In memory of Salli Lindstedt:
26.09.1926 – 27.05.2016
Every so often, I think: ‘I wish Salli-Mummo could see this.’
Today it was when I stopped at a small Korean restaurant for lunch. It provided lovely food, there was modern Korean photography on the walls and modern concert music playing. Salli never told me that she wished she could have travelled outside Finland, but when I came to visit her and Erkki after a trip to Kenya, she took away my old, formal school portrait, and replaced it with a snap of me, dishevelled, making morning tea on a camp fire in the Rift Valley. Once, as two boys slid rattling below her window on skateboards, she said enviously ‘wouldn’t you like to do that?’ At the age of 24, I didn’t, but at the age of 70, she clearly did yearn for that adrenaline and freedom.
My relationship with her was close, because as a child I spent a month of every summer with her. I marvelled then at her busyness, at the incessant round of shopping and food preparation, with a break after lunch to read the paper, and then on again with a whirl of activity, a bucket of strawberries to stew into ‘soppa’, clothes to put through the mangle, an elderly friend to visit. She taught me rural virtues, like duty, and not wasting anything, especially food. If I was displeased with my dinner, she reminded me that when she was small, they had to put birch-bark in the bread to make it go further when the crops were failing. She took me to stay in the old farm-house near Kemi where she had grown up with her 12 brothers and sisters. If I complained about having to wear unfashionable cast-off trousers and getting covered in bird poo on a day’s berry picking, well, it was either funny, lucky or character building, depending on her mood. But every morning when I woke, she had already been out, fetching water from the pump and picking bilberries to put in my porridge. She showed me how she wove rugs on the loom in the unused parlour. We visited her mother together in Simo, in a care home where Kaarina lived with Alzheimers and cared comfortably for a doll in her lap.
Part of Salli’s duty to me, and hopefully a pleasure, was to expose me to culture as well as to feed me and make me virtuous and frugal. We visited the library at least weekly, and sometimes went to concerts, and perhaps once a summer she took me to the spare, plain, wooden cathedral in town, where I acquired no knowledge of religion but learnt to be politely and discreetly bored, an invaluable skill. Of course, most of what she taught me about culture was implied. Implied in the few but excellent objects in their home: the paintings on the wall, the classic Finnish designs of glassware and ceramics that we ate from, the classic novels and the encyclopaedia on the book shelves. She had not had the opportunity for higher education herself, although she had gone for a few years to the small village school, but she had fine taste and an easy capacity to learn. She may have grown up on a farm in the very north of Finland, and known hunger and Nazi occupation of their barns, but she had made herself refined. She easily picked up sentences of English from the television. She let me play with her make up bag when I was a child, and said to me: ‘when you are grown up, you should try to look as much like Grace Kelly as possible.’ Another time, in my 20s, when I was being nagged to find a husband, I asked her if she would mind if I didn’t marry. ‘Of course not,’ she said. ‘There’s no point doing something just because it’s the custom.’
It took a long time for the shadows of Alzheimers to close around her completely. One time, visiting her at the sheltered accommodation in the flat she lived in with Erkki, I saw the newspaper out and found out that she still read the paper cover to cover every day and did the crossword. She could still say thought-provoking things. We walked past a rosebush, and she said: ‘for some reason, I prefer a bud to a rose. A rose is just what it is, even if it’s beautiful; but you don’t know what a bud will become.’
Further on, she was living in a care-home with a beautiful garden. She was widowed by then, stiff in the joints but still mobile, and brightly talkative. I had brought my fiancé to meet her. She had no clear grip on who I was, but her impeccable social graces let us have a wonderful conversation, and we sat and talked in the garden while she periodically twinkled at my fiancé. I wondered if, tall, good humoured and even-tempered, he reminded her of her own Erkki. Toby’s theory was that as he was a non-Finnish speaker, she had recognised a kindred spirit in him: someone having quite a nice time but totally confused about what was going on. Her youngest grandchild Varpu also appeared that day, which gave Salli great pleasure. As we left, she gripped Toby by the hand and said earnestly, ‘aren’t little girls lovely?’
Further on still, two years ago, we got to introduce her to our own little girl. She almost certainly did not understand the relationship, perhaps she no longer had a concept even for what a family relationship was. But she knew that there was a baby girl in a yellow dress playing on the swing, for her to watch with pleasure while she strung words together like necklaces of mismatched beads. Briefly, our daughter had a name for her great-grandmother: ‘Mummomama.’ To play with a young child in the sun and eat ice-cream, to talk in your own way with people who love you – that seems like a good deal to strike with the world at any time of life.