I was warned. I heard the stories. A silver-haired Finn so sharp-tongued that sons flinched, daughters cried, doors slammed.
I assumed the tales were exaggerated, but I traveled to meet my future father-in-law for the first time with a healthy dose of caution.
After several days of visiting in my fiance’s Ohio home town, my guard was down. I was busy trying to keep the names and new faces straight. I got the grand tour of the area: I saw former high schools and stomping grounds. I tasted Ohio wine and Amish pies. I saw Lake Erie from a boat named…The Silver Fin (enthusiastically guided by the silver Finn). I met all the dogs. I heard all the family stories-in which the escapades of the Finn were laughed about. His wife, Ceil, gave him a warning glance now and then and teased him about what she called his “silver tongue”. I forgot to be afraid of the silver Finn. He seemed like a NICE man!
On the final night of our visit, we went to Fairport Harbor’s Mardi Graz, a 4th of July celebration. The event had been talked up during the week and it did not disappoint. There was a picnic, a parade and, of course, fireworks. After the last sparkler went out and the oohs and ahhs faded, we headed home. Full and sleepy and feeling a flush of belonging to this new family, I took my fiancés hand and we started up the street towards the car.
A voice boomed from behind me. “HEY THERE!” he said.
I flinched. I looked around. Did he mean me?
“MARY!” He meant me.
I took several steps back towards the shock of silver hair gleaming under the rising moon. He was gesturing at the chairs, blankets, coolers left from our party.
“DON’T GO AWAY EMPTY HANDED!!” he said shaking his head in disgust.
I could have cried. I was startled and embarrassed in front of the new family, neighbors and what seemed like most of Fairport Harbor. Amid smirks and knowing nods of sympathy from the siblings, I sprinted back and picked up a lawn chair. And another. If I could have balanced a cooler atop my head, I would have.
The next morning, as goodbyes were said, it seemed everyone had forgotten the incident. But me. I did not forget. I had been wounded by a barb from the “silver tongue”.
A few years passed and the memory faded. A little.
My husband was a veterinarian and had a chance to open a practice back in his hometown. I had mixed feeling about leaving the place where I grew up, my family and friends, and our first home. But, opportunity knocked and he left immediately to get things started.
I stayed behind to sell the house and pack our things. Months passed and I was lonely, tired, and apprehensive about moving 3 dogs, 2 cats, 4 horses, and all of our belongings 1400 miles. In fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to like Ohio at all.
The trip did not go smoothly. We had breakdowns, engine and otherwise. It took 3 days, 8 bales of hay, 20 pounds of dog food, 5 thermos of strong coffee and 2 diesel engines to get our weary band to the barn our horses would stay at.
It was late at night when we arrived. The horses needed to be unloaded in the dark and settled in a new place. I was worried about them, but so tired I was close to tears. I rounded the back of the horse trailer and saw The Finn. I swallowed hard. I could not take a slice from his rapier wit. Not tonight. I busied myself with the trailer latch.
“HEY THERE!” he said.
I raised my head to see him open his arms.
“Welcome Home.” He said grinning.
In that moment, I fell in love with the silver Finn.
Starting a new veterinary practice wasn’t easy. We lived in the basement of our in-laws house while the business grew and we saved for our own home.
The Finn and his lovely lady tolerated 3 dogs, 2 cats and many midnight emergency calls-just when they thought they were empty-nesters.
While his son worked long hours building the business, I had time to get to know my father-in-law.
I learned many things.
I learned that 3’clock coffee doesn’t have that much to do with coffee.
I learned that the Finnish word Sisu means tenacity of purpose and (bitu) means… was word you don’t say.
I heard stories about his firefighting days and the day he met his wife-to-be at a gas station.
I learned the family’s inside jokes and the private ‘language’ every family seems to have.
I learned the silver Finn was a builder. Most days, he spent some time in his shop…coming in for coffee, of course.
Every Christmas, he gave his kids something he had made in the woodshop. Girls, then boys in alternating years. He made beautiful things and practical pieces; a gun cabinet for the boys, a quilt rack for the girls. I received a trunk with my name carved in the beautiful curved top. The work always had his own mark on it- a Viking and the initials JRS.
He also built outside of the holiday season. He built boxes for the vet truck, rooms in the new veterinary office. Different rooms in a different office when the first one failed.
His kids and grandkids went to him with anything that needed fixing from earrings to broken hearts.
He built his own house.
He built a marriage that lasted 50+ years.
He built a family with 4 kids and 5 grandkids using love, responsibility, good humor, and of course, sisu.
His sharp tongue still got him in trouble sometimes – an exasperated “John-nny” from Ceil. But more often it earned him a giggle.
Over the years, I added the story of that long-ago 4th of July to the family lore. I told it to new family members and friends as a caution against his fierceness. He always laughed. “Don’t go away empty handed” became one of the family sayings.
He is gone now, but none of us were left empty handed.
In honor of the Silver Finn – John Sivula – 11/2/25 – 7/7/06