When my son Michael was just a wee little lad — in fact, so young he was just learning to talk — I would often times make popcorn for the three of us. Sometimes I would sit him on the kitchen counter next to me while we made it together, especially when I was making Jiffy-Pop.
One night I was making popcorn without him for some reason until he started saying “Sisu down big boy,” which my wife and I translated as “I wish to be placed on the kitchen counter, sit down, and make popcorn with you like a big boy.” And while that translation was more than likely the correct one, Mike may also have been exploring his Finnish roots by invoking the term sisu. Sisu is a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness and is held by Finns themselves to express their national character. It certainly worked in Mike’s case, as his pleas to sit on the counter from then on always worked.
Our Finnish roots stem from my maternal grandmother’s line. Helmi Sylvia Johnson was born December 16, 1908 in Ironwood, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, one of thirteen children born to Otto William Korhonen Johnson and Marianna Fiskaali. Both William and Marianna emigrated to the United States from Finland. Otto was born June 7, 1872 in Oulu, Finland and most likely emigrated to the United States at some point in the late 1880s or in 1890. Specific arrival information has not been located but there is evidence that he was working as a foreman in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1890. Marianna, on the other hand, was born in Sievi, Finland on December 15, 1873 and arrived in the United States through Ellis Island on June 19, 1895. They were married in Newport, New Hampshire on October 4, 1896.
At some point, and for reasons that are not yet clear, the family surname changed from Korhonen to Johnson. It did not occur upon arrival in the United States (the notion that the government changed names upon arrival at Ellis Island is a myth). The marriage documents in 1896 use the name Korhonen. Census data from 1900 has not been recovered as of yet but the birth records of their first child in 1902, as well as all future records of any sort, including the 1910 census all referred to them as Johnson. Hopefully, there will be more on this later, and one of my goals for the new year will be to learn more about my Finnish roots both from a genealogical standpoint but also from an historical, linguistic, and social standpoint.
Anyway, I never met or personally knew my great grandparents. Both of them died long before I was born, Marianna of breast cancer at the age of 47 in 1921 and William of heart failure in 1940. but if ever anyone embodied the Finnish notion of sisu it had to be their daughter. As stoic and resilient as they come, Grandma Penrose was almost deaf for most of her adult life. For years she wore an old-style hearing aid around her neck which required her to hold a telephone upside down. Us grandkids loved to watch her talk on the phone — we didn’t care what she was saying or who she was talking to — we just loved to watch. She had a heart condition and a very soft voice but it was always clear just who was in charge, and when she and my grandfather would have an argument she would simply turn her hearing aid off and would win the argument by default.
Both of my Penrose grandparents had a goal to live to the age of 70, as no one in their families had ever done so. Faced with a mother who had succumbed to breast cancer (as would a daughter), she underwent a double mastectomy as a preventative measure but it would ultimately be cancer that took her life on December 18, 1978 — the Monday following her 70th birthday.
One day us kids were playing basketball on our driveway while Grandma and Grandpa were visiting. As they walked out to leave, Grandma asked for the basketball. She never asked for the basketball. She dribbled it a couple times and then hit a solid, nothing-but-net twenty-footer than would put Stephen Curry to shame. As we take pause to celebrate the life and death of Helmi Johnson Penrose this week, let us remember the notion of sisu — whether it be the determination to sit down like a big boy or nail a basketball shot, grit and bravery in the face of the frailties of the human body, or the sheer tenacity required just to survive in today’s world — let us remember where we get it from and strive to pass it on down the line.