death of a family member to expect a bringing closer of the minds and souls. 


   Also, don't assume you know how a person turned out as an adult, just because you think you knew them as a kid. On the other hand, I have met enough old school classmates to know that people rarely do a 180-degree turn about! They really still have the same essence when they're 50, 60, and 70 as they had at 12, 14, and 16.  Often just more outspoken now! And older-looking!  


    So how's that for a terror-tale? 


—10.03.2018 



Got Milk? -- Not this kind, you don't!


Growing up in West Barnstable on the Cape in the late '40's/early '50s, all of the mothers I knew, worked. They either had a full-time job like my mother did, or they even worked several jobs. We didn't know any Harriet Nelsons or June Cleavers in their pouffy dresses and their perfect hairdos, waiting for the man of the house to come home from work so they could serve the meal they had slaved over for several hours in the house that was kept immaculate with dusting and vacuuming at least once daily.


Before I began in 1st grade, I was taken care of during the day while my mother and father worked and my sister was in school. There were a few different women that had me in their care. One kind Finnish woman, Mrs. Liimatainen, cared for me when I was about 3 years old. She had a wonderful dog named 'Sandy' that was about twice as big as I was. When I look at the photo, I think the dog looks like a giant, overweight German Shepherd. That dog seemed to know I was just a tyke because he never jumped on me. And I was apparently not turned off by his size, since I remember going over often to "talk" to him. Heaven only knows what I said, or in what language; maybe he just thought I was nuts.


Another sweet woman, Mrs. Carlson, took care of me for quite a long time, many months, maybe a year, I don't know. She had long, black hair done up in a circular braid around the back of her head, wore black-rimmed glasses and always smiled at me. The unique thing with Mrs. Carlson, though, was not her hair or glasses or smile. Every morning after I had been dropped off early by my mother, I was to sit in a chair in Mrs. Carlson's kitchen and wait while she went outside for just a bit. She would come back in with the glass.


Well... she had a brown and white goat tied to a large tree in the back yard. She'd go out, milk the goat, come back in, and I was to drink a glass of fresh goat's milk every day I was there. WARM goat's milk. Straight from the goat, no processing, no pasteurizing. No nothin'. Just like on a farm. I don't really recall whether or not I liked the taste of goat's milk. I do know, however, that for the rest of my life, I've always wanted a glass of milk to be cold!


Even though my parents had two incomes, extra money was scarce, I'm sure, though it was never talked about in just those words that my sister and I ever heard of. My father had just started his own building business and had a pickup truck. As far as my sister and I felt, we were certainly not lacking in anything. We lived in a house with a yard, ate good food, shared a room, had bicycles, and I had all of my toys in one cardboard box, plus a large doll that couldn't fit in the box. We each got a new dress twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter. Otherwise, we got extra clothes from a church rummage sale, or from people my mother knew, and I got my sister's hand-me-downs.  We were both perfectly satisfied with our meager wardrobes then.


So everyone in the family had their "jobs" to do. 


Besides washing and wiping dishes daily, and mopping floors and dusting weekly, my sister and I went to get milk from an old Finnish couple that lived a hop, skip, and a jump away on the same road out there in the boonies. She and I would walk over the next door neighbor's yard (they were Finns), then the next yard (also Finns), and then we got to the house where we picked up the milk in glass bottles, returning the bottles we had picked up the time before. I assume now, that the bottles got boiled, but that detail was nothing that piqued my curiosity back then.


The old man's name was Mr. Hakkarainen. He and his wife had a grown son named Hakka Hakkarainen -- a beauty of a Finnish name -- but the son wasn't around much. The old man was thin, stooped over a bit, had thick white hair, coke bottle glasses, a crooked nose, and always had suspenders on that held up his trousers. And Mrs. Hakkarainen had the perennial apron on over a long dress, with a shawl around her shoulders, and had sturdy-looking woolen socks peeking out above her shoes. Her long gray hair was braided in the big ring around the back of her head, and she was always found in the kitchen by the large, black, cast-iron, wood-burning stove. They both had wonderful, eye-crinkling smiles that made us want to stay a while and visit. 


My sister and I would be offered a home-baked cookie and some water, pumped from the monstrosity of a creaking hand-pump over the kitchen sink. There was also an inviting old rocking chair in the corner by the stove. And usually some kitchen towels or underwear hanging on a clothesline near the stove. No matter what month of the year, it was always warm and toasty in that kitchen.  


The milk we picked up was in bottles that had a good inch or so of pure, pale-yellow cream just under the round cardboard cap that kept the milk protected from the elements. That cream was savored by my parents because it was to be added carefully to their many demitasse-size cups of coffee!  We always liked going out to the barn to give the cows a clap on their warm flanks before going back home. I suppose that was our thank-you to the cows for the milk. They were so big with their soft round eyes. There were two of them, I believe. 


That milk was neither pasteurized, nor homogenized, nor had any calcium or Vitamin D3 or any other things added!  It was just plain wonderful milk straight from the cows -- and tasted great. It was not 2% or 1% or skimmed. It was good ole whole milk. We drank it every day for years. My mother also gave my sister and me a daily tablespoon of Cod Liver Oil, which tasted pretty bad, but apparently did the trick for our health. There were none of those fancy, expensive capsules of D3 and Omega-this-and-that; I don't think they existed back then. And the prize was: none of us were hardly ever sick!


Back to basics, they say? ...Hmmm, I think I might just have to go out and buy that bottle of Cod Liver Oil I've seen at the supermarket, and get me a goat for the back yard!



Crossing The Finnish Line


The journey lasted 4 days in all. 

They travelled first by train, then ship, then airplane, and lastly by automobile. The family consisted of the tired yet excited woman who had been born over there where they were going, but who had left that country with her family when she was but a child. There was also her husband, the seemingly stoic, yet inwardly-apprehensive man who had never ever been there and could not speak that language. And two children completed the traveling family. The older girl had just begun in first grade at school the previous year, and the younger girl was learning to speak in full sentences with words in her native tongue.


The train left Helsinki for Turku, a coastal town to the west, in Finland. From Turku, they boarded a ship that crossed the invisible line in the sea separating Finland and Sweden. The family disembarked in Stockholm, Sweden. Up to this point, it had all been just a prelude to the transatlantic flight. But because of refueling needs, there had to be several take-offs and landings in various countries prior to the actual flight over the big pond. So it was not one big flight, but many smaller. Up and down, up and down....No one would be on a gigantic 747 jet. No!.... A propellor plane was all they wrote and all that was flying commercially at the time. And in comparison to today's transatlantic jets, a prop plane was just a baby of a thing up there in the heavens, being tossed about with every single lump and bump of turbulence, probably to the delight of the company that made the ever-popular and forever-necessary upchuck-bags!


From Stockholm, it was on to Copenhagen, Denmark, to get on board the final silver bird, an American Airlines plane. The airline gave each family a navy blue, zippered, two-handled, traveler's bag with the logo as it was then: the big letters "A A" emblazoned on the sides in white and a large eagle with up-stretched wings placed between the two A's. That 'kassi' as it was called in Finnish, would be kept with the family for decades, and used with near-reverence to many a slumber party and on many a road trip. Then it was time for take-off from Copenhagen and landing at Prestwick Airport near Glasgow, Scotland.  From Prestwick, it was on to Rejkjavík, Iceland.  Forever westward!.....Staying to the north, a take-off from Rejkjavík, and landing in Gander, Newfoundland, was next. Then, from Gander to the airport in Boston, Massachusetts....America!...Finally!

From Stockholm to Boston, 27 hours had elapsed!


After being detained for some time by the authorities in Customs and Passport Control in Boston, the family was allowed "out" into the terminal, and was met by their sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Lyons from Lexington, Massachusetts. This couple had also enlisted the help of an older Finnish lady from Allston, Massachusetts, who could translate for them and for the immigrant family. The Lyons family had sent a CARE package to Finland, as had many other American families during World War II. Mrs. Lyons had been careful to include much-appreciated woolen socks, hats, and scarves among the foodstuffs in this particular package. And they had been considerate enough to put their name and return address inside the package.


The Finnish woman who had received this package, could speak and write some English still, and she had written a thank-you letter to Mrs. Lyons, and that is how a correspondence and lifelong friendship between the two families was born. In time, a decision was made by the Finnish family to immigrate to America. And the Lyons family offered the Finnish family a place to live for as long as necessary; the Finns would live in a small cabin adjacent to the Lyons's summer house, by the sea marshes on the north side of the village of Barnstable, on Cape Cod. The last leg of the immigrants' journey was then the automobile trip from Boston airport to Barnstable.


It has to be said here, that the Finnish man had been a soldier, a ski patrol leader, in the Winter War (1939-1940) against Russia. Then in 1941, in the Continuation War also against Russia, he was a Finnish platoon leader, then a lieutenant. He was at the Eastern Front in Finland, attempting to protect and retain a sizable area that eventually would be taken by the Russians. He was seriously wounded, shot in the face, more precisely the mouth and lower jaw, and also in the torso, and in an upper arm.  After the war, he became a special examiner with the Helsinki Police Force.  As he explained for the remainder of his life in America, "I had a pretty good Russian dentist...he took out all my teeth at the same time!" And then he would grin his scarred and crooked-mouth grin. Shrapnel remained forever in his tongue, his back, and in his arm.  


His lip, jaw, and chin had to be reconstructed surgically, in an albeit hastily-constructed field hospital, using skin grafts from his upper chest for the chin, and from the inside of his mouth to create the lip. The temporary result resembled a connecting tube of skin from his chest to his lip.  His main food after that was months worth of thin gruel sipped through a straw. The Finn was in the hospital for over 2 years while undergoing 18 operations. He always claimed that the hospital had to be built so fast that the anesthesia used was "some old stuff they found somewhere because it really didn't take when they were operating!" Luckily for him and his Finnish soldier buddies in the hospital, he was mobile enough to take part in some fairly innocent tomfoolery, and the wounded soldiers also broke the boredom and their pain by playing jokes on the nurses.  This Finn was fortunate to be cared for by a Finnish nurse who quickly became the love of his life.  And it was she, who was there sitting next to him on that grueling 27-hour flight from Stockholm to here, there, everywhere, and finally to Boston.  However, she and the children, especially the youngest child, were air-sick for much of every flight-time, all the while making those bosses richer ... the bosses of the paper upchuck-bag company!


This Finn, journeying to an unknown land, embodied Finnish 'sisu' (sih' - soo) in many ways. 'Sisu' is guts, determination, perserverance, courage, and resilience, among other qualities. The Finn had fought Russians in his white ski patrol uniform and later while leading other soldiers. He had 5 brothers who died in those wars. He was shot and wounded himself, and ended with a facial disfigurement that he, for the rest of his life, laughed and joked about. He learned the new country's language, read everything he could get his hands on, and continued to make errors in English grammar and pronunciation with his thick Finnish accent until his dying day. But none of this hindered him in creating a successful construction company. The cost, though, was working 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, many years without a vacation, bidding on jobs, some of which he got and some he didn't. He smoked heavily and had his musculo-skeletal system wrecked by physical labor. Yet he never complained.


So when he was to eat one of his first meals prepared by the Lyons family in this new country, he was inwardly aghast, but outwardly serene as a meditating yogi. Because what was being served by the proud hosts as a "Welcome-to-America" meal was none other than good American beef!.... In other words, steak. But not just any ole steak...RARE steak!.... Blood-a-dripping steak! To a Finn, at that time, this was about equivalent to eating raw, uncooked meat. It was just not done in Finland at all!  Meats were cooked to well-done, the war-time scarcity of meat of any kind lending itself to the ability to get cheaper, tougher cuts, which were only made more tender by hours of cooking, in stews, for example. There had always been an abundance of fish, so plenty of fish was also eaten. Steaks of beef were little known. And rare, bloody steaks were something from a different and disgusting planet altogether!


The rare steak was, however, the offering of the host and hostess in the new United States of America home. It wouldn't do to insult these kind, accommodating people by refusing to eat this large hunk of done-to-rare meat, would it? No!...So he put it in his mouth, piece by piece, and ate it -- all the while smiling and nodding thanks to his hosts. As he always retold the story throughout his life, he lolled each piece round and round in his mouth until he finally decided he had to swallow it.  But he did ask the Finnish interpreter lady to tell the Lyons family that it took so long for him to chew because of his Russian dentist and his mouth surgery!


This steak was accompanied by, among other things, some white bread. Also a new experience for Finns who were brought up on rye, barley, molasses, and many other kinds of tan or  brown bread. The paper-white bread they were served is a well-known kind in America: white sandwich bread slices in a loaf with colored circles on the bag and with a name akin to Fantastic Bread. Fingers can be placed on either side of a slice, pressed together, and Bingo!... it all flattens to the thickness of a piece of plastic wrap! It was tantamount to committing a sin against a Finn to present him with this white stuff, and expect him to regard it as "bread". Good bread in Finland was either unleavened and hung to dry as "hard-tack" or 'näkkileipä' (now called "crispbread" here), or it was a yeast bread, home-made or made in a neighborhood bakery...nutritious and delicious, in chunks ripped off the loaf.


The last of the triumvirate of eating and taste experiences took place for the Finnish immigrant while going clamming with an older Finnish man who had been on the Cape for decades, and who had hired the newcomer Finn in his building and carpentry business. Down at the seashore, the older Finn showed the newcomer how to dig for clams, collect them in clam pails, and shuck them with the special clam-shucking knife. Hold the clam firmly in the left hand, run the knife evenly around the crevice that holds the 2 half-shells clamped shut. Pry it open and loosen the clam body on the shell. To the newcomer Finn's utter and awe-ful amazement, after the clam was loosened on the shell, the older Finn just tipped his head back, held the shell containing the clam body to his mouth with one hand, and.... SLURP ... sucked it into his mouth and swallowed it. That was really crossing the line for a Finn! 

However, he did as the older Finn showed him, and he swallowed raw clams!


This Finnish man's quality of life was defined, among other things, by belonging. He had to belong somewhere, somehow. There was no other alternative in this new country.

Be-longing is a longing to be. To be a part of something with other like-minded people, with friends, whether it be in a club, a clan, a tribe, a neighborhood. To share customs and traditions. In this case, and in many other instances later on in time, the shared customs for him revolved around what the Finn was served and what he ate, or at least what he ordered at a restaurant or had at friends' homes when other people were present and watching!  


The newcomer Finn, my father, never tired of telling these stories to his wife, my mother. And to the older girl, my sister. And to me, the younger girl. ...And to anyone else who would listen, or who had no choice but to listen, when they were practically held as captives in the dry heat of the sauna with my father! ....From then on, for the rest of his life, my father's steaks were ordered "rare!...Rare!", and he relished in ordering "little necks" or "clams on the half-shell" and slurping them noisily down with bravado!



       

This first article is for my very good friend in thanks for "egging" me on, in true mental-food fashion, to cross the Finnish line!

 

Finnish Fandango

Anneli Karniala 

Born in Helsinki, Anneli is a Finn who immigrated to the US with her family when she was a toddler. She grew up in a small, tight-knit Finnish community in the then boonies of West Barnstable on Cape Cod. High school was on the Cape, nursing school was in Boston.
     
For 20 years, she lived in Denmark, raising her three children and working as a nurse clinician, administrator, and educator. She was granted a Master of Science in Nursing degree from Aarhus University in Århus, Denmark.

      From an early age, Anneli was brought up in the all-important Finnish custom of going to ‘sauna’. She was also well-instilled with characteristic Finnish ‘sisu’, which remains a fundamental part of her being.