Friday, June 24, 2005

Mother remembered

Yesterday, June 23rd, marked my mom’s birthday, two days after my dad’s. She was in my thoughts much of the day. She would have been 88 but she passed away on my 50th birthday, from advanced Alzheimer’s. Since she was six years younger than my dad, I always assumed she would outlive him by many years. Life is full of the unexpected.

Visiting back home I found an old photo album which had pictures of her, taken soon after she met my father in 1943. She looked so incredibly happy, radiant and beautiful in them, as only a woman in her mid-twenties and in love can be. In the land of blondes this dark-haired beauty with olive skin color certainly stood apart from the rest. My dad had been sent to a hospital from the war front, and my mom was a volunteer there. His heart troubles soon must have become of a different type. He had lost his first wife three years before, a couple days after my half-brother was born. The Winter War was happening and as he was on the front, he couldn’t even be there to witness the miracle of life and death at the same time. He never wanted to talk about this time, but I assumed she had died from an infection, although some source mentions that the hospital was bombed by the Soviets. – The same album had pictures from the war, such as my dad riding a horse or standing by a captured Soviet tank with a fellow officer.

My mother had perhaps the quickest mind of anyone I’ve known. She could do mental math faster than today’s calculators and beating her in a card game was quite improbable, as she easily remembered where all the cards had gone. She also wrote beautifully with her unique strong handwriting: I treasure all the deep, long letters she wrote to me over the years. If it had been up to her, I would have followed in her footsteps in business, like everyone from her side, as she saw the same kind of intellect and talent in me. Had that been the case, I would have battled a very different group of questionable characters, crooks and morons in my life. She did like and appreciate music but didn’t think it was a safe and healthy way of making a livelihood. As usual, she was right. My mom was stubborn and once she had made up her mind, nothing could change it. Two months before she was to graduate from high school, her German teacher insulted her pride with some stupid remark, and she quit school. She hated phony people who pretended to be better than others: she possessed the uncanny ability to see through anyone in just a few moments. She was very kind to ordinary working class in her business and was probably the only person willing to lend money to Gypsies, which my home town had a number of. They would always leave some collateral behind, perhaps a wedding band, but never did they fail to pay her back. She had some Roma blood in herself from her mother’s side, in addition to the probably Middle Eastern heritage of her father. His family had come to Finland via Skåne, in Southern Sweden.

This incredible woman suffered horribly from endless illnesses since I was about three years old, and had close encounters with death many times. It began with encephalitis from a mosquito bite, trigeminal neuralgia from a botched operation (she used to get alcohol nerve blocks which would make half of her head swell to resemble a soccer ball) and toxic hyperthyroidism; all this before I started school. Later her heart stopped at least once on the operating table, and she also became severely depressed. Only trips to places where sun was abundant would lift her spirits: Mediterranean countries and North Africa. She would return looking like a roasted coffee bean.

Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease: it slowly robbed my mom from being able to move around (she had been an incredibly fast walker) and then her bright mind. Even though she wasn’t able to speak any longer, she would grab my hand, squeeze it ever so tightly and look me in the eyes. Only the last time I visited, her eyes could no longer focus properly. My dad would go to the hospital twice a day and insist on feeding her, unless he had traveled here, to have a little break from all that with us. It was in his arms when she choked on mashed banana he was spoon-feeding her: a fitting end to 55 years of marriage.