I drove slowly and carefully, thinking that whatever happens, I was not going to kill myself in a traffic accident on the roads of that miserable country.
I didn't have too many sentimental bonds to the place where I was born.After just a few miles driving from the airport, I started to realize that there really was a possibility of being killed on the road; maniacs in their motor vehicles were all over the place, scaring me out of my wits and giving me all imaginable international hand signs. Even people in these godforsaken forests knew how to give the finger. Maybe not a big surprise, though, MTV, videos, and the information superhighway reach every corner, every mud hole in this world.
I tried to ignore the drivers and enjoy the view. I had always loved the Finnish nature, the emerald-green forests and small lakes with clear water shimmering like clusters of diamonds. The crimson sun on the horizon was blinding me with its intensity and sad beauty when sudden anxiety struck me. Vague unpleasant memories popped up from the far away past as well as thoughts of more recent failures and disappointments. A cacophony of inner voices filled my head aching from hangover and fatigue after a long flight over the Atlantic. My father's angry voice kept asking me why didn't listen to my mother and behave, wear skirts, perm my hair, get a real job, marry a Finnish man, have children, be normal (whatever that means)? Why did I have to become a painter, a spinster, a disappointment, a disgrace, a damned stupid renegade?
It was years since I had been in the town. I realized that what I had been expecting to find was not really there anymore - or rather - it was there but it wasn't in the way I remembered. Most of the old houses had disappeared and so had the trees. I recognized the old yellow movie theater and the bus station but there was a feeling of a generic town. The buildings had sad gray facades and square corners, neon signs, parking lots looking like most of the towns I have seen. There were a Shell station and billboards urging and seducing you to smoke, to drink, to buy a faster car, promising you happiness, respect, and ultimately, love.
There were Cafe Oscar, Pizzeria Pronto, and the Länsipäijännehämeen Market and a hoard of unemployed, slouching guys drinking beer in the bar next to the bus station, still men enough to comment on the shapes of females passing by. They were men in their thirties and forties, some might have been dreaming of winning the Lotto - the only realistic way to get rich - some were just too tired to dream of anything. Life went on but it went by, more demanding than ever and always in a hurry. Pissing in the bushes behind the bus station might have been the only relief, the ultimate protest, and a solace at the end of a hard day in an endless string of tough, meaningless days.
I bought a pack of cigarettes and the young, rye blond, beautiful girl behind the counter gave me a broad smile which made me suspicious: Finns have never smiled without a reason and buying cigarettes didn't seem to me as a reason enough to show any kind of feelings toward a stranger. But things change. I smiled back self-consciously wondering whether I had ketchup on my face or a bugger in my nose.
There was mumbling in the group of the beer drinking men; a half dozen pairs of watery blue eyes were directed at me. I was standing in front of the counter holding my cigarettes, mildly confused by sudden friendliness when one of the guys, wearing a thinning ponytail and some scab on his nose and forehead, came to me taking cautious but wobbling steps.
"Excuse me miss," he said. "May I ask you something?" He took a deep breath and leaned against the nearest table. "My friends and I would like to know where you are from. You don't look like you are from here."
"California," I said, knowing that it sounded as if I were bragging so I added, "but I was born here."
"Really!" I heard the chorus of guys.
I explained my background, my recent life, my plans for the future and all this just using some broad strokes.
The guy with the scab looked at me tilting his heavy looking head and asked me what had brought me there. I didn't know what to answer; I didn't really know why I had come. It seemed to me that it was my pattern to visit my parents every third year.
"My father had a mild stroke," I said, knowing that it wasn't really the reason but good enough as an explanation.
"It's not often we have visitors like you," he said, "just all those stuck up broads and skanks from Helsinki, Germans and Russians, all kinds of summer guests and assholes who buy up the land." He sighed. "You know, there is not a fucking lake left without log cabins, speed boats and screaming stereos.
"I smiled thinking that what else could you expect. I didn't say anything but he must have sensed what I felt because he touched my arm with his shaking hand staring straight into my eye and said, "You are a fine human being. Don't ever change."
"Damned American music," my father muttered while his cheeks were getting red from agitation. We were in my visit’s third day and the formal politeness of the first days had worn out and we were on the old track.
"Mindless and stupid... Made for idiots... Makes me sick. Turn that terrible noise off. Damned... ."
My mother looked at me blinking helplessly and smoothed creases in her white and blue apron.
"But it's her tape... ." she whispered almost inaudibly and stood in the middle of the room, between him and me.
I was waiting for him to tell me once again that he didn't fight in the war for the country's independence to see his only kid become a parasite in California. We should have let the Russians take the shit - he used to say - and we all would have now been playing balalaika in Siberia.
"I don't need this damned noise in my house," he continued while I picked up my tape from the cassette player.
"Never mind," I said to my mother, "I can use the headphones. No problem at all."
I didn't even look at my father but I knew that he was about to explode in his chair. The worst thing for him was to be ignored. I had learned early on how to make his life miserable without uttering a single word.
I sensed his helpless anger, the rising steam in his purple head and I felt the sweetness of victory in the same way I had always felt while gliding elegantly away out of reach of his anger and bitterness.
He grabbed a newspaper and hid behind it. I didn't know whether to hate or feel sorry for this skinny old guy consumed by his own rage. To my own surprise I didn't feel a lot, the old cramp of frustration in my midriff was gone, my palms were dry. It was like being an outsider, as if I were watching a quite uninteresting movie.
In the sunshine the cemetery looked beautiful with all flowers and old trees. My mother and I walked slowly between the graves, she in front of me like a picking hen, bending forward to look at the names on the gravestones.
"Do you remember Gustav and Hilda?" she asked and stopped in the front of two small wooden crosses. "Here they are. Both died the same year your grandpa died."
Yes, I remembered. I had hardly visited the cemetery since then because the place had always given me the creeps. As a kid I had recurring nightmares about graveyards.
"Do you know that when I was a kid I thought the dead could come out of their graves and try to catch the living ones?" I asked. My mother blinked as if thinking I was just kidding.
"I thought they would come during the night and pull screaming people into their deep and cold graves?"
"I didn't know!" My mother sounded surprised. "What are you talking about? What kind of nonsense is that?" She stopped walking to catch her breath. I saw that she was getting old and easily tried.
"Mom, I have always been so scared of everything."
"You scared!" My mother’s voice was thin and clear, like a silver bell, her eyelashes were fluttering. "I have never seen you scared of anything."
I realized that she didn't understand. I had hidden my fears so brilliantly under aloofness or anger; she didn't have a clue. There wasn't a point in talking about it now.
My life had been full of fear, and standing in the graveyard - even though it was a beautiful day - I was thinking about my grandfather's funeral.
It was in November. I was five years old and I didn't really know what it meant to die. The wind was blowing cold and damp from the lake over the gray landscape. The big fir trees around the cemetery chapel swayed slowly back and forth, moaning, shaking off heavy drops of water on the mourners. I squeezed my mother's hand, afraid of any unexplainable powers snatching me, pulling me into the deep black hole in the snowy ground with the rattling stones and gravel over my grandfather who was lying, wearing his best suit, in a black casket in the bottom of it.
Now the sun was so bright between the foliage of the gigantic birches and maples that I felt almost light-headed. So odd the memory seemed. Then I looked at my mother walking in front of me, mumbling about people, alive and dead, totally absorbed by her own thoughts. I saw her narrow shoulders, her graying hair. I saw my mother, bird-like and fragile as I had always seen her. And yes, she had grown old but she hadn't changed. I had.
I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw my mother and father standing in the driveway, she waving, he standing with slouching shoulders, hanging his head. There they were, my mother, tears in her eyes, I'm sure, secretly proud of me, my father angry and stubbornly rejecting me and my chosen life. But his goodbye hug convinced me that he couldn't help himself being the way he was.
These were my parents I actually loved even though I, not being better than my father, was unable to tell them. What had really kept me avoiding them? Was I afraid that they would snatch me - like the dead would snatch the living ones in the cemetery - just to take me and keep me as a prisoner in their unbearably empty lives, force me to become an exact copy of them and stay that way forever? Or was it just weariness?
I put my foot on the gas and gave a last look into the rear-view mirror: there they were like two small dots on the horizon, finally disappearing.
The whole town was soon behind me. I was back on the road, on my way back to the airport, annoying drivers in their power cars by my impulsive driving style. They honked and gave me the finger and I did the same, smiling and singing along with Travis Tritt "Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof" which I would never - being in my right mind - do on the California highways.
When the plane took off jerking and rattling for a moment, I felt that I would get sentimental and burst into tears. It never happened, though, because hearing the English speaking flight attendant's perky voice explaining how to float with one's seat in case of a crash, I forgot the "good-bye-the-past" ritual. It was like changing the disk in my head: I was back in civilization, normality, stability. I was back in my own life.
The morning sky was partly covered by dark purple clouds, curiously compact and heavy over the sea in the south. I stared at them praying for inspiration for my next painting and I promised myself that I would send it to my mother for Christmas.
"Coffee or tea, ma'am?" a pleasant voice with a British accent asked interrupting my silent prayer and I got an almost irresistible desire to say in the most idiotic mocking way: "But of course!" because there is something so amusing in the way they speak, those lovable Britons. They sound so sophisticated, so civilized. The flight attendant was a man, tall and thin like a reed and past his most attractive years but he was absolutely lovable. I was happy; I was on my way home.
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