When I was growing up, one of my favorite friends was a Finnish girl named Leena (pronounced Lay-neh). Actually she was half German, but that side of her family might as well have been non-existent because that family lived and breathed Finland. Her one hundred percent Deutsche father was some kind of salesman and traveled regularly. I saw him perhaps three times in all the years I was friends with his daughter. Her mother worked full-time for a bank, so Leena and her younger sister were left in the care of their Finnish grandmother.
I was never sure of the spelling of Mummo (pronounced mu mu) but figured it was the rough equivalent of Nana or Grandma. I’m pretty sure she was related to Leena, but for all I knew, she could have been smuggled over as part of the Finnish-American slave trade that was so prolific in the 1960’s.
The short, stooped woman with the blue-gray hair was obviously elderly at the time but had the strength and endurance of a long distance runner. She never stopped moving, doing all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and caring for the children. She looked older than any person I knew, including my own grandparents, but then often people from other countries have a way of aging differently, not using make-up and dressing plainly that can make them look older than their years. I had proof of that in my own family album.
I never saw Mummo wear anything other than a plain, grayish-blue print, short-sleeved dress that ended a couple of inches below her knees. On her feet were sturdy, black, lace-up shoes that looked like they were from “the old country.” She couldn’t drive, so if necessary, she would walk to a small, neighborhood market up on the corner of their street while dragging her little rolling basket behind her, or she would take a cab to her destination of choice.
Mummo did not speak a word of English. On the other hand, I’m sure she understood it a lot better than she let on; she simply chose not to reveal that fact to people who weren’t family members. (Sometimes I’d like to do that too, but since English is the only language I’m credible with, it makes it hard to pretend anything else.) Leena, her sister, and her mother all spoke fluent Finnish and communicated easily with Mummo. Anyone else, not so much.
I found myself pointing quite a bit, and speaking slowly and loudly, as if that would help her understand what I was trying to say. I remember begging Leena to teach me Finnish, and while she never said no, she never gave me any lessons, even with basic vocabulary. I think the family looked at it like an exclusive club of which there were very few members in Southern California in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was not allowed to join. I didn’t feel too bad – I don’t think Leena’s dad was allowed to join either.
Playing at Leena’s house was always a highlight for me during those early years. Instead of playing board games, Leena invented elaborate games that we would play for hours and hours without ever tiring of them. My favorite of the games was called The Land of Mu. It was presided over by an 8- to 10-inch long rubbery hippo named Mu. We would gather up almost everything oh, say, smaller than a breadbox in her bedroom, put it in the center of the room on the floor, and then go through a selection process similar to choosing teammates for dodgeball. Back and forth we would go, with the good stuff going quickly, and the quirkier, less likable items hanging on until almost everything was gone. Then we created our stage with our trappings, and the game would finally commence.
It wasn’t so much a game as it was role-playing. Leena always was the one to control Mu, so really the direction and strategy of the game came from her. Which was really a good thing, since the first few times we played I had absolutely no idea what we were doing. But in my mind, I sensed we were doing something Finnish, something very exotic, something that’s traditionally done only if you live north of the Baltic Sea. Something that makes a lot of sense in a place with long, cold winters when kids find themselves trapped inside their little Finnish talot waiting for the snow to melt so they could go outside again and play. For a plain Jane girl who had never been out of the United States except to a Mexican orphanage when I was five, this was the next best thing to being a jet setter on the next plane to Helsinki.
Which I never would have done because 1) I didn’t have a passport, 2) I was afraid of having a small pox vaccine which Leena told me you couldn’t get wet and you couldn’t pick the scab off until it was ready to literally fall off, and 3) I didn’t like fish and I was pretty sure fish was their national food, along with polar bear and reindeer. I was quite comfortable in my land of mashed potatoes and meat loaf, a place that didn’t require non-essential vaccines, which for me was all of them.
Shortly before I started high school, my family moved to a home in a different school district. I lost track of Leena, something I regret even now, a lot of years later. My only solace has been finding a direct ancestor of Finnish heritage while researching my family’s past. It didn’t matter that the connection was more than a thousand years ago: he’s still my 68th great grandfather. I have a connection with Leena and her family. I too am Finnish (sort of). Now that I can prove my lineage, I think I deserve to be able to learn a little Finnish.
Leena, where are you?