SANDY GRISHAM: An international family in a far corner of the world, celebrating Midsummer

By Sandy Grisham

Moving on, we later left Tarja’s home in Savolinna sadly. One of the side effects of this trip is to know there are folks you care for that you may never see again. Tarja’s parents were just such people. So as we left for Jyvaskyla, it was a bittersweet journey.
On the other hand, we were driving toward our other Finnish daughter, Taru-Maija Heilala. She had been one of the participants in the University of Mississippi study group of 1982, and unlike the others, she and her family had returned to our home in Oxford for a visit in the late 1990s.
Taru-Maija is unique. She is, perhaps, the most international person I know. She married a Bulgarian Tartar (Nadi) in the mid-1980s, and he immigrated to Finland. Suffice it to say, it was a big change for him. (His first Christmas here, Nadi said he missed the belly dancers.) Yet these 25 years later, they are still together, they have two beautiful and intelligent children, and they have beat the marital odds. Cultural differences such as they had often are the demise of a marriage.
But that is not all that makes Taru-Maija different. Her parents encouraged their children to travel abroad, sending each one of them for a short time to London, England. Father was a pharmacist, Mother was a doctor. Their children have since embraced the challenge of new places and new people, and have journeyed to the far ends of the earth. One son accompanied his mother on a volunteer medical trip to China. Her sister married a man from Surinam, and they toured the planet for two years, volunteering and working here and there. They later lived in Holland for a while before coming back to Finland to raise their children. Another brother is working in Norway, and is married to a Ukrainian woman. The children of these siblings are beautiful and international in looks. They have all been constantly exposed to and learned from the entire world.
But I have saved the most radical traveling brother for last. He will soar into space in 2012 on Virgin Galactic as one of only two Finns to do so. Vesa-Pekka Heilala is readying himself in a variety of ways for the three- to four-hour suborbital “tourist” journey to view the planet. As someone brighter than me said, “… one must rise above the earth to truly understand it.” And I guess he sees things that way.
For a short time, we had our girls together again, only this time with their children. It was for the kids, perhaps, a trip “back to the future” and at the same time for us it was “déjà vu all over again” as Yogi Berra used to say. But soon, Tarja and Maruska left to return to Savolinna, and we began our lives with Taru-Maija and her family.

Holiday relaxation
The next day was the beginning of Midsummer Eve – the big celebration in Finland. It is a paid holiday, always on the Monday or Friday nearest to the longest day of the year, and at noon, all the stores close and workers have the three-day weekend. We drove up north to Taru-Maija’s family summer cottage where we had been in 1987.
As we pulled in to the area, nothing had changed in 24 years. The cottage and sleeping cabins were the same, and of course, the sauna sat on the edge of the lake as it had for half a century or more. The rocks continued to grow their moss, the birch trees bore their branches for sauna tradition, and the lake was cold, so when you finished your bathing, you might cool off quickly among the small fish and beach-bound reeds. Finland is the most heavily forested nation in the world, according to someone who counts those things, and has thousands of lakes. Nadi makes note of the gazillion mosquitoes in those lake areas.
It was quiet and timeless – and so conducive to relaxing. And since the sun doesn’t really set, all meals are served when you feel like it, not according to the clock. So, when we felt like it, we had bread fish – which is a bunch of fish piled up inside a loaf of rye bread and then baked. It is a tradition, but I probably won’t ask for the recipe. (Our favorite summer cottage/sauna meal is “lenkki-makkara” and a beer.) And, when we felt like it, we went to sauna. When in Finland, do like the Finns.
The celebration we attended was in Iislami at a campground. Last time it was so cold a toddler was in his snowsuit at midnight. This time it was quite pleasant. We danced, ate local foods, toured the electric saw sculpture hall, and waited for the lighting of the bonfire to scare away the evil spirits. Around 11 or 11:30, someone lit four or five areas, and the crowd gathered. We all watched as the flames licked the still blue skies. At the end, as the embers died, the Surinam brother-in-law took us by boat to the summer cottage. The sun was setting, but it would rise again in a few minutes. Family bonfires dotted the edges of the lake, and inland seagulls flew around the waters.
It was a peaceful place, and it said to us, “Life is good.”
Next week, we are on to Berlin, but the memories of this virgin forest and its vacation cottages will linger as long as it takes for the Finnish sun to be dark in summer.

Sandy Grisham and her husband, Vaughn, live in Oxford. She is filing a weekly report from their around-the-world trip. The Grishams are retired educators. Her email address is sandygrisham@

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