This is a picture of my mother and her father. A couple of years later her parents divorced, and she never saw him again.
As I have mentioned in my previous posts, mental illness is something that has been openly discussed in my family, and it was something that affected both of my maternal grandparents individually. Both of them died before I was born.
I feel that in order to understand myself I have to try and understand the grandparents I never met. So in this post I concentrate on my mum’s father, and the next one will be of her mother.
Writing about my grandparents has been an expedition for me. A lot of information, such as how they met and where they got married, simply isn’t available. The following story is based on old documents, mementos and my mum’s recollections. From these sources I’ve tried to piece together a character arc. If I have left something out, such as his childhood, it’s because I don’t know anything about it.
Here is what I know.
Matti Rämä was born on 26.9.1924 at Kouvola in southeastern Finland. He was youngest of eleven children. When he was eight months old, his father Evald died at the age of 33.
‘Rämä’ is a Finnish slang word for ‘broken.’
According to a statement that was sent to my mother, Matti was found dead a couple of months before I was born on 24.8.1992 at 10am at his flat on Storgatan 15 in Skövde, Sweden. He was 68.
If Google is right, this is the house.
A journey from southeastern Finland to a small flat in Sweden is as long as one human life, filled with blanks stretching across several years. I have no idea what happened to Matti after he emigrated. The task of finding out isn’t made any easier by the fact that all the documents regarding his death are in Swedish. A woman’s name is mentioned in the estate inventory before his children. A new partner? Your guess is as good as mine.
For the purpose of the said story I won’t call Matti my grandfather, as it doesn’t feel natural. I have only one grandfather, and that’s my dad’s dad. We only refer to Matti as ‘mum’s dad’ or by first name, and I don’t think he would’ve wanted the title anyway.
A fair warning, this isn’t a nice story.
At the age of 18, Matti joined countless other young Finnish men in combat, known as the ‘Continuation war’ between Finland and Nazi Germany against the USSR. He would’ve been 17 as the war started in 1941, so he might’ve even joined the army while underage with his mother’s permission.
Like many men, Matti never spoke about the war. The only physical reminder were the damaged little- and ring fingers after a bullet had punctured his right hand. The scar tissue is still visible, even in black and white photographs.
If he was still deemed fit to combat after his injury, he might have stayed in the war until 1945. In any case, Matti spent the first years of his adult life in combat. And like many men, according to his family, Matti was never the same after he came back.
This is pure speculation on my part. It might’ve been that Matti was already ill when entering combat, or that the traumas of his experiences triggered it. Still there is no denying it that combat affected him deeply. Whatever the case may be, he showed violent and volatile behaviour throughout his adult life.
Matti has been described as ‘incisingly intelligent’, with a tongue as sharp as a shard of glass. He was passionate about literature, and would spend hours upon hours reading. He also subscribed to a magazine of literature essays marketed for professionals and academics. This quite didn’t fit his day job, a designer at a home appliance company.
He was an ambitious man, who wanted the best of everything. When posing next to his sister, they are of two different worlds.
Matti was a chain smoker rarely seen without a cigarette. He also had an extreme anger management problem. My mum remembers how he once threw a TV set out of their sixth floor flat during a fit of rage. His rage was further fuelled by his alcoholism.
My uncle, my mum’s younger brother, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Even though Matti was never diagnosed, she has been able to draw similarities between their behaviour and I see no reason to doubt her. Matti might’ve even been self-medicating with alcohol. He might’ve even got a diagnosis after he left for Sweden. Of course we don’t know the truth and never will.
He also gambled by playing cards. My mum remembers how he once won a small gold watch in a card game and gave it to her – it was a perfect fit. One day the watch was gone, he had pawned it and drank the money.
Matti married my grandmother, Laina, on 23.5.1954. The date was carved inside her wedding ring. She has had extremely slender fingers, it doesn’t fit even my little finger. Coming from a humble farming background, all daughters in her family had married well and a well-spoken and well-read machine designer must’ve fit the bill.
My great-aunts were all about the appearances and apparently so were Matti’s sisters so I see no reason why the social status hadn’t been the reason for their marriage despite his issues that must’ve become apparent before they got married.
I stumbled onto a mystery when going over old letters. All of them were from Laina’s mother to her. Only one was the other way around. Laina didn’t have enough money for a ring, and said she had been crying when her mother’s letter hadn’t contained enough. She had also been desperate enough to borrow money from some girl she knew.
This puzzled us. Laina had been 29 years old, she had a job. Why was she so desperate for a ring? Mum didn’t really know her mother that well, so she didn’t know was it typical behaviour from her. Was it just a whim? If it was an engagement ring, why is she asking her mother for money? Isn’t the future husband expected to buy the ring?
It wasn’t until we found the wedding ring that we realised she had been talking about that. The letter had been dated a couple of months before the wedding.
Put together with a story mum had heard from Laina’s sister after her death, the mystery was solved.
My mum was supposed to have an older brother but her dad had caused a miscarriage by kicking his wife in the stomach. The wedding had been over two years before my mum was born. So Laina must’ve been pregnant, and had been desperate to have the ring before she started showing. A child out of wedlock had been an unimaginable shame both at the time and in her ultra-religious family.
Nobody can confirm this theory, but it makes perfect sense.
My mum’s jewellery box also has another ring, which says ‘on Mother’s Day ’56.’ It wasn’t typical of Matti to buy his wife gifts. And mum wasn’t born until December. Buying a ring to his pregnant wife on Mother’s Day was too sentimental to him.
“It’s an apology”, we both agreed. “He was sorry.”
Also what is notable is that neither of these rings were ever pawned, and neither did my grandmother get rid of them after the divorce.
Again, nobody can confirm this but we have come up with the following theory: Matti caused the miscarriage in a fit of rage. He wasn’t the calculating type, he just burst into rage from no reason at all. That would also explain why they still went on to have three more children.
As a father Matti preferred the children to be neither seen or heard. My mum remembers being sent to bed with her two younger brothers extremely early, when there was still daylight out, so that they would be away when their father came in from work. Mum’s best guess was that he couldn’t handle the racket made by young children.
My grandparents divorced in 1964. Mum never saw her father again. She knew about his move to Sweden, and assumes it was because at the time the social security was better. It made drinking all day and night a lot easier.
When my grandmother died in 1972, he called my mum and asked whether she wanted him to come back to Finland and take care of them. It’s hard to tell whether this stemmed from a sense of duty or from regret over the years he had missed of his children’s lives.
“No thank you”, she had said. “I don’t think it would be good for anyone.”
That was the last time they spoke.
Matti Rämä died in a small apartment in conjunction with the local hospital. He had only a few personal items: an armchair, an electric shaver and a TV. All his cash were Finnish marks so he must’ve visited the country after the emigration.
“I wonder if I did right saying ‘no’ when he asked”, my mum says. “I had become a mother to my brothers aged 15 and I had to make that decision for them.”
She’s not bitter towards him. He wasn’t completely to blame. You don’t need to know the full picture to come to that conclusion. He lost his father at a young age, a large family, war. Suspected mental illness.
I asked had my uncles been in touch with him since the divorce.
“No, I don’t think they were”, she said. “But I think they always missed him. He was still their dad.”