Column: We all come from somewhere

  • Matti and Hilja Aho's wedding portrait. Courtesy photo—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/19/2019 12:27:42 PM
Modified: 7/19/2019 12:27:30 PM

Technically, my great-great grandparents were the first in my family line to immigrate from Finland to America. But in the lore of my family, the story has always been about Matti and Hilja Aho.

One of their nine children is my Nana, Daphne Saari, who is the undisputed family historian. Through her research, I know a lot about the story of Matti and Hilja (called Aiti – mother – by her own children, and successive generations). They both came to the United States as children.

Hilja came following her father, who was working as a farmhand in Mason, New Hampshire for the Russell family, in the very early 1900s.

Hilja wrote about her first memories of hearing about America – the extravagances you were allowed, such as having rice pudding whenever you wanted, instead of just as a Christmas treat.

Matti also came to the country as a child. As a teenager, bluffed his way into a construction job, which led to a career in the field, and a long legacy of construction workers among his sons and grandsons.

I never met Hilja and Matti – they were before my time. I never met my other great-grandparents (also Finnish) either. But their heritage has touched my life all through my childhood and into adulthood. Whether it was growing up with a gaggle of tow-headed cousins, learning to bake nisu (a braided sweet bread with cardamom) in my aunt’s kitchen, or the blue and white flag that always hung over my grandparent’s garage, my heritage has always been stitched into the background of my life.

I can’t imagine what it must have taken to come to a country, not knowing the language, not sure of what job you might be able to get or where you might live. I have never been in a circumstance where I had to make that choice. I have never been so poor, or in such dire circumstances that such a crazy leap seemed the better choice than staying where I am. But I also know I’m only in that circumstance because people like Matti and Hilja and their parents did make that choice.

This is the privilege I have as a child of immigrants – particularly a child of European immigrants. Several generations removed from their story, I find it hard to grasp what a difficult choice they made in coming here. I just hope that everyone else – because everyone else is also a product of someone, somewhere making that choice – takes the time to think about the immigrants and refugees of today, who are living those same situations.

Matti and Hilja Aho’s story is one of twelve immigrant stories currently on display at the Monadnock Center for History in Culture in Peterborough.


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