Writing about my grandparents isn’t easy. There isn’t much information available about them. As I went through old documents, letters and memorabilia, I realised I’m battling with two completely opposite problems:
I know more about one’s character but not about his life, and I know quite a lot of background information about the other one but not about what she was like. If I was still in university, I’d be told off for insufficient character development.
I’ll give it a try anyway.
My mum’s mother was called Laina. It means ‘a loan’ or ‘borrowed.’ I think it was a fitting name as she passed away decades before her three sisters in 1972, aged 47.
“The best one went”, people at the family’s home village would say.
She was born on 24.1.1925 as a farming family’s second daughter. She married my grandfather Matti Rämä on 25.5.1956. They had three children, eldest being my mum.
The marriage was clouded by Matti’s alcoholism and the fits of rage that didn’t require any cause. He never laid a finger on the children, but the same didn’t go for his wife. After my grandmother’s death my mum found out that she was supposed to have an older brother but her dad had kicked Laina in the stomach.
My grandparents divorced in 1964, when my mum was eight years old. She remembers her mother asking whether they should leave, and she had said yes. None of the kids ever saw their father again. He later emigrated to Sweden and drank himself to death.
They moved to the capital, and Laina started working two jobs to support her children. She was a salesperson at a clothing store which’s name translates as ‘fitting.’ The wages were based on the sales made and the competition was fierce. She also had a cleaning job.
Despite my grandfather’s habit to drink most of his wages, he had still made a decent living as a designer. Now finding herself a single mother of three, the money was constantly tight.
That’s the main reason why my mum can’t tell me what her mother was like as a person.
“She was working all the time. By the time she came home it was 8 or 9pm and she’d be exhausted. And there still was the housework to do”, she told me. “We never did anything together. She didn’t have the time. She had such a hard life. Poor mum.”
My mum can tell me little bits about her. She loved animals.
I love animals too.
What draws me to my grandmother is her death. As long as I can remember, there has been a doubt over whether her death was an accident. When I got involved with a crisis team after my suicide attempt, I was asked whether there are suicides in my family.
“I don’t know.”
The facts of the case are as follows. On 24.2.1972, my grandmother got off a bus in downtown Helsinki on her way to a morning shift at the shop. When crossing a road to leave the bus stop, she was hit by a car. Apparently the driver had said she had appeared out of nowhere. She was taken to hospital but died later the same day.
My mum was 15, my uncles were 14 and 13.
She has always wondered whether her mother’s death was an accident. Laina had been under a tremendous amount of pressure as a single parent. Also she had, apparently because she never told her kids about it, been recently told that she had breast cancer. At the time breast cancer treatment wasn’t as effective as nowadays, and after years of financial struggles it might have seemed like a final blow.
What is also a strange coincidence is that she had asked one of her colleagues at the shop, who’d later become a surrogate grandma of sorts to me, had asked her apparently out of the blue if something were to happen to her would she take care of her kids.
Was it because of the cancer? Or was she making preparations?
The family’s last Christmas together.
I don’t wish that my grandmother’s death was a suicide as I know full well what a tough and heartbreaking decision it is to make but the thought that it might have been brings me closer to her.
I’ve never had to battle a possibly terminal physical illness, neither have I ever been a single parent, but this is an experience I can relate to. I can finally have common ground with a grandmother I never got to meet. You can never fully appreciate what it’s like to plan to end your life unless you’ve been there yourself. What a fun family quirk!
Even though it’s incredibly depressing, actually so depressing that it’s almost funny, my upmost feeling is still comfort. Her circumstances were unique, so is everyone’s, but I can still relate. I can imagine the things having gone through her head because I’ve been there myself.
What I didn’t have were three underage children. That must’ve made the incredibly difficult even harder. My mum has never wavered in her opinion: her mother was a good mother.
She worked all hours to provide for her children, wrote to her sister who was a nurse for advice and medicine when they were ill, did her best to shield the children from her husband’s abusive behaviour.
Someone who hasn’t had any personal experience with poor mental health might not agree. They might be enraged by the decision she possibly made. How dare she leave her children behind?
When I see it as a person under unimaginable duress making the hardest decision of her life.
This is all speculation on my part. Nobody knows the truth except her. But it might be that she had been depressed for a long time. She had an abusive father, married an abusive alcoholic, still found the courage to leave the marriage, only to find herself struggling to make ends meet.
Then, possibly, finding out that she was seriously ill.
Nobody in this world has the right to judge someone’s decision to end their life.
Not me, not my grandmother if she did.
I can only imagine how utterly devastated she was. It must’ve all gone through her head.
Who looks after the children while she’s in treatment?
She must’ve known her sisters weren’t going to be of any use. On the day my grandmother died my great-aunt Irene came in to the flat where the kids were huddled together crying, left a box of pop on the floor and just left them there. Three crying, traumatised children.
How are they going to get the money for rent, food, clothes, if she has to leave work?
For how long?
What if the treatment doesn’t work?
Her children have to see her wither away slowly. They have already lost their dad.
If it wasn’t an accident, I understand the way it unravelled. There might not have been a meticulous plan: a date, a method, all the arrangements. It just might’ve been that she had made her decision, went to work as usual and saw the car. A split-second decision. An impulse.
If that’s the way things went, I understand myself through her and her through myself.
Or alternatively, she was crossing the street, was in a hurry or deep in thought or concern and just didn’t see the car.
Whatever the case, this event altered my mother’s life forever.
And in return, led me here to write about her.