My mum and Grandmother Hilja sitting in her beloved swing.
I’m a very lucky person to have such wonderful parents. So wonderful that they have always been basically my only family. It’s me, mum, dad and that’s it.
One thing my mum and I both wished for though was that I could’ve had one decent grandparent. Just one.
On dad’s side, it’s nobody’s fault. His biological mother was ill with schizophrenia, I’ve told her story in Sirius. My (adopted) grandfather was a wonderful man, but he died when I was young and I never got to know him as well as I would’ve liked.
My adopted grandmother is a trickier case. Maybe I’ll write about her some day. She lived an incredibly hard life that wasn’t her fault but she was also very manipulative. She liked to portray herself as a sweet old woman while my dad could remember how she’d make up things that he had done and tell his dad about them when he’d get home from work. She’d be constantly talking to me about when she was going to die. A bit scary for a child, and depressing to anyone. She had prepared for her own death for several decades.
On mum’s side, even trickier. Her parents died before I was born. My grandmother’s colleague, whom my grandmother asked whether she’d take care of her children if something were to happen to her, was trying to be a surrogate grandmother but I’ve stopped all contact with her. My best example of her personality is the following memory:
My mum and one of her friends are godmothers to each other’s children. They both have one child, a daughter. My godmother’s daughter is five years older than me and as a child she was like an older sister to me. ‘Godmother’s daughter’ was always such a mouthful, and not enough to explain our close relationship, so to this day we refer to each other as cousins. Also, I didn’t have cousins, aunts and uncles other kids did so talking about a cousin, even one, made me feel more like the other kids.
This conversation took place when I was about twelve. I was talking about her and the word ‘cousin’ must’ve come out.
“Cousin. She’s not your cousin. Why do you keep calling her a cousin?”
I tried to give her the preceding explanation. She was having none of it.
“But it’s wrong. Stop telling such pathetic lies, it’s not true. She’s not your cousin. You’re not related to each other in any way. You don’t have any cousins. She’s not your cousin.”
I sat in my chair and tried not to start crying.
When I’d read children’s and young adult’s novels, they always had a grandmother that would bake cakes or sweet Finnish cardamom buns called ‘pulla’ and offer kind words and life-advice. Never did they talk about how martians had come for a visit last Tuesday, made the protagonist feel guilty for wanting to go play instead of sitting with talking adults because you could never know how long granny still had time on this Earth or have the need to humiliate a twelve-year-old.
Part of the reason why my mum was so sorry about my lack of a sane grandparent was that she had such a good relationship with hers. My mum had a really hard time growing up but she has always spoken warmly of her grandmother, her mother’s mum, who’d have her and her two brothers stay at her farm house every summer.
In order to write Borrowed I went through all the letters my great-grandmother had sent to her daughter, my grandmother, that had been saved from her personal items. The letters were in a small plastic bag, dating from 1960 to 1965.
One of the first things I had learnt about ‘Grandmother Hilja’ was that she was known for her writing skills. At a time when not many people could even read, she could write without mistakes in neat handwriting. She came from a farming family in a small village, and residents even further afield would come to dictate their letters to her.
You could see why when reading them. Her handwriting was easy to read, all letters were neatly dated, had a clear structure to them and were always politely worded.
That wasn’t her only writing venue though, she would write small religious columns to her local newsletter which in that area was as good as a newspaper. I can’t help smiling at the thought that her great-granddaughter would write columns to newspapers decades later.
All of Grandmother Hilja’s four daughters moved hundreds of kilometres away after getting married and starting a family. She’d stay in touch with each one by letters and packages. The postmen must’ve hated their job at times because based on my grandmother’s letters alone Grandmother Hilja would mail her young family carpets she had weaved herself, sacks of potatoes and bags of berries.
Once you had read a few, it was easy to follow her style of writing and structure of the letters. She expressed herself well, so you didn’t have necessarily have had to read the other person’s replies to understand what was the exchange about.
She would start each letter with ‘Laina good’ which in olden Finnish is similar to ‘Laina dear’, thank her for the letter or a package she had received from her and tell when she had received it. Then she’d go on to comment something on the previous letter, ask after her grandchildren’s and her daughter’s health before telling about hers (she was always well), her husband’s health and any bits of news from town.
She would also mention a sum of money she was including in the letter if she was. 500 marks. 1,000 marks. I have no idea how she could afford it. Both she and her husband were factory workers with a farm so I’m sure the money was tight. Still she expressed her gratitude in one letter that she had always been able to give her daughter money when she’d needed it without experiencing financial hardship.
Then she’d say it’s time for her to finish the letter and how she was either going to take it to a mailbox herself or have someone else do it for her.
She’d always finish her letters with the same words.
‘Heartfelt greetings, mother.’
Because of her habit of neatly dating the letters on the upper right corner, it was easy to organise them. As the letters had laid in the bag untouched for nearly fifty years, the papers were still folded like they were in their envelopes. First across and then top to bottom. First I’d make the mistake of folding them my way which is the opposite but as I got through the letters I started following the grooves she had left.
She was especially fond of my mother. In most letters she would dedicate a space to thank her for a letter or for writing her name, saying how well she’d done. Had my mum sent her a gift, she would tell it had come to a good use.
‘Many thank yous to Tiina for the beautiful painting. I placed it on the kitchen wall next to the table, I had just the perfect place for it. I like it so much, it’s so lovely to have a work of art made by a child.’
‘Thank you so much Tiina for the beautiful cloth you made, I placed it on top of my nightstand.’
‘Grandmother likes Tiina so much. Other girls are nice too but no other girl is as nice.’
She’d make me laugh. At times she had clearly finished the letter, then remembered something and quickly scribbled it to the bottom of the page, the other side of the paper or if there wasn’t space, around the text. They were always about sending them something.
‘Would you like some rhubarb?’
‘Does your lot like gooseberries? I could send some.’
‘Is your hand any better, I could send you some ointment.’
Part of the reason why I laugh is because it’s so apparent who it reminds me of. Even if I had spoken to my mum twice that day, she’d still text or ring for some thing that she had remembered or could sort out for me if needed.
‘I bought you a blouse, it’s blue and has spots on it.’
‘Do you need filter papers as well as coffee?’
‘Don’t take hot baths or showers with a twisted ankle.’
It’s not difficult to imagine the same trail of thought at the lack of technology into letters.
My family has taught me that bloodlines don’t matter but it was still lovely to see where my mum had inherited her way of thinking, of taking care of other people. Something that other people might take for granted, I saw the chain of generations in pieces of paper. And as it happens, in a format that both of us enjoyed, written word.
I looked for a kind, wise and caring grandmother
and found her.