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My Mother’s ‘Sisu’

“Sisu” could well be the favorite word of the Finnish people. The term is loosely defined as “the Finnish art of courage.” It refers to a mix of resilience and perseverance that leads to a life of greater purpose and happiness, and Aune Ylitalo, a second-generation Finn, reflected Sisu in all its strength and beauty. This wonderful woman was my mother.

Mom blessed our world with her arrival on January 20, 1914, a frosty winter morning in the tiny Minnesota village of Floodwood. Aune was nicknamed “Cutie.” “I guess I was nice looking at the time,” she told me. But my mom was always beautiful, inside and out, her entire life.

Aune was welcomed by three siblings and her parents, William and Fina (Makitalo) Ylitalo, who emigrated to the United States around the turn of the century. William came first, finding a place to settle before calling for his young bride, who made the treacherous transatlantic journey by steamer … bringing her Sisu with her! They settled on a small farm and worked hard to raise their family. The simple farmhouse had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Kerosene and Aladdin lamps provided lighting, and two wood stoves warmed the house during the long harsh Minnesota winters. A compartment in the “icebox” held huge blocks of ice that my grandpa took from the river, blocks that were kept frozen in sawdust until they were placed inside.

The “outhouse” was dark and cold, but the saving grace was the good old-fashioned Finnish sauna! After enjoying the intense heat and steam that arose from the hot rocks in the corner, mom and her siblings would run out into the snow, rolling around to “cool off.” The basement also housed a washing machine run by a small gas engine and a “storehouse” for canned goods from the vegetable garden and the jams and jellies made from fruit, fresh-picked during the summer months.

Mom was her mother’s helper, and they did everything together. “The house had to be clean at all times,” mom remembered. They used milk to shine the kitchen floor, and on Saturdays, they freshened all the sheets on the clothesline. Grandma taught mom to cook and how to can vegetables and fruits. They often drove 50 miles just to pick blueberries. Mom loved baking cakes and pies and was sometimes called upon to bake for a family whenever their sons came home from college.

But mom’s favorite task was working with her dad and brothers on the farm. She drove horses and the tractor. She helped in the hayfields and in the barn and admitted, “I often wished I was a boy!” Even after suffering a broken leg while playing broom hockey on the frozen river near their home, she didn’t slow down “because there was always work to do.”

Aune Ylitalo. (Courtesy of Karen Brazas)

But life wasn’t all work and no play. A Sunday afternoon would find Aune and her friends making their own ice cream or going to town for a “real cone” for 5 cents … more expensive than the candy that cost only a penny. In the summer, picnics and swimming in the river were favorite pastimes. “My brothers taught me to swim by throwing me off a boat!” mom said. “I had to either swim or wish I had.”

Holidays at the Ylitalo home were simple. The women spent hours cooking and baking while the men chopped down a tree that would be decorated with simple handmade ornaments. Mom sewed and knitted scarves and mittens as gifts for her family. A sleigh ride was the highlight of the season.

Aune enjoyed school, and since the farm was 4 miles from town, transport was a horse-drawn “school bus” carrying 14 children. “Occasionally all 14 of us had to jump off the carriage so the bus could get ‘unstuck’ from a deep mud hole,” mom said with a smile. During those years, her Finnish Sisu played a big part. Her dreams of attending college and becoming a home economics teacher were foiled when her mother suffered several strokes that required Mom to stay home and manage the household. But she never regretted her decision. “I stayed where I was needed. I would never have had the heart to leave.”

But leaving familiar surroundings would become a theme in her life. Only months after she and her new husband set up their first home, Dad was drafted into the Army, and they left their families behind to move to Florida for his training. Months later when Dad was deployed to India, Mom moved back to the farm, 8 months pregnant with their first child. Dad was gone for almost two years. During their 68 years of marriage, because of Dad’s career, they relocated many times. Each departure was very difficult for Mother, not only because she left behind so many friends, but because she understood the toll each move took on us kids. Once again, her courage and resilience showed through her heartache. Years later, she confessed to me that during each move, she shed her tears in private so none of us would see.

Because above all else, my mother was completely devoted to her family. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for us … preparing home-cooked meals, shopping for school clothes and supplies, helping with homework, warmly welcoming our friends, never missing a school concert or ballgame, cheering us on and encouraging us every step of the way, especially when we were sad, worried, or distressed. “Don’t worry, honey,” she’d say to me. “You’re going to be just fine.” Her balm for an aching heart.

Years passed. Dad retired and they resettled in Arizona. Life became more and more simple as they aged and moved from house to condo and finally to assisted living. Downsizing with each move, mom’s belongings became simple … a few matching outfits, simple holiday decorations, a collection of her favorite romance novels, her treasured family photo albums and framed pictures, a box of age-old greeting cards received through the years, and her trademark White Shoulders perfume.

Throughout her life, her amazing warmth and comfort extended to everyone who knew her, and she had a way of making us children feel courageous, strong, and important. She always assured us that “everything will be all right. Everything will work out.” And whether we were playing cards, watching TV, chatting on the porch swing, curled up reading our books, baking cinnamon bread together, or enjoying our morning coffee, even doing nothing in her company was everything.

Mom passed away quietly at the age of 98. She died in the early morning hours of our 9/11 wedding anniversary. Each year we celebrate our marriage and her life. To say I miss her isn’t enough. To say her death left a hole in my heart isn’t accurate either. Because she left it filled with her kindness, her gentleness, her love, and yes … her Sisu! Because on the days when I wonder how I can go on without her, I feel her loving arms around me and I hear her soothing voice … “Oh honey, don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine.”

Karen Brazas is a retired high school English teacher and creative writing instructor who taught in California, China, and Lithuania. She worked and studied in 35 countries with the Semester at Sea program. Karen is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and now lives in Nevada City, California, and Channel Islands, California.