A single candle lights the darkness

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

This is a portrait of my Finnish grandmother Amanda Vainio in her early twenties. I never knew her as a young woman and to me she always had thick glasses and long white hair. She walked slowly and was stooped forward from a lifetime of hard work. She didn’t hear well and spoke mostly Finnish with a mix of some English words.

She loved me and my three brothers and three sisters and we were everything to her. Christmas was a big production and she would wake up at 3:00 AM to build a fire so she could start cooking early. She cooked everything on a black cast iron Monarch wood stove with nickel plated trim. My grandfather carried it on his back in four trips from the town of Chisholm as a wedding present to her. The trail he walked was 17 miles and there were no roads when they settled in northern Minnesota.

My grandfather died at age 92 and when my grandmother died at age 94, everything was sold at auction.  I’m still looking for her stove and I have not been able to find bread like she made in that stove, even when we went to Finland. It never occurred to me to pay attention to something so simple and so available when I was growing up.

My grandmother came on a ship from Finland when she was just a girl and as far as I know, she traveled alone. She would have saved or borrowed money for the trip and would have had little to no belongings, mostly what she was able to carry with her. She came in through Ellis Island and I can only imagine the people who were looking to prey upon anyone new in the country. That trip had to be dangerous for anyone, but a girl traveling by herself would be especially in danger. I talked with a woman whose grandmother sailed from Finland with her sister. They lost track of each other in New York City and she never saw her sister again.

My grandmother was poor and I don’t know how much it cost to have a portrait made. She saved for Christmas and she spent the entire year knitting hats and mittens for her seven grandchildren. Her long white hair was knitted into the fabric as she made them. She carefully decorated her Christmas tree and when we tore open the packages she would save the ribbons and the paper and the boxes to use again next year.

She had a huge garden and had to haul water from the pump in front of the sauna. There were rain barrels on the corners of the house so she wouldn’t have to carry water as far. She canned all of her vegetables and she was constantly in the woods picking berries when they were ripe and she canned those as fast as she picked them.

My grandfather died before I graduated from high school. My grandmother rarely left her house and when she came to my graduation she was wearing a long black coat and a hat with a veil. They smelled like mothballs and I could tell she was proud just to be standing near me.

She died when I was twenty-one or so. I remember sitting at her bedside in the hospital wondering when she became so small and so frail. She had been less and less responsive and I knew she was dying. Her lips were dry and cracked and her breaths were slow and labored. I pulled a chair close to her bed and I picked up her hand and held it. She didn’t respond until I whispered in her ear, “Grandma… It’s Arne.”

She didn’t open her eyes or otherwise move. My father had committed suicide when I was four years old and she squeezed my hand and it was all she could do to whisper, “Aarne.”

This was the way she said my father’s name and even as a young man, I knew she was holding his hand as she held mine. She held tight for a long time and her breathing seemed easier once she finally let go.

That was the last time I saw her.

The Ojibwe side of me doesn’t really do Christmas and for the last 5 years or so we have a fake plastic fig tree that stays lit all the time. We usually unplug it in June and then in December we dust it off and play a few Christmas songs and we plug it back in.

The Finnish side of me honors my grandmother. There is a Finnish tradition of placing ice candles on the graves of loved ones on Christmas Eve. Every year my brother Scott makes ice candles and Jake and Ivy and I travel over 150 miles to put them on the graves of my grandmother, my aunt Helmi, my father and my grandfather. We stop at the house of an elderly Finnish couple we mostly see on Christmas Eve on our way to the cemetery. We have coffee and we sit and we visit and they want to know all the excitement we’ve had during the year. They decorate their Christmas tree like my grandmother decorated hers.

The cemetery is far from city lights and is surrounded by tall pine trees. The snow banks are always high and the night is always cold. There is no traffic and the only sounds are the wind in the trees and the crunching of the snow as we walk to the graves in the dark. The stars seem nearer and Orion is always bright in the south. We are close to the same latitude as Finland and my grandmother would have seen the same winter constellations as a little girl in her homeland.

We walk carefully so we don’t disturb the snow and we reverently place the candles on each grave. We light them and they softly illuminate the names on the headstones. I usually tell Ivy and Jake some story about my childhood and we otherwise stand in silence. The wind whispers in the tall pines and the stars twinkle in unison with the flickering candles. The bitter cold eventually gets to us and we walk back to the car as a family.

Last year I walked back to the grave one last time before we headed home. I knelt next to the candle by my grandmother’s headstone and whispered:
“Grandma… It’s Aarne.”

We drove away with the ice candles glowing on the snow covered graves and there were other candles from those who had come earlier. Each candle illuminated a name on a headstone. Each name had its own story and someone had been there to remember them.

A single candle lights the darkness.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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