The very stern-looking couple is my husband Bill’s grandparents from Finland. Did anyone ever smile in those old photographs? Grandma Vanni, then known as Josefiina Pitkaranta, came to America from Finland via Ellis Island, by herself, when she was only nineteen years old. It sounds so young, yet Grandma Vanni was known to have been one tough cookie. She eventually found her way to the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan where many Finns settled, and where she met Matti Vanni, who had also traveled from Finland. It is not surprising that Finns found the UP, because it looks just like Finland, with its birch trees, lakes, and abundance of snow – and home to the only Finnish college in the USA – Finlandia University.
Now flash forward to earlier this year. One of Bill’s cousins received a facebook message from Jouni Pitkaranta, another direct descendent of Grandma Vanni, who was searching for his American relatives. Oh, the joys of facebook. Jouni may have never found us otherwise. Jouni was very anxious to meet his American cousins and it so happened that he would be traveling to Wisconsin in October with a group of architects and dairy farmers. Jouni is an architect, specializing in the design of dairy barns, of which there are many in both Wisconsin and Finland. After he was done with his tour, he wanted to visit with us. We were beyond thrilled for the chance to meet him. I stayed home and prepared dinner while my girls and Bill went to pick up Jouni. Kristina had decorated the dining room table with beautiful maroon and gold fall colors, with pumpkins, gourds, leaves, and small flags of our respective countries. For all of us, it was love at first sight to meet Jouni. He was kind, sweet, generous, and very happy for us all to be together. We looked at old photo albums of relatives, he relayed stories of Vanni ancestors, and he brought us some lovely gifts.
Beautiful Finnish books.
Classic Finnish Iittala glassware.
Finnish chocolates! I can’t begin to tell you how good these were. The top one is just pure milk chocolate pieces, but the blueberry pie and lingonberry flavors were completely amazing.
What is in this bag literally blew us away. Somehow Jouni made it through customs! Inside is rye flour from Finland. But not just anywhere in Finland. It was grown and milled on the farm where Grandma Vanni grew up, and where Jouni’s brother now lives. This is the farm where Grandma Vanni was born inside a sauna, where she played in the fields, and where as a young woman, she dreamed about going to America. It was like a bag filled with ancestry and memories that were almost palpable. I am almost afraid to make it into bread because it seems sacred. I have it in the refrigerator, and I will go and open the bag just to smell it and feel it. Of course, I will make the bread from the recipe Jouni gave me, and I can only hope to make Grandma Vanni proud.
It was a brief visit, but one we are still talking about since Jouni returned to Finland. We missed him instantly as he walked out the door to return to his group of architects. There is a big family reunion planned next summer in Finland and we all hope to attend. There are lots and lots of cousins to meet. And I must get more of the flour. And the chocolates. And build more memories.
Here is Jouni with my girls, Kara and Kristina, and they all are wearing the Finnish clothing line, Marimekko.