I’ve spent the last month remembering youthful hours in the sun, glorious hours—bikini-clad, canoeing the Wisconsin River, and later wearing hip sunglasses as I backpacked, over a span of years, in the Utah mountains. Those memories now rise up with less luster as I’ve found myself treating wonky spots of skin on my nose, spots with the potential to become cancerous. Every night before bed, I’ve coated them with a “chemo” cream and in the morning washed it off. As the cream began its work, I met with creeping dismay the frightening person who suddenly gazed back from the mirror. Nose harshly red, scabbed, angry—she would scare a child. My mother used to say, when I was still at home and would make some sort of ugly face, “Keep it up and it’ll stay that way.” I’ve now completed the treatment, but at its height, I’d look at my nose in the mirror and think, What if it stays this way? It’s been a time of wrestling with who I am, why I am, and whether to be embarrassed about either. There’s a saying: “Vanity, thy name is woman.” I’ve pondered that idea mightily over the last thirty days. I’ve also been thinking, more importantly, about my grandmother Hilda.
This photo is of my father’s mother—my Isän Äiti, in Finnish. Grandma Olga is the second woman from the left, standing with her cast mates in some sort of play. The others, I don’t know. An older cousin sent the photo to me, without details. I don’t know when it was taken, but from the style of the clothing, it could have been in Finland before she emigrated. I was only twelve when Grandma passed, and it’s bothered me that there wasn’t time for me to know her. As I write this, it’s Thanksgiving week, and that has me thinking about family. It’s important to me to know who my people are. For many days now, I’ve been searching my memory for Grandma Olga. What I’ve found is that I know her more than I knew. I’ve also found that, in looking for her, I found myself.