Present not present

In Finland, each day is associated with a name, a custom that’s apparently a leftover from the Catholic and Orthodox calendar of saints, when people celebrated each saint’s feast day.

Today, August 7, is the name day of Lahja, Finnish for “present” or “gift”, a name that is mostly a female name, especially these days. According to the statistics by the Population Register Center of Finland, no baby boy has been named Lahja since the 1960s – and only a little over 500 baby girls, of the total of over 12,000 people.

My paternal grandfather was one of 97 Lahjas born in Finland in the very late 19th century.

Grandma Hanna, me, and Grandpa Lahja.

I wish I could say that I have fond memories of him, but I don’t. On the other hand, I don’t have bad memories, either. What I have are a few stories and photos which I have used to reconstruct memories of us together. And they’re great: Grandpa visiting us in Helsinki, me sitting in his big old car, us eating breakfast and reading a newspaper together. Sitting in a swing on a hot summer day, me sitting in his lap, typing on his precious typewriter, or wasting the paper in his calculator.

In a way, that may be just as well. Those are all good memories. We never had a fight, we never argued, he never told me to go to bed when I didn’t want to, and – if I remember him correctly – he always slipped a coin or two into my hand when nobody else could see.

Lahja was born in 1898 into a world that’s very much unlike the one I am blogging about him in. For one, he was born in the autonomous grand duchy in the Russian empire. He was most likely either a farmer’s son, or a salesman’s son, as those are the two dominant professions in the family, since the beginning of time.

He fought in two wars, possibly even a third one in Estonia, although nobody seems to know if that’s true. And between the wars and after them, he battled through life, building a family twice, and building a business even more times. His first wife died of meningitis, leaving Lahja the sole provider for three children after the first war.

His first business enterprise, an inn and a freight business, had gone under during the depression. Lahja picked up the pieces and his bicycle, and became a traveling salesman, his brown briefcase swinging off the handlebar.

That briefcase is now in my office. As is grandpa’s old pocket watch that I had with me to the hospital when Son was born, so I could check his time of birth. About half hour before Son was born, I dropped the watch, and it stopped.

After the second war, Lahja found the perfect place to have the store he’d always wanted. He also remarried, and my father and his sister were born. Half of the store was the Pakarinen residence with my Dad, Lahja, and my aunt sleeping in one room, my aunt on the floor, and my grandma Hanna sleeping in the kitchen, because she’d get up early anyway, to bake bread.

Every once in a while, Lahja would make the 35-kilometer trek to Joensuu, to see what new products were available, or getting some more supplies. And once in town, he took his sweet time, making a stop at a local pub, catching the last bus or train back.

Then he got the call many of us would like to get. He was discovered. He was offered a new, bigger store, with several departments, to run, but in another town. Unfortunately, the competition was tough, with several stores fighting for customers in a small town, and when a new road was going to run over the old store – now run by a hired hand – Lahja decided it was time to cut his losses, make a deal, and move back. He sold the store back to the big wholesaler, and went to work to negotiate a decent compensation from the local authorities for the house that, sure enough, would end up under the highway.

He got himself, and the family, a new house. One with a bigger store space, and bigger store windows. And a home that was as small as before. Grandma Hanna would get up early every morning to bake the bread, and the kids, my father and aunt, did what they could to help. Except my Dad who liked sports, which Lahja didn’t care about.

Once he had saved up – and borrowed – enough money, he got himself a car, a Bedford van, which was bursting at each welded seam when Lahja & Son drove to Joensuu to fill up the warehouse. Money was always tight. So tight, that naturally, in every downhill, Lahja put the car on neutral to save gas. Or when he had a toothache, he’d made himself a drink, and pull the tooth with a pair or pliers himself.

Never giving up, Lahja also started a kiosk where my aunt worked. And then he set up a TV store for my Dad to run. He got himself a taxi license in his village, and bought that big old Vauxhall that was his pride and joy. Being brand new and all.

When Lahja suffered a heart attack driving that Vauxhall, he managed to steer the car to a nearby church, and park it in front of it. And then he left us.

I was four. And I remember the funeral.

Easy phone number.

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