Mischievous Muse

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Location: Austin, TX, United States

Scholar, Writer, Mother, Dreamer. Editor of Luminarium, an online library for English Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

After Long Silence: Memories of Mamma

I haven't posted since the night before Christmas. On Christmas Eve morning, right after we had finished breakfast on the sunlit terrace, my sister and I called our mom and dad to wish them a merry Christmas. I was on the phone, when my dad answered the phone and said: "I have to tell you some sad news. Mamma has died." I couldn't do anything, it was like someone had punched me in the soul. I just pushed the phone into my sister's hand and sat down, tears streaming.

Mamma was my grandmother on my mom's side. She was born Annikki Helena Aaltonen on 24 Dec 1919 — she died on her 89th birthday. She had lost her own mother at age 12; one of her most vivid memories was running down the street after the ambulance. Her father abandoned the children, leaving her to look after her 15 year-old brother and 8 year-old sister. Earlier, they had lost their baby brother, perhaps to influenza.

Mamma eventually entered nursing school, becoming a nurse specializing in the care of newborns and infants. During the beginning of World War II, which in Finland meant that all Finnish men went to war trying to repel the Russian invasion (for more detail, see this post, here), Mamma lost her true love, Pauli, whom she never forgot. Some years later, she met my grandfather, and after courting a while, they married in 1949.

They went on to have 4 children — my mother, the eldest, and my uncles, three boys. In the 1950s, Finland was in the grips of the post-war depression. My grandfather, a Master Builder, convinced Mamma that they should move to Toronto, Canada, where work and prospects were said to be good. He moved to Toronto first, but due to being a foreigner with fledgling language skills, he could at first only find manual labor in the construction business — from being a foreman in Finland, he became a "cement finisher" in Canada.

Mamma and the children began the long trek to Canada in 1958 — my mother was 8, the youngest of her brothers was 1.5 yrs old. Mamma and the four young children first travelled to Norway, where they boarded an ocean liner to New York city. The trip across the Atlantic took two weeks and everyone was seasick nearly the entire time. My mother remembers throwing up what seemed almost like the seawater they were surrounded by. Imagine! My grandmother alone with four small children, she herself seasick while trying to care for them, and not speaking any languages.

The family stayed in Canada for 4 years, after which both homesickness and the improved economy drew the family back to Finland. My grandmother became a nurse at the Turku University Central Hospital, my grandfather became a very respected Master Builder, and the children entered school. My mother now holds a high position in one of the largest insurance companies in Finland; all my uncles are Master Builders themselves.

Mamma worked until her retirement with hundreds of babies born in the city of Turku. When I was born, my grandmother was the one who bathed me and wrapped me in blankets. When I was one day old, she brought me a rattle. She was loved and respected at the hospital — several of her dear colleagues came to her memorial and it was apparent how important she had been to them.

At every important and not-so-important juncture in my life, Mamma was there. She babysat us, travelled with us, went swimming with us, picked mushrooms and berries in the forest with us, made juices and porridges and soups for us, slid down water slides with us in water parks. One of my earliest memories is walking in the park with her, on the way to feed the birds in the ponds, and crossing the lawn which had a "No stepping on the grass" sign. Mamma said if someone tried to stop us, we would just tell them that, in America, people walk on the grass all the time. On winter nights, Mamma would sit in the back seat of the car, in the uncomfortable middle spot, between my sister and I, so we could each burrow ourselves in her fur coat to keep warm.

Mamma had an amazing ability to connect with people. When I was little, it used to embarrass me that she would strike up conversations with total strangers — on the bus, in the grocery store, on the street, wherever. But it stemmed from an interest in the people around her, and only later did I understand how a few kind words, a human connection, could make another person's day. She also had a knack for keeping in touch with people, of not just making connections, but staying connected. She called everyone, visited everyone — in our extended family she was the glue that held everyone together. She had a natural warmth, sweetness, sunny optimism, and kindness one rarely, if ever, encounters.

Mamma's ability to make friends everywhere, with anyone, served her well in her many travels. She went to Italy, Morocco, and even Israel, and though she used to say: "My English is very short", her enthusiasm and efforts to communicate always got her understood. I forget which country she was in when someone offered to purchase her for many, many camels. She visited me twice in the U.S. — the first time with my mother, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the second time by herself, in Pennsylvania, where she spent most of her time in the garden. She had a green thumb like nobody I've ever seen and though I haven't inherited her talent, I've inherited her love of gardening.

In the last few years, Mamma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, which started slowly stealing her memories away. She wouldn't always remember who had visited her, whether she had eaten or taken her medicines, or whether she had left the stove on. Most of the time, however, she was entirely lucid and sometimes distressed because she knew she was forgetting things. She was also very lonesome and, till the end, kept saying that when she won the lottery, she'd come visit me in America one more time. It wasn't a function of money, however. She wasn't in any shape to travel the long distance. Towards the end, she lost her will to live, saying to my father that a person should be allowed to leave this world with dignity, without suffering.

The end, though it could be foreseen, was still sudden. Mamma had most likely suffered a stroke which had caused her to fall and hit her head. Though the hospital had been able to restore her physical health, she had no wish to continue. In the end, she refused to eat. After most likely suffering a second stroke, she didn't wake up again, although she reacted to my mother's voice talking to her about America and singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." My youngest uncle, still "little Lassi" to Mamma, though he was 50 years old, held her tiny, birdlike form in his arms on his lap, as he sang Christmas songs to her. She slipped away quietly, being held like a baby by her own baby.

Mamma loved music, loved singing, especially when my sister and I would sing songs in harmony. So on Christmas Eve night, on a darkened terrace lit only by Christmas lights, half a world away from her, my sister and I sang every beautiful song we knew, to her. We know she was listening.

The funeral was in January and everyone came to remember her and to strew her coffins with beautiful flowers — how she would have loved them! The memorial service was a small, intimate gathering, in which we talked about her, sang songs to her, and shared our memories of her. By the end, we were filled with smiles and even laughter, sad though we were. It was perfect, it was a celebration of who she was and what she meant to us, and Mamma would have been pleased. She would have said, "What a lovely party."

I will always love her and, as I said to her as I was leaving the chapel, I will never, ever stop missing her.