We are seated in our cottage living room, the cottage that my grandfather Walter built us many years ago. It is near Kingston, Ontario, on a small lake called Buck Lake. Here we are; my six cousins, my sister Candace and I. We argue about the future of this wonderful place where we have shared so many fond memories. What is the future of our cottage on Buck Lake? Do we sell it? What happens when we all have kids – as some of us already do and the sleeping arrangements are already tight. What do we do then? Do we split up our time here? Who gets to sleep in the beds? Who will bring up tents? My Mom, aunts and uncles are listening in. Suddenly my uncle Jukka chimes in. With a singsong voice, he shouts “Hey! Remember Mummo loves you!”
It’s enough for all of us to stop and pause. I start laughing and so do the rest. How can we argue about this any longer? It’s enough of a distraction for all of us. I take a breath. We are all a bit calmer now, ready to resume our discussion in a more positive tone. We don’t continue arguing about the cottage though. We start to recall our fun times together with Mummo, my grandmother.
Like one of our last few Christmas dinners together when she wanted all of us to sit at the same table – all four of her kids (my Mom and her brothers) and their children (me, Candace and all the cousins) plus our own spouses and kids. It was a huge family dinner. Mummo insisted we all sit together in her dining room. So, tables were borrowed, set up and pushed together. Some of the table legs were resting atop of books so the tops would meet up. Somehow we all squeezed into our seats. My cousin Sarah was a bit nervous as her new fiancé, Geoff, was joining us for dinner. He was meeting many of us – including our beloved Mummo – for the first time. What would Geoff think of all this? Here was our crazy Finnish family and our eccentric grandmother – ta da! But she managed to charm him, like she always charmed everyone. Her big tight hugs, infectious laughs that came from deep within her belly and her Finnish accent where all her W’s sounded like V’s.
This was just one example of so many fond memories of her at Christmas-time.
We used to get together every Christmas and have a big potluck dinner (except she didn’t always make us sit together in her dining room!). There was always plenty of traditional Finnish fare, which included many bland casseroles of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams and over-cooked meats.
One of my cousin’s was very slim and we would often tease her for eating the excess fat off the roasts that were left over. I didn’t eat much of the casseroles except what I was forced to eat with the parental threat of “If you want dessert, you’ll eat what’s on your plate!”
Uncle Jukka, a pastor, would always start off our meals with a prayer, often alternating between the kids favourite “chicken dance” prayer to a more traditional one thanking God for our wonderful meal.
My much younger cousins, Chris and Andrew, once stuck socks in my Dad’s mouth while he napped on the couch. My goodness did they get in trouble!
Every Christmas, while me, Candace and our cousins were small, we would receive Christmas gifts from everyone while the adults would take part in their own gift exchange. They would open up bottles of wine, boxes of chocolates and lottery tickets – enjoying their drinks or smoking a cigar (if you were one of my uncles).
As kids, we would eagerly wait for the knocking on the door of Joulu Pukki (Santa Claus). It was always my Uncle Oliver’s good friend, Russell. He would arrive with his bag of presents at Mummo’s front door. Even though we all knew it was Russell dressed up as Santa, we were always excited nonetheless, getting our annual photo and a gift of a paper doll, toy truck or colouring book.
Another highlight (dreaded by us kids) was the annual biblical performance, organized by Mummo’s cousin Vappu. She was a lover of plays and performances. She would always have a script from a biblical story that the grandkids would have to re-enact. We disliked having to do this but knew how important it was to her and Mummo. Groaning about it, we would practise our parts and put on a performance for the adults. I look back on those photos of us dressed up performing with great happiness. It was worth the discomfort.
Someone would often get in trouble at one of our Christmas gatherings (like the socks in my Dad’s mouth incident). One year, it was my turn. That particular Christmas, I got into a fight with Sarah over a skipping rope playing tug-of-war. I decided to let go and she went flying across the room. Luckily she wasn’t hurt, but I got an earful.
Eventually, all of us grandkids became old enough to go to the nearby park by ourselves to burn off steam (energy!) and give the adults some (much needed, I’m sure!) quiet and rest.
Through all of these Christmas dinners of food left uneaten and kids misbehaving, Mummo could be seen smiling. She would be setting up the food, pouring rounds of drinks for people and singing one of her hymns, laughing her crazy laugh and making us laugh. It was always sad to leave. She would give one of her death-grip hugs and firmly tell each and every one of us how much she loved us.
Now that I am all grown up, with a wonderful husband and two beautiful children of my own, I find myself missing her often, most especially at Christmas-time. Our beloved Mummo died three years ago. Our families don’t see each other during the Christmas holidays anymore. We say it’s because our families are too large but the real reason is because my grandmother is gone. She was the glue that held us all together. We didn’t want to disappoint her.
To this day and forever, I will always look back on our get-togethers with fond memories, despite how crazy they might have been.
Instead of seeing each other at Christmas now, some of us visit one another in the summers at the family cottage on Buck Lake. We think of her when we are enjoying a hot sauna together singing our silly sauna songs. Mummo would always sit in the hottest corner of the sauna and take the longest steam.
I think traditions are special because of the people who start them and follow them through. My grandmother isn’t just someone who started a tradition. She made our Christmases special by bringing all of her family together. Even now, after her death, she is still trying. We just need to remind each other every now and then, “Mummo loves you.”