I never really knew these men. I have heard stories about their lives and tried to imagine how they lived and where…and what they lived for. Were their lives hard? Coming over from Finland and settling in Northern Michigan could not have been an easy. Having to learn a new language and a new American culture must have been overwhelming. But they were not alone…many other Finns settled in the area and over time began together to create – or recreate – a new Finnish/American culture. I’m sure they did not even realize what they were doing and how they were changing as they began walking away from the world they had known in Finland and entered this brave new world of promise called America! Their courage and hard work and rugged individualism prepared the way for me. The word the Finns use is SISU (short i, long u). Ask any Finn and they will know what you mean…a never-give-up attitude mixed with grit, pride, and a little smugness…this is SISU and it is what they have given me.
The Gent to the left is my Great Grandpa Isak and on the right is my Grandpa Jacob with my dad sitting on his lap at about 2 or 3 years old. Their days were so much different than the life I now live. I tasted a bit of their life through the stories my dad would tell and some of the history one of my sisters has researched. I picked up some of the Finnish language that was commonly spoken in our house and still is throughout much of Northern Michigan. Mom and Dad would talk in Finn when they did not want us to know what they were talking about…especially around Christmas time or birthdays. I am the 4th generation from Isaac who came over from Finland as a draft dodger who did not want to fight for the Soviet army. I cannot imagine the courage mixed with fear he experienced leaving his home in the midst of a war he did not believe in to come to a new world full of hope and promise.
While becoming Americans, they managed to make their surroundings familiar. Many of the towns have Finnish names; there is Finnish food available in most restaurants; there is even Finlandia University in a town where the street signs have the Finnish translation of their English names underneath. It is an amazing cultural mix that for me growing up was not that strange at all. I grew up immersed in the Finnish culture as it morphed into its new American surroundings and though I shied away for a while, I find now that I so very much appreciate the food, the art, the sound of the language, and the humor (so very dry…) of the world I was born into. I am a full blood Finn and proud to be. Although my dad used to say there was a tiny bit of Swedish in his pinky nail so he had to be sure to keep it trimmed! I can build things, I can fix things, I can make things grow in less than perfect soil, I can play a good game of Pinochle, and don’t really mind the smell of a dairy farm when you drive by. I can also make a pretty mean Pasty…
One thing I often wondered and have never heard any stories about was their faith. I know they were Lutheran – most Finns were one kind of Lutheran or another, as was I until I realized that a person’s faith had more to do with what Christ did on the cross and the personal relationship he provided rather than the organization one belonged to. I wonder if they knew Jesus the way I do and if they prayed and praised and found the contentment that I have. Did they experience salvation or just read words on a page and call it good? Was their Bible more than just a book? The answers to these questions I may never know. What I do know is they handed down to me an independent nature that was willing to seek truth and not just accept what was told to me. They gave me a strong back and a desire to work hard to earn my keep rather than wait for a handout. They planted me in the fertile soils of Upper Michigan where water was plentiful, family was important, and a farmer’s work was never done. They sacrificed a life in their native land, so I could reap a life of freedom they only dreamed of.
I am their legacy…and I hope I do not disappoint.