Written by Jaana Jokinen, told by my maternal grandmother Hilja Maria
13th March 1913 in Joroinen, Finland
It was a cold, early spring day in Northern Savonia, in the Eastern part of Finland, where my family lived.
Joroinen is often called the “Paris of the Savonia” because in the 1700s the noblemen mainly spoke French. Even in the 1800s Swedish and French speakers filled the halls of its grand manor houses.
The colourful, spacious, and notable manors, painted in light yellows, pinks and whites, demanded attention, especially in the summertime, amid the area’s lush green forest and deep blue lakes.
The manors were perfectly positioned to get the best views of the lakes. Their tea pavilions provided the aristocrat a beautiful sanctuary, surrounded by gorgeous, landscaped gardens.
In stark contrast, our family belonged to the common people. We spoke Finnish and were part of the low-built grey-white wooden houses -community, that formed the working-class background of the area.
We had no lake-views or tea pavilions, only milking sheds, and cattle shelters. Our parents woke up before sunrise to milk the cows and feed the animals.
We had no electricity. To be able to see in the dark, my parents used wood shingles and burned one at a time. I loved watching my mum make them. She made the wood shingles as flat as possible, then dried them on the stove.
My mum wore an apron and a head scarf, and her hands were not soft and silky, but rough and dry, worn by years of hard work to support the family.
Yet, ours was a happy home with laughter, cheerfulness, and lively chatter. I felt both loved and protected in my small little world.
The neighbours took care of each other and because families were large, there was always someone to play with. At the end of the day, I would climb to sit on my father’s lap, as he sat in his rocking chair in front of the fire.
As far as I was concerned, mine was the only world that mattered. For a little three-year-old girl, I had all I needed.
Even though the worst of the winter was now behind us, snow still covered the ground. My brother Ernes and I were a little excited, because today was his fifth birthday.
There was an urgent knock at our door. Our mum had just put our 14-month-old baby brother Kalle to sleep in a cradle in the bedroom. Ernes and I ran to see who got to the door first. We loved it when the neighbours came to drop in, especially if the children came along to play with us.
Soon we found out that the neighbour’s cow had started calving and our mum’s help was needed. Mum rushed to put her coat and shoes on. As she hurried out the door, she called out not to wake the baby.
Children being children, my brother and I, had the sudden idea to have a competition. We took the wood shingles our mum had put to dry on the stove, lit them one by one, then began to throw them down under the house, through a loose floorboard. The idea was to see which one of us could throw their burning wood shingle the furthest.
It wasn’t long until our home caught fire and was filled with smoke. It was then that Ernes and I panicked. We begun to stomp on the loose floorboard to stop the smoke coming in, but no matter how hard we tried, nothing helped.
Ernes grabbed my hand and yelled: “Hilja, let’s just get out of here! The house is burning!” The front door lock was way too high, so we couldn’t reach it. But my brother climbed up the wall and went out the kitchen window calling for me to follow.
Instead of following Ernes outside though, I ran to the bedroom where Kalle was sleeping. I couldn’t let him get burned with the house. I lifted him out of his cradle and dragged my startled baby brother into the kitchen.
The house was so full of smoke by then, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t strong enough to pull my baby brother up, through the window with me. So, I just prayed for God to help us.
Our kitchen floor had two big bags, one full of flour and the other full of grain. I carried my baby brother to the flour sack and pushed his face into the flour. Somehow, I thought that would stop the smoke getting into him.
Soon the fire and the smoke could already be seen from next-door, so our mum rushed to rescue her children. Ernes was crying, barefoot, outside the kitchen window in the snow. His feet had frozen.
Soon I heard the window brake as my mum hit it with her fist. She lifted Kalle and I through the broken window, into the fresh air.
Part of our house was damaged that day, which had to be restored. Our whole family went to live with our next-door neighbours while the renovations took place.
That evening as Ernes was warming his feet by the fire and we were both drinking “cheese-milk”, we felt happy and safe once again. We were told that during the first few days after calving, the mother cow makes cheese-milk. We loved this cheese-milk so much, we thought it would be a good idea to start another fire one day, so we could have some more of it!
Note from Jaana: I grew up with hearing this true story. My Hilja-grandma often recited it when I was growing up. Somehow, it felt safe listening to it, because I knew how the story ended, since my grandma was there to tell it to me.
In 1980 when my grandma was 70 years old and living here in Australia, we recorded her telling this story and it is from this recording that I have written it from.
Now as an adult, I shake my head, and write it with great tribulation. What a horrible first memory to have and what a scary fifth birthday my great-uncle Ernes had!
I can only imagine what the experience of seeing her house burning down with her children inside, would have been for my great-grandmother Selma too.
This picture is taken in 1912 only just over half a year before the fire. It has Selma (my great-grandmother), Albin (my great-grandfather), 4 yr old Ernes (my great-uncle), 2 yr old Hilja (my grandmother) and baby Kalle / Kaarlo (my great-uncle) in front of their home that burned down.
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2 Comments Add yours
I can’t help liking stories with good endings….
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I’m so glad this one had a happy ending!