When I look at this darling picture from 1974 or 1975, I am reminded that I come from The Sisterhood of Quietly Strong Women.
My mom, Joann, is the cutie on the left who splendidly put together a brown and white paisley shirt with a blue skirt. She was much too humble and focused on being our hardworking mama to know she was a trendsetter, but look at her. She’s adorable.
In the middle is my Aunt Ruth in pink, the consummate dairy farmer’s wife. She made the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had in my life and always seemed to have a plate full of it handy whenever we came to visit on Sunday afternoons. She always made time for conversation with Little Me, too, and she had a sweet impishness in her smile.
On the right is my Aunt Carolyn, the fancy sister who moved to exotic San Diego with her husband and three kids at a time when the norm was to stay close home. I seriously thought she was made of glitter by the way she sparkled everywhere she went. Even her voice was glamorous.
All three are little ladies, sitting together on that beige couch. They have similar hair, similar glasses, similar knees, and similarly clasped hands. You can tell they’re sisters, but you can also see their distinctiveness.
I am especially drawn to my mother and the joy that is radiating off her face. You can tell that she feels anchored—gloriously tethered to the women who nurtured, loved, and accepted her from the very beginning of her life. She is the Little Sister, just like me. She loves her Big Sisters, just like I love mine. She comes alive around them in a way she doesn’t otherwise, just like I do.
Her spirit has just taken a deep breath in the company of her sisters—I can feel it. Four kids, limited income, a stormy marriage, an avalanche of chores, isolated living out in the country, hearing loss—all of these things that I know weighed heavily on her in life are not present in this picture.
Instead—I see strength, togetherness, optimism, resilience, and faith in a power greater than everything else—a power that makes the flowers grow and the sun come up again, even after the darkest of nights.
My mom and her sisters were not in-your-face strong women. They were much too Finnish for that. Their strength came from knowing that unconditional love was the glue that held absolutely everything and everyone together. Even if they disagreed. Even if someone was imperfect. Even if life got in the way. Even if there were storms.
They loved one another fiercely and cared for one another always—especially as various forms of dementia claimed each of their lives, just as it had taken their mother’s life decades before.
My mom was the last Waltanen sister to make her way back home after 85 years of learning and loving. I like to think of them together now looking something like this—basking in the Light of Love and watching over the rest of us who are still doing our thing on this side of The Veil. If I listen carefully, I can hear their whispers of guidance and cheers of support. I can especially hear my mother.
“Put a smile on your face, Carleen. Everything will be better tomorrow.”
I come from The Sisterhood of Quietly Strong Women. Even though I was not fully aware of it at the age of three or four when this picture was taken, I feel it now. And I am forever grateful.