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A Woman of Strength, A Woman of Value

Diane Dettmann,

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser.

My grandmother holds no awards recognizing her accomplishments. Her name is not embossed on a star in Hollywood or etched on a granite memorial wall. Yet like many women of the past, she made valuable contributions to the quality of her family’s life and to the lives of others. Sharing stories of the strength and perseverance of everyday women of the past inspires women of today to see the value in their own lives.

A story adapted from Miriam, Daughter of Finnish Immigrants (Outskirts Press), a book coauthored by Diane Dettmann and her aunt, Miriam Dloniak Kaurala. Book reprinted in 2008 in memory of Miriam Dloniak.

My grandmother, Hilja Lukkarila Kaurala, was born on October 8, 1888 in Simo, Finland located a short distance from the border of Sweden. When she was twenty-one, she packed up her belongings, left her family behind and came to America. After three years of working as a housekeeper for the wealthy members of society, she became disillusioned with her unfulfilled dreams of America. She returned to Finland, but life there was dull and unpromising. In 1913, on the ship coming back to America, she met my grandfather, Paul Kaurala. She entered the United States through Ellis Island, my grandfather through Montreal, Canada. Somehow, they found their way to northern Minnesota where they reconnected and married in 1917.

Before she married, my grandmother like many of the young women immigrants in the early 1900s, worked as a domestic. Determined to build a life in the new country and become an American, she took jobs as a cook, laundress, childcare worker, and seamstress. After she married my grandfather, they rented a house in Ely, Minnesota where she devoted herself entirely to making a home for her family. In 1923 they outgrew their house and moved to a small piece of land in the country that my grandfather had purchased before they were married.

With four children under the age of six and a baby on the way, Hilja tackled the rigors of life in the wilderness with nothing but her two hands to help. My grandfather purchased an old, two-room house with a small attic, which he hauled to the site with horses. The bed bug infested house was not exactly my grandmother’s “dream” house, but she used her resourcefulness and ingenuity to turn the house into a home. Every Saturday for the first year she saturated a rag with kerosene and wiped down the coil springs on the beds. Then she dusted the mattresses with Watkins Bedbug powder. Her diligence paid off, within the year the bedbugs disappeared.

The first year in the wilderness of northern Minnesota the family faced chickenpox, measles, and the bitter cold winter, but my grandmother never gave up. With her hands, always busy, she nurtured her newborn son, picked berries for pies, knitted warm woolen mittens, and created clothing out of cloth flour sacks. Life on the farm required a commitment to family and hard work. Hilja never hesitated to pick up a hay rake during the hot summer hay season or take the long cold walk to the barn in the subzero winter to milk cows. There were times that my grandmother probably thought of giving up or yearned for a more rewarding life, but she forged forward committing her skills and talents to her family’s survival and success.

During the week my grandfather worked in the mines in Ely, fifteen miles north of the farm. On the bitter cold winter nights, with wolves howling in the distance, alone Hilja gathered her four young daughters around their wooden kitchen table. Under the glow of a flickering kerosene light with a wood fire crackling in the stove, she taught the girls how to embroider. Even the youngest three-year old daughter joined in with a needle, thread and small piece of fabric. The long Minnesota winters provided the women with many happy hours of stitching and chatting that bonded them together.

During World War II my grandmother belonged to a local Victory Club. At one of the meetings she suggested the group make cookies to send to the servicemen. When she was voted down, she came home with a firm resolution to undertake the project herself. Sugar rationing was in effect at the time but my wise grandmother had purchased a fifty-pound sack of sugar before the rationing started. For days Hilja and one of her daughters baked cookies. They mailed thirty boxes overseas so each soldier from their community received a box. When the thank-you notes arrived, my grandmother treasured each one. Four months later, she had a shoebox full of notes from grateful servicemen. She cherished those special notes until her death in 1965.

Strong, courageous women surround us every day at work, in our neighborhoods and in the broader community. Like my grandmother many of them positively impact other’s lives and make a difference in our world. I hope my grandmother’s story inspires other women to see their strengths, value and potential. By sharing our stories we empower others!

Diane Dettmann a writer, teacher and presenter is interested in issues related to women and education. She is currently working on a memoir, Mending My Life One Stitch at a Time, a story about her life as a widow. Miriam Daughter of Finnish Immigrants is available at Amazon.com and other online bookstores. Contact Diane Dettmann at ddettmann@q.com for autographed copies.

Contact Diane for autographed copies of her book

Fool!" said my muse to me,"look in thy heart and write." Astrophel and Stella (1591)


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