Thursday, November 20, 2008

My "Red" Grandma

My Finnish grandmother came to America in 1905, along with several brothers and sisters. They settled in Northern Minnesota. As long as I can remember, she told me wonderful stories about homesteading and the adventures of my grandfather, hunting, trapping, and enduring the cold dark winters of the Superior National Forest.

Eventually she met my grandfather and they settled on a homestead of 80 acres. My grandfather worked in the Mesabi Range Iron Mines, and they once lived in the town of Sparta, now named Gilbert. I was told they once had a small store and my grandmother taught school.

My father was born in 1915, and in 1916, the union workers at the mines went on strike, and eventually most were blackballed. I’ve assumed my grandpa was among them.

In 1917 my grandparents and toddler father, left Minnesota and their homestead, and returned to Finland, evidently to take part in the “Glorious Revolution”, the Finnish Civil War. They were Bolsheviks...Reds..Communists...and they lost. An uncle on my grandfather’s side became a member of Parliament from the Communist Party, renamed the Social Democratic Party.

In 1922 my grandparents and father returned to the USA, only to find their homestead in Minnesota, looted or burned down. (Was it retaliation perhaps for the strike and union membership?). Grandmother’s brothers and sisters lived in the Syracuse, NY area, so they moved there. My grandfather worked at the Sanderson Steel Mill, which eventually became Crucible Steel, the remainder of his work life.

In 1929, I was told my father (age 15), had been photographed for the local Syracuse newspaper, climbing a flagpole to attach the Russian Communist flag. You see, my father, was also a Communist. This was at one of the numerous Communist Youth Camps that flourished in New York State at this time. Upon reflection, this appears to be the “Camp” I spent many a summer at from my birth, to the birth of my oldest daughter, roughly from 1948 – 1972 swimming, water skiing, hiking, watching bonfires and when old enough, drinking beer.

In 1936 my grandma ran for Congress of the United States, as a member of the Communist Party, in Central NY. She lost. Her name, however, is cited in the “House on Un-American Activities Committee Hearings, 1955”. (McCarthy hearings)

I only found out about some of this recently, through research, and first heard of the Communist Party membership in 1976 from my father, when they visited the birth of my second daughter. I find it strange that they kept this “family secret” from me all those years, but it does explain some things I always wondered about. For example, the bronze table lamp my grandmother kept in her closet. It was the stature of “Mother Russia”. She also had an old crank RCA phonograph, and many 33 rpm records (like new), one being the Russian National Anthem. My sister and I were somehow forbidden to learn Finnish (perhaps my mother’s doing?). But my father, grandparents and their friends often spoke it.

It is all rather amazing. My grandma, who was only 5 feet tall and weighed at most 110 pounds, who made me pudding and baked Finnish breads, like Puula, told me stories about their life in Minnesota, and entertained me with her little parakeets through the years, all named “Cherri”. I have had two parakeets, one blue and one green. I named them both “Cherri”.

My little Finnish Grandma loved me unconditionally. She always got incredibly excited if I brought her violets, a simple gift, or even a visit as often as I could. I miss her terribly, even after the 25 years since she passed away.

Once she was a feisty young agitator, a socialist, a communist, a revolutionary……she was my “Red” grandma!

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