There’s a word my grandmother carried from her Finland home to a new country at age 16: sisu.
Linguists say it doesn’t translate well into English. It means determination, strength, courage, resilience, perseverance. (Check Wikipedia’s definition of sisu.)
Learning about sisu in my teens, I realized my Grandma Morrow embodied it. She was sweet, tiny and gentle; she was tough.
She overcame many hardships; raised five children in the toughest economic times; endured much. She had the greatest sense of humor; laughter, in the Morrow family, is what I cherish most.
Her only son is my Dad. He endured much too, including being spoiled and beloved by four sisters.
These blonde, Canadian aunts always taught me about sisu: They raised strong families while working full-time at office jobs in banking and government; one traveled the world instead.
The traveler was my childhood heroine, because of her world-curiosity. She has great stories about playing guitar and singing in her second language, Spanish, with South American villagers — after she and her husband survived a piranha attack in the Amazon. That’s sisu.
This aunt cycled across Canada for fun before men thought about doing such things as contests. She became part of an all-ages dragon boat team after surviving breast cancer and vision loss. They’re champions, and heroines in Japan.
Another aunt, as I’ve written before, was a role model because of the strength that helped her endure much pain and loss. She is the sisu that was my grandmother: proud, determined, strong. And elegant. Her natural elegance showed me, at an early age, that this inner beauty cannot be bought, cannot be duplicated at the cosmetic counter. Her elegance of spirit, in the face of repeated trauma, defines sisu.
One of these aunts died recently, leaving a legacy of sisu after a long struggle with breast cancer. (It claims women on both sides of our family.) She created a strong foundation of family that has spanned generations and cultures. Her home always was filled with laughter, warmth and unending generosity — and great Finnish and Macedonian meals. Her grandchildren are amazing.
I have come to know the youngest aunt better this year, watching her put sisu into motion as she swims laps twice a day; gathers family in laughter; and transcends loss, as a widow. We had a “pajama party” this summer and she served me cafe latte in bed the next morning. That may not be sisu, but that’s so very special.
Every few days, this aunt forwards emails, from cute YouTube baby animal clips, to silly chain emails that I usually find tedious. But I cherish every one of these, especially the personal emails with Andrea Bocelli songs, lovely art, funny sayings … because I know she selected them for the people she loves.
On tough days, those emails are uplifting and touching. I try to take a moment when reading them to think of my aunt at her computer … and always smile.
All of the aunts, except the world traveler, had children — more blondes. There are many grandchildren — more blondes — and they’re training to be lawyers, nurses, teachers … whatever they want to be.
They’re all discovering the sisu that our Grandma Morrow brought from Finland.
Fourth in a series of real thank you notes