Midsummer memories

Funerals are always strange if you don’t know the person who has died: you miss feeling the shadow of their lives pass over you during the event.

I travelled to Finland last week to attend the June 19 funeral of Erkki Aarne Ilmari Hänninen, who died one day short of his 88th birthday. The shadow that he cast as his sons, grandsons and sons-in-law lowered his coffin into the ground was huge.

The shadow felt larger than the round red and white wooden church and taller than the black and white birches with their wet, teardrop-shaped leaves — and maybe as high as the clouds that off raining until he was in the ground.

I threw a white rose into the ground before they covered him up, as did other members of the family.DSC04091

In his small community, Erkki, for years the head of the local credit union, did everything — but, for me, the thing that characterized Erkki and that was so much larger-than-life about him, was his generosity.

I felt that generosity when Erkki first welcomed me into his family of five, and then continued to do so for more than 40 years.

Like the cat that somehow always found its way back home, I would often show up at the door, for shorter or longer times, sometimes with boyfriends or a child, and usually jet-lagged. I was not always well-behaved when I was a teenager.

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And then, there was Maire, Erkki’s wife, who died six months ago: She showed me so many practical things, such as how to cook dishes like meatballs and sweet cardamom buns, as she gave me advice on life and how to speak proper Finnish.

Somehow, during all those years when I struggled to master Finnish, Erkki also learned to speak English. That’s because he had no fear of looking silly as he looked for the right way of saying something, a trait that’s rare in an adult language learner. He’d just keep on going and end the sentence — often the punchline of a funny story — with a big smile.

When I last saw Erkki, he was in a home for older people with Alzheimer’s Disease. Even so, when he saw me there, he started to speak  to me in English — which we hadn’t spoken together for years — and then said “I can’t remember who you are but I know you are an important person [to me].”

Before his illness, Erkki, a lover of wine and good food, would keep the discussions fueled all night during Finland’s big Juhannus midsummer celebration.

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He and Maire showed me that life could be fun, without crashing due to too much alcohol or anger. I’d often try to conjure up their example when big obstacles wanted to throw me off track. It was the only example I had.

Then, I’d think about how cozy it felt to be in their home, sitting in the midnight sun, looking at the straight tall trees against the pink sky, talking in Finnish — still the most comfortable language I can speak.

They always made it feel that I was in a good place: At one time, I had biological parents, but Erkki and Maire were the parents I would have chosen, much like people, who by an accident of conception, are born into one gender when they know they belong to the other.

I would spend my adult life in Canada, much of that in the North. And there would be much we never would share, but we always kept in touch and I visited whenever I could.DSC00063

Erkki and Maire also visited  me — we had a big feast of lobsters that July on the southern Quebec island where I spend some of my summers  — and, although we never took a photo of that scene, we always recalled the giant platter of red lobsters, the green pine trees and the sound of blue waves lapping behind us.

Some relationships feel pastel and muted or even black when you think about them — but, with Erkki and Maire, I remember everything in bright primary colours like a joyful Marimekko fabric design.

I couldn’t go to Maire’s funeral this past December, but at Erkki’s funeral I was there to hear the memories of his friends and the eulogy of his youngest son who said “we’re left to remember and miss the people who gave us safety and security and, above all, happiness.”

I didn’t say anything at the funeral. But, if I had, it would have been to mention how Erkki — and Maire — truly changed my life for the better.

Large cards with messages were read out at the meal following the funeral, with quotes from Finnish poets like Eino Leino — “now I am free and with the wind I can wander to the edges of thought…”DSC04112

I learned more about Erkki during that funeral get-together, about his sense of history,  community involvement and love of singing.

And, for a while, as his friends and family members remembered him, it was as if Erkki was still with us, minus that glass of wine or scotch for a toast with the traditional Finnish “kippis!”

So, hyvää Juhannusta! Have a good Midsummer, wherever you are in the Arctic! I’ll be raising my glass to Erkki and thinking of midnight lakeside bonfires.

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Stepping back in time at Finland’s Marimekko

What could make me get on the metro in Helsinki for the first time? A visit to the Marimekko factory in Herttoniemi, a place I’d never been to in this growing city of more than one million.

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Into the Metro (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

But here’s why I headed off into the unknown: I was on a journey into the past. That’s because my first real job was as a sales clerk at a Marimekko store. I wanted to improve my Finnish, but I was successful mainly because I spoke English — and I was able to sell huge amounts of merchandise to tourists.

Even then, Marimekko was known outside Finland, particularly in the United States, where its former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, had worn several Marimekko dresses during  her husband’s presidential campaign.

Known for their bright colours, Marimekko designs mainly feature abstract natural  designs, all printed in durable cotton.

Among my favourite designs:

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Unikko

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marimekko-tuuli-black-white-fabric-12and Tuuli.

Marimekko was all that many people could associate with Finland, that is, besides sauna — a bit like how Inuit carvings and prints once defined Canada’s Arctic.

Marimekko started out in 1951 as a family business, owned by Armi Ratia. And when I worked for the company, Ratia still brought staff to her seaside villa outside Helsinki for parties that were memorable for their food — and drink (I’d like to say I recall more of these events, but I can’t.)

We, the sales staff, young students like me, along with some professionals, worked 12-hour shifts for about $1.25 an hour. I received a free Marimekko outfit as well as discounts on clothing and material (I still have lots of dresses and metres of fabric from the three summers I spent working at Marimekko stores.)

Marimekko is the same now, but changed: It’s a global, publicly-traded company. And, like Finland, which was used to be homogenous and isolated by its Arctic location and language (related to Inuktitut), it’s more international.

Finland used to have few residents, apart from its Roma (Gypsy) population, who weren’t Finns, Swedes or Saami. You could go a day or a week without seeing a person of colour. You couldn’t find a pizza or even any fast food at all, but now, at least in Helsinki, you can choose from many ethnic restaurants and there’s a new multicultural look to the city.

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Marimekko fabric on sale at the factory store in Herttoniemi. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

So how do you bring Marimekko into that new global reality, to become the Ikea of Scandinavian clothing and accessories? Today Marimekko isn’t just striped T-shirts and bright fabric: Its line includes everything from paper napkins, cups, towels and bedding to t-shirts and high-end dresses — and even café dining.

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A display at the Marimekko factory store in Herttoniemi. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Marimekko has outlets in 40 countries, with 154 shops in North America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific region, opening new stores in Singapore, Bangkok and Dubai in 2015. And this spring Marimekko launched a lower-priced design line with the big U.S. chain, Target.

But “Target’s Marimekko Collection Draws Muted Response,” said the Wall Street Journal, noting such collaborations are supposed to help the retailer create a buzz — but it seemed that during the Target promotion that Europeans were mainly lining up to buy the Marimekko collection.

Marimekko’s 2015 annual report shows that keeping ahead of the slagging global economy has been hard. But the Marimekko brand (now a borrowed word, “brändi,” in Finnish) can show its strength in global market, CEO Tiina Alahunta-Kasko said.

That brändi is now worth 186 million euros and the company had sales of 96 million euros. So there’s a lot of stake for Marimekko.

I toured the Marimekko factory in Herttoniemi with Sanna-Kaisa Nikko, the company’s  PR manager for Europe, North America and Australia.

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The newly printed fabric is rolled into huge rolls at the Marimekko factory (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

In the factory, quiet on that morning, Nikko said Marimekko is now all about making the old new, “cherishing what we have,” and getting it more out to the public. And this means coming up with new products, like towels with raised designs, and using updated materials, not just cotton, she said.

It also means Marimekko is taking old patterns and redoing them, maintaining the “timelessness” of the product, Nikko said.

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Marimekko fabric rolled up into round bolts which will then be cut into 15-metre bolts. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Today, Marimekko design and fabrics may have their roots in Finland, but they’re not all made in Finland.

“It isn’t realistic to make everything in Finland” Nikko said, because it’s a country with high wages and production costs.

But she said company looks for the best quality and ways to keep it… well… Finnish.

And so it is, that in nearly every home in Finland, you’ll still find something from Marimekko — although some of my friends complain that the clothes are made to appeal to smaller Asian customers than to sturdy Finns.

That Asian market looks to be booming: On my way to the factory from the Metro, I couldn’t get lost because I saw many Japanese tourists carrying heavy Marimekko bags, so I knew I was heading in the right direction.

When I went downtown to the Helsinki store, I discovered that the downtown store where I worked now has a Japanese salesclerk who does what I did so many years ago — that is, sell.

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A Japanese salesclerk helps a Japanese customer in her own language at a Marimekko store in downtown Helsinki. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)