by Emma Marttinen
It wasn’t until my grandfather’s very last trip to his birthplace, Finland, after living in Canada for much of his adult life that he stopped referring to Finland as home. Upon his return, he expressed this to my family, most especially my mother, who had just given birth to me. She used to challenge my Pappa, who often reminisced on candied memories of his homeland. He was one of the only people from a large connected family to leave Scandinavia. After serving his mandatory time in the military, he traveled around Europe until he eventually landed in Canada. This is where he met my Mummo, raised their kids, worked his job; this is where he built everything. “This is your home,” my mother would say. “This is where your life is.”
“This is your home” is all I can repeat while laying in my bed for the first time in months—my bed in my room, filled with my books and posters that make up a small piece of me, a chip of memory, a wave of nostalgia. My mom tells me my cat refused to enter the space for the past two months and upon my return, the same slinkish desire to stay away overtakes me. The air is stale. When I sit down in my desk chair, it tips slightly, confused by its disuse. I haven’t been away for long. I’m happy to be with my family.
Around seven years ago, Pappa was diagnosed with dementia. This news came as little shock to most. It had always been the tendency of my grandfather to reminisce. As he got older, an air of forgetfulness began to muddy his memory. In many ways it was certain before his condition was ever confirmed. When he previously admitted to my mother that he felt as though he should call Canada home, she was slightly aghast. So much of her understanding of him was buried in his connection to Finland, a connection that would never falter but was begging to take a new shape in his mind. I ask while visiting him, now permanently residing in an old age facility, where his home is. Almost twenty years after his last trip to Finland, he’s unable to answer me. He doesn’t even know where he is in the moment, let alone in the world. I wonder what he would say if he could.
It’s hard to watch a person you love transform in front of you. My Pappa was an integral piece of my childhood — with his support, I grew into the person I am today. What was once a gentle, understated, at times stoic man has evolved into something new. When I look at him, all I can feel is the avalanche of nostalgic energy. The hours we spent playing, swimming, building, making snow-forts. He is in many ways still the same person, and in many other ways, he is not.
A similar confused, nostalgic spirit lingers in my time visiting home. I haven’t been away for school longer than three months, and yet I find myself stepping quickly into the future, uninterested in the rosy past. There is a part of me I struggle to look at, that tells me some of the teenage angst may be right, maybe my home isn’t where I was raised. But this is where my life is, I tell myself, aren’t I supposed to cling to all I’ve built here?
It is change that creates such an intense longing for the past. Our histories provide comfort, as the memories obscure with time: they help us hold onto the good parts, to the things that make us who we are. Of course, connection to one’s birthplace is important. I feel a deep appreciation for my hometown, a love for all it has shown and given me. But I wonder, now that I have begun cultivating something away from it, if the distance I have always felt from its culture grows stronger the longer I am away. I am filled with lovely memories in its wake, but I do not stick to them the way my grandfather could.
People keep asking me if I’m ‘glad to be home’, and each time I’m questioned, the less I know how to respond. I know that I am glad to be near family and friends, or to physically be home, in a space familiar to me. But is the nostalgic spirit of my return really important to me, just like my Pappa, who despite his wonderful memory, will never be the same again? Am I to hold onto his past? Will I ever feel satisfied in knowing him now if I cannot let go of what is gone? The pieces of me left scattered throughout my hometown are simply pieces. Small fragments of history that have helped shape me. However, it is becoming clearer that they do not define me. What was once me is gone. What was once present has passed.
I like to imagine that if my Pappa was aware enough to respond, he would still say Canada is home. Despite his renewed fall into the nostalgic, as it makes up much of what he can still remember, there is the same air of acceptance he had when returning from his last trip to Finland twenty years ago. He accepted the change; he indulged in the present. With his help raising me, we spent much of our time together interested in both. I may not know where my home is yet, but I know there is much to build.