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Roots and Branches: Deep taproots start with papa Sulo

My roots in this valley are as deep as the old Gravenstein tree planted on the Annala homestead in Oak Grove. Like the roots of this ancient apple tree, I have planted tap roots into the valley floor that have grounded my beliefs and provided me with a rich perspective of history, family and community.

The first two decades of my life were grounded in my father’s family, heritage and culture. Perhaps because my mother died when I was very young, I was nurtured more through my father’s side of the family and their deeply entrenched Finnish heritage.

My father, Sulo Annala, was the son of two hardy Finnish immigrants who traveled from Finland in the late 1800s by way of the Dakotas and on to Hood River in the early 1900s. Faith, perseverance and a strong work ethic accompanied the journey. Their settlement patterns influenced what was passed on to my father and in turn what he passed on to me.

Much of the Finnish culture was infused into Finnish children via the steam from the sauna that penetrated every pore as they sat on stair stepped benches for their weekly bath. These benches were frequented by a generational stair step from infant to parent and grandparent, all sharing their knowledge, experience, values and beliefs.

Babies were born in the sauna, delivered by grandparents, the midwife of many immigrant families. My Finnish grandmother was a highly regarded midwife in the Dakotas as well as in this valley at the turn of the century.

As such, saunas were a Finnish mainstay, as important as the roof overhead or the outhouse out back. They were the church, the school, the hospital of the family unit, before the Finnish community had grown large enough to support those facilities.

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My father remembered little of the Dakota experience, moving to the valley with his parents and three siblings when he was just a child. His formative years were built on the back of hard physical labor, literally breaking his older brother’s back and crippling him for life. Perseverance in the face of harsh economic and social conditions and reliance on family as the primary social, emotional and economic support was a way of life.

There were three Annala brothers and their families who settled in the valley, providing an extended family circle of support to one another. As other Finnish immigrants made the journey across the plains to the lush Hood River Valley, families intermarried and a broader sense of community began to grow. Helping others was deeply imbedded in the Finnish and immigrant culture, passed on to my father, to me, to my children and to their children.

Dad’s father died when he was a young teen. As the oldest physically able son, he moved into the patriarch position, taking on the hard physical labor of clearing and planting the land and building a fruit farm.

In order to help support his seven brothers and sisters, he dropped out of Crapper School at the eighth grade. He always said he wasn’t book-smart, but he knew a lot about life and how to deal with adversity. The first eight grades of school had broadened his horizons, providing him with new friendships outside the tightly knit Finnish community, some basic reading and writing skills, and an understanding of the English language.

Dad always had a thirst for practical rather than theoretical knowledge and a comfort with spoken rather than written language. Consequently he was a master at listening and ultimately understanding what needed to be said or done. He always conveyed this in a very brief and understandable manner.

Dad’s life was filled with challenges: hard physical labor as a farmer, difficult economic conditions from the Great Depression through two world wars and health challenges including early onset of debilitating arthritis and heart disease.

Perhaps most devastating to him was the battle with breast cancer he waged alongside his wife, Mildred, which cut or burned its way through her body for four years until she finally died, leaving Dad to raise four small children by himself.

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My father’s Finnish heritage is fundamental to my values. It served as the foundation for the second 20 years of my life as I wove a cross-cultural tapestry of my Finnish heritage with my husband’s Japanese heritage. The similarities, hard work, perseverance, service to family and then community were far more significant than the differences but in the beginning the differences were far more obvious and painful.

The tapestry had a number of holes that had to be repaired throughout those early years of marriage. I lacked understanding of the Japanese heritage, and immersed myself in understanding the culture more deeply, to help raise our children in the best of both worlds.

That is another chapter of my life. For now, October is coming to an end. It is the month of my father’s birth, a time of the year I most closely associate with him. As a child it was a season when he spent more time with us in the evenings, granted a reprieve from the hard physical labor of harvest that plagued his arthritis and set his heart racing. We pull out the cribbage board, fire up the sauna and inhale the aroma of cardamom as poulla bakes in the oven.

As a young mom, it was a time when I brought the grandkids over to play. His step has slowed, his health is failing, but his sense of humor and appreciation for life is honed to perfection.

The leaves are brilliant gems along the orchard path beckoning us to take a leisurely walk. Like bookends, we hold the hands of his grandchild, matching the toddler’s pace, speaking about nothing and everything.

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