In some sort of poetically proportional process, I think more and more about my childhood the further I get from it. I’m not awash in waves of capital-m Memory, but constantly splashing through puddles of remembered events, places, people.
For whatever reason, much of what I am remembering these days took place when I was a little kid living, from third grade to eighth grade, in Ironwood, Michigan. (Actually, I know exactly why I’m thinking so much about that time and place: because I was then about as old as my kids are now.) Ironwood was, and still is, a tiny town at the far western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Not knowing any better, I didn’t know that the place was almost incredibly remote. Despite the fact that many inhabitants root for the Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, and the Red Wings, Ironwood is much closer to Green Bay, Duluth, and Minneapolis than to Lansing or Detroit – and closer to North Dakota’s biggest city (Fargo) than to Michigan’s biggest city (Detroit).
Being so remote, Ironwood and its environs – really, the entirety of the Upper Peninsula – is thinly inhabited but thickly endowed with natural resources. The most notable one is snow. Tons and tons of snow. In fact, Ironwood serves as the de-facto capital of “Big Snow Country,” a swath of Wisconsin and Michigan along the southern coast of Lake Superior that – thanks to the Big Lake – gets as much snow as any place east of the Rockies. All that snow means that Big Snow Country is a mecca to skiers and snowmobilers, especially those from further south who bring their big-city money with them. If there’s one thing that Ironwood needs to survive, it’s that snow.
The Ironwood area is blessed with natural resources besides snow, though. A hundred years ago, the area’s iron ore attracted thousands of immigrants, including my paternal great-grandparents, who came from Finland – that is, from Russia – sometime before the First World War. As family lore has it, the Finns worked in the mines just long enough to earn the money they recreate the lives they had enjoyed (or at least led) in Suomi: to live in or near the woods – the area’s third major natural resource – and cobble together a livelihood out of farming and logging. The area’s forest must have been magnets to 19-teens Finns, just as they’re magnets to present-day vacationers – in the long, snowy winters or the short, temperate summers – and for good reason. Never as thoroughly cut over as Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula still has decent-sized tracts of virgin timber, nowadays almost indistinguishable from cutover areas that have long since grown back.
My grandfather Leonard Tossavainen didn’t quite follow the mythic mines-to-woods path. He was born on a farmstead north of Ironwood in a district full of Finlanders like him. His father, my great grandfather, must have acquired that land, maybe by working in the mines. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Grandpa lived his whole life on those acres, farming and cutting timber outside while his wife, my grandmother Helmi, tended to the big square farmhouse and to my dad and his two siblings. (Grandpa also shortened his extremely unwieldy and unpronounceable surname to the merely unusually unwieldy and unpronounceable “Tassava.”)
Twenty-some years after moving away to go to college in the U.P.’s biggest city, Marquette, my dad moved back to the farm with my mom, my sister, and me, partly to keep Grandpa company after my grandma’s untimely death a few years before. I spent four years living on the farm, which was in many ways a very good place to grow up.
Here’s the farmhouse in 2007. My old bedroom is behind the double window on the second story; the windows below on the first story open onto the kitchen. My grandpa sat there all the time, looking east toward the barn. His dog slept on the roof of that cellar entryway.
* Ironwood is 115 miles from Duluth, 230 miles from Green Bay, and 240 miles from Minneapolis, but 550 miles from Lansing and 610 miles from Detroit. Ironwood is closer to the biggest city in North Dakoka (Fargo, 350 miles) and to the capital of North Dakota (Bismarck, 540 miles) than to its own state capital.