Grandmother's sewing machine. Photo by Ivy Vainio

Arne Vainio: My grandmother’s sewing machine

My grandfather emigrated from Finland in 1903 and settled in Sturgeon, Minnesota. He built his sauna first, as all Finnish immigrants did.

My grandmother traveled alone on a ship from Finland in 1909 when she was nineteen. She worked in New York City for a while, then answered an ad to be a housekeeper for my grandfather in Minnesota. It wasn’t long before they were married.

My grandfather’s wedding present to her was a cast iron cook stove. He carried it on his back in four trips from Chisholm, Minnesota, which was seventeen miles away. There were no roads and he walked cow trails. I remember that stove well and my grandmother cooked on it every day, including the hottest days of the year. She was constantly baking bread and I’ve looked for her bread ever since she died when I was 21.

On Easter she would put a ham in the oven early in the morning. On Thanksgiving and Christmas she would start a turkey in that oven at 4 AM and by noon it was falling apart. We would go into the living room with the small pendulum clock and the hand crank phonograph and couldn’t wait to open our Christmas presents. My aunt Bertie lived in California and used to drive to Minnesota every 2 or 3 years for a week or so and we always thought she lived a glamorous life. She always sent Christmas presents and we were always excited to open them.

Arne Vainio's grandparents are pictured here, with one of his aunts in his grandfather's arms. Photo courtesy Arne Vainio
Their lives were all about practicality and survival and my grandfather farmed and my grandmother had a huge garden. She worked constantly to water and weed it. She carried water from a hand pump next to the sauna and she had rain barrels at the corners of the house. She picked berries and the cellar under the house was full of canned vegetables and pickles and sauces. Her blueberry sauce and her strawberry rhubarb sauce were my favorites.

She had a Singer treadle sewing machine and I was fascinated by the steady “click-click-click” of the needle going up and down. I watched her rock her foot to thread the bobbin, then slide back the cover to load the bobbin into the shuttle. I was always amazed when the sewing machine picked up the thread and could never figure out how it could get thread to link together on both sides of the fabric.

They settled along the Sturgeon River and after my father’s suicide my mother used to take us to swim in the river to keep all of us busy. The water was dark from the tannins in the trees and the river bottom was soft mud and we used to catch crayfish in the shallows. One of just a few memories of my father was him casting across the river and he caught a fish so big he couldn’t pull it from the other side. The line from his reel was spinning out as the fish headed upstream and he fought it for a long time. He had a pistol and he finally shot across the water and was able to pull the fish in. I don’t remember how big it was and all I remember is I couldn’t hear well for a while afterward.

A water tower in Chisholm, Minnesota. Photo: Tony Webster

As kids, we ran and played in the woods and close to the river. I used to hide under a small stand of balsam trees and the boughs made a canopy just big enough for a five year old. I used to take books under there to read and I always brought them back to the house.

We spent lots of time there when we were growing up and we always assumed someday that would be our property. We thought we would live along the river and have the running water and indoor plumbing my grandparents finally had. My grandfather died first and after my grandmother died when I was 21, there was an auction and everything was gone. My mother said everyone else had lawyers and we didn’t get anything.

Sometime in the 1980s I started traveling to Los Angeles to visit my aunt Bertie. She lived alone and over the years her vision started failing and my visits with her became more important. I painted walls and fixed windows and fixed her washer and dryer and whatever else she needed. She had an electric sewing machine in a cabinet from the 1950s and more than once tried to get me to bring it to a sewing machine repair shop to have it restored. I never rented a big enough car to load it into and with her failing vision, didn’t think she could even use it. I was usually able to steer the conversation somewhere else, but she kept coming back to it.

She died 3 years ago and last year my wife Ivy and I flew to Los Angeles and rented a car back to Minnesota to clean out a storage unit. There was an old steamer trunk of my grandmother’s containing old photos and letters written in Finnish. The old hand crank phonograph was in the storage unit and we kept whatever fit into a rental car and had the rest hauled away. It was mostly old clothes and blankets and faded Christmas decorations and mismatched furniture.

On Yyteri beach in Pori, Finland. Photo: Antti T. Nissinen

Cecelia was my aunt Bertie’s neighbor for decades and has always been an angel as far as I was concerned. She brought Bertie her mail in the nursing home after she fell and she brought her to the dollar store and to the drug store on Saturdays when she could. I wanted her and Ivy to meet and we stopped at her house as our last stop in Los Angeles. I had been there many times over the last 30 years. Cecelia was 92 and I expected it would be the last time I would see her. She made tea and we visited for well over an hour and Cecelia wondered where the years had gone. We were getting ready to leave and Cecelia said, “Bertie had an old sewing machine she wanted me to give to you. It’s downstairs. Would you like to look at it?”

I answered, “I know that sewing machine. She tried to get me to bring it to a repair shop more than once. I don’t want it and we don’t have room for it. Give it away. Put it on the street and someone will take it.”

“I think you should at least look at it.” She said.

“Well, OK.” I replied.

She took a long time walking down the stairs and she was careful not to fall. She went to the entryway and lifted a vase from a linen cover. She lifted the cover and underneath was my grandmother’s Singer treadle sewing machine. I had almost bought a similar one just to be reminded of that sewing machine and the “click-click-click” sound it made as it was sewing.

I opened the top of the cabinet and lifted the sewing machine from deep inside. It hadn’t seen sunlight in over forty years and there was part of a plaid shirt under the foot holding the needle. The belt was broken and the treadle hadn’t been oiled for decades and it squeaked when I rocked it back and forth. I turned the hand wheel and the needle went up and down and the mechanism was stiff, but it didn’t bind. I recognized the gold sphinx on the black cast iron of the machine.

I turned to Cecelia. “You had this here the entire time?”

“I didn’t know it was important.” She answered. “I just kept it here because Bertie asked me to.”

I said softly, “Cecelia, this is my grandmother’s sewing machine and I thought it was lost forever. I’ve been looking for one to replace it and never thought I would see it again. You brought back part of my childhood. This is the best gift I’ve ever been given. Thank you.”

Arne Vainio, M.D., receives the Physician of the Year from the Association of American Indian Physicians during the organization's annual conference in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on July 28, 2017. Photo courtesy Ivy Vainio

“Can you take it with you?” She asked.

“We don’t have room.” I answered. “We’ll be back as soon as we can and it will probably be next year.”

“It will be here. I’m 92 and I don’t know if I will be. My girls will know this is yours when you come back.”

Ivy and I hugged Cecelia and I whispered, “Thank you again.”

Ivy and I walked into the beautiful California sunshine to the car to start our four day drive back to Minnesota.

Next time. My grandmother’s sewing machine, part 2.


Arne Vainio, MD is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at a-vainio@hotmail.com.

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