Monday, January 07, 2008

A Remarkable Old Man

A number of past days have been filled with anxiety and fear as the news from home has been very discouraging. My father, Veikko Talvi, had taken a turn for the worse, with a nasty infection, partial loss of consciousness and trips in and out of the hospital. Everyone was prepared to hear the news of my dad's almost 97 years finally catching up with him. Yet today a received an email from my brother telling that the old tough man had again fooled death, as he did in the war against the Soviet Union some sixty-five years ago. Second in command with his regiment, one morning he was receiving new men and giving them their assignments when a soldier was killed by a Russian sniper's bullet less than five feet from him. It is possible the sniper had aimed at my dad's head, the officer's, but wasn't a real sharpshooter and ended up killing the soldier reporting for duty right in front of him. When growing up I always assumed my mother would outlive my father by at least fifteen or twenty years, as he was six years her senior. Well, he outlived two wives (the first died at childbirth during Russian bombings) and my mom will have been gone for a decade later this year and my stubborn old man keeps on going. Even his prostate cancer for four decades hasn't destroyed him as it did his father, my grandfather. No operation or even radiation treatment, just a small amount of hormones has kept the disease at bay. Today he had been perky, eating his meals with others and moving around the assisted living complex with his wheelchair.

My paternal grandparents had only two children, a rarity for that time. My father, born six years before Finland was freed from the shackles of Russia, was obviously their pride and joy, something his younger sister, by eight years, never came to terms with. He had the privilege to go to the university right after high school, something that must have stretched my grandparents' financial resources. My aunt had to obtain a profession out of necessity early on, working as a nurse and social worker, and was only able to receive her academic degree at an older age. As a student my father was happy, taking part in all kinds of activities, from the University of Helsinki orchestra and standing as one of the honorary guards at the 70th birthday concert of Jean Sibelius, to collecting information from old farmers and their help. He wrote down everything possible these people remembered, photographing them and even recording their songs. No wonder he soon became deeply involved in Finland's history, especially of local areas that were well-known and dear to him. After a short period of working as a reporter for a newspaper, he began publishing his research, now a mighty long list of works. For a few years he was the head of a community college but then started a decades-long career as the head of information, publishing and public relations for what was then Finland's largest paper company, one of the biggest in the world. The company gave us a huge old 1870s wooden house to live in, next to a large hydroelectric power plant and across the river from an impressive but scary chlorine producing factory. The latter separated chlorine from salt using massive amounts of electricity, and its incredibly bright lights kept our house lit during every night, unless we closed the blinds and curtains carefully. Once a month a gas emergency siren was tested a 4 P.M., after the fire alarm, and the sound of that would have awakened the deaf and even the dead. A few years later we moved to an equally large house, this time on top of a hill and a bit farther from the paper mill.

I was three when it became possible again to purchase a car and my parents decided to buy the only available model for private people, a Russian copy of a pre-war Opel, called a Moskvich. My mother had a truck driver's license since she was young but my dad had never driven. He would secretly take the car for a slow spin, with me sitting next to him, figuring that the police would never bother stopping us. I soon discovered that by putting the car in gear and pulling the starter engine switch I could "drive" the car and before my fourth birthday my sister and I packed the car with seven or eight kids and drove around the local loop which all the company's trucks used. I had to stand on the seat to see out and steer and someone else, possibly my sister, operated the starter. After the quarter mile trip I neatly parked the car and we swore never to tell my parents. My sister would no doubt have, but kept quiet as she was as guilty as I. My father never became a very good driver and from early on I had to help him when he couldn't get up a slippery hill when visiting my grandpa. He could never understand how I was able to make the car move when he was stuck.

At an early age my dad had learned to play the mandolin quite well and was entertaining people during family gatherings and such. From that instrument it was just a small step to the violin and he became quite a musician, conducting and performing. When I came along I decided to beat him in his own game and one time when my parents were taking a walk, I took out my father's violin and quickly with the help of my perfect pitch taught myself to play, even though the full-size instrument felt a bit large for a five-year-old. I can still hear his nervous laughter after they returned and I played a melody for them, in higher positions because it was easier to do. He never pushed me into practicing like so many stage parents do, but instead loved hearing me play and we would make music together every night, probably playing through most of the literature written for two violins. We performed as a duo frequently and already at the age of five I became by far the youngest member of my father's orchestra, sitting in the back of the second violins, my feet dangling many inches from the ground. I wanted to imitate my dad to the point that from day one I always wore a long tie to school (the only kid in the 1000 student body to do so) and carried a leather briefcase, instead of a backpack like others.

Most people lose their hearing as their other senses such as sight worsen with age. Not so with my Veikko (as a child I always called him by his first name for some reason). Since the war, never being exposed to loud noises helped his hearing remain incredible. An eager concertgoer from early on, he saw and heard all the visiting artists in Helsinki, from famed soloists to conductors. He was always very picky, couldn't stand playing or singing that wasn't perfectly in tune and certainly knew what he liked and what he didn't. He came here to visit my family here every year, more frequently after my mother no longer could travel. I would get him tickets to concerts, whether in Los Angeles or in Seattle. He'd often shake his head and remark "the conductor likes himself too much" or "he cares more about his ego than music". There wasn't much I could say to that and usually remained quiet. A couple times I brought him to see an opera production but that clearly wasn't his cup of tea. A ballet production was much more acceptable and he particularly enjoyed the local "Nutcracker" with sets by Maurice Sendak.

It is time to take a week or more off to visit Finland and my father this spring. Of course I can't be sure that he recognizes who I am, as he lives in a world long gone, but nevertheless he is always happy to see me. I haven't been back since last March but at least three of my daughters went there on separate occasions over the summer and early fall. They all spent time with him. A couple days ago I thought I would be writing an obituary but instead, here I am retelling happy memories. Of course, at ninety-six one lives on "borrowed time" and nobody can tell what the next day will bring, so I have to be prepared for the inevitable sad news. But until that, here is "I love you, dad, and thank you for everything".

Photo of Veikko Talvi
Valta-Kuva/Eila Juuma, Kouvola