Sunday, April 7, 2013

My Mother The Rebel

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;)

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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.
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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.
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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:
Opening Ceremonies
Toasts and greetings
Program by the birthday folks
Girls program
Boys program                    (this doesn't seem very progressive ; )
Audience requests

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?


  1. I love this documentation. Have you shown the post to your mum? What does she think? And I really want to know: was she miserable in the relatively conservative boonies?

  2. It really sounds like you have a wonderful mother - what an inspiring woman. All the photos of life before you are brilliant, I love to see snap shots like these where people we know so well had no idea we were coming! My parents are of the ordinary world I'm afraid - but I don't seem to be and so I agree teaching children to think for themselves is really important - it is something I am trying to pass on to my niece and nephew and hopefully one day my own little one(s) This was great to read - thanks for sharing her story! :)

  3. What a cool mother you have...I love hearing stories about wild parents and unusual upbringings. My own mother was wild as well...:)

  4. I read this a few hours ago, and have been pondering it. I was trying to remember my first 'political' memory, which I thought was watching Jimmy Carter and the hostage release, and asking my dad about it. And then what happens today? Maggie Thatcher dies, and I remember that it was earlier in the same year (1979) that she came into power. I said that day to my dad that it was a good thing a woman was about to run the country, but he said 'no!'. I was 9 then, and she was in power until I was 20. I am a child of the Thatcher-era. And now all those memories are flooding back. Already there is a petition for her not to have a state funeral, and a large percentage of the population are singing "the wicked old witch is dead". Arguments on Twitter are ensuing. One person made a whole generation political, or certainly polarised opinions. So, I don't think my parents taught me about politics necessarily, but to be young then, particularly in Scotland where she experimented with some of her more unpopular policies, it was part of the culture.
    As for my child, again growing up with a Tory government where the rich are getting richer and don't care about the poor, what is the future for him? He is involved in practically giving to those less off, he is happy to walk and not be part of a car-owning family, he reads ingredients on packets to make sure there is no palm oil. As a toddler we took him to anti-war rallies. Your parents influence you, but so does society. Who knows which way it will push you.

  5. Wow! Milla-- your Mom was amazing! I know you had mentioned your Mom previously, but I never realized how actively involved in the counter- culture movement she was. And a fantastic retelling of what happened to the hippy-generation might I add :) My parents-- were more a product of the 1950s. A very American Elvis-loving teeny bopper my mum was when she met my immigrant father who fashioned himself a bit of a Portuguese James Dean. I had an interesting childhood in different ways-- and despite all the difficult things about having a father from another country (a very conservative country) my parents taught me a lot about compassion and respect for others.

  6. this is so great, to get a background on who you are and where you come from. your mom sounds pretty incredible. and beautiful. which I would have guessed from the beginning :)

  7. i have always loved the little snippets here and there about your momma, you growing up around her artsy friends and theater sets and her activism, but it was so amazing to get the full story with pictures! and it must just be the best news to hear that mom is putting together some more organized albums! i love that she kept them up all along too. that is why i am printing actual photos and making albums for lucy, as well as a "baby book." i love that kind of tangible memory.

    your mom's life has been so incredible, what a woman! it is no surprise that you are the way you are, thoughtful, questioning, challenging, thinking, doing. the values she helped to instill in you have truly taken root and blossomed; she must be so proud. also it is neat to see what she looks like and to see a little of you in her. what a marvelous and bewitching pair of women!

    i love the way she worked her radicalism into her daily life and life as a mother. truly inspiring.

  8. Having not visited your blog for a few weeks I am speechless with gratitude that I did today. I have taught my children that respect is not given, it is earned. I have taught them that they don't have to do what adults tell them to just because...their reasoning needs to be sound and just. I have been a fierce mama. My youngest is 15 and he is struggling so wildly to find his way through a conservative high school where social justice and indeed emotional and psychological well-being are (rejected) neglected. He finds some of himself in a situation where is it simply too difficult for him to think of some of teachers as superiors, role models, or people to be respected. If they do not demonstrate intelligence, fair mindedness, and the willingness and ability to listen and hear then why would he look up to them - that's 15year old boy talk.

    I can't apologise for who I am or the kind of mother I am but this very morning I was feeling so scared that I had not prepared my children well for the world as 'normal' people operate within it; I felt I had somehow done them a huge disservice. After reading this beautiful homage to your mama I have so much more hope. Because you are beautiful. You are living a earth loving, respectful, and thoughful life. A radical life.

    And every now and then, between teenage tantrums, (3 kids having them together)I see them do things that are so unusual for a kid their age. When the hormones settle the wise minds that I know each of them to have will return. Thank you for reminding me of that. Bless.

    1. Wow. Your 15 year old boy talk sounds A LOT like my own 15 year old girl talk did. You are the best mother they could have ever had. That's all there is to it. Sounds like you've done an awesome job raising them. Thank you for your kind words. This comment totally made me tear up. Moms like yourself make me want to have kids of my own. All hail fierce, radial mothers!

  9. your mom is a badass.

    and it propelled you into further badassedness.

    thank you for sharing this.

    i grew up with a mom who collected steller's jay feathers and tiny pinecones and these were her treasures.

    she also had 11 children and prayed to her god with a conviction that i now think hides some secret pains.

    i've been reading all of your posts and while i'm here let me say that-

    i love your morels,
    your masks (and the freeing, schizophrenic nature inborn in masks)

    i love that you saw the aurora,
    and peered out onto that rugged infant landscape and
    saw yourself there--

    i love your crafting
    and balancing
    of interests and heartbeats.

    continue to continue!

    when you follow your heart it makes it easier for everyone else to be true to theirs.