While I have always been interested in my own family’s history, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time researching my husband’s Japanese side of the family. As you become a senior citizen, you realize there are things you just need to get moving on before time takes its toll on your body, mind and spirit. So I have been inspired to look more closely at my mother and father’s family history. My paternal Annala side is steeped in the Finnish culture while my maternal Thomas side is a little defined, with a long history of acculturation in the United States.
I already have a good base of genealogical information thanks to a couple of Thomas cousins who have researched my grandfather Henry Claud Thomas’ lineage. They compiled two books for family members with lists of factual dates and a few photos. A cousin in Finland researched and wrote a small tome documenting her branch of the Annala family flowing from two sisters born in the 1890s, one who stayed in Finland, the other who immigrated to America. Finland has a wealth of ancestral information kept in their church archives, but our new-found cousin had little information about her grandmother’s sister after she left Finland at the tender age of six.
Facebook reconnected us all, with my sister Ginny taking the lead on sharing photographs and some oral histories she had accumulated over the years. We had a few pictures of the North Dakota homestead and some land tracts, along with some written history about the Annala families published in the Hood River Museum family history books. We built the family tree from Selma Sophia Sepia on down through her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Our knowledge of our family circle was expanding, and ties were strengthening.
For me, these three family history books are clinical by nature. They are factual, documenting the who, what, when, and where of family births, marriages, deaths, land tracts and burial plots. Little is found between the lines of facts that speaks to the human element of individuals and family. My job is to connect the dots, and flesh out the documents with photographs, poetry, paintings, school information, and historic photos that tell our family story in a more personal way.
What were the hardships faced, or the happiness experienced?
How did it affect their lives, and the lives of their children and grandchildren?
Why did they leave North Dakota and settle in Hood River Valley? That will be the story I hope to tell my children and grandchildren. Ironically, I have a head start on capturing these personal stories from the years of research into my husband’s family story. I am continually amazed at how intertwined our life stories become. I may be working on a seemingly unrelated project when I uncover another interesting tidbit that is related to family. For years, I have been filing these morsels away, planning to put together the pictures, news articles and family fables into a book for my family. They are like crumbs on the trail of an interesting tale, or electronic cookies that trace a person’s life story.
My first note of the intersection of divergent life stories was back in the 1970s while interviewing the first-generation Japanese immigrant, the Issei, for a project out of the University of California at Berkeley. I was interested in learning more about my husband’s family history and eager to understand the experience of immigration, discrimination, the trauma of internment and how it had shaped the Japanese families in both positive and negative ways.
Why and how did some persevere while others vowed never to return to this valley, a place of such great beauty, disfigured by its underbelly of racism?
Over the next two years, I listened to their stories, took notes for the project, and was rewarded with the development of life-long relationships. As the families learned a little more about who I was, they would share stories of the Annala family in the Oak Grove area that were their neighbors. They spoke of the kindness of several of my aunts who were school teachers, Kathryn Carlos who married my Uncle Arne Annala, Aunt Vienna, Aunt Evi and Aunt Lois, my mom’s sister-in-law. They had never forgotten the kindness of these women in teaching their children and making them feel welcome in a new community. Their lives intersected with both the Annala and Thomas side of my family.
They farmed alongside my father Sulo Annala and his brothers Arne and Alvah. They spoke about the neighborly attitude of the Finnish famers, how they pitched in to help with harvest or spraying when someone was sick or injured. The Issei’s memories of my family were from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. They shared memories from a half century ago, cautiously at first, but then with a sense of urgency as strong bonds of friendship evolved. They wished to share incidents of kindness rather than cruelty; even the most miniscule act was recounted. They were in awe that my father’s family accepted them as friends and neighbors in a time and place when racial prejudice reigned supreme.
Like many farmers of that era, my father was a man of few words. He worked long, hard days in the orchard, came home to care for his family and served his community through the mountain rescue organization called the Crag Rats. It was in his Finnish genes to help others, whether on the mountains he loved or in the orchards he planted and nurtured throughout his life. He never spoke of these helpful actions that meant so much to his Japanese neighbors.
When I asked why he had stood alongside his neighbors, he said it was just what you were supposed to do. I also believe he never had the time to become embroiled in the politics of prejudice that swept our valley. He was too busy trying to keep food on the table for his siblings and later his own children. I learned as much of my father’s family character as I did of the Issei through these interviews.
In the ‘80s, another epiphany of life intersections occurred while working with Lauren Kessler on the book “Stubborn Twig.” Lauren taught me how to comb through the county records of land acquisitions and sales and read the local newspapers from the early 1900s through the 1970s. While searching the county records of land transfers, I came across homesteading tracts for the Annala family adjacent to the land purchased by their Japanese neighbors.
Both the Finnish and Japanese settled in the valley about the same time and were “offered” some of the least desirable land on the fringes of the valley. They were newcomers who spoke a foreign language and were not meant to be trusted. This similar time of migration to the valley set the stage for the development of the neighborly closeness that the Issei remembered.
I saw the similarities searching through the old Hood River News, the even older Glacier and a transitional rag called the Whistlepunk. I might add this was long before electronic digitalization. The newspapers were fragile, yellowing documents that hung on dowels in the bowels of the old library. A few were on microfiche, the newest technology of the time.
As I researched one article after another about Masuo Yasui and his family, I would occasionally find articles that mentioned my family, most often pertaining to school accomplishments, farming news or Crag Rat rescues. When digging through the neglected boxes of photos in the History Museum of Hood River County archives, I would come across a photo of my father, one of his sisters, or the developing orchard industry.
The written, artistic and photographic history documented in books, newspapers, museum and library collections is a wealth of information providing depth and breadth to the recorded facts. They help us understand who we are and why we have arrived at this particular place in time. I hope to add more depth to the documentation of local history by including the day to day experiences of individuals and families that weave the tapestry of community in this valley through this Roots and Branches column. Just as my predecessors that wrote columns in the local newspaper, Ruth Guppy, Jane Franz and the cryptic comments of E. E. A (Eino Annala), these little snippets give life to those who have passed before us. It is in our human character that we find hope.
I have seen the ugly face of prejudice and discrimination raise its head far too many times in the course of my brief life. Yet it is my unwavering belief that it is in each of us, the ordinary person you meet at work, in the grocery store, on the soccer field, skiing the mountain or surfing the river, at church or in line at the food bank, who will ultimately change the history of our community. We all have the ability to share our talents, from the smallest act of kindness to the life-long dedication of Minoru Yasui, the son of a Japanese immigrant, who fought for Justice for All and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.