Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sisu: or as Patty asked, "What's a Malkamaki"

The Malkamaki Family cicra 1941

This is going to be one of the most personal blogs, because for one there’s my last name in the title of the post.  Also, as many people know my Finnish heritage is one of the strongest influences, interest, and research topics in my life.  Being a Finn, I’m part of a select community; the homeland only has a population of around five million.  New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles all almost have populations larger than the population of the country.  So in America, there are not many of us, and I’ve discovered over the years the Finnish-American community recognizes this bond almost immediately.  We have the same pride as Sicilians, remember they’re not Italians, the islanders and the folks from the mainland both believe this from my experiences.  Finns have that same pride, we talk about why our family came to America, the jobs they found, the locations they lived, and the social makeup that all Finns share, stubbornness, strong-mindedness, political loyalties, and for the worst part, grudges.  But there is another bond we have and that is Sisu.

I'll tell you what Sisu is in a moment, but first why is the subtitle, “Or as Patty asked, ‘What’s a Malkamaki?’”  That’s an interesting story.  I started my current job in November 2001 and for me and my family members we suffer from a similar fate, our last name.  Most when you meet them for the first time, cannot pronounce the name.  This goes to teachers in elementary school, telemarketers, being interviewed for a job, trying to place a reservation, or dealing with people over the phone.  Another problem is most people assume we’re Hawaiian.  There is nothing wrong with being Hawaiian, I’d be proud if I was, but most white people that have Anglo sounding names, don’t have to deal with this.  Because so few know where Finland is, or have ever met a Finn, when you meet people for the first time, I’ve found my siblings, cousins, and other Finns have to start introductions with a history of the country and what a Finn is.  Normally people then try to rationalize why they think your Hawaiian, almost as if you’re wrong and they are right.  (As a side note, my mom always told me that she thought we were black and that we always felt we had more in common with blacks.  I found out today that dark haired, and Finns with a darker complexion were called blacks in Finland, so in a sense yes, I’m Black and proud of it and I’ve always been, I’m not an African-American, I’m Black, thank you to the genealogist for that one.)  So long paragraph short, my first day of work, someone asked, “What’s a Malkamaki,” not realizing that’s my last name and it’s been an inside joke for over ten years.

On to Sisu.  The definition that I was taught by family is an inner strength that only Finns have.  When you look the word up in travel dictionaries, you see the term described as guts.  Wikipedia, which you may or may not agree with using, but hey it’s the fastest place for basic information defines sisu as, “Sisu is a Finnish term that could be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. The equivalent in English is "to have guts", and indeed, the word derives from sisus, which means something inner or interior. However, sisu has a long-term element in it; it is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain the same.”[1]  I agree with this entry, it is not simply to have guts, there is a metaphysical, spiritual meaning to the word.  The final stories I would like to share are two of the most spiritual moments I’ve had in the last few years, both took place at my grandfather’s and both dealt with what I viewed as the meaning of Sisu.

Story the First Grandpa Jaakko Vittori Malkamaki

This was back in the Winter of 2003-2004, I love the snow.  When it snows, I don’t get disappointed, I love the beauty of the white stuff, I feel my blood boil, a yearning for playing in the snow, being one with the snow, living in an area surrounded by snow and utilizing it as a way to guide life comes out when I see inches upon inches of the beautiful, sparkling, diamond-esque white stuff covering the earth.  With that I love to go sledding.

The speed of the wind, the ability to hit ramps, sail through the air as a bird, and land on the white, protective blanket of snow and avoid injury, is a rush like no other.  I totally dig how the Finns dominate the Ski Jump in the Winter Olympics, still one of my favorite events.  The term “Flying Finn,” originated with Hannes Kolehmainen, later Pavo Nurmi and the other great runners, but ski jumping and watching Matti Nykanen, the then newly christened “Flying Finn” during the 1988 Alberta Olympics took my heart.

Sledding is the best way I can imagine being able to perform this feat.  My nephew loves sledding and I decided that I’d visit with my brother and sister-in-law at their home (our Great-Grandfather’s) and go sledding with my nephew on the hill across the street from my Grandfather’s where most of the Malkamaki’s learned to sled.  Eventually not just my nephew, but my nieces found there way from my sisters a half mile away and we had the time of our lives, at least I did.  The sled and my orkalike body wouldn’t allow two people so we devised the plan that I’d lay on my stomach and the they’d sit on my back as we’d glide down the hill to enjoy the experience together, which we did.

Towards the end of the sledding adventure, as our faces were pink, our clothes were wet, we decided to conquer the jump.  Every year teenagers from the neighborhood build a ramp at the bottom of the hill and the goal for the younger children is to build enough courage, or stock pile your Sisu, for the children of Finns, to finally be able to hit the jump.

My nephew and I missed the hill to the left, right, sometimes we’d spin out if you were going to hit it dead center.  Our exhaustion and anger were slowly starting to build when I finally took a breather and told Tyler, “We’ll give it one more shot but I think we need to ask Great-Grandpa or your Great-Great Grandpa for help.”

Now, I’ll let you know that winter, I was having a difficult time.  I had just broken up with the woman I was going to marry, my bestfriend and I were not speaking, and I was in the middle of my parents divorce.  I needed help, just as I knew that jumping that speed bump would mean so much to my nephew. 

As we prepared ourselves, I told him to gather his SISU and as we start to descend the hill I told him we had to shout out in our best Finn accents, “HELP US GRANDPA JAAKKO VITTORI!”

With our plan in place, we strapped on our gear and made our final push, and as we screamed at the top of our lungs, and gave our Rebel Yell, I could tell we were going to hit the ramp with more, speed, more accuracy than I thought we’d be able to achieve. 

To this day my nephew and I both agree we went at least six feet into the air and were carried softly to the ground.  As we sat yards away from the ramp, sled, Uncle Chad, and nephew in different locals, we looked at each other and were simply amazed, and thankful, because we knew Grandpa Jacob helped us to our goal.

Story the Second Grandpa Lauri Jacob Malkamaki

My grandfather passed away this summer.  He had lived an amazing eighty nine years.  He was the first Malkamaki born in America, served in the United States Marine Corp during World War II, and worked between the Diamond and Lake West Hospital through the 1980s.  He was an amateur historian in family history, genealogy, linguistics, and onomastics. 

While in college as my grandfathers speech was starting to deteriorate, there was nothing I loved more than being able to spend time sitting with him and hearing the history of the family, his life, and the things he loved.  Once, he handed me a journal that he had written in, my cousin Beth gave my grandfather the journal.  I have transcribed the journal and now have lost where I saved those files.  I gave the book back to Grandpa, but I think the files are either on my PC or my brothers, or on a floppy disk located somewhere between the two.

One of the last stories my grandfather told in this book was about the local dump, near the sled hill there is a dip that runs along a creek, that is a sublet of the Grand River in Painesville Township.  Our cousins Armi and John had recently, at the time the story took place, moved to America, and had thrown out a coach.  My grandfather was disappointed because he felt as immigrants, they viewed America as the place where the streets are paved with gold and they had already as recent arrivals adopted American practices of consumption and disposal.  This upset my grandfather, but he told of how proud he was of my dad and how he tried to save these items, family items, from being discarded.  Our dining room table since I was a child was this beautiful round oak table.  It wasn’t until I was older that I learned it was almost a hundered years old and had belonged to my Great-Grandfather and Grandmother.  My dad had restored the table and the place where me and my sibilings had ate while young was at the same table where my dad and uncle probably had their first cup of coffee from Grandpa and Grandma Malkamaki.

My Grandfather was so proud of my father how he didn’t let something be thrown away.  Now fast forward to the fall of 2008.   My grandfather had passed, we were cleaning out his home.  I saved as many paper and books that I could get my hands on so that history would not be lost.  The furniture however I didn’t save, I was merely the grunt working for my dad, Uncle Ken, and Uncle Duke.  Uncle Ken brought this end table out that my gut told me I should ask for but I didn’t know how I’d get the item to my apartment since I didn’t have a car and my dad didn’t have a truck.  Uncle Ken and my father had asked me to sledge apart the items to fit them into the dumpster because we were running out of room.

I knew Grandpa would be disappointed if he would have seen what we were doing.  When I sledged apart the organ that we used to play on as children I almost cried.  When this end table came out, no one from the older generation wanted it, and it became my job to smash it apart.  As I raised the hammer about my head ala Thor, the first hit didn’t damage this wooden item.  The gods were sending a signal I was not listening.

I gathered my energy and felt that I couldn’t let my father or Uncle down that I couldn’t complete the task before me and I decided that I would break this table even though I wanted the table and thought it would have looked great in my apartment, but alas, I was given a job and I would have to complete this task.

With the second strike, the world came together, why didn’t I have my baseball cap on to protect me from dirt and grim, that hat that I was taught to wear as a child when doing work, why did the swing I administered feel that a swing of a bat, a Rocky Cavalito shot to center, why wasn’t I listening to what my grandfather taught me about preservation, what I do for a living, what I’m trained for?

When metal touched wood, a piece of the table flew into the air, not a big piece, not a piece large enough to kill me, but a piece large enough to smack me in the forehead, and forever leave the sweetest Harry Potter scar on my forehead.  This was my second presence of Sisu, the Force, I felt like Luke Skywalker at the end of Jedi looking over at that moment and seeing my Grandfather, Uncle Arn, and Great-Grandpa sitting along the fence, Kulia in hand, smiling, saying yep you should have listened.

Sisu, and Kittos for spending time reading.

[1] Wikipedia February 8, 2009

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