Community: Poetry and Photographs as Family Memoir

by Linda Aschbrenner

My two sisters and I have much in common—we read, swap books, write poetry. However, we are not the tightest of communities. My sister, Mavis Flegle, older by 14 years, lives 40 miles away, yet I’m lucky if I see her four times a year. (She bonds with two cousins in the UP, spends much time with them.) My sister, Elda Lepak, closer in age, lives 1,000 miles away in North Carolina. We email each other, sometimes twice daily. Despite this separation of years and miles, we are compiling a family memoir in poetry and prose:Three Sisters from Wisconsin: Our Finnish American Girlhoods with Recollections of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. 

After retiring from editing/publishing the poetry journal, Free Verse, I thought we three should collect our many family poems. After all, we had each been writing on the same topics for years; a book seemed the logical outcome. I would publish it with my Marsh River Editions Press. I had purely selfish reasons for wanting to work on this book; I wanted to learn things only Mavis knew as the oldest child. What happened during the 15 years before I was born? I wanted more information about Mom and Dad, our grandparents—everything I missed.  

I thought this project would be painless; I thought it would be a quick and easy. Not so. We first looked through all the poems we had ever written, hundreds and hundreds of poems, and pulled those about our childhoods. We had an assortment: prose poems, couplets, rhyming poems, some serious, some light-hearted and whimsical. New poems were needed to round out the collection. We assigned topics—ice skating, the Rothschild school, the attic playroom, camping in the UP, our sauna, Finnish food, berry picking, poems about aunts and uncles. We wrote these new poems and sent them to each other—they went back and forth for some time. The logistics were easy. The hard part was the emotional impact while reading these recollections: three siblings, two parents, four grandparents—gone. Childhood, so long ago, no chance to live our lives over, except through this poetry.

For a few years, we were reflecting, remembering, writing family history, and taking some creative leaps in certain poems as we riffed on themes. As the youngest child of a youngest child, I felt a connection to the 19th century. Our four grandparents were born in Finland in 1863, 1869, 1880, and 1881. Between 1890 and 1903, they emigrated to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where they married and raised families. My parents met in the UP, married in 1934, and then moved to Rothschild, Wisconsin. They had six children—only the three of us survive. 

Is it easier for someone with bins stuffed with happy memories of jolly, caring, loving parents to write about the past? Even though we felt like boarders growing up in our house, were we being fair to Mom and Dad in our poetry? What about their own impoverished lives as children of Finnish-speaking immigrants? What about the lives of our grandparents? Conditions in Finland were horrible—famines, epidemics, wars, unemployment. Who were we to complain? As children, we had a roof over our heads and food on the table. So what if our parents didn’t see to our medical care and told us we’d be on our own once we finished high school. And, so it went, ethical considerations: what to include in this book, what to leave out, what to gloss over. We didn’t think what works as a poem, we thought what works as something we can live with, if published. History should stick to the facts, the truth, therefore history told through poetry assumes truth in our poetry. We were, however, dealing mostly with feelings and emotions, our own emotional truths as we looked back many decades.

Who will read this book? Perhaps, just us and a few relatives. That’s enough for us—or me—to use caution. Elda wrote one poem about a deceased aunt that I thought was a bit unflattering. “You can’t have that poem in this book,” I droned. “Think how her grandchildren and great-grandchildren will feel.” (An assumption that they or anyone will read this book.) Perhaps in error, I encouraged Elda to come up with a replacement poem. “Surely, your one poem in this book about this aunt should be something future generations will want to read and feel some spark, enthusiasm, and understanding of her life.” However, since when is kindness a criteria in poetry? We should be considering kindness? We were less kind to Mom and Dad. Is it because we have ownership of our relationship to them and not to our aunt? We are allowed to be unkind because they are our parents? Perhaps we are allowed to be truthful, as we see the truth from our own perspectives. But step lightly if the subject is a deceased aunt.

Another problem: few records, few facts. We had our own memories, but we wanted more data about the lives of our parents and grandparents. Mom and Dad were reticent. This was complicated by the fact that they rarely talked to us at all, about anything. The Finnish are said to be quiet people, but our parents took it to the extreme, except when Dad was shouting at us or Mom felt a need to scream. But stories about family history? Very few. We did ask some questions, but they were often brushed aside. Our parents were reluctant to talk about the past. Our grandparents spoke only Finnish, our parents spoke Finnish and English. We kids, unfortunately, never learned Finnish. Three of our grandparents had died by the time I was born—and no language reaches any of them now. Questions took me to online genealogy websites, ship and census records, family trees.  

Growing up during the 1930s through the 1960s, we sisters thought we were modern, living in a modern era. We had all we could do to keep our lives going without compiling the life histories of our parents. Too bad we didn’t. But could we have written this book decades ago? No. We were too close to what we were living. With time, we have perspective, wrinkles, some ability to filter and understand. It’s just that Mom and Dad and grandparents aren’t here to answer questions, if they would. 

Last summer, when we three sisters gathered at my house, we sat around the kitchen table, each with our tidy pile of poems, with duplicate pages to go around. We each read one poem in turn, and round and round we went. We suggested stronger titles, better verbs, different line breaks—the usual stuff. More often, time was spent discussing the emotion and memory behind each poem: why were Mom and Dad so distant? What was in their own childhoods that made them the way they were? I was delighted with Mavis’ poems—her memories about visiting grandparents I never knew, how Mom washed clothes before she had an automatic washing machine, how Dad pickled herring. I loved Elda’s account of the ice man coming to our street, her adventures in the neighborhood, how we got a TV and phone in the 1950s. All delightful and news to me. And while we were together, we played Scrabble, cooked meals, and devoured a luscious lemon meringue pie. Was this a sign? Add sugar and fluff to lemons?

We wanted photos in the book. Photos! Photos took us months, and we are still grappling with photos. My father had cameras as a young man in the 1920s and took amazing, historic, wonderful photos in the UP where he worked as a lumberjack and lineman. He had photos of cars, trucks, trains, and hay wagons during the 1920s and 30s. His pictures show camping trips, construction on Victoria Dam, early Ontonagon, gatherings on the shore of Lake Superior with his siblings, pictures of his wedding day. Dad even took a few pictures when Mavis was young. Then Dad ceased to take photos. Why? No time? Or was photography too expensive with a family to support? Were we kids not worthy of having our photos taken? I have no recollection of Mom or Dad ever taking my photo during the first 28 years of my life. Only a smattering of photos of us exist as youngsters—taken by aunts and uncles or Mavis when she was in junior high. We kids started taking our own pictures as soon as we could.

Mavis recently told me Dad developed some of his own photos. Why didn’t I know this? Many of Dad’s photos are crisp and clear, nearly 90 years later. They have fared much better than some of the color photos I took in the 1960s and 1970s. So much for progress. 

Mom, too, had photos in two small albums of her life before marriage. Mom’s and Dad’s albums were kept in a bureau drawer in their bedroom when we were growing up. As a child in the 1950s, I occasionally looked at these pictures, mystified about this long ago past. I have no recollection of Mom and Dad ever taking out the albums to look at them, or sitting down with us and discussing each page, picture by picture. I did find one note in an album in Mom’s handwriting: Linda, looking at pictures asked, “How many revelations do we have?” Was I four? Generally though, Mom didn’t want me looking at her belongings. I’ve been experiencing lots of revelations lately. Mostly, I want to scan every photo from these ancient albums—just to save and share them. 

Discoveries! Because of this book, we are digging through dusty boxes and bins looking for more photos. Elda never knew Mom and Dad had photo albums. (Yes, I was the one more likely to poke through forbidden drawers.) Elda and I never knew Mavis had taken pictures of us as toddlers. Now, I am spending many hours scanning photos taken by Dad, Mom, Mavis. Elda is scanning photos a cousin sent her, and we are both scanning photos from our grade school albums. If we hadn’t worked on this book, we would never get to this, all this compiling of family history. We are still recruiting a few more photos from cousins, as we work with Dad’s negatives from the 1920s. 

The old photos of Mom and Dad remind me of pictures on Facebook—happy young people, smiling, hanging on each other, having fun. Were their pre-marriage years their happiest ones? I like to think they appreciated us and their grandchildren in their later years.

A friend asked me why we are doing this book. My answer: Just to say we were here, this was our past, this was our family, these are our stories.

In the process of assembling our book, I became interested in the experiences of others who had Finnish ancestors. I ordered stacks of books and could happily spend the rest of my life reading history books about Finland and the UP, reading family memoirs. But I had to stop reading, for now, at least. I had our own book to complete. Our book presently lingers as computer files, all the poetry and photos in limbo. In time, our completed book will join the other memoirs here in this dusty and cozy room overflowing with the one thing we three sisters love—books. Our book will nestle in among the others.This was our past, this was our family, these are our stories.