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The Toimi

ISSUE:  Spring 1989

The Toimi died a few days ago, a month after his older brother Arne Ronka. They both lie buried in the stone-marked graveyard just behind the glacial boulders, by the sea.

I knew Arne, and I miss him. He looked to me, when he was a young man, like a hero, a kind of Norse god. When he died, he was old. At the little Lutheran church I’ve gone to for years to be near my Finnish friends, I used to make a point of spying out Arne and his wife Aili, and going to sit with them. Afterward at the door he always had to introduce me to the current pastor (so much a lesser man than Pastor Ronka). He would say my name, and that I was the niece of “Miss Hale, our good Angel.” (My aunt, whom I used to visit 70 years ago, in this North Shore village, would be 130 years old now were she alive! Yet Arne always introduced me in the same words: he was so eager to link me to the shepherd of his father’s flock.)

Heaven knows where my aunt got the funds to be the Finns’ good angel. Her house and studio there were heavily mortgaged. I found her mortgage papers the other day in the studio in an old leather trunk that one of my Beecher ancestors had packed his clothes in to go to Yale. But somehow she scraped the money together, putting a Finn through college, sending another to someone with the influence to get him a good job. Summers she used to pay Arne to teach her the Finnish language, and that after she was 70. It is a notoriously difficult tongue, being, like Hungarian, pre-Indo-European. She was gifted at languages, and one of the things she did with the Finns was to start the Folly Cove French Club, to which those broadfaced blonde women came with their knitting (she started a separate Folly Cove Knitting Club, too) and in time learned to speak quite passable French. All this sociability was, in part, a heritage from her father, a Unitarian clergyman who would give a passing tramp the coat he was wearing, much to the annoyance of his sons. Why do I miss the Toimi, whom I never knew, most of all? Well . . . .

I am standing in the road with my old aunt Ellen in front of Pastor Ronka’s bare, plain house, with always the backdrop of the sea, 70 years ago. Pastor Ronka and his wife, with their high-cheeked faces, stand with us. He is pastor of the little Lutheran church to which the Finns went, then as now, only then one service of the two was in Finnish. They are strong with a special courage which they call sisu. They are proud of their race, unlike so many immigrants.

Pastor and Mrs. Ronka have come out to speak to my aunt. He, as was usual in those days, is indisputably the intellectual superior of his flock. My aunt being a clergyman’s daughter, they have a deep bond. There is visible respect on either side. She is dressed, as always, in a black cloth shirtwaist and long black skirt and black boots. She wears half a dozen chains around her neck from one of which depends a gold watch, tucked into her waistband. Her long, gentle, intellectual face has scallops of hair over her forehead. Her earlobes are notably long, and she wears a black velvet band over her head she calls her headache band. Some child dubbed it that, and she adopted the phrase. She is rubbing two of something together in her hand—flowers? Two pebbles? What? She always does this. Once, on Fourth of July, she rubbed two torpedoes together in her hand, and of course they went off, severely burning her.

As for pigtailed me, I am dressed in a gingham dress— brown and white check or black and white check. That was the choice I gave myself when I had the power to choose. My other clothes were beneath contempt, having belts up under my armpits and made at home. But I was happy. I was at Folly Cove for my brief three-weeks annual visit, smelling the sharp salt wind of the sea, and the white locust blossoms, now falling on the road.

Pastor Ronka had been a missionary to South Africa, and his older children were born there. Now he and Mrs. Ronka were listing their sons one by one (there were no girls). The oldest was Ensio, who had given me swimming lessons, which is not to say taught me to swim. I never progressed beyond once swimming across the cove alone. Ensio used to say, as he stood in the icy water up to his waist, pounding himself on his chest, “Look at me! Cool, calm, and collected.” Though a Finn, he did not resemble his father, who had an air of authority that was no illusion. He became, I think, a dentist.

Then there was Arne, the beautiful, the hero, who as a young man would come up to my aunt’s house, dressed in his best, to play charades with us three girl cousins on our summer visit. My aunt depended on Arne; he was her mainstay. Later she found him a good job with Stone and Webster. Later, yet, when my aunt was dead, he retired, with diabetes, and came back to Cape Ann. His leg had eventually to be amputated. Last month he died, and I miss him.

Then came George and Lauri—I knew them slightly—and then the Toimi. When Pastor and Mrs. Ronka came to him they always said “the Toimi.” It sounded especially tender and loving.

And always there, the eternal backdrop of the sea.

Then my old aunt and I leave the Ronkas and walk home, beside the sea, to light the oil lamps for evening. Irish Lizzie would have spent the morning cleaning and polishing their chimneys. The lamps were large, and had green glass shades; they gave a good light to read by.

“The Toimi is going fishing tomorrow,” my aunt says. “He said he would bring me some fish.”

“The Toimi” again.

And now Toimi is dead; and so is Arne. And, of course, my aunt. But of all the Ronkas I find it is Toimi I miss the most, even more than Arne, whom I knew. I never even met Toimi. I missed out on him—that is perhaps why I feel such loss. He might have taught me to swim. And I am mourning the lost opportunity to have known somebody so eminently lovable. Why else would they all have called him “the Toimi”? I am bereft. It leaves a hole torn in that vast net of memory, the past, which underlies me. . . . And when there are very many more of such holes I think, finally, there will be nothing underneath me; only the dark night.

I don’t like that thought. So, as I go to sleep I think, and I will be left walking the tightrope that has always been there, all the time, in the dark night, among the stars.

But in the night, in Dylan Thomas’s fluid phrase, the weather turned around. In the morning I see clearly that the reason I missed a life opportunity was that, in those days, girls did not seek out boys’ friendship. It would never have occurred to me to seek out the Toimi—ask him to take me fishing with him, for instance; to show my desire for his friendship. That was for a boy to do, and later at that.

I never did. And that is why I miss the Toimi most of all. I missed, for that most unbalanced of reasons, my chance to know the Toimi, to love the lovable one. There was left so much to wonder about. Were, for example, that strong father and that strong mother enough for him? Did they give him what he needed for life? Or was he, too, one who must walk a straight and narrow tightrope in the darkness, among the stars?

Gradually, though, I began to take in that the rent in my safety net was not torn any more; was in fact, from the night’s good sleep, knitted up more firmly than before, reinforced. I had taken up some of Toimi’s essence, received it into myself, turned an emptiness into a real, present thing.


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