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Helmi Wirtanen Pierson

My mother, Helmi Wirtanen Pierson, could not tell a lie; she was the most honest person we have ever known. She was the epitome of sisu, an iron-willed lady with a strong sense of right and wrong. Helmi was a very hard worker and a life-long devout Lutheran.

Helmi Alina Wirtanen was born on the Finnish archipelago on September 1, 1904. That island was later nicknamed “America” because of the large number of residents who emigrated to the United States. Her father, Karl Wirtanen, was a barrel maker. In her teen years, Helmi worked on her uncle’s farm. She recalled going to church by boat in summers, and by horse-drawn carriage across the frozen sea in winters.

Her oldest sister, Ella, and brother Charlie, emigrated to the U.S. before and after WWI. They asked their four sisters in Finland if any wanted to come to America; only Helmi answered “Yes.” In 1924, Ella and Charlie bought Helmi a first-class ticket. When the ship arrived in New York the Finnish quota was full, so Helmi stayed on board and went back to England, finally disembarking on the return trip. Ella had a job waiting for her.

Helmi visited Finland in 1929 when her mother, Elda Salonen Wirtanen, was dying. Her father lived on to an old age. Helmi later moved to White Plains, New York where she met my father Ernest Pierson, who had emigrated from Sweden. They were married in 1931; their first son died in infancy. I was born in 1938. My mother worked as a housekeeper for executives’ families; my father was a Teamster at the local milk company.

After WWII, we packed food and clothing for our relatives in Finland. I recall walking with my mother, in all weather conditions, across town every Sunday morning to Trinity Lutheran Church.

I met my wife Doris, daughter of Swedish immigrants Carl and Tekla Anderson, at Upsala College. After we were married, our parents became best friends. My parents retired to Avon Park, Florida in 1967 and the Andersons moved to Sebring, Florida. All four are interred in the same cemetery. They all achieved the American Dream of working hard, owning their own homes, and seeing their children earn college degrees to achieve success in life.

Our families first visited Finland and Sweden in the early 1970s. When we suggested a side trip to Russia, my mother stated emphatically, “We don’t visit Russia!” She remembered the treacherous Russian invasion and the Winter War of 1939-40. FDR Democrats, my parents became anti-Soviet Eisenhower Republicans (like me).

(In the summer of 2016, Doris and I saw 90 relatives in Finland and Sweden, where we have more relatives than in the U.S.)

My mother came to live with us in 1989. She died peacefully in 1992 at age 87 of heart failure, while holding my hand. “Gram” was an inspiration to our children Doug and Barbara, and to our nieces and nephews, as well. We have all tried to follow Helmi’s example of honesty, while also being inheritors of her sisu spirit.

Karl Ernest Pierson
Great Falls, Virginia