Thursday, April 26, 2012

Searching for Grandma

My mother often seems worried or upset when I talk about my Finnish heritage, so concerned that I'm ignoring the other parts of the recipe that make up my ethnicity. It really has nothing to do with that at all, but is just the one that seems more prevalent and tangible to me most times. I can attribute my maiden last name, my skin tone, my slightly slanted eye in baby pictures, and my folded eyelids directly to the Finns and their Mongolian ancestry. I know my nose and high cheekbones are due to the 1/16 Cherokee passed on from my mother. Percentage-wise, I have more German in me than any of the others because I get it from both my mother and my father. However, German culture and heritage didn't play much of a role in our home. The predominant traditions and values were distinctly Midwest Norwegian. Perhaps because my mother's culture was so prevalent was why I more often talked about my Finnishness, to maintain a connection to that side.

My father grew up in a small town in Washington, to a family of Finnish descent and he would tell me stories passed down by his much older brothers about life on the family farm. My oldest uncle on the paternal side, was quite fascinated with geneology and traced our linneage back to the 1600s. He gave me a copy of the tree and while it's in a box, I love the idea that the rolled up scroll of history and connections is over 3 feet long. Unfortunately, this eldest uncle who was active in the local chapter of the Finnish Brotherhood, who spoke Finnish proficiently, and traveled frequently back to Finland and met our current Finnish relatives, passed away while I was still in college about the time I was wanting to learn more.

For some reason, the concept of family heirlooms and family history and culture has always been important to me. Maybe it's something I picked up on from my mom because she was adopted and so I always had the knowledge that there were pieces of history from her biological family that would always be missing. My mom and one of her sisters were adopted at a young age by a couple who lived in one of those tiny farming communities in Minnesota. (Yes, tiny, 400 population at the time, 2 block main street with only one stop sign.) Like many small Minnesotan communities, this one was strongly Scandinavian, with Norwegian being the heritage of my mother's family.

Both of my grandfathers died before I was born. My paternal grandmother had Alzheimer's and sadly, scared me when I was a child. I know from my parents that Grandma B loved me very much though. I always wish I had been able to get to know these relatives. I would jealously listen to my friends talk about their grandparents and would feel so sad on "Grandparents' Day" in elementary school when grandparents were invited to come have lunch with us. This is not to imply that I had no living grandparents, that's not true. I had my maternal grandma, but she lived in Minnesota. I saw her once a year during the summer and while she was my grandma and I loved her, the distance made it too hard to feel very close. My cousins who lived in Minnesota were the lucky ones who got to know her very well. Recently, my mother gave me the box that held my baby book. Tucked inside were many cards I received when I was very, very little. Seeing all those cards from my grandmas made my heart tear up as I realized I could feel the love still 30 odd years later.

I crave these connections to my roots, something that manifests in part through one aspect of my pack-rat issues. For instance, now that we have a house, a rather odd item needs to be retrieved from storage at J's parents house: a scythe. When my father had to downsize from a split-level, 4 bedroom house with 2 car garage to a 2 bedroom condo, this was an item I couldn't stand to see go away...even though I hadn't really seen it before. Why? Because it came from the family farm and dated to somewhere in the early 1900s. It was used on that farm, and while we don't know if the aluminum handle was a replacement for a wood one (making it date earlier), I wanted it. Eventually, I plan to hang it on the wall out of reach in the garage or perhaps on the outside of the garage under the eaves where it can be seen from the garden. The only other thing I have from my father's side of the family are two teacups and saucers that had belonged to my grandma.

My mother has been working to downsize over recent years, which means she brings me boxes upon boxes that I can't refuse. However, I have NOTHING that belonged to the one grandma that I was able to know a little. I don't think I was asked if there was anything I wanted when she had to move from her apartment to a care center. Regardless, after she passed away a few years ago, I asked my mother if there were a few items of Grandma O's that I could have. Sadly, it was all gone.

When I think of my grandma, a montage of images pass through my mind: playing Pit and not knowing for sure whether she passed us the good wild card because she got confused or if she did it on purpose, the large glass grapes that sat on the console table under the window, the time she served me rice pudding which I had never had, and which was burned and I hated but I said nothing as I didn't want to hurt her feelings, the Chia pet sculptures in her storage room, how her old wrinkled face would crinkle and the sound of her laugh, and the music boxes.

My grandma had several music boxes. I don't know if they were Swiss or German, if they were antique or new-ish. They were little Alpine houses with fuzzy bushes and little deer and painted details. I have no idea how much time I spent as a child looking at them, listening to the music (I can't recall the tunes now), and lightly and delicately running my tiny fingers over the shapes, feeling the bumps of the greenery on the flower boxes. I can remember at least 2 distinctly, I believe there were 3 but perhaps 4. I know one had a water wheel and I remember deer and I think a little water pump with trough and a 2-story one. When you opened the lid, you could watch the little bumps on the cylinder flick the metal tabs that made the note. They would get dusty and I would use my fingers to rub the dust out of the nooks and crannies where I could. Sometimes, I wish desperately that I had just one of those boxes today. Nothing represents all that "Grandma O" was to me as those boxes.

I've debated off and on if I want to hunt for and buy one that looks as close to my fuzzy memories as possible. On the one hand, I want a token piece of Grandma. On the other, I will always know that it's a "reproduction" and not actually one of hers. Every once in a while, I'll browse Etsy looking at the ones being sold there. I have yet to see one that matches well enough so I guess I don't have to face the decision yet.


  1. Searching my ancestry has been on my mind in recent years and always fascinated me as well. I never really took the time to look as I would have to research my biological father's lineage which I'm not all that excited about. I might have to suck it up though as the information would be invaluable to understanding more about who I am and what my ancestors went through. Thanks for the post!

  2. This post made me cry. I can really empathise with you; my father and mother were divorced when I was six years old, and my father and his side of the family cut of all contact with my sister and I. It was as if we had ceased to be everything we once were. It was a very puzzling time for me as I was older than my sister and I knew my grandparents and my aunts really well, as well as my cousins. I wondered what I had done that made them pretend that I no longer existed.

    Recently I tried to contact one of my cousins (my father's sister's son) who is based in California and while he was very willing to add me as his Facebook 'friend', he would never engage with me or my life; I got the impression that he was afraid of upsetting my half-brother (my father married again and had a son who is now the favoured one; adored and cosseted, he has inherited the bulk of my father's estate and fortune, and he detests my sister and I; in his eyes we have no rights to our father and he prevented my father and I from talking when we had the chance to before my father died last year).

    I unfriended my Californian cousin after some months of me being the only one to tentatively try to talk to him or engage with his life because there's no point in holding on to someone who clearly does not wish to have anything to do with you; I learned that some people are better left alone, really. Recently my grandmother (on my father's side) passed away and the only memories I have of her are of the fact that she disregarded my sister and I, and that she didn't want to get to know us when she had the chance to. I honestly feel so much pain and anger at all of this and at the way we've been treated; I wish I had good memories like you do, but I don't. Someday I've got to let this go because it's not doing me any good, and I know that everything that happened was not my fault; I was only a child, after all.

    --Awanthi Vardaraj