White pine, birch, and birdsong encircle me like a secret garden. I stand on what was once a sandy dune when Lake Superior surpassed its modern shoreline about a mile away. Modest white gravestones line a small meadow patched with magenta phlox. The garden perennial grows wild among the dead Finns of Waasa Cemetery between abandoned copper mines and farms.
It is the memorials that catch my eye.
In the US, every person who served in the American Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, or National Guard can receive a headstone, grave marker, or medallion to honor their service. The bronze markers and medallions stand out and it’s clear the Finnish migrant families served heavily.
Carefully, I step over blooming phlox and approach the markers with my camera. WWII stands out as the majority of service, followed by Vietnam. I only count a single WWI headstone. I wonder if the Finns who left their homeland after generations of conflict with Sweden and Russia preferred to work the mines during the Great War. The next generation, however, signed up for duty.
Most of the dates indicate that those who served also survived. It’s comforting to know that soldiers returned from war to be buried next to their families. But the sacrifice of fighting in a war for one’s nation extends beyond death. War aftereffects also destroy families and lives. Even training for combat alters people. It feels surreal to be standing in a quiet cemetery so far from Ukraine, knowing that many of the 397 souls interred with military honors also experienced the acrid smells of battle and deafening blast of battles.
Does every generation feel we should have evolved beyond war aggression by now? Does every generation feel there is yet something worth fighting for? The human family feels locked in this paradox.
In the natural setting that is Waasa Cemetery, I feel at peace at this moment. I have not had much peace in the past five years and while I can say it’s service-related, I never served in the military. I’m one of the veterans of the war after the war. Lately, I’ve felt so invisible I have lost sight of myself. I’ve come here to reconnect to my passion for catching stories. I didn’t expect to find so many veterans. But I follow my instinct and allow curiosity to sing like a yellow-bellied warbler.
Who was Arthur E Kela?
Born to Edward Kela and Kate Jankala in 1920, Arthur was a multi-generational Finn. His father immigrated to America in 1907 and his mother was born to immigrants in Calumet. His parents would have known Big Annie and the property where my eldest daughter lives. Arthur was born in Boston (Michigan, that is). His father worked deep in the Quincy Mine until one day he was struck by a streetcar and killed before he was the age of 30.
According to the 1930 census, Arthur’s mother Kate owned her home. This is curious because one of the contentions of the 1914 Miners Strike was that the companies owned the homes and families were displaced when a miner died. Kate’s only sons were two and newborn when her husband died. She also had twins (girls) and two daughters, all older than the boys. I wonder how she made a living? In 1930, a border (a copper miner) is listed in the household.
By 1940 Arthur was 20 and his brother Randolph 18. They were single and living at home with their mother, both working as laborers, while each of their sisters had married and left the Boston Location home. They both enlisted in the Army for WWII in the summer of 1942. They both survived. One of their sisters, Hilda, died young from complications of bronchiectasis while her brothers served.
Arthur married Arlene Linja in 1948. He was 28 and she was 16. By 1950, they were living with Kate, Arthur’s mother. She had married in 1946 but was listed as separated, and her estranged spouse was boarding elsewhere. He died in 1956, and although nothing indicates that they ever reconciled, Kate is buried in Waasa Cemetery under the surname Oikarinen (he’s buried in Houghton). By the way, such name changes make women difficult to track in historical and public records.
Also, in 1950, Arthur’s nephew by his deceased sister, Ronald Ojala, was living with him. Ronald grew up and moved to the copper mines in Butte, Montana.
Meanwhile, Arthur’s brother Randolph who also served in WWII, married and had one son and one daughter. Gary Randolph Kela served in Vietnam. When he came back home to Calumet, Michigan, he lost control of his truck and struck a building at one of my favorite local parks where I pick prehnite. He died of his injuries in 1968 and his military marker is next to his father’s in Lake View Cemetery where Arthur’s father is buried. I find it curious that Kate’s final resting place is not there.
Cemeteries might yield stories anchored by headstones, but it’s the living in between the deaths within a family that gets me wondering. Wondering leads to wandering in my imagination. Kate interests me the most — a young widow who raised six children in the shadow of the mines, the mother of two young men who left to fight overseas. A grandmother who raised her motherless grandson.
Curiously, I could not locate the grave of Arthur’s wife. There is a bit of living news, however — she is alive and a neighbor to my daughter, living where her husband was born in Boston Location. I want to meet this woman and share a cup of tea and listen to family stories from living memories.
This Memorial Day, I’d like to once again mention two friends of my husband who were killed in action in Grenada. Philip Grenier and Mark Yumane. May we remember your names.
May 30, 2022, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story behind a memorial. Is it a structure, plaque, or something else? What does it seek to remind those who view it? Go where the prompt leads!
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