AROUND LA WITH AVA®: Saying Goodbyes
Candles From Above
Sometimes saying goodbye comes with a ‘wink from above’.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote a column entitled Pennies From Heaven to describe a phenomenon my father and I experienced when my dear mother passed away. Then, shiny new pennies suddenly began appearing in places and at times that ‘meant’ Ӓiti was with us and paying attention. Goodbye 101 is on the record.
Well, it has happened again.
Before you write me off as being a little off, let me tell you what has happened that looks an awful lot like Goodbye 102!
A few years ago while visiting in Minnesota, I saw realistic, wax, battery operated, ‘flameless candles’ for the first time. Like all Finns, I have always loved candlelight, use candles as a decorating statement, and look for interesting ways to place candles to enhance the mood of a party. Since my home is in a high fire risk area, ‘cool candles’ seemed pretty cool to me. I resolved to look for some flameless candles back home.
I saw sets of flameless candles at Costco many months later. Of course, I bought the box of various sizes. I had no real candle plan in mind so I just placed the candles up high on the open rafters of my parents’ suite just to get them out of the way. I never put batteries in them, tried to see if they worked, or read any directions. There they sat, out of the way, and virtually forgotten.
The night after the day of my father’s passing, the strangest thing happened. I walked by the darkened suite where he and my mom had lived for 10 years and the shortest of the candles on that open beam was lit! Each time I checked that evening, that candle was still lit. It stayed on all night.
The very next night, the tallest candle [–the one next to the shortest candle] had come on too! Those who knew my parents know that my mother was 5’2” and that my father was 6’2”. The message seemed clear: my mother was saying “I am here –and, then the next evening, Isä is now with me. All is good.” Those two candle lights […only those two] continued to come on every night for a month. I smiled –and was comforted.
As an educated professional woman, good sense suggested I show this unique happening to others for personal confirmation that my mind was not playing tricks. Just to be ‘safe’, I took pictures which do show the lighted flameless candles on the rafter. The calm, the peace, and the majesty of the original occurrence and the repeated reprieves are not captured!
Life Goes On
Even with death, life goes on.
In the year just passed, our local Finnish community said goodbye to many including: Alvar Kauti, Anja Reynolds, Dave Larsen, Eino Nurminen, and Marjatta Coughlan –a longtime staff member of the Finnish Consulate who taught me how to make her famous sourdough rye bread with her parrot, Pepe, on her shoulder.
May each of us leave values, memories, a recipe, and/or a technique true to our heritage for the following generations to cherish and to sanctify with loving use.
The Finnish community’s social calendar was chock-a-block starting right after Thanksgiving.
The grand and glorious Finnish Independence Day Reception at the Consul General of Finland’s Residence was both respectful and fun. December 6th was on a weekend this year so it coincided with many other local Finnish and non-Finnish festivities.
I began the ‘season’ that day at my friend Mona’s Annual Luncheon at the Valley Hunt Club [creator of the original Rose Parade] which always kick-starts me into the holiday spirit. On the weekend schedule was Finnish artist Seija Gerdt’s annual glass sale, the Marimekko store’s holiday event and sale, my legal colleagues at Holland & Knight’s “Shopping at Bloomingdales” fundraising party with a significant portion of the proceeds going to the Downtown Women’s Shelter, and some of my own ‘what do I want to give—or get’ looking. We were not even to Sunday yet and, already, I had missed SWEA’s Annual Santa Lucia Pageant and Sale (which was at a new location on Broadway this year). There was just too much to do! I rationalized that making salmon sandwiches for the next day’s Finnish Church “Most Beautiful Christmas Carols” program was more urgent than spending money buying SWEA’s Scandinavian ‘goodies’ even if it was for a good cause.
The Most Beautiful Christmas Carols were as advertised. From my usual place in the back of the church pew section [a good site for counting heads], it looked like more than 140 of all ages were in attendance. As I sat there looking up to the forward, center aisle place my dad always sat so he could better hear the Pastor, the Lessons, and the music—and so he did not have far to walk to take Communion, my heart and my eyes welled up. The contemplation of my vision from just weeks ago was interrupted by the banter of the youngsters seated with their parents in the pew behind me. My pending melancholy was aborted by hearing young children excitedly explaining to each other “…in Finland, at Christmas… !!!”. The music of the season began before the music of the season began! The music was beautiful indeed!
Even without the preamble above, hearing those Most Beautiful Christmas Carols in Finnish would have gotten my ‘waterworks going’! Thanks to a comforting hand from Barbara Tuuri sitting to my right and a fresh hankie handed to me from my left, I made it through the service.
The music was beautiful indeed! HALLELUJAH!!
And the Beat Goes On
The following weekend was equally jam-packed. Our Annual Bel Air Christmas Dinner with friends was scheduled for the same evening as the Suomi Kerho Annual Bake Sale and Christmas Party. I got to the North Hollywood clubhouse where the SK fun was just starting. While I arrived at the announced ‘start time’ for their famous Bake Sale, half of the prized Finnish delicacies had been ‘captured’ already by ‘early birds’. I knew I could not stay for the Christmas dinner and festivities, but I did have a flashback to several years ago when my dad and I attended the same event together. Then, my father’s prankish Finnish sense of humor got the best of him—and me. Without warning, he had secretly bought, wrapped, labeled, and handed over a present with my name on it for joulupukki to hand out to me as if I were his 5 year old daughter. Santa called my name and insisted that I sit on his lap to get my present. Fun —and a few good laughs, were had by all! Well, almost all.
Reflections on my dad’s impish sense of humor occupied my thoughts as I headed off to participate in a tradition of over 25 years, the ‘so-called’ Bel Air Dinner. Through the years, the same 4 or 5 couples scheduled a ‘start of the Season’ dinner together where good food, good wine, and good humor made for good friendships and good fellowship. The Bel Air Dinner was traditionally held at the restrained Bel Air Hotel where the elegant main dining room tolerated our disruption of their traditional tranquility because we had become one of their traditions, their normally staid clientele seemed to enjoy our fun, their normally stuffy staff did enjoy our fun, and our end-of-evening bill reflected our enjoyment.
When the Bel Air Hotel closed for a year for major facility renovations, our dinner moved to the Peninsula in Beverly Hills for that year—and for additional years. I am sure there are Congressional leaders, Presidential advisors, TV news anchors, and the like at the Bel Air who are happy not to have to find an excuse to decline invitations to join our table revelries—just as I am sure there is a ‘bean counter’ somewhere in a Bel Air backroom wondering what happened to their early December profits without our ‘contribution’ for the past several years!
The week after Suomi Kerho held its tradition laden Finnish Christmas and the ‘Bel Air’ Dinner happened at the Peninsula, the Los Angeles Finlandia Foundation held its Pikku Joulu and the Suomi Koulu and Katirilli held their special Christmas Party in Costa Mesa.
Friends from law school whom I had not seen in decades were in town the following week. So, of course, we found ourselves at a window table overlooking the Pacific having lunch at The Lobster in Santa Monica. What a fun afternoon of ‘catch-up’ on old times and colorful ‘war’ stories.
The three of us were tempted to have our picture taken on the Santa Monica Pier where there was a guy with the big yellow eight foot boa constrictor offering ‘pay for pose’ opportunities to tourists. But, time was running short and the ‘clock was running’ to get those rutabagas boiling in preparation for what we Finns long for: Christmas Peace.
A Celebration of Life suits my preference over the term Memorial Service. While some may say that is just semantics, I feel the difference is in focus. ‘Memorial’ suggests ‘done’/ready to be ‘filed’ under history. ‘Celebration’ suggests that we will put the spotlight on your life’s accomplishments and rejoice in your qualities, your accomplishments, and your contributions to our lives and the lives of others.
Either is so hard for people who lose loved ones –especially at this time of year. It is difficult to sing Joy to the World when all you feel is a great sense of loss. If not for the candle incident, the flickering winks, and the pennies from heaven, I might not have been able to cope with all that needed to be done to properly honor my father. With out of state family in town, it made sense to do something while they were here. If we were going to do anything, it had to be put together quickly.
Thanks be to God for Pastor Jarmo Tarkki, for Sirpa Welch with her new Scandinavian Kitchen in LA catering business, and for Michael Armstrong (my Dad’s favorite pianist from the old Finnish Church in Van Nuys)—all of whom rose to the occasion to create the most wonderful, warm, and comforting Celebration of Life imaginable. So many friends from the Finnish community and organizations came together, shared their memories, and brought such love and good feelings to the day.
Jonny Kahleyn Dieb, photographer and photo editor for Finntimes, made a beautiful pictorial tribute from old photographs from my dad’s albums. Tomi Hinkkanen, international journalist and Finntimes editor, memorialized the Celebration Service on video. My children, now accomplished adults with families of their own, spoke with loving and touching words describing the impact and value Iso Vaari had in shaping their lives. A delicious Finnish luncheon with all of my dad’s favorite foods followed, especially: pea soup, smoked salmon, delicious salads, scalloped potatoes, karjalanpiirakkas, a majestic pullakranssi with spoon and fork cookies and blueberry pie. The special foods were expertly homemade by Sirpa and beautifully presented with the help of Sirpa’s professional staff including table stylist extraordinaire, Brain Gandolfo.
Everyone present had to feel my father’s presence, his modest appreciation at being Celebrated, and his smiles from heaven.
Eino Nurminen Has Left Us Too
All of this talk of celebrations, of food, and of Sirpa carrying on the Finnish/Scandinavian catering tradition in Los Angeles reminds me of the legacy she is following. I wanted to share some memories of another Finnish culinary legend who passed on last year.
The Finnish American community in Southern California has lost one of its most remarkable icons. Eino Nurminen was a community leader, a businessman, a chef, a novelist, a columnist, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, and, for all of us expatriate Finns, an influence beyond description. I labored over the order of those descriptors until I realized that the ‘order’ was dependent solely upon the hat(s) that fit the circumstances in which he found himself—often more than one was appropriately worn!
Anja, otamme osaa (we take part in your grief). You were Eino’s great partner in a life of adventures and accomplishments. You were a fantastic team.
Kiitos Eino for your friendship, joy, inspiration, and the Finnish spirit you demonstrated to (and for) all of us. We will miss you. We thank you for all you did for the Finnish American community when you were here in Los Angeles. Your contribution is permanent and indelible.
One of my last memories of Eino was when Anja and he attended one of my father’s “big” birthday gatherings at the lake cabin in Finland a few years ago. Eino was wearing a snazzy fedora to shade him from the long day’s Summer sun. With the hat tilted at a rakish angle, he looked a bit like Indiana Jones! But, his Hollywood days were behind him. Anja and Eino had come to the party from their home in a neighboring Finnish village where they were enjoying their retirement.
As always, Eino brought that warm smile and twinkle in his eye that we all had experienced for so many years when he was evolving as a Renaissance Man during his ‘prime time’ in Southern California. Those who knew Eino, know what I am talking about.
Eino had the best qualities a Finn could have: a happy hard work ethic, perseverance, a quiet sense of humor, humility backed with significant accomplishment, a vision for the future, a willingness to do whatever needs to be done, and an appreciation for Finnish culture and tradition—and a desire to make sure those values were passed on.
Most knew Eino had talent as a chef—they had eaten at his restaurant (The Nordic Inn on Ventura Boulevard), been to a party at the Finnish Consulate that Anja and he catered, or participated in a Finnish community event where he volunteered his considerable talents. Some simply bought his Chef Eino’s Finnish Mustard to impress their friends. Eino’s creativity served many of us well when entertaining since we were able to order his laatikkos, karjalan piirakkas, and the special Christmas hams for our Finnish festivities.
Others knew Eino as a writer: he had novels published and wrote media/by-line articles in Finnish and English for international publications. Anja and he were supreme Finnish folk dancers (Katirilli) sharing and passing on this joyous tradition to everyone who would watch. When Finnair commissioned a film special on The Naked Truth About the Finnish Sauna, there was Eino sitting on his Finnish porch demonstrating the proper techniques for preparing a hand-made vihta from fresh birch branches.
Eino was always there at whatever Finnish event was going on with whatever organization. One of my favorite and definitive Eino memories occurred at Suomi Kerho many years ago. I had volunteered to make Finnish Field Marshall Mannerheim’s favorite food (vorschmak) for an event being held at the clubhouse. My now daughter-in-law was game to have a real Finnish exposure—and did she ever! We brought the enormous pot that had been cooking for literally days [54 hours is prescribed by the General’s favorite Savoy Restaurant in Helsinki] and the large oven baking potatoes to be prepared on the premises. We were quite proud of ourselves because we had done all of the hard work. All we had to do was set the huge SK gas stove ovens for potato baking and wait—we had planned our time well and were quite pleased with ourselves.
Fate takes care of smugness quickly! We could not get the monster gas stove and its cavernous ovens lit! My panic at the prospect of serving ‘candle-baked’ potatoes to demanding Finns was compounded by the Finnish National Costume I was wearing so proudly. Literally, I could not move or take a deep breath because of the cinched laced waist of my grandmother’s kansallispuku from Ikaallinen. I did not want to risk a ripped lace or a bodice ‘malfunction’. Figuring out how to fire up that recalcitrant potato baking machine was a punishing time-line challenge I was losing. Then, like the Lone Ranger to the rescue, Eino arrived, laughed at the quirky oven he knew so well [and us!], and quickly solved our problem by crawling on his back to get under the stove to light it successfully. Eino always went the extra mile—with a smile.
Eino mastered working with his hands and with his mind. For so many years generations of us were amazed at his many and varied talents. I can remember so many events and so many dishes that made me proud to be a Finn. Some of the dishes that remain in my memory are the Salmon Rice Pie in a Crust, the Dried Plum Mousse, a Whitefish Gravlax! Eino’s food was exquisite before anyone in LA knew what a “foodie” was!
Celebrate Being Alive In Two Oh One Five
As we remember those who have gone beyond last year, it is always good to get perspective on our own mortality. I was abruptly reminded of mine when my perceptive little grandson who is always full of questions said: “Iso Vaari died, right”? Yes. “And, that is because he was really old, right?” Yes. His third and final volley: “I guess that means you are almost dead!!!”
Out of the mouths of babes!
Preparing for and participating in A Celebration of Life helps us realize that “…life is not a dress rehearsal”. In looking to another’s aspirations, accomplishments, and influences we are reminded to live our own lives every day, helping each other and ourselves in striving toward our greatest good in the best way we can.
Oh yes, as I was clearing out a clean white box of receipts from my dad’s medical expenses in 2014 just after finishing the first draft of this article, there at the bottom of the storage box was another of those shiny new pennies smiling up at me! You tell me!!
Have a Happy, Healthy, and Helpful New Year!!!!