During Mother’s Day month I am writing a tribute to my Finnish maternal grandmother we called Aiti, the word for mother in Finnish. Her influence on my life was enormous. As you read, you will see photos of me helping my grandparents with farming chores. Thank you, Aiti, for giving me, as a child, a glimpse of who I could become.
In 1949 pink lady-slippers blanketed the spring forest floor as far as I could see. Each one danced on a single stem above a whorl of green leaves just above the ground. Aiti held my hand as we stepped carefully over the soil, still damp from snow melt. At age five I was mesmerized by this beautiful scene. I learned to love flowers with Aiti. She knew where to find the first soft pussy-willows, smelly skunk cabbages, amusing jack-in-the-pulpits, and marsh marigolds, all harbingers of spring. I still love this time of year when Earth wakes up with flowers. Thank you Aiti.
At the same time, she pointed out birds returning from migration: robins tipping their heads as they listened for worms in soil and ducks dipping their beaks into still icy water. She directed my gaze at a woodchuck poking its head out of a burrow after winter hibernation and squirrels scolding as we passed by their tree nest. Thank you Aiti for stimulating my love of nature and later for encouraging me to pursue biology and a career in teaching.
Aiti loved me unconditionally when no one else did. At home everything I did was criticized, and I was brutally punished, but Aiti told me I was amazing, that I could do anything I chose when I grew up. In elementary school I wrote stories she thought were thrilling. She taught me to sew on her treadle sewing machine, and I learned to bake as I helped her knead dough for bread and mix spices with flour and butter for cookies. Thank you, Aiti, for teaching me to do things I still love.
My grandmother not only taught me to love nature and to sew, but she also helped steer me into a career I enjoyed. She taught me about a Finnish construct called sisu that all Finns have in their souls. It is a combination of determination, courage, guts, resolve, and the ability to never waver or give up. Thank you Aiti for sisu. Aiti consistently used sisu in her life. She came to the United States in 1918 when Finland was in a terrible civil war. People were cold and starving. She was fortunate to board a ship for America where she met Waino, my grandfather, and later married him. First, they lived in New York City where she was a nanny for various wealthy families for several years. Parents told her they wanted their children to learn a second language, Finnish, but children were not interested. They were spoiled and rude, bullied other kids, called her names, and made fun of her limited English spoken with a heavy Finnish accent. These children’s parents were also unkind, having her prepare tasty lunches and dinners for the family, but ordering her to eat only stale bread and meat and vegetables that were leftover for several days, sometimes even with mold on them.
Aiti and her husband were determined to have a better life, and as soon as they saved enough money, moved to Templeton, Massachusetts where many Finnish people lived. Waino was an experienced carpenter and took a position in a high-end furniture factory where he made furniture by hand.
They bought a small farm and she took over the farming chores. Rising at 4:00 am, she cared for six dairy cows and milked them twice a day. Then, after making breakfast on a wood stove she collected eggs from 25 chickens and fed them as well as ten pigs and 250 turkeys that she sold in town before Thanksgiving.
In summer she cultivated a huge vegetable garden that she hoed and weeded. First, she grew green beans, potatoes, squash, peas, tomatoes, beets, cabbage, carrots, and rutabaga, and then turned them into dishes that everyone loved. At the end of the summer she canned the remaining vegetables for use in winter.
After taking care of the garden, she often picked blueberries and made pie, bulla--a mouth-watering cardamom pastry--and baked dark rye bread. By late afternoon it was time to milk the cows again and then prepare supper. Her husband, Waino, was home on weekends and helped on the farm. When he took over farm chores, she did laundry by hand, scrubbing clothes and sheets in a washtub on a washboard. When she hung the wet clothes on the outdoor clothesline, she could always find four-leaf clovers in the grass under the line. Even though no one else could find them, Aiti always did. She said they brought her good luck.
During prohibition when alcohol was illegal, her sister ran a speakeasy in New York City. She didn’t think this was a good place for her children, so she sent her two kids for Aiti to raise. Then, in addition to the farming chores, she was raising four kids, two of her own and two of her sister’s. Aiti certainly had sisu!
When the children were in bed, she relaxed knitting wool socks, scarfs, sweaters, and afghans for the cold Massachusetts winters. She also mended clothing and socks that were worn out. Using clothing that could no longer be patched or fixed, she made quilts on her treadle sewing machine.
On a loom she worked by hand, she made rugs from ragged clothing. This was her favorite hobby. The rag-rugs were works of art as she had to think about the patterns and colors of the finished rug as she operated the loom. Everyone in town knew about her hobby, so they donated their worn-out clothing for her to make into charming rugs. She sold them in the downtown cooperative market along with the eggs from her chickens. This place was like a modern-day farmer’s market except indoors.
On certain occasions, such as birthdays and Christmas, she brewed a unique tea and then predicted the future by reading the tea leaves left in the cups. Not only could she tell fortunes by reading tea leaves but also by reading the lines in people’s palms. I remember when she told my six-year-old brother that he would be good at farming if he wanted to follow that career path and he did! In addition, Aiti had telepathic abilities to know about activities of people who were far away. She always knew when my family was planning to visit her on the weekend, and had a meal prepared for our arrival!
Yes, my grandmother had sisu. She was up for any challenge. Thank you Aiti for being a role model, a mentor, and making me feel special and loved.