Growing up Finnish, mainly in Finland, guaranteed a few things.
1) Someone, at some point of my fragile youth (I'm thinking the big mean high school sports coach, and yes, I too was fragile at one point in my life. Was too!) made sure I learned how to ski. Cross country. Fast. Even if I was wailing like a lunatic while frog-legging it up a steep hill with my increasingly slippery skis on.
But Finns must all know how to ski. Yes they do. And I still hate skiing like the plague. Only worse.
2) I didn't have to learn how to hug, compliment, or express any kind of affection through any other means than slightly raising my left eyebrow and grunting softly. Or by emptying the dishwasher. Or vacuuming my own room without being yelled at. Or making a full pot of coffee instead of just two cups for myself. Or not telling my best friend she looked like crap even if she totally did (Pigtails never look good. No they don't).
I learned to love the Finnish way. Except for skiing. That I learned to hate. Like hundreds of thousands of other Finns before and after me.
Why am I talking about skiing and affection? Together? WHY? Why would I combine possibly the worst memories I have of Finland and being Finnish with love?
Ah well. I'm not completely there. Or here. Yet. The lights are on, but the lady's still under the covers.
This past week saw me return to Finland at a time I normally avoid. I was supposed to be landing in the warmth of Cairo, but instead, at the airport, which incidentally instead of Cairo was in the freezing north also known as Helsinki, around midnight, I was met with -17 degrees celsius and my tired brother. My grandma suddenly passed away and my family needed me. Which was a first, because we Finns don't tend to need other people, or at least we won't say so.
As it turns out, they really did need me. They needed the one person in the family who has learned to hold hands with anyone else than their significant other (mine taught me that!), to hug, to console with words that are in no way masqueraded as grunts, to go beyond household chores as far as displays of affection go, and to laugh through tears and not be terribly embarrassed by it.
But that was only to get the ball rolling.
For the first time in my life I hugged my Grandpa. And he hugged me back. I held his hand. I consoled him. I talked with him about Grandma, about Africa, about traveling, about getting a good fire going, about my childhood, and about the life from now on.
And then I talked with my mother. I held her hand. I hugged her. I consoled her. And she hugged me back.
And we talked.
Last week, I learned the true depth of the love, I had sometimes doubted even really existed, between my Grandpa and my Grandma. I learned about the way my Grandpa would, whenever my Grandma wasn't there, literally count the hours to her return. I learned about his desperation at her open casket. I learned about the completely missing 'I' in everything he's ever done. I learned about how Finns, and by that I mean FINNS because that's what my war-veteran Grandpa is to the core, can love too, really love to a point where it takes your breath away.
I learned that perhaps I'm not so special after all, with my fancy hand-holding, foreign hugging, and the continuous 'I love you's. I learned that underneath that uncomfortable and repressed seeming eyebrow wiggling and vacuuming instead of talking, there are some serious and deep emotions coming out of Finland too.
Some serious love.
With all that enforced skiing, who would have guessed?
A child of a global world, originally from the land of Santa and cell phones, married to a bona fide viking, and attempting to raise a loud little life who has Down syndrome, all the while getting used to the US Pacific Northwest after many years in Latin America and Africa. Against all odds the kid's first words turned out to be 'mom' and 'book' instead of 'fuck' and 'no'. That may well turn out to have been my finest parenting moment ever.