I didn’t really know what to expect with Finland. I’d be staying with family – who I’d never met and didn’t speak English. We are related on my great great grandmother’s side but a few days before I was to arrive in Finland, I got an email saying she and her husband had both come down with the flu and didn’t want me to stay with them for fear of me getting it (ironically I already had it on this trip – but I definitely didn’t want to get it again).
Apparently they called around trying to find someone to take me in. A relative on my great great grandfather’s side ended up saying yes. (He and the other family didn’t know each other before I came.) This was great because he and his family spoke fluent English and this opened up doors to meet people on both sides of the family whereas before we only knew people from one side.
The day came and I was picked up at the airport and we headed to their house where I was able to meet their daughter and her family (she would be my fourth cousin) who came over for dinner. That first afternoon and evening, I spent a lot of time going over the family tree that the Finish family had put together and trying to add what I knew of the American side of it.
I also learned, among other things, that my family’s native tongue is Swedish – not Finnish. Currently about 6% of the Finnish population’s native tongue is Swedish.
The following day, I was set to see the church my ancestors attended, my great great grandmother’s house and my great great grandfather’s house followed by a lunch with any relatives who could make it.
When I walked inside the church, I was a little surprised when all the relatives were there (about 20 in all). I was not mentally prepared to meet them at that point. It was also a little overwhelming when they started snapping photos of me (of course I returned the favor). I tried to pretend not to notice but when most of them used flashes…I know they had to know I knew.
I signed the guestbook of the church – which is crazy for me to think about because the churches kept up with family records – as in if you want to know about lineage, you trace it through the churches. And now my name is also part of the same church that my great great grandfather’s name was in so many years ago.
Next I was taken to the church’s cemetery where they showed me my great x3 grandmother’s grave. There I lit a candle and found out later it was his first wife’s grave (who died before he remarried of course) and not my great great grandmother’s mother’s grave.
After visiting the houses, I went to meet the relatives for lunch. I was again surprised – this time at how much English they knew. Pretty much all of them could at the very least hold a basic conversation and I knew enough Swedish to say…Thankyou. (Language or lack there of is always so humbling when traveling)
Everyone brought photos – and all I had were a few on my phone. I suddenly realized how little I knew and how little I had prepared to make the most of this opportunity. But here I was so I did what I could with what I had where I was.
I floated around tables, trying to learn about everyone and how everyone was connected. With the family tree in front of me I could tell you, but without it I’d have to summarize by saying we are family.
Maybe it has to do with my grandmother’s recent death and me missing her and thinking a lot about the memories I have of her, but I could have sworn I saw the same looks she gave, the same eye movements (it sounds weird but it’s true) and even some of the same facial features – especially in some of the older ladies. Like I said, it could have been wishful thinking but I could see her there in the traits and characteristics that seem to have stayed in the family – even if it was just my imagination.
Generations, culture and language may have separated us all these years and led us down very different paths, but even in Finland, family is still family. And I’m so grateful I was able to meet a little more of my family and learn a little more about my Swedish speaking Finnish roots.