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Sarah Nigbor column: Finding my roots, and Finnish ones at that

I've been told multiple times that I should write a book about my life. Some of my friends have equated some of it to a talk show episode. I'm inclined to agree.

Last week I had the opportunity to represent our four Wisconsin-based RiverTown Multimedia newspapers at the 2018 Better Newspaper Contest awards in Madison. In between workshops and meetings, I was able to connect with my cousin Amy for a quick lunch. She lives near Madison with her family, though she grew up on Minnesota's Iron Range. Almost 20 years later, connecting with her is still a miracle to me, one for which I'm forever grateful.

My dad died of a heart attack at the young age of 40, when I was just shy of 3 years old. I never had the chance to know him, though I'm told he liked coffee, fishing and telling stories. I also like those things. Whether that's genetics, I don't know, but I like to think it is. It's a small connection I cling to, as I wish I could know the man whose blood runs through my veins.

My mother and he were divorced long before his death, and he worked in construction on the Range, where he grew up. The story goes that he did not come to work one morning, and was found in his home. I always pray he suffered no pain as he made his way from this life to the next.

My mom's family did not stay connected with my dad's family after his death, and I lost touch with them. My mom and her parents raised me, and I never doubted their love for me. I have always said my grandpa Harlan was my dad.

But something inside me growing up was never complete. I found myself wondering time and again about my dad, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents on that side. Did they want to know me? What were they like? Did I look like any of them? Who were they? Who was I?

When I was 18, the internet was just taking off. It was foreign to me, but my friend encouraged me to search them out online. I remember finding my grandpa's phone number. His name was Ero, a very Finnish name. I had to work up the nerve for a few days before I could call it. My hands shook and I felt like I'd break apart at any second. I remember hearing his soft, Finnish accented voice answer the phone and I froze. I forced myself to speak, to tell him who I was and what I wanted, which was to meet him. I didn't know what to expect, but he was agreeable so we set up a time to meet.

As I drove to the Iron Range (he lived on a lake near Eveleth), I was shaking. Could I really be so close to meeting my dad's family? Would I maybe, finally, know something about the man whose last name I carried?

When I pulled up to his modest home on that northern Minnesota lake, my worry melted away as I saw people running out the door to greet me. They all hung back as a small, white-haired man walked my way. He opened his arms as tears coursed down his weathered face. As he enfolded me in a hug, he whispered gently "I never thought I'd see you again. I have always wanted to know you, and now here you are." I will never forget it. And I suppose, it was like a reunion you'd see on a talk show.

The other people there that day included my cousins Amy and Ryan and my uncle Mike. I met my aunt Sharon and uncle Dwight later, and more cousins too. My grandmother had died a few years before that. I look like her. My grandpa Ero poured me coffee, opened the photo albums, and began to tell me stories. My dad came to life in sepia toned photos, and I knew I had made the right choice. My grandpa cooked me pasties, introduced me to the sauna and told me I wasn't Finnish if I couldn't stomach a glass of brandy.

The hole where my dad should be in my heart will never completely close, but it's smaller than it used to be. I even learned I had a half-brother, but that's a story for another column.

So you see, as I sat before my cousin Amy in a Madison restaurant, listening to her speak about her three sons, her husband and her job, it really was a miracle to me. To be connected to that side of my family was something I always wanted, and now I am.

You can reach me at snigbor@rivertowns.net or 715-273-4334.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in February 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

(715) 426-1068
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