Category Archives: Boreal longings

Keeping the lights on

This morning, before I was completely awake, my son came into my bedroom with a handheld torch, instead of putting on the lights, in a bid not to wake me up. His father came in behind him and Harris shone the torch unevenly over the wardrobe for a monent, quickly round the bedside shelves, places where Toby was reaching for clothes or his watch. Harris was technically supposed to be helping Daddy, I think, but he is only 4 so the strange new potential of a light he can move himself is much more interesting than any mere purpose for it.  I lay in bed, my eyes drawn to the torchbeam like a cat’s, as it bounced around the walls and the curtains and the surfaces.  Our messy bedroom, which is also the junk room, still full of unpacked boxes – looked under torchlight like the backstage at a theatre, full of costumes and props.  The magic of light.

Two years ago, when the children’s daycare was nestled between the woods and the sea, I used to bring a torch for Sanna to carry on the return home on dark evenings, and a small electric lantern for Harris to watch in the footwell of his pushchair, and we were festooned with reflective badges and stickers.  Sanna’s torch was very interesting to the 5 year old boys.  “Can we look at your torch, Sanna” they would ask, and she would saunter all cool and “yeah okay” back to the daycare fence, the torch lying in the palm of her hand as if it was the most casual thing in the world to have a torch of your own, but the broad grin bouncing around her cheeks giving away her excitement, and the children would all crowd round to look at the torch for a few minutes and then she would stride home head up, torch out, ready for anything and holding her own. 

One year before that in Helsinki, I had arrived at a different daycare in the city, with the heavy and homesick heart of a recent migrant on a sombre evening and wondering how we would bear our first long, gloomy Finnish autumn-winter —  and been enchanted to see the twinkling pattern made in the dark by a dozen or so high vis vests as the little ones ran skittering around under the daycare’s playground lights.   And suddenly not so scared of the dark autumn-winter (and I did not even know then what it would feel like when autumn could contain the hope for flashy brilliant diamantine snow to come soon, and I did not know about the wonderful last weekend at Linnanmäki, our funfair in town, which turns itself on into one giant kaleidoscopic glitterbomb of coloured lights before closing for the season.  The weather may be too warm for snow this year, the fear of the virus may be too much to try Linnanmäki this year. Let’s not think about that yet.  The kids are good at sorting themselves out, they live in the present – when they want to, they just switch on the disco ball and blast music from a phone and they dance in swirling coloured lights.) 

This autumn I need light more than ever, but I have learnt to take my dark with my light.  I read about the Chinese tradition of the midautumn festival.  Like harvest festival but with extras:  coloured lanterns and mooncakes, I want something like that.  In December the windows all over Finland will light up with Christmas stars but we will need something to keep going with until then. 

Sometimes in autumn when I wake up and make coffee I look out from the kitchen and the sky is streaked over the sea with pink and peach and purple like a crazy cocktail.  Those are good days.  Half an hour later, the morning sun shines low between the trees and the plants on our balcony and makes grey silhouetted branches and tomato vines on our white walls.  If that morning light  is bright enough and the children are awake they act out dramas of shadow bunnies and shadow dinosaurs.  

Shadow puppets

This year more than any other we know that good enough is wonderful. Boredom has become aspirational and daily life is a celebration.  In spring we put teddy bears in our windows and waved at unknown toddlers on the path who had stopped their parents and were delightedly pointing out our own teddy bears to us. This week Sanna and I decided we will make small lanterns and hang them in our windows.  Even if we can’t see the toddlers in the dark outside, I know they will be there, because at a different time, my children will be out walking a dark path in a strange autumn.  I want those unknown toddlers to know that we have left a light on as a promise that we will be waving at them again, come spring. 


In Memoriam Salli Lindstedt

Salli and Erkki

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.

4 generations


Red means ready except when blue does

In September, there is still work to do on the garden, but the summer excitement has faded.  The first year, it was concrete and then mud, the second year there was grass and some lavendar bushes and some newly planted small trees and bushes.  This year there were still bare patches around the edges like unasked questions in the earth but there was also fruit.

In garden
TTT rampaging
Our garden is nothing spectacular, a brown and green urban pocket handkerchief.   But for the Ten-Ton-Toddler and Gentle Giant and I this year it was a place of unfolding mysteries, as TTT picked fruit and berries for the first time in her life.

TTT turned two in early summer and re-discovered the passion for wild strawberries that we’d observed the summer before in Finland. I had found a patch then near my uncle’s summer house, and tried my strangely fruit-detesting baby on them. She had gobbled them up. I love wild strawberries myself. I have childhood memories of staying with my mother’s friend Liisa as a teen and her having kept a patch for me to pick when I arrived. For a family with two small boys that must have been quite some strawberry sacrifice. So this year I had found a nice lady on ebay who sold bare rooted runners from her own plants. And of course endless picking of blueberries. I had low expectations – even though I knew my mother was growing wild strawberries in her garden in Devon I thought there was probably some magicry involved in that, the way my mother’s cinnamon buns always turn out better than mine. But no – they took to the soil and spread their leaves and leggy little runners and by midsummer we had clumps and clumps of aromatic soft little drops of concentrated strawberry.

Wild strawberries taste almost artificial at first, as though they are strawberry flavouring added to something else rather than the berry itself. And TTT adored them. If she was dawdling on the way home from nursery all I had to say was ‘shall we see if there are any strawberries’ and she’d nearly run home. ‘Dawbewys in my mouf’, she would announce when she had her little harvest of a couple of strawberries and perhaps a raspberry from my new canes. I tried to teach her that ‘red’ meant ‘ready’ but colours were still unworded to her, and sometimes I had to crouch on the ground to block her from a full body tackle of a strawberry plant covered in unripe mint-green little fruit. Then a month later the blueberries started to crop.

Blueberry in red autumn colours
Blueberry in autumn
They disappoint me a little – they are the pale American style blueberries, not the small, very slightly sharp but intense bilberries I pick in Finland. But TTT had no such qualms. The months had made a difference to her emotional development, and by the time the blueberries had ripened she had learnt about sharing. She would try desperately to save some blueberries for Daddy, her favourite person in the world. But she loved the blueberries so much or was so proud of having saved some for Daddy she was insistent that she needed to carry them. And then mostly the temptation was too strong or memory was too weak and the one blueberry saved for Daddy would end up in her mouf.

By the time the blueberries were well under way, the peaches were growing round and soft and fuzzy, blushing under the netting we had thrown over them to keep away the birds. The first one arrived after TTT was in bed and I confess, deprived of the garden’s fruit so far this year, I ate it, then she claimed the next ‘Sasha pitch’ the next day. The third one fell before I got to it, so Gentle Giant and I shared what the ants had not already received.  Then came the plums. Tragically, the beautifully laden lilac and gold flushed plums had been infested with moths, so only the latest ripening fruit were free of the unwelcome grubs. I muttered dark words of disappointment and swore to pheromone traps next year. TTT had mixed feelings. The first one she tried she announced was ‘not nice’ with a disappointed expression on her little face, but the second one received a ‘nice, this’ and disappeared quickly enough. We had pacified her with our first carrot after the plum disappointment. She took great pride in washing it, and then we called Mummu, who had given us the seeds. I could watch my daughter on the phone as we Facetimed, the feathery green fronds sticking out of the side of her mouth like Bugs Bunny. And by the time the tomatoes were ripening, TTT understood ‘red’ means ‘ready’ well enough, and she even understood that for the blueberries, reddish means not ready, that they must be blue. She knew that there were ‘no more dawbewys’ but there would be more ‘another time’. Fruit come in different colours and at different times, a mystery for her to absorb.


It is September now so the growth and ripening has slowed. We have a few autumn raspberries left to ripen but you can almost hear the pace of life in the gardening quietening down as the photosynthesising leaves wilt and brown and the stems weaken, tucking their energy back into their roots.

I will probably pick the remaining green tomatoes to make chutney soon, which will confuse and annoy her if she sees it, because she has learnt that you do not pick green tomatoes, and she does not like her newly acquired rules of life to be disrupted. Sanna does not use Mummy’s trowel because it is sharp, but equally, Mummy should not wear Daddy’s gardening clogs, even if her own ones are lost, because Daddy’s clogs are Daddy’s. She turns to me with an inquiring look before she picks anything in the garden because she knows there are rules and the main rule is waiting. She has tugged up feathery fronds in the hope of carrots, but the root is still tiny and white, not yet a carrot. Green or reddish blueberries are ‘not nice’.  She takes out her trowel and rakes at random pieces of ground sometimes, because this is part of the behaviour that belongs to being in the garden.

We will plant apples, blackberries and Arctic Brambles in November before we retreat to the house for mid-winter.  More for someone to discover..

Even Finland would be welcome

A friend sent me these words from her colleague, who is seeking to liven up their office kitchen. Poor Finland:

‘It would be fantastic if I could put up some prints of the ‘local neighbourhoods’ of all our overseas colleagues, pictures of USA, France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Asia, even Finland would be most welcome.’

I don’t mind that people think of ‘even Finland.’ My Finland is both a place of love, where family live, and a place of healing, where the midnight sun gives me moments of colour therapy that stretch into hours, watching the forest go from green, to golden, to copper. It’s capital city gets written up in the Financial Times as a design destination. It has its Disney at Santaland in Rovaniemi, and Moominland near Turku. There is a week in summer when I always get a craving for peas. When my husband and I went to Turku last summer and saw the market stalls laden with peas, in their perfect moment, nearly as sweet as their pallet-mates the strawberries, he got what I was questing for with the weird pea craving. He said there must be a primal part of me that physically senses from afar when its peak pea season, even when we’re in our urban a-seasonal globalised life in London. That lunchtime in Turku we sat on the grass by the twinkling river and ate them with hot smoked salmon from the foodhall then fell asleep in the sun. I’m okay with ‘even Finland’. It’s a country for the pleasures of home, and the imagination.

My friend reminded me of the strapline on the Lonely Planet, the year she joined me for a summer holiday there – it was something like ‘why not give Finland a chance?’

I reminded her that I have a picture of her twirling around in a towel at dusk under Lappish pine trees after a sauna at my aunt’s log cabin, but I don’t think her office kitchen is ready for that.

However, here’s a snap I happened to have on my phone from last summer in Sotkamo. I don’t think it’s so dusty, myself.


Newsflash!  26th July 2012:  My uncle’s family’s midsummer at the place snapped above appeared in the New York Times!