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Roots and branches: Cousins separated by time and distance, joined by experience

My sister Ginny is making a pilgrimage to Finland next month to meet our cousin Raija Huusari for the very first time. It is one of those Internet miracles where you find long-lost relatives through Facebook postings or an advanced Google search.

Raija has been connecting with my sister for the last few years, learning about the family tree, and the branches that remained in Finland and those that crossed the ocean to sink their roots into the fertile Hood River soil.

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When I was about 8 my aunt Evi Jakku concluded some international traveling and returned to Hood River with the address of my cousin Raija who lived in Lahti, Finland. She proposed that we become pen pals and write regularly to one another. It would help keep this far-flung family closer to one another and, I suspect, keep a curious 8-year-old busy.

I remember taking pencil and carefully lined tablet paper in hand and trying to write something about my life that would be interesting or exciting. What would I say that might interest her? And how would I say something in a language that I couldn’t understand, let alone read or write?

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Finnish is a fascinating language, extremely lengthy by nature. My dad used to say if you doubled every vowel and consonant when you were writing or added a guttural roll in your throat when you spoke the word you could Finnishize it.

We grew up hearing the Finnish language, primarily spoken among our Finnish neighbors and family members over the coffee table or in the traditional Finnish steam bath, the neighborhood sauna. I didn’t have a clue what was being said; just that the sentences seem to string on and on and there was a rhythm and accent that I could immediately identify as Finnish.

Thankfully our dad always spoke to us in English, although he would throw in an occasional Finnish swear word for emphasis. I was a teenager before I knew that what he was saying in Finnish in a menacing guttural fashion was “rubber boots,” rather than some expletive. And who would surmise that the ultimate Finnish insult was to tell someone to smell your navel? I guess after a long winter with infrequent sauna baths one’s navel could get pretty nasty.

When we visited the Alajoki home for Saturday night sauna, Mildred Alajoki would occasionally read a Finnish newspaper out loud and one more than one occasion tried to teach us a few words. I was a lost cause.

Our dad, on the other hand, intentionally did not teach us any Finnish. He remembered being teased by other students for speaking in such a funny tongue when he first attended school in Oak Grove. As a curious child I remember staring at his tongue and wondering why it was funny compared to others, not getting the gist of the conversation at all.

As Dad grew older, he said his Finnglish was so bad he couldn’t teach us proper Finnish. And the few phrases we did learn were decidedly inappropriate for a letter to a new found pen pal.

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So I gave it the old second-grade try and with my aunt’s assurance that Raija would understand English, we began writing to one another. I do not remember what I wrote some 55 years ago, but I imagine it was about cats, or the cow, or what I had to eat, or the chores I had to do. That was the sum of my world.

I may have talked about our orchard in the context of having to pick up brush when Dad pruned the trees, or putting empty apple boxes under the trees before harvest and finding a nest of baby mice. Who knows? I probably asked her what her favorite color was, since that was one of the questions in the Dick and Jane books from elementary school.

I do remember thinking it took a tremendously long time to write the letter, address the envelope and then send it far across the ocean to another continent. It probably was sent on a very slow ship rather than by air since an “airplane” stamp would be really expensive.

I waited and waited for her letter, trudging down the dusty driveway to the mailbox on the side of Reed Road, high expectations of a return letter from my Finnish cousin, crushing disappointment week after week.

Finally a letter did arrive. It was written in great penmanship, unlike mine, and it was written, drum roll please, in the English language. I wouldn’t have to take the letter to sauna the next Saturday and have Mildred read it aloud to me for all to hear.

I remember looking at the white envelope with a red and blue border and thinking how this came from an exotic country in a faraway land. I think she answered my ludicrous questions, her favorite color was blue, she had a sauna and she went to school where she learned to read and write Finnish, Swedish and English. And she had chickens, but didn’t like eggs.

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I think we wrote two or three more times, and then the letters stopped. I somehow lost her address. I was too embarrassed to ask Aunt Evi if she had kept it, feeling like such a fool for being so careless. I moved on with my life, as did she, never hearing from her again.

I never knew what happened to Raija, until the miracle of technology brought my sister Ginny and her together, renewing our family ties. They email one another frequently, catching up on family, health, and genealogy. She is dealing with a reoccurrence of breast cancer, the same dreadful disease that took our mother from us when we were just children and taken her own mother’s life when she was a child.

It sent chills down my spine when Raija sent us the book she had written about her side of the family, the ones who stayed in Finland, and included a chapter contributed on our emigrant branch in America. In this book I learned that in 1958, she lost her father, her grandmother, and then her mother, and was adopted by Sirkka Ahti. She moved to a different address, with a different last name, Ahti.

We had lost our mothers to the same disease, at the same time. She had lost her entire family, her home and her identity. Life was not as simple as a lost mailing address.

The circle has come together, filling in the gaps of childhood, allowing for the regrowth of family bonds.

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