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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.