Roots and branches: Finns and Japanese: An ode to Oak Grove of old

The older I have gotten, the more reflective I have become.

What are the driving forces that have helped shape my family and kept us rooted in this valley? What came from my side of the family and from my husband’s side that has helped shape our lives and that of our children and their children?

In a simplified form it is the merging of two predominant cultures, the Finnish and the Japanese.

Growing up Finnish on the west side of Hood River helped establish my roots in this very special place I have always called home. My father was one of eight brothers and sisters descending from the J.J. Annala family of Finns who migrated from the Dakotas to Hood River in the early 1900s. Three Annala brothers, John, Zach and Jacob, had from eight to 15 children, spreading apple seeds and Annalas across the valley. As typical of settlers, some stayed in the valley, while others scattered. The Annalas that remained seeded this valley with a strong Finnish culture, the remnants, after 50 years of acculturation, in which I was raised.

Before I had any conscious memories, we were a family of six, father Sulo Annala, mother Mildred Thomas Annala, sisters Ginny and Selma and brother John. We had a large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins numbering well over 50 living in the valley. When I was four, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite heroic efforts on her part to create a normal life for us, my memories of Mom are few.

Seared into my psyche were the painful memories of the disease that took her from us, hospitals where they cut out the tumors, radiation centers where they burned what was left, the faded image of a once vibrant woman all that remained when she finally died. During the ‘50s, people didn’t talk openly about cancer. Thankfully we have come a long way since then in the treatment of the disease, the patient and their families.


Mom’s absence defined our family. It built reliance on one another. It strengthened our resolve to make our father proud of us, or at least not embarrass him with misdeeds. We developed a sense of service to others, kindled by our father, who helped found the Crag Rat rescue group, and served as the unofficial neighborhood counselor to many a fellow farmers struggling with finances, divorce, or disease. Those were simpler times, when a glass of Jack Daniels and a caring ear eased many an emotional struggle.

The sense of neighborhood was strong. Our lives intersected with neighbors and cousins at the Oak Grove store, a tiny brick structure that contained the spirit of the neighborhood as well as a gas station, butcher shop, toy and grocery store. It was a wonderful place where farmers gathered to tell tall tales, mothers picked up needed supplies and children were allowed to roam the aisles, bare feet caressing the worn wood plank floor.

Oak Grove was a safe place for a child to explore on foot or bike. You knew the Sherrils and Shibaharas, Crappers and Kinoshitas, Wakamatsus and Woodys, Kotillas and Kawachis, Asais and Annalas, Hukaris and Hasegawas. As I go through the old familiar names I realize for the most part we were a neighborhood of Finns and Japanese. I never thought of people by ethnicity or race. They were just neighbors. All were people you knew well, sometimes too well because of the party telephone lines which revealed all, long before Facebook.

Maybe those first 20 years living in Oak Grove set the foundation for being comfortable around people of Asian descent. We shared similar ancestral struggles of settling in the valley at the same time, acculturating at the same rate, farming the rocky hills that surrounded the fertile valley, having different native languages spoken at home, but facing different levels of discrimination because of our physical characteristics and acts of war. Our classmates at Oak Grove School were predominantly Finnish or Japanese.

Finnish folk share communal baths, going to sauna on Wednesday and Saturday nights at one another’s homes. When we visited our Japanese friends’ homes, their outdoor Japanese bath houses, ofuros, felt familiar rather than foreign. We did have a sense that the Finnish sauna was somehow safer, since we built the fire in a rock covered stove while the Japanese built the fire right under the wooden bath. But bathing was a communal affair in both cultures.

Eating was a different story. My Japanese friends ate with spoons and forks at school, but with lacquered sticks at home. That was fascinating. I ate villi, soured whole milk that cured on the shelf with a “starter” sort of a Finnish yogurt while my Japanese friends ate tofu, a soybean concoction that had a similar texture. Finns always drank boiled coffee, Japanese served green tea. We ate potatoes, they ate rice. Our meat was salted, theirs was sugared. They poured soy sauce on their meat and rice. We covered ours with brown gravy. Our vegetables were cooked until soggy and gray. Theirs were always crisp and bright green.


When I left the comfort of my family, Oak Grove neighborhood and Hood River classmates to attend college at Oregon State University I was exposed to a different kind of diversity. As unbelievable as it sounds, I was exposed to a number of African Americans at that time. I unconsciously sought the comfort of people with backgrounds and culture with which I was familiar. OSU in the end of the sixties, there were few Finns but far more Asians. So I made new friends among the Hawaiian community. I found my life partner at college, marrying as soon as he graduated and returning to Hood River to live. Perhaps it was not so ironic that I felt comfortable around a Japanese American, from a farming family in Hood River.

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