1 September 2020

Love has many forms

Picture of Suvi Mahonen

Suvi Mahonen

Suvi is a journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications in Australia and overseas

How selfish, I thought to myself. How self-centred and ungrateful I must have seemed. It was my birthday and I was reading an email from my aunt, my father’s sister. There were the usual platitudes that accompanied her once or twice-a-year emails, as well as the standard couple of paragraphs updating me on her life in Finland.

But this time there was an attached Word document. Something that she’d been promising to send me for years. It contained her childhood memories. My eyes ran rapidly over the document, skimming the pages describing what life was like in Finland following the end of World War Two.

Both my grandfathers had fought during the war, as had most Finnish men, and two of my great uncles had died, mowed down by Russian guns. My grandparents had had to flee their ancestral homeland in Karelia as the Russian troops advanced. Eventually they settled in Western Finland, refugees amongst their own kind.

My aunt was born on a farmstead’s living room floor in 1953. Life was tough, and her parents worked hard. Her father would rise at 4am to milk the cows. Her mother made all their food. Doing the laundry by hand was an hours’ long affair. In the summer they grew fruit and vegetables, in autumn they harvested the oat fields. They didn’t have a car, or even a horse, so they rode the tractor into town once a week to pick up their mail and refresh their supplies.  

I was aware Markku had existed – there was a sepia tinted photo of him in my parent’s family album – but my father never mentioned his name. The few times I asked about him a strange look would come over my father’s face and my mother would scold me for bothering him. So, eventually I dropped the topic. I knew Markku had died young. But when, and how, remained a mystery to me.          

Reading about my father and aunt’s life growing up in rural Finland made me realise that my childhood must have seemed spoilt in comparison. I never went hungry. I attended a private school. We spent summer holidays at the beach.

My parents migrated from Finland to Australia before I was born. They didn’t seem to miss their family that they had left behind in Finland as we grew up in country Victoria. He communicated with his sister sporadically, but he only saw her once, in nearly 20 years, when she visited Australia in the early 90s. As for my mother, she remained in touch with her two brothers, and the two of us even went back to Finland once when I was 12.

But even at age 12, I could detect there was something wrong between my mother and my mummi (grandmother). Stilted conversations, no hugs, sharp words. My mother didn’t even attend her mother’s funeral when she died at 92 – claiming it was too far and expensive to travel.  

When me and my brother both grew up and got married, my parents also never spoke of looking forward to having grandchildren. In fact, my mother even advised me not to have children at all, because she felt it was unfair to bring kids into such a messed up world.

Their seeming disregard for family became even clearer when they relocated to Central Queensland, shortly after my first marriage, not surprisingly, failed when I was only 19. I had moved back home to live with them, and was just starting my university degree, when they announced their big move, effectively leaving me to fend for myself. 

For years afterwards whenever I thought of my parents – in particular, my father – I felt abandoned and angry. They had put their lifestyle over their family, leaving me when I needed them most.

Unwilling to forgive them for their perceived wrongdoings I almost closed myself off from them completely. I stopped returning their calls; I ignored their emails. I felt that since they didn’t make any real effort to be a part of my life, then they didn’t deserve to be part of mine.     

“You need to meet a few more Finns,” said my psychiatrist, many years later. “Then, perhaps, you’d be more understanding.” Finns, according to my psychiatrist, believed in “tough love” parenting. Whether it comes from living in such harsh weather, or the fact they spent long winter nights in the dark, a harshness and hardness has been forged in Scandinavians that people living in more moderate climates don’t necessarily share.

My father had grown up in a country that had seen the horrors in war, but, as I read my aunt’s document, I better understood the personal horrors he had to confront as a young man. It was November 1966. My father, who was 22 at the time, was working as a chef on a Norwegian oil tanker. And as his ship’s bow ploughed through the dark waves of the North Atlantic, his sister, who was only 14 at the time, was in a total bind. Her father had been unwell in hospital for several weeks and her mother had been acting strange lately.

One morning my aunt awoke to find the house cold and empty with the fire guttering under a pile of Markku’s smouldering clothes. A single set of footprints led out the back door into the overnight snow. She searched frantically but couldn’t find her mother or Markku in the house. With no phone in the house she had no choice but to make the long walk to school on her own. At lunch time the police arrived at the school and told her that her mother and brother’s bodies had been found floating in the farm’s well.  

Several days later my dad received the telegram telling him of the bad news when his ship docked in Oslo. He came home immediately, just in time for the funerals, and several months later his father tragically passed away from leukaemia. Yet, there was little time to mourn for either him or my aunt. There were bank debts to pay, cows to milk, wood to chop, crops to plant. My father tried to run the farm for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it. And when his sister married a much older man when she turned 16, they sold the farm and divided the meagre amount of post-debt money between them. The following year he met my mother.

My own childhood, seen through the lens of my father’s experiences, must have seemed like utopia in comparison. Living in a warm temperate climate. Never going hungry. No loss in my life. What did I have to complain about?

To say that having my own daughter radically altered my viewpoint would be an exaggeration. But I came to realise two things: one, parenting was a lot harder than I had ever expected; and two, having a family was the most important thing of all. I came to accept that my parents were never going to change and I couldn’t turn my father into the kind of man I wanted. But I could try and let go of some of my wasteful grudges. I could appreciate all the things he got right during my childhood. All the evenings he read to me. All our family camping trips. All the times he dressed as Santa Claus.

And I spent many hours dwelling on my aunt’s email. Having had my own struggles with depression I felt an instant empathy with the grandmother I’d never met but who provided 25 per cent of my genetic makeup. What if she was mainly suffering from reactive depression secondary to my grandfather’s illness? What if she had sought help? Several early antidepressants were available those days. Would have that been all it took? A tablet a day in exchange for living to an old age, an uncle who grew to adulthood, cousins that never existed.

Why did she have to take her young son with her? Why did she leave her adolescent daughter slumbering in her dreams? Was it because she loved her son more? Or loved him less? Or was it simply a pragmatic choice – that a seven-year-old could be subdued and a 14-year-old couldn’t?

And I worried about my daughter. Mental illness, like most conditions, is thought to be partially genetic. And my daughter had a poisonous well to draw from. Not only did she have my grandmother, she also had my husband’s paternal grandfather, who told his wife he was going out to hunt one day, before shooting their dog, then himself.

With a new-found interest in both mine, and my husband’s ancestry, I used an online program to build a simple family tree. Uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces. With help from my mother-in-law I also managed to attach a picture of everyone. I found the exercise therapeutic and once I’d finished, I emailed it to my brother and mum. To my surprise, my father rang me a few days later.

“Thank you Suvi.” He sounded sad.

“For what?” I said, my concern rising. “What’s wrong?”

“Thank you for remembering Äiti” (mother).

Now I was really confused. “Where’s mum?” I said, my voice tinged with fear. “Is she in hospital?”

 “No, she’s out in the garden. I meant your Mummi, my Äiti.” He coughed and made a noise that, if I didn’t know better, vaguely sounded like crying. “And Markku,” he added. “Thank you for remembering him.”

It was the only time, and remains the only time, I’ve heard him say his brother’s name out loud. I won’t pretend we talked about it further, or that my dad suddenly changed. But it helped me. And it helped us. And I became less judgemental. I accepted that showing love can take many forms. And my father’s mode of parenting had been one of them.   

Footnote: Father’s Day was held on Sunday September 6.

The pamphlet, Celebrate Fathers, is available from the Majellan Bookshop for $4.50, postage included. See page 48.


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