The theory that you are related to everybody by six or less social connections was proved for me in the summer of ’84. Admittedly, that’s not unusual among Finns. A notoriously inbred peoples, one in five carry a gene defect that enters you into a lottery to win one or more of 36 heritage diseases.
I didn’t know that in June of 1984.
All I noticed was an uncanny homogeneity among the consanguinous circles of people we would meet. Some kind of involuntary eugenics at work, not just of appearance, but mannerism too.
Whereas I may have dodged dwarfism and gonadal dysgenesis, even anti-social moi was stunned by the paucity of small talk I overheard. “Emigrated to Australia fifteen years ago? Oh, didn’t really notice,” sort of thing.
It also made me wonder how Finns reproduce.
Walking up to a girl at a bar, you’d never hear a young male Finn say “Hey, how are you? Saw you across the room, thought I’d come over and introduce myself. Can I buy you a drink” Nup, Finnboy be like “Seksi aika nyt!” and Finngirl be like “Peräkammarin poika!” and punch him in the face.
I’ll let you translate it.
One thing hadn’t changed: Most of my time was spent alone.
I remember sitting in my boat at midnight fishing, casting and retrieving a big copper Professor spoon when a jet flashed overhead just above the treeline. The entire surface of the lake jumped, but nobody else saw it because they were asleep.
That memory — midnight, lake, sonic boom — is mine alone.
I read Randolph Stowe’s To the Islands (1958), The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (1965), and Tourmaline (1963) back to back. Interrupting my reading were waves of relatives and old family friends. Utter strangers, mostly. I stopped being able to differentiate them. Everyone’s face looked like a football player’s knee.
Not quite. But some definitely stood out.
My maternal aunt owned a mink farm. I’ve smelled dead bodies, but that mink shed was next-level. Housing hundreds of sleek, silky, beautiful critters in cages not much larger than shoeboxes was a legit and profitable business venture in 80’s Finland. My aunt was wealthy.
She was also humongous. What we now call morbidly obese. Her son, my cousin (off doing his national service) lived in the attic, a huge space, and neither his mother or father could climb up to his room. I snuck up there and found shelves full of 70’s Scandi-porn, bags of mary-jane, and guns.
Lots of guns.
I came back down a little shaken.
Somebody else who stood out was his sister, my cousin. Tall, skinny, shy, very blonde, and nice. So unlike her parents that she looked adopted. She gave me a silver pendant on a chain for my 17th birthday. I should have kept in touch, but never did. She’s probably your average Finnish wife now.
By July we’d met all my paternal relatives — grandmother, uncles Olavi and Jaakko and their families — the other surviving uncle (Matti) who came across from Sweden. On my mother’s side, though, was one aunt and one uncle. The only surviving relatives from a family of twelve children.
They’re all dead now. My mother (81) is the sole survivor of her bloodline. The genetic lottery got them all — hit the jackpot young — whereas my father’s line were luckier, except for the mental health issues. So, no real upside to incest.
Walking through forests of ancient birch and fir. Hiking the upper lake was the plan, so I brought my rod. One flick of the Professor into the reeds and I got slammed by a huge pike. I ran back with my prize. My mother cooked it up that “night” and it made me wish I’d caught-and-released.
All mud and bones. Or maybe just my mother’s cooking.
Oops, wrong pike.
Anyway, I remember driving hours in the Volvo to visit the maternal uncle, the warden of some cold northern gaol.
While the adults engaged in scalding coffee and dull discourse, I was lured outside by my cousin who wanted to know what drugs we did in Australia. We? I told him about my neighbour Ronnie, who’d uprooted his father’s market garden of ancient, luscious tomatos to plant a massive crop of weed.
Cuz was impressed.
I suspected he didn’t need to do any more drugs, there were enough random chemicals already at work in his body. Nothing else could explain that head. It looked like he was in training to be a homeless person. I doubt he aged well.
From our house between the lakes we were invited to another house by a lake, where we almost died on a speedboat piloted by a rotten drunk Finn, shot rifles with scant regard for public safety, and tried hard not to get bitten by their unfriendly direwolf.
But that weekend wasn’t totally wasted.
I met my first attractive Finn, and ate a lot of fermented meat. Weird, when it’s your relative. The attractive Finn, I mean, not the meat. All boobs and hair, she was buried in a sketchbook. “I’m going to be a fashion designer,” she pouted prettily.
I doubted it — her drawings were shit — but who was I to judge?
I still naively believed my adventures in the Northern Hemisphere would inspire a Finno-Australian version of “The World According to Garp” — which I’d read in three days, sitting in my great-grandmother’s rocking chair in the attic.
Beware the undertoad.
When I wasn’t walking the woods, harvesting wild berries, fishing for pike, chopping wood or dodging relatives, I was writing letters back home, or writing to myself. I’m still writing to myself, and the girl receiving my letters in 1984 now happens to be my wife.
It was either my epicanthic fold, or the letters worked?
Hey, maybe I am a writer!