Some things are obvious, such as the meaning of loving parents and siblings that always have your back. They are invaluable. Some of us are blessed with both – and more.
I’m one of those lucky someones. Growing up, my brother, my three cousins, and I spent most of our summers at my grandparents. Their rambling two storey house was located on a big island in one of the most beautiful parts of the Finnish archipelago. Relatives abounded in the neighbourhood.
Life was as safe as it could be, and yet it wasn’t. We were surrounded by a capricious sea. You quickly learned to respect the force of the wind and the waves, and – the few winter vacations we spent there – the treachery of the ice when it covered the sea.
There were no cars (and very few bicycles) on the island. Instead there were boats – all kinds of boats. I learned to row and to steer an outboard motor long before I learned to bicycle.
One of the highlights of our summers was the weekly boat trip to the neighbouring island; the one with the coop store our grandfather chaired, the post office/”information” bureau our mothers’ cousin ran, the school our mothers had attended, the community centre/dance hall that was later to become our favourite Saturday evening haunt, and above all the ice cream kiosk.
Change happened then, as it does now. Life was not the same after the kiosk closed, and the ice creams had to bought at the store.
Our island summers were not always valued as they should have been. There were mutterings within the ranks at times. Many of them were related to the few simple chores we were given: the seemingly endless weeding of the gardens, the harvesting of berries and vegetables, the rowing of nets and the net cleaning, the water pails that had to pumped full and carried uphill from the sauna (there was no running water in the house), the dishes that had to be washed.
Then there were the things that interrupted the flow of our life: the friends that had to be left behind in the city, the pop music that wasn’t allowed outside (it disturbed the peace), the reading of books and magazines that had to be discontinued all too often as chores were dealt with.
Last, but not least, there was only so much fish any of us wished to consume, and fetching the milk every day from a farm miles away (at least it felt like miles upon miles when you walked there) could be downright boring at times.
We may not have valued our summers as much as we should have at the time, but looking back, they were the best present a child could get. The memories are glorious.
Each summer we packed our things, rode a few hours on the bed of a big truck or by bus to a nearby town, took a boat trip out to the island where my grandparents waited on the dock, and raced up to our rooms with the indescribable feeling of freedom. Our summer vacation had begun.
Without our summer siblings, the cousins, the summers would not have been the same. Our games ranged from splendid burials of (small) animals found dead in the woods, to simple competitions such as who is fastest to the upper gate, or who is first to jump into the water from the dock.
Not to mention the card games. Card games were a serious matter as far as my grandparents were concerned. We were all taught their favourite card game. They played to win, and as their partner you were expected to do your best too. No more, no less. It was one of the many subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lessons taught during those summers.
In addition to the bemoaned “work before play” chores, there were lazy moments spent on the big carpet that was spread out on the grass whenever the weather was good, there was sunbathing on the dock – and endless swimming. There were flowers, fresh garden vegetables, sweet strawberries, and crisp apples to pick. Even fishing could be fun within reason.
No meditation lessons were needed. You could just lie there on the carpet, warmed by the sun; stare up at the big birches as they reached towards the blue sky, listen to the breeze, and wonder at the peace and perfection of it all.
The daily afternoon coffees (juice and cookies for us kids) were always a treat. The table was often full of people; sometimes we were joined by neighbours, many times by one or both of our parents when they had time off from their jobs in the city.
Grandmother and grandfather were bigger than life. Grandfather was the master pilot personified, the man who never ran a ship aground. He had his finger in almost every pie in their small seaside community. Grandmother was a force to be reckoned with too. She had to be. In his active days, grandfather could be called to pilot a ship at any time. This left grandmother to manage their big house with its surrounding gardens on her own, while caring for their three children.
An island community has its positives and its negatives. There is no room for silos among the people who have to survive the winters there. You never know whose help you might need, so you are better off being cordial to everyone.
Yet these same people, who got along with such a wide range of personalities among themselves, were prone to categorise the rest of the world as outsiders; even summer guests that returned year after year. If your ancestors weren’t born on one of the islands, you were there only as a visitor, however much you wished to be viewed differently.
Somehow this carried me through life. I never needed to prove that I belonged. I would always belong in this little piece of the world by birthright. My grandparents managed to convey the feeling that this was all that really mattered. In addition to living an honest and hardworking life, of course. Obstacles were meant to be overcome – whether you were a man or a woman. One doesn’t give up in a storm, if one wants to survive.
All five of us (my brother, my cousins, and I) probably experienced the summers differently. We had an age gap of 10 years among us, after all. But the teachings were the same for everyone; as were many of the happy moments.
I found myself trying (unsuccessfully) to recreate some of the magic of those past summers for my grandchildren. My efforts made me realise what a great gift my – in hindsight perfect – summers with all their subtle teachings were.
Life is not always perfect. This blog was inspired by the oldest of my summer siblings – my cousin, the not so patient patient. She took a bad tumble, and now sports heavy metal in her body.
Rock it sister, you’ll overcome this obstacle too. When all is said and done, you’re an islander. Tough to the core.