12 March 2013

On Growing Up Finnish American in the '60s

On most weekends of my childhood my family would go to some sort of Finnish gathering. This could be a dinner with relatives or a ski trip or a barbecue or an extended family party. There were also functions held by the local Finnish Brotherhood Hall in my hometown of Berkeley. There were sometimes soft religious undertones to these, but as Finland is a Lutheran nation, there was nothing terribly overt. Maybe just a passing reference to god and a short prayer. Mostly there would be food and revelry and live accordion music and dancing. Wherever it was a point was being made for everyone to have a good time and forget whatever cares might be troubling them. The old and the young alike were treated with respect and dignity. Women were generally responsible for preparing meals and took on a greater share of the set up and cleaning, but this was in line with the times. I have never felt that my upbringing was especially sexist, certainly not relative to the rest of the world at the time. Women's voices were heard and respected.

I had a strong sense that everyone was happy. In fact that was rather the point of weekends. Finns are a notoriously hard working people. The proclivity to drunkenness usually manifests on weekends and often in the form of binges. Work gets done and quite efficiently thank you. The Finns of my parents' generation were enjoying the fruits of post war America. As a carpenter -- like seemingly every other Finnish American of our community -- my dad was benefitting enormously from the building boom. He always had work. The union was strong and he made enough that my mother didn't need to work yet we owned a home and two cars and my father was able to invest in and help build apartments in Lake Tahoe. The United States that I grew up in was a sharp contrast to the Finland where my dad was raised. His family was never poor but they did struggle and consumer goods were not readily available nor was the latest technology. So the Finns in the Bay Area of the late '40s '50s '60s and even into the '70s had cause for constant celebration. They were enjoying the American dream and homesickness was alleviated by the strong Finnish community around them. (Of course today Finland has the most respected education system in the world and was ranked by Newsweek magazine as the best overall country in the world to live in. Meanwhile in the US middle class homes usually require both parents to work and union power is fading and the economy...you get the picture. Times change.)

My father, Aimo Hourula*
It was a warm and happy and comfortable cocoon for me to grow up in. Besides my folks and big brother I had grandparents aunts uncles and cousins and family friends who were like relatives. There was no indoctrination, just an exposure to the culture of my forebearers. I had an amazing amount of freedom. Children were to be looked after and indulged and loved unconditionally. They were not -- however -- to be treated as square pegs to be jammed into holes round or otherwise. Today's children are often more programmed than raised, given an endless string of clubs teams organizations and groups to join. Their non school hours are so precisely scheduled that they even are assigned play dates. Many parents build their lives around their children sacrificing much of what made them unique before parenthood. In the Finnish community I grew up in parents made accommodations for their children and included them as part of their lives. Children were honored not deified. Unlike many children of today we did not feel we were the center of the universe just a valued part of it.

Of course this was no earthly paradise. Marital problems were not brought up beyond the tightest inner circle. Alcoholism and mental and emotional problems were closely held secrets. There were such strictures on mentioning them that even the sufferer was unable to admit it to themselves. Thus my poor old mom. She developed what was likely bi polar disorder which coupled with alcoholism shattered her life in such a profound way that she could not even recognize anything was amiss. Paranoia gripped her like a vise.  I doubt that there were anything more than whispers when my father started turning up alone at social gatherings. Even as evidence came to light of my mother's serious issues there was probably never much but idle gossip. Finns of that generation had no mechanism to cope with such issues. My father himself was at a loss to help her or even himself. It was a situation that was not within his ability to grasp. Part of him simply died I think. I know part of me did. Eventually he met another woman and divorced my mom who lived on for another 28 very sad years. Undiagnosed and alone. The world I grew up was reluctant to acknowledge difficulties especially ones so exotic as my mom's. They were in a boat that was not to be rocked. While liberal in most senses of the word Finnish Americans were troubled by protesters whether for Black equality or against the Vietnam war. They had such a good thing going they wanted no one suggesting anything was wrong anywhere for anybody.

I've made a point in my life not to idealize my youth, my culture, my family or anything else. Having a mother go mad will do that. But I do look back with great fondness at my childhood and the manner in which I was shaped and comforted by my Finnish identity. It is a powerful and useful and positive drug to have a strong sense of group and to participate in it fully. To work hard and achieve and give back and to enjoy. That's really what sticks out for me. People getting together and having fun. I had an uncle -- a younger brother of my dad's -- who I'll always remember with this impossibly large smile beaming from his handsome face. I'll also remember his powerful and frequently released laugh and his incomparable kindness to me. He built himself a big house in the suburbs and loved to host parties in it. Christmas Eve there was magic. Some of the great memories of my childhood are from holidays, get-togethers and bashes held there. I'd play with my cousins, eat a magnificent meal prepared by my aunt and feel an overwhelming sense of the world being a safe and wonderful place because it was not just the kids who were having a great time, but the adults too. Ya can't beat that.

If anyone reading this enjoyed it then it's dedicated to my late great big brother, Robert. If you didn't enjoy it then leave my brother out of it.

*Photo from my niece Matlena Hourula's website. You should totally check out her work.

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