My Parents’ ‘Mixed’ Marriage Was Frowned On
My mother was pure Finnish and Lutheran. My father was pure Italian and Catholic. She was sandy-haired and green-eyed, he was dark and swarthy. They both came from old world families that didn’t mix and didn’t approve. Each of their mothers would have preferred they married their own kind.
It was 1936. She was only 17 when they married, and he was 24. She was from the Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan’s remote northernmost point, and he was from Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, but they came separately to Detroit to work — he as an auto worker and she as a housemaid. They happened to board in the same house with a couple who were friends to each of them — the wife Finnish, the husband Italian, as it happened, and there they fell in love.
They built a good life together. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just weeks before my mom’s 68th birthday — a day she should have been celebrating, but instead was reeling from the news that what they thought was emphysema was actually advanced, inoperable lung cancer. She died seven months later.
My brothers and I decided to hold her ashes until our father died, which seemed imminent since his heart was broken and his world had crashed. He deflated, he shriveled, he lost the will to live. He directed us to buy plots in a small cemetery near my mother’s birthplace in the Keweenaw, where her family was buried. He actually told us to hurry.
He lived for another two years. He died in winter and wouldn’t be buried until the following spring, when the frozen ground had thawed enough to take a shovel. Months later, when summer came, I finally had a chance to travel there and went with an old friend of my mom’s to the cemetery, where we laid flowers around the headstone. As we arranged them she said, “You know, there was a time when your dad wouldn’t have been allowed to be buried here.”
No, I didn’t know.
But it was true: It had been a cemetery where no Catholics were allowed. Just as in the Italian Catholic cemetery in my dad’s hometown, where his family was interred, my Finnish Lutheran mother would have been turned away.
I love being both Finnish and Italian, but there were times when I was conflicted. I was baptized Lutheran and went to Lutheran churches, but I was dark, like my father. When I was with my Finnish cousins I wanted green eyes and blond hair — just like them.
My mother’s family lived in a community that could have been Scandinavia, in topography, in language, and in physical looks. Towheads everywhere. My father and I stuck out like sore thumbs.
For the most part, the gene for Finnish food escaped me. I hated their yogurt-like Viili, their cardamom-laced coffee bread (Old Finnish Nisu , modern Finnish Pulla), and their awful, awful fish head stew — but I still long for my grandmother’s Riisipuuro, a rice porridge she made with short grain rice, whole milk, Pet Milk, and enough butter to make Julia Child weep with joy. (I make it but it’s not the same. I can’t bring myself to use Pet Milk.)
I loved Rieska, a Finnish flat bread, and Limppu, those glorious round loaves of rye/graham bread with a crust so hard you could play it like a drum. But I’ve never been able to duplicate them, either.
When I was with my Italian/Canadian cousins I looked like them, but I was the American outsider who couldn’t speak Italian to my non-English-speaking grandmother. I had never before worn a scarf on my head in church, had never dipped my fingers into a font and crossed myself, had never heard a sermon in Latin.
My father’s family lived in a section of town that was pure old world Italian. Instead of buying salami at the grocers, I went along with my grandmother as she headed to someone’s house where long salami sausages hung curing in a dank stone cellar much like the one my Uncle Victor used to hold his wine casks. Chickens scratched in their yards, and we picked fava beans in my grandmother’s garden plot. Their olive oil came in two-gallon cans. And then of course there was pasta…
Well, you must know how I feel about pasta.
(If you’re wondering why there are no pictures of my Italian family, it’s because somewhere down the line I separated all of their pictures to send to my cousin, who was doing our genealogy. I apparently never sent them and now I can’t find them. They’re in my house somewhere — in the one place I haven’t looked. Breaks my heart. But I haven’t given up.)
My Italian relatives were huggers and feeders — “Eat! Eat!” They showed their love by overloading tables with food to die for, and you didn’t dare hurt their feelings by saying no to anything. My grandmother, Grazia, could intimidate, but my memories involve her brushing my black curls crooning “Bella, Bella.” My grandfather, Giuseppe, was the sweet one who could shed tears listening to a recording of Beniamino Gigli or the Great Caruso.
My Finnish relatives were more reserved, preferring to nibble on soda crackers and drink weak coffee, but their house was my house, even though I didn’t look anything like them. My grandmother Lydia’s ample lap was always available for a cuddle, and she taught us silly Finnish songs that required strange, guttural sounds at the end.
I’m smiling right now, thinking of her.
Because I came from two seemingly incompatible cultures, I was keenly aware, growing up, of how external differences can color perceptions. I felt like I was always on the outside studying tribal habits. The Finnish me watching the Italians, the Italian me watching the Finns, fascinated by their oddities even as their blended blood coursed through my veins.
My reactions to discrimination against people society doesn’t always believe should be together are those of a woman who grew up in a “ mixed marriage” some people thought was wrong. It was the best of both worlds for me, and I want that kind of acceptance for everyone.
When I read a while back about a mixed race couple being denied a wedding hall because the owner thought mixed marriages were frowned on in the bible, my hackles rose. Again. I thought we’d settled that way back in 1967, when the appropriately named Lovings won their discrimination suit against the state of Virginia.
But what got me, beyond the discrimination, was the rigidity of that owner’s belief — that the bible forbade it — and how easily she crumbled when it was pointed out to her that the bible said no such thing.
All discrimination is a conceit. There is no basis for discrimination, no logic, no empirical evidence that it is the solution to anything.
Discrimination hurts. Until someone can prove otherwise, the only point to discrimination is to cause pain. There is nothing honorable about shunning or banning or insulting anyone based on skin color or faith or nationality or gender — or choices of whom to love.
There is so much to be learned from others who aren’t like us. How empty our lives would be if we didn’t reach out and revel in our differences, didn’t welcome others into our world, and didn’t want to visit theirs.
My parents looked beyond their backgrounds and found each other. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to live in both of their worlds, wouldn’t have experienced two radically different cultures, and wouldn’t have known love in three languages.