I guess this could have been a good fight back friday® post, if I had gotten it under the wire, but either way, I am here to talk about an arch and fiery spirit; my mother.
When I was home, my mother and I engaged in a time-honored family tradition of ours; looking at old photographs. She had been busy, she said, making new albums of photos she had had floating around for decades now. To preface this, I should tell you that my mother has been an avid photograph arranger all of my life, organizing my infathood, my toddlerhood, my childhood into neat little albums with christmas and birthday cards tacked in into them, with dates and names and, every once in a while, newspaper clippings included.
So for her to have new, previously un-albumed pictures was a rather novel thing. She said that one album was my childhood, the other our family and one, lo and behold, "her life before me".
(Like there could be such a thing;)
According to family lore, my mother Ulla, was always an oddball, fierce, maybe even a little troubled growing up. It was the late sixties, times were changing, but they just weren't changing fast enough in the small town that she (and later I) grew up.
My mom riding a horse on her boyfriend's parents farm.
Mom and her boyfriend on a vespa trip to Lappland.
I often wonder, if her "troubles" growing up, like mine were not less because she was "troubled" and more because the environment she grew up in was just too intolerant of new ideas and out-of-the-norm behavior.
I love how my cousin's mom is smoking pipe.
These were some of my mom and her boyfriend's classmates at the arts and crafts school. Looking at these my mom remembered being jealous of many of these girls. When I asked why, she replied "Because they were so funny." Which I think is awesome. Not because they were pretty, or more popular, or more successful. Because they were funny.
Mom outfit shot circa 1970 ;)
My mother didn't move out of her childhood home until she was 20, less than a week, she said, from when her father died. She moved straight in with her then boyfriend and never looked back. At the time she was going to the small arts and crafts school in our shared hometown, but soon she moved on to the bigger circles of the capital, the main art school there and began studying such lofty topics as sculpture and set design.
More importantly though, my mother became embroiled in the heated student politics of the 70s, the international solidarity movement, the endless party that was young socialism then. You could in fact say that activism and not set design was her major and I, well...I was the direct result of that international solidarity movement.
The 70s were politically intense in a lot of countries, with the 60s flower-power enthusiasm taking on a more directly radical tack; cultural revolution shifting to a political one. Students and young folk of all stripes were "up on the barricades" against the old guard of their parent's generation, taking over universities and radio stations and demanding solidarity, social justice and peace in ever louder voices.
My mother was very much in the eye of this storm in Finland, going to meetings and unrolling banderols and singing along to protest songs. Some of my earliest memories are from these protests, being surrounded by what seemed like a sea of people, singing, chanting. I basically grew up knowing who both Ronald Reagan and Che Guevara were, listening to records with names like A Plate of Guatemala's Blood and never getting to forget that we did not buy fruit from Israel, or Dole, which is a company owned by United Fruit. Barbies, Coca Cola, new clothes, and pretty much anything most little kids considered fun, were actually "capitalist nonsense" in our house.
But before I came along, she lobbied the parliament, went to Portugal right after the revolution to pick grapes in solidarity with the farmers (see the images below-my mom is the one on the far left raising her fist to the you-know-what-salute), she lived in a commune in a dilapidated (but rather charming) old villa overlooking the city and when she realized that she had way too much space to herself, while others had no homes, she put up an ad at her college's notice board and had a girl move into her walk-in-closet.
My mom and some other radical ladies in Portugal right after the revolution.
A telegraph from in support of taking over the school she studied in. My mother helped organize the take-over. I love that at the top the address is "The Students who have taken over the Ateneum School", then the street address and postal code. I like to picture the telegraph delivery guy approaching the doors, announcing "You have a telegraph!" and the young revolutionaries coming to answer the door. There's something so young and hopeful and naive about it.
My mother was the chairwoman of the student's union at Ateneum, and worked on its student paper. Like much of the world at that time (and many times before and since then), art and artists were in the forefront of changing attitudes and radical ideas, and it was the belief of these young folks that art should speak to the injustices of the world and not be a tool of the capitalist society.
During these years my mom went from a chubby-cheeked small town weirdo, to a serious-faced activist, who carried the world on her shoulders, wore black and smoked cigarillos.
Mom after a long night of printing the paper.
Together, her and her friends and comrades, lobbied the parliament, hosted international guests from countries where political activism was more than just a mere annoyance to those in power and of course, like all young people, threw mad parties.
They believed, sincerely, without irony or self-awareness, that they, mostly the privileged children of the middle class, were going to change the world, with songs and speeches and solidarity; and to a degree they did. In the 70s the industrialized nations made huge strides in women's rights, racial equality, queer equality. The green movement as we know it, got started at that time as well, with the protests against nuclear power and weapons, clear-cutting, pollution, acid rain, the forming of Greenpeace...
They saw these changes and pictured bigger ones, they met people who were actually oppressed and felt their pain and demanded that those in power acknowledge that pain too. They were hopeful, they were angry, they were ready to stand up for their beliefs.
An invite to my mom's joined birthday party with friends. The program reads:
Toasts and greetings
Program by the birthday folks
Boys program (this doesn't seem very progressive ; )
Long live Linnunlaulu- the fortress of Peace on Töölönlahti!
(Linnunlaulu is name of the house they lived in.)
And then what happened?
Well, life. They graduated, had kids, moved in with each other, bought old dilapidated houses of their own, somehow they were busy with other things. The "old days" first slowly and then suddenly became memories of a time that wasn't the present anymore. Those songs became nostalgic, those communes fell apart.
Maybe the established changes seemed enough for now. Maybe they thought they could revolutionize the system from within. First they made art and became teachers and social workers, then they became nationally recognized and accepted tenure and got seniority. Pretty soon they smiled embarrassedly at their youthful folly.
As for my mother, when got pregnant with me, we still lived in a moldy basement apartment without much in the way of amenities. She was a single mom and a student and an organizer. She chopped wood and carried water. I think it probably started to wear on her, because when she graduated she accepted a job in her old hometown, for the ease of arranging childcare with family. (Though we still lived in a house without hot running water, indoor toilet, with wood heat.)
My mother spent my childhood in the conservative boonies where we lived (conservative being a really relative term here) writing letters to politicians, heading the union chapter at her work and making sure I ate good fresh food and learned about, well...the Iran-Contra. She sang me to sleep with The Partisan's Waltz (A love song of freedom fighters. It's really morbid.) and other Agitprop songs. She may have been miserable, I have no idea.
What I know though, is that she raised me to believe in her values, she raised me radical. She raised me to believe that the personal is the political, never to do something just because others were doing it, to speak up against wrongs, and to have a healthy suspicion of authority. She taught me that beneath the visible, ordinary world there's another one, with different meanings and connotations and translations. To look for my own truths and draw my own conclusions.
And frankly, I think that's is the greatest gift you can give to any child: to teach them to think for themselves. (Although it may not serve you well once they reach teenage-hood;)
My mom is my hero.
What important lessons did your folks impart upon you? What's are the values you hope to impart on your own young ones?