TUESDAY: Karelian Dreams

BY LIISA KOVALA

Copyright is held by the author.

LEAVING HOME was a lot easier than living away. Leena had been excited when her mother explained that she’d be living in town to go to school, almost on her own. Now, four years later, she was nearly done her commercial studies at Sudbury Mining and Technical School. She would soon need to make a decision, she thought, as she packed her books into her bag, pulled on her wool coat and wrapped a scarf around her neck.

“I’m off to school, Mrs. Salmi,” she said, as she opened the front door to a gust of wind sprinkled with flakes from the roof.

“Careful now, Leena. The streets may be icy. Look out for those motorists. They’re driving more than 40 kilometres an hour! An accident waiting to happen, I’m sure.”

Leena pulled the door closed and squinted against the light. Her parents would expect her to return to the family farm in Wanup, but secretly she dreamed of working as a secretary in one of the businesses on Elm Street. Just thinking about the small log house surrounded by the open fields, the barn piled high with fragrant hay and the babble of her brothers and sisters made her smile, but that didn’t mean she wanted to move home. She wanted a different life. A better life.

Leena walked down Antwerp Street through the spring drifts. She was grateful to live with Mrs. Salmi and her two daughters in their small house in the Donovan. Really, she was. But there were so many restrictions. At least on the farm she had some space: a place to think curled up in the high loft of the barn, or stretched out on a long flat rock nestled on the bank of the Wanapitei River. When she was home she had her sisters Saara and Laila, and her little brother Timo to mind, chores to do, cooking and cleaning to help with, but there were also moments of peace: the sun setting across the rye fields, the snow blanketing the garden, the birds chirping in the birch trees. And now that her mother was pregnant again, she could use Leena’s help around the house. With the exception of school holidays, Leena hadn’t lived at home for some time, the 25 kilometres by the milk truck too far to make frequent trips. She wasn’t the little girl that trailed her mother’s long skirts, sweeping the dirt from the plank floors, or helping to knead the fresh pulla dough with her small fists. She was practically an adult now.

At the end of Antwerp, Leena crossed Kathleen Street. She could still see her breath in the air, but she was getting warmer as she trudged up the hill.

Leena missed her mother’s company the most. Boisterous Mrs. Salmi was nothing like her quiet, steadfast mother Aino. Mrs. Salmi’s husband, Henri, had left the CPR to work for the thriving International Nickel Company and done well for himself until a mining accident took his life, leaving his wife alone with her young daughters. Now, as Sudbury entered a downturn, with thousands unemployed, even Mrs. Salmi was feeling the effects. She made it clear that Leena living with her was not charity; it was an arrangement that benefitted both of their families. She was nothing if not practical.

At the corner of Kathleen and Mackenzie, Leena turned right toward the red brick building. She was lucky to be going to school at all, she thought. Many young people were already working on their family farms, in the mine, or in bush camps rather than studying, that is, if they could find work. She wanted to use her skills, maybe work for a while before settling down with a husband. Besides, how would she find a husband in Wanup? She practically knew every family there and had gone to the one-room school with their sons.

“Hey, wait for me.” Eeva called from across the road. “I’ll walk to school with you.”

Leena paused, smiling at her friend as she kicked at a pile of snow, wondering when the sun’s rays would be strong enough to melt the remaining drifts. It was late March, but another snowstorm wasn’t out of the question. It had been a long winter.

“I can almost remember what summer feels like,” Leena said, arching her neck to feel the warmth on her face.

“Hot and smoggy. Don’t forget the blackflies and mosquitoes,” Eeva said. She laughed in the infectious way that Leena admired so much.

Eeva always seemed happy, as though she had no cares. Her father worked at the Copper Cliff mine, but was one of the fortunate ones. He was still employed.

“Listen, I have a question. What about going to a dance on Saturday? It would be great fun.” Eeva swung her school bag across her shoulders, practically skipping down the street like she was a little girl, instead of a young woman.

“A dance? I don’t think Mrs. Salmi will allow it.” Leena frowned.

Many of her classmates attended the regular Saturday night dances at the Finnish halls. But Mrs. Salmi was strict about curfew and didn’t believe that dances were appropriate places for young women to go without chaperones.

“Why don’t you tell her you are going home for the weekend? She won’t be too surprised, especially since you haven’t been home for a while. If your parents ask, tell them you stayed at Mrs. Salmi’s to get some homework done.” Eeva looked at Leena with her bright blue eyes. Her short blonde curls bobbed up and down as she walked.

“But your mother won’t let you go either,” Leena said. “What if we get caught?”

“I’ll tell her we’re going to see that new film, A Farewell to Arms at the Grand Theatre. We’ll be back by curfew. She never needs to know we’re going to the dance.”

Leena finally agreed. The idea of going to the Finnish hall filled her with excitement. The music, the dresses, the dancing. She could only imagine how wonderful it would be. For the rest of the day, she dreamt about Saturday night as she tried to concentrate on her lessons.

***

Leena arrived on Eeva’s doorstep, a small bag tugging at her fingers. Despite her initial excitement, she was feeling nervous. What if they saw someone they knew? What if her parents’ found out?

Eeva’s mother opened the door, letting a blast of wintery wind pass through the narrow hallway.

“Eeva’s upstairs. You go ahead,” she said, her sweet smile enough to make Leena feel a twinge of guilt.

The wood creaked as Leena climbed the narrow wooden stairs, careful not to hit her head on the sloped roof in the makeshift bedroom.

“What do you think?” Eeva asked as she twirled with her arms raised. “Do you like it?”

“Beautiful,” Leena replied, admiring the navy fabric and the movement of the skirt. As she removed her woolen coat, she looked down at her own dress. She had chosen the nicest one she could find, but it looked dull and lifeless compared to Eeva’s.

“Don’t worry. You look simply lovely,” Eeva said. “But, if you want to wear one of mine, feel free. It always feels good to wear something new, even if it is borrowed, don’t you think?”

“Really? May I?” Leena said, rifling through the half-dozen dresses in Eeva’s small closet. Leena could never be jealous of Eeva, despite her pretty clothes. She was too kind and generous to ever feel any animosity towards her.

“Take your pick,” Eeva said. “I think the light blue would suit your light complexion and bring out your eyes.”

She held the dress up to Leena’s chin so she could see the effect in the mirror. Leena beamed.

***

By the time the girls walked to the hall on Alder Street, cars had already crowded the small parking area and the side streets, the sounds of a bouncy polka filling the air. The lights gleamed through the windows in a festive welcome.

Leena’s pulse quickened. She had never been inside the Workers’ Hall before, and remembered her father complaining about the illicit activities here. Something to do with socialism and those “damned Communists.” She knew her father would never approve of this dance. Not with these people. Despite the night air, she could feel her face glowing at the anticipation of what she would find behind the wooden doors.

“Let’s hurry.” Eeva laughed as she grabbed Leena’s hand, dragging her over a snowbank.

The door opened wide to the sound of the piano, bass, drums and accordion playing across the hall on the elevated stage. Smartly dressed men swung pretty women around the dance floor, their feet moving effortlessly. The smell of cigarettes mixed with liquor and perfume wafted towards Leena as she removed her outer boots and coat. Several young people stood on the outskirts of the dancers, chatting and smoking, some tapping their toes to the rhythm, others in deep conversation. Leena and Eeva weaved their way through the bodies until they found a place to stand at a tall wooden table and watch the lively scene unfold.

“Look, there’s Jani,” Eeva said. She pointed across the hall and waved. “I told him we would be here, so he said he’d watch for me.” Eeva grinned widely as Jani walked across the hall. Not much taller than Eeva, Jani’s lively expression made Leena instantly like him. “I think he has a friend with him,” Eeva said over the music.

“This is my good friend, Kari,” Jani said. He smiled at Eeva. “Shall we dance?”

“I guess that leaves the two of us,” Kari said, leaning against the table. “Can I get you a drink?”

Leena nodded. She wasn’t sure what to make of this young man, rather tall and thin, dark hair flipped neatly back, eyes that seemed to be both serious and mocking at the same time.

Leena took a sip, almost choking on the strong drink. She looked at Kari with wide eyes, and his eyes flickered, but he didn’t laugh. Before long, he was telling her everything about his job at Vapaus newspaper.

“Right now I mostly deliver papers and do errands. But pretty soon they’re going to give me a chance to do some reporting. I want to travel all over Northern Ontario. Thunder Bay is doing great things. Lots of organized demonstrations and strikes. I could write about what is going on and inspire others.”

Leena tried to follow along, carried away by his enthusiasm for his beliefs about the rights of workers. She didn’t know too much about it, except for overhearing her father rail against the “Red Finns” and the trouble they were causing. She vaguely remembered a few years before someone from Vapaus had been arrested and gone to trial. Leena’s father had said he deserved what he got: six months in jail and a one thousand dollar fine.

Listening to Kari, she realized she knew little about politics and less about her own town. He seemed so passionate about what was going on with the workers’ movement in the north.

“My parents’ friends have already gone to Karelia. They’re thinking about it too. It’s the new promised land, you know. The Soviets want Canadians and Americans, especially Finnish-speakers. There are lots of jobs there. They call it the “workers’ paradise.” It’s a real chance to make a difference, create a new society. A meaningful life, you know?  I plan to go there.”

She found herself nodding, trying to keep up with his conversation. Every now and again, she hoped he would ask her to dance, but he kept talking, offering her a cigarette once, which she gingerly tried before handing it back with a cough. Whenever he had something of real significance to say, he leaned across the table with serious lines forming around his mouth and eyes. Whatever was important, she didn’t really know, but he had beautiful eyes.

“We’d better get home,” Eeva said, as the hour closed in on midnight. “We’ll miss curfew if we’re not careful. Don’t want to be turned into a pumpkin.”

Leena noticed that Eeva stood close to Jani, holding his hand and beaming up at him as they left the hall. Outside, Leena watched Jani lean over and kiss Eeva.

Kari shook Leena’s hand, giving her a curt nod. He’s very formal, thought Leena. But his eyes twinkled and his broad grin was like a shared secret.

“We’ll meet again soon,” he said.

Leena only nodded, before turning to Eeva for their walk home under a dark canopy of stars. She glanced behind her, but Kari was already walking away, a distant figure fading into the grey-blue snow.

***

Weeks passed. The snow disappeared and spring promised that summer would finally arrive. School was nearing an end, finally, and Leena was enjoying her last days as a student. For several weeks, she had been meeting with Kari over coffee and once even went with him to movie at the Grand Theatre where he held her hand in the dark.

One afternoon, they were sitting at a table in Finlandia, a small restaurant where they sipped on steaming coffee, watching the smog, thick as pea soup, settle over Elm Street. Leena wondered how she would find her way home through the mess. Sometimes the haze was so dense that mothers would have to call their children in, guiding them with their voices to the right door.

“I guess you heard,” Kari said.

“About?” Leena asked.

“The riot. It started out fine, just a peaceful demonstration at the Ukrainian Labor Temple. But then people were a bit foolish and the police showed up. Arrested a few people. Maybe eighteen. At least five of them were Finns,” Kari said.

“Weren’t you scared?”

“Me? No, I just ran. They couldn’t catch me if they tried.” Kari laughed. “Don’t worry. Besides, we have every right to demonstrate. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Kari led Leena down the street, holding her hand until they reached the Vapaus building.

“Care for a tour?”

Kari introduced her to everyone as Miss Kivi, making her feel very grown up. She was impressed by the building and its workers. Before she left, Kari suggested she apply for a job after finishing school. They were in need of someone with secretarial skills.

“Do you think they would hire me?”

“Of course,” he said. “But if you’d rather go home to your parents in Wanup —”

“No. No, I’d really like to work here,” Leena said. She wasn’t sure her parents would understand, but if she had paid work it would be difficult for them to object to her decision. Besides, one less mouth to feed at home was probably better for them right now, especially with the new baby arriving.

“Listen, you can work here for a while. Then we can get married and move to Karelia with my family.”

“What do you mean? Married? Go where?” Leena stopped on the sidewalk to face Kari.

Leena breathed through the heavy smog. The sounds of automobiles crawling past filled the space between them.

“Karelia, of course. My parents have been planning to leave Canada for many months. Karelia is looking for Finnish speaking people with skills. We would do very well there. I’m not just a newspaper man, you know. I can do all kinds of work. My father and I practically built our house. Once we are married, we’ll start a new life in a new country.”

Leena didn’t know what to say. She had heard Kari talk about Karelia, but thought it was only one more of his dreams, never to be realized. Was he really proposing to her? Would accepting mean leaving her family behind? One look into his eyes and she couldn’t help but agree. Of course she would marry him.

***

With school over, and Kari scheduled to leave in a few short weeks, Leena finally found the courage to tell her parents about their plans. She sat at the long wooden table in the kitchen, holding a chipped mug between her fingers. Kari stood beside her chair.

“We’ll get married before Kari leaves and then he’ll travel to Karelia with his family. Once they are settled with a place to live, he’ll send for me,” Leena said, trying not to fidget as she looked from her father to her mother.

Silence. Leena tried to breathe normally, but felt her heart race. Kari, normally so talkative, waited in anticipation, his hat held between his hands.

“Well, this is important news.” Leena’s mother stroked her rounded belly, looked at her husband with concern, and then turned to face Leena, “I understand why you believe this marriage is urgent, but you must take some time to think about it. You should not enter into these contracts lightly.”

“I agree. I don’t think rushing into marriage is wise.” Leena’s father looked from one to the other. “Kari, you seem like a nice young man. You have many dreams. And I see that you love my daughter and that she loves you. So, once you are in Karelia and you have found acceptable work and a good place to live for my daughter, then you may send for her with enough money for her passage. Then, and only then, I will send her to you with my blessing and you may be married in Karelia.”

Leena looked at her father, the tears welling in her eyes. She would be away from Kari for who knows how long? Yet her father had practically agreed to let her go, when the time came, and that was even more than she dreamed was possible.

Kari looked at Leena. She nodded silently. She knew her father could not be swayed any further and she would not go without her parents’ approval.

“Yes, thank you Mr. Kivi. This is an acceptable plan,” Kari said. He turned to face Leena, taking her hands in his. “I promise to send for you very soon.”

He looked disappointed, but Leena knew that his enthusiasm for the promises of Karelia would not allow him to be disillusioned for long.

***

At the end of the summer, Kari and his parents made their journey across the ocean. Leena spent her days working at the newspaper, searching for any information about the Finns in Karelia. Mrs. Salmi allowed her to board with her, raising the rent a little now that she was fully employed. Whenever she could, she visited her parents on the farm, helping with the new baby, a little girl named Katri. Her mother looked tired, and older. Her father rarely spoke about Kari or Karelia.

At first, Kari’s letters were frequent. His sloping script revealed his optimism about his new home. He found work as a carpenter within a few days of arriving, and he and his family found accommodations in a building that looked like a barracks, but was clean and tidy, he said. Every time he signed off he wrote the same lines: We will meet again soon. I promise. Leena folded each letter neatly, wrapped them with a red ribbon in a neat bundle that she placed beside her bed. Sometimes she unwrapped and read the letters several times a day.

The gold and red leaves soon fell, leaving behind stark branches under a grey sky. Even the air smelled like snow, at least when it didn’t smell like sulphur. Kari’s letters became less frequent. Leena tried to stay active in the community, volunteering in the Finnish halls to help the less fortunate whose numbers were ever increasing. She visited Eeva frequently and tried to meet with other school friends, but the days slipped past.

One afternoon, Leena met Eeva for coffee after work. Eeva could hardly contain her bubbling with excitement.

“I have some news,” Eeva said. “Jani and I are going to get married!”

“Married! That’s wonderful. When will you be married?” Leena embraced her friend, trying to feel joy on her behalf. Instead, all she could think about was Kari and his well-being.

“In the spring, I hope. We’ll try to save a little money first. How is Kari? Have you received any letters recently?” Eeva asked, guessing at Leena’s preoccupation.

“Nothing recently. It’s been many weeks and I haven’t heard anything. I’m getting worried,” Leena said. “He always promises that we’ll be together soon, but I’m not sure what that means any more. It’s more difficult than I ever imagined.”

Eeva nodded and grasped her friend’s hand. They sipped their coffee in silence.

***

When Leena finally received a letter, it was brief and said little about Kari’s new life. Times were difficult, he wrote. Some strange things had happened. A few people had disappeared in the night, never to be heard from again. People were getting nervous. Some even talked about returning to Canada. But Kari sounded optimistic. He wrote that he had applied for his Soviet citizenship, confident that the government would take care of the people of Karelia. Why else had they been invited to live here?

Mid-winter brought snow drifts in the streets and plummeting temperatures. Leena tramped to work, pulling her wool scarf around her neck to keep her warm breath in, but instead created a mask of frost around her face. It had been many weeks since she had heard from Kari. She was beginning to forget what he looked like. She imagined his tall frame leaning against the table at the dance in the Workers’ Hall. His jovial eyes. His bright smile. The way it felt to hold his hand. How could she forget? She stamped her feet before entering the newspaper building, shaking her hat and scarf to free them from the fat flakes of snow.

Leena dragged herself through the winter, fearful of what was happening in Karelia. The news was never good. Soldiers appeared in the middle of the night. People were arrested. Others executed. Children died of illness and starvation. Many held on to the belief that Stalin would save the people of Karelia, never believing that he was responsible. Those who managed to return to Canada expressed deep sadness and disappointment that their dreams of a perfect society had been shattered.

Leena’s dreams were shattered too. No one had any information about Kari or his family. The best she could hope for was that they somehow escaped to Finland or were trying to return to Canada. His last letter was brief, telling her he hoped that things would change. Unlike his other letters, he made no promises of meeting soon. Did he know something he wasn’t sharing?

By spring, Leena was weary of life in town: the taste of sulphur, the blanket of smog, the black rock, the stunted trees. Like most years, Junction and Nolin creeks had overflowed, leaving the roads flooded and muddy. The slow awakening of green buds on the bushes and the sun straining through the clouds did little to cheer her. Working at the newspaper only brought news about the Depression at home and the problems abroad.

It had been over a year since she had met Kari, and many months since she had seen him last. As she sat on her bed, tying his letters together with the red ribbon, she thought of home. Her family was in Wanup on their farm, creating a living by strength and ingenuity. There was no need to travel to some distant land. The promise was here.

Leena picked up her bag, filled with her few belongings, and said a last good-bye to Mrs. Salmi, anxious to return home, the letters grasped in her free hand. She stepped into the bright spring morning and took a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly to feel the rays on her face. She remembered the sounds of gurgling water in the river and the waving gold of the rye and oats in the fields. She imagined the scent of fresh bread baking and strong coffee brewing in her mother’s kitchen, the constant chatter of her siblings filling the silence.

Leena’s dreams of Karelia had died with Kari’s last letter. As she tucked the bundle of letters neatly into her bag, she thought of his last promise: we will meet again soon. Somehow she knew they never would.

2 comments

  1. Gloria Jean Hansen

    I hated for this story to end! First of all, it brought me right back to early Sudbury and the familiar surrounding countryside, and secondly to a girlhood long gone, launched into the adult life of a young nurse from the doorstep of a Long Lake boarding house, full of dreams, hoping for a better future than back home on the farm. Your characters came to life on the page, and demanded that we take a journey with them. Looking forward to your next post!

  2. Pingback: “Karelian Dreams” | Liisa Kovala

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