It’s Christmas Eve, a day of gathering for my family. Please consider the hands in the image above. I took the photo seven years ago, at a family graduation party. Something about those clasped hands made me quietly snap a picture. The hands in white are my mother’s. The others are my Aunt Nancy’s. Here’s a poignant fact. My mother is at that table with three of her sisters-in-law. Now two of them, Fannie and Elsie, are gone. Only my mom and Nancy are left—and they can’t be together now, because of the coronavirus. Lately, I’ve been exploring my family history on my mom’s side, a kind of coping mechanism against the pain of the pandemic and this wild year of politics. (I shared stories from my dad’s side in an earlier essay—“Farm Boys: Lessons for the Pandemic.”) I’ve read historical accounts authored by, or contributed to by, a number of my relatives: my grandmother Hilda, Uncle Carl and aunts Mildred and Ingrid, and a distant cousin whom I’ve never met. As I expected, the reading has provided a kind of focus and relief from anxiety. What I didn’t imagine was how deeply that looking back would affect me.
After my dad died, my mom sold our family farm. She moved here, two states away, to Minnesota. Now she lives down the street from my husband and me in a senior living complex. We didn’t anticipate, as we moved her in, what her residence there would mean for us, four years later. Along came the coronavirus—and her complex locked the doors. My mother has felt no loving, unfettered human touch since the virus arrived. I last hugged her in March. It’s frustrating, but we have an immunologist in our family who understands the deadly ways of pathogens and gives us good counsel. We also understand the state’s role in keeping citizens safe, and we follow the state guidelines. My mother, my husband, and I have zero illusions that we’re somehow immune.
That doesn’t make it easier. When I go over to my mom’s, as I’ve been able to do again since restrictions eased in late summer, I wear a mask and a face shield, and I stay a safe distance from her. I could be harboring the virus unknowingly because I still have to negotiate the world. I wear that mask-and-shield, and it makes me feel like I’m in another dimension—underwater, or on some other planet. It’s uncomfortable and surreal, but I think about how not wearing it could take my mother’s life, and I suck it up and put the headgear on. Every time I do, I think, I never want to forget how challenging all this has been for everyone. I never want to lapse into cavalier living again. There’s too much at stake, for the people I love and for people I’ve never even met.
I myself am at an age where catching the virus could be life threatening. Retirement has spared me from having to deal with a job during the pandemic. It also has gifted me with free time. I began my look back through Mom’s family by going to our bookshelves and pulling down the thick family genealogy compiled by that distant cousin, whose name is David. He undertook what had to have been a work of love, because that branch of the family—my mom’s maternal side—is huge. The entire original family, my great-great-grandparents and all their children, left Finland for a new life in America.
The genealogy begins its tracking of ancestors in the 1400s. I didn’t get past the Acknowledgments page before I received a little shock. I suddenly realized that two men who contributed to the development of my play The Rock Farm when it was produced some years back are in fact my distant cousins: Peter, and another David, the latter having also contributed to the creation of the genealogy.
Reading through the names in that thick book, I found myself amazed at the number of thriving families who share genetics with me. But I’ve spent most of my time with the genealogy going back, through the generations. I was soon overwhelmed at the sheer number of those who’d come before me, and overwhelmed by the debt I owe them for their genes and for the culture and traditions that are mine.
I’m full-blooded Finnish, except for some Swedo-Finn from that great-great-grandma whose whole family emigrated. Her name was Susanna. Growing up, all I knew was that there was some Swedish blood there somehow. I’ve learned more about Susanna from the big thick genealogy. She was born in Finland, had been Swedish-speaking, and had died in Michigan during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Whether she died of that flu, I don’t know. But knowing that she ended her life during that hard time struck me as sad, and it reminds me that what we’re going through now isn’t something that has never happened before.
I also learned that the Swedish connection in Susanna’s family has actually been traced way back. The first male ancestor listed in that thick genealogy was a successful fish merchant born in Sweden around 1475. His last name was Ångerman, later Sursill. Among his goods for sale was a foul-smelling form of fermented herring popular in that part of Sweden. Just thinking of it, I smell fish on my hands. He got into a legal pickle when he delivered some of that fermented herring to a Swedish military group not familiar with it. He was accused of delivering tainted goods and ended up with an insulting nickname at the end of it all: “Sursill,” meaning “sour fish.”
Yes, Sursill—the name his family later took as their own. Many of that man’s children and grandchildren eventually moved to Finland and became equally successful there. I want to reach across the centuries and take their hands in mine. I don’t know what I feel more—sorry for what they must have gone through, during the sour-fish debacle, or proud to be descended from them. Those Sursills clearly had a feisty attitude.
Most of us in the U.S. are descendants of immigrants. But do we actually know who they were as people? Folks don’t tend to migrate huge distances for fun. My ancestors left Finland at a time of famine—and some of them left to escape conscription into the Russian army. Historically, between Russia and Sweden, whose armies moved back and forth willy-nilly, Finns had to keep an eye on their neighbors. As I scanned my family background on my mother’s side, I found clergy, farmers, miners, loggers, merchants, politicians, lay ministers, teachers, writers, milkmaids, homemakers, and domestic servants. In other words, people from every socioeconomic level, every walk of life.
One of the most affecting stories for me from my mom’s side belongs to a girl named Hannah, three generations back, who died at the age of two while the family was still in Finland. My grandmother tape-recorded her elderly uncle, August John, telling family stories, and my Aunt Ingrid translated them from Finnish. According to August John, Hannah—who was his sister—had been playful, a wise little jokester. She had just learned to walk and could talk some, and she would “wave her skirt and say, ‘this is the way the lark flies.’” I will never get over the poignancy of that image. As I was reading name upon name in our family history, it was easy to forget they were people. Beautiful, very human people, like Hannah, waving her skirt, flying like a lark.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share the lives of a few more of my people:
Remember what I said about the Russian Army? For my great-grandpa Heikki, conscription wasn’t hypothetical. He literally got drafted into Russia’s army. Imagine how that felt. As an American, can you imagine Canada or Mexico becoming our overlord and drafting your son or daughter? Heikki didn’t report for duty. He crossed the border to Sweden and kept on going to the U.S. We might call Heikki a draft dodger, or a patriot. Is it dodging, when you’re running from an oppressor? And doesn’t Heikki’s story remind us that there are still oppressors at work in the world?
Then there’s August Senior, four generations back. I first heard his story when I was a child. One of the earliest settlers of my hometown, August was shot and killed by a policeman. It’s a convoluted story that made newspaper headlines. It also shifted blame between August and the policeman, depending on who was telling it. The version I heard from my grandmother was that there had been a fight in a bar over cards, which resulted in his being shot in a friend’s yard. Unfortunate August—doesn’t he deserve to be known and remembered? Should I be embarrassed over an ancestor who was quarrelsome at the card table, and not tell anyone? Or should I maybe acknowledge and reflect on my own impulses to act out and get my way?
There’s also my great-grandpa Kaarlo, who never left Finland. According to family still living there, he predicted the day of his death. That has always seemed spooky to me. Having become ill, he told his loved ones that he would die on or about St. Samuel’s day, some months off. The day before St. Samuel’s day, he passed of natural causes. Kaarlo was a writer—I expect that’s where my writing gene comes from. Should I be pleased to be descended from someone who could be called a “seer”? Or should I chalk it up to coincidence, or to his having simply willed himself to death?
Finally, there’s Anna, five generations back. I learned from my cousin David’s mammoth genealogy that, according to parish records in Finland, she had her first three children mysteriously out of wedlock. That’s all I know about her. Imagine what single motherhood must have been like at that time. Should I be embarrassed that I’m descended from an unwed mother? Or should I admire her—for having survived whatever difficulties, before marrying and giving birth to the child who would be my ancestor?
Going back, reading about these long-gone family members, feels like a form of holding hands across the centuries. None of my ancestors was one-dimensional, as the tidbits I’ve shared suggest. They were people with complicated lives, like you and me, and they faced problems as bad as anything I’ve faced. I also know that they overcame their own challenges, or I wouldn’t be here. Look again at the hands at the top of this post, my mother and my aunt, the warmth in their clasping. The fact that those beautiful hands can’t come together right now feels tragic. We need our own, to touch, to hold, to protect, to work together for good—for both family and country, loved one or stranger.
This idea of the general good—of remembering even the stranger—is an ancient one. The book of Deuteronomy (10:19, KJV) puts it this way, the words of Moses reminding the Israelites of their bondage in and rescue from Egypt: “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is an idea you’ll find in Western classical thought, as well. In Greek classical literature, a concept that has always struck a chord in me is “care for the stranger,” hospitality. The ancient Greeks believed that hospitality, care for another, was an obligation. You could even encounter a deity coming as a stranger.
On this Christmas Eve, I’m happy to see the approaching end of this inhospitable year. If you are like me, you noticed the dirty dishes on the table in the photo. How human. Those cups and plates are evidence of hospitality—someone made the cake and poured the coffee. Someone had to clean up that mess, and someone did. Between the coronavirus and the self-serving gridlock in our divided country, I’ve written the last year off as a total mess. If the years to come are going to clean up that mess, the responsibility of it is on us. Elected officials who ungenerously close their fists can get away with bad or self-serving behavior only if we shut our eyes to it.
I’m a dreamer. I would like to care for the whole world, face-to-face. But I feel too small, too limited in my reach. We all are. I’m also an introvert, and too buffeted in my nature by empathy to take on the individual cares of the world. The best I can do is to take personal care of those closest to me—and to care for the rest collectively, by working to make the Greek concept of “care for the stranger” the dominant force in our churches, our schools, our government. For me, that means writing. It means staying politically aware and engaged. It means wearing a mask.
I can do those things, and I need to. I have beautiful, very human people, both living and dead, to live up to.