Nearly 43 years ago I was a “greenie” – a brand spanking newly minted Mormon Missionary in Finland. I’d turned 19 just months before; had completed an intensive two-month deep immersion in Finnish language study at the LDS missionary compound at BYU, and had been flown to Helsinki, Finland for a further 3-day indoctrination and systems check before being ultimately shipped off on a night train from Helsinki to Vaasa on what would be my very first real missionary assignment.
Ah, that night train 43 years ago. It might as well have been a scene from Dr. Zhivago (which was actually filmed in Finland, not Russia.). Old, diesel trains with wooden walls and floors and bunk beds and I couldn’t really speak the language and there I was, stacked in a room with Finns with whom I couldn’t communicate and somehow, I had to know when to get off at the right city – when this was the first train I’d ever been on in my life and I still couldn’t speak the language.
And so, it went. Being an LDS missionary in Finland was such an unusual, absurd, daunting, rewarding, exhausting, stressful challenge. To first learn that crazy language. Then, to understand those crazy Finnish people with their socialized ways of thinking and their “free medical care” and their non-aligned status and actually their very dear family values and slowness of life and saunas and summer parties and winters that never ended and riding bikes on icy frozen roads and crashing on that ice too many times for one missionary in one winter on one bicycle…
We weren’t allowed to call home but for Christmas and Mother’s Day. We could write letters back home once a week, on the half day off we got every Monday and about the first thing I bought there was a typewriter so I could knock out those letters fully and efficiently. (And to think, now I’m a Signal columnist!) We were always on, always working, always studying, always knocking on doors, approaching strangers, studying the language, giving talks, teaching lessons, and even playing guitar and singing in public schools.
Imagine a 19-year-old giving a church talk in a foreign language he’s only studied for 4 or 6 months. I’m sure we all thought we were saying something profound but now, looking back, I’m certain the locals were chuckling under their coat collars.
This was the milieu I was in at 19, and while it was a formative and extremely beneficial period in my life it was also very, very lonely. Too often I would look at the midnight sun which would rise over Vaasa for one or two hours during the long winter in Vaasa and think to myself, “This same sun will soon be shining on my house, back home, and on all my friends and family.” That sun which appeared only very briefly during winters became my hope and tie to “regular life” back home.
Some missionaries broke from the stress and were eventually sent home early. Most toughed it out in this tough land and punched through it all – growing personally mightily in the process. Akin to military service, but with Books of Mormon and no gunfire.
I toughed it out and grew, but I surely had help. And this is what I’m writing about today, literally from Finland, as I depart from a very dear visit with a very dear friend from 43 years back when I was that lonely missionary, in need of connection, and had very few people I could relate with:
The Lydmon family consisted of a father, Kurt, a mother, Svea, a son, Hans, and a daughter madly in love with Donny Osmond, Mona.
While only Mona was Mormon, the entire Lydmon family instantly and always connected with the missionaries in Vaasa. But Mona especially. She spoke English as well as any Californian, and certainly better than most Americans. She spoke Swedish, Finnish, English, French. To say she was interested in people and easy to communicate with is very understated.
Mom, Svea had us over at least once a week for dinner. Christmas was a special event and we were like brothers and sons in their family. Kurt and I would go for walks and talk about serious subjects. We’d play ball with Hans and do sauna with their family and just kick around when we needed to blow off steam and feel like regular humans again.
Like Puff the Magic Dragon, all things came to an end. I was “transferred” to another city and new missionaries took my place. That church does that so you don’t get too attached. And, you keep learning how to reach out and meet new people.
After I married Carrie we took our young family back to Finland – twice. Again, we were back at my “Finnish family’s home” – enjoying summer with the Lydmons.
A few years later, Hans came to California and stayed with our family. We took him to Disneyland. We got him a Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl’s Jr. and he thought it the best thing he’d ever tasted. Back then, the chain restaurants had not yet invaded Finland.
But time went by and we lost track. Mona, Svea, Kurt, and Hans became fond memories.
Decades passed, as they do.
Then Facebook was invented, and about a year ago I bumped into Mona on Facebook and we connected. We’d chat shortly from time to time and we caught up with our families. Kurt had died. Svea was still doing ok and still living at the family farm home. Hans sang for the German Opera. Mona was a special teacher in Helsinki and an acclaimed artist.
This week, Carrie and I with friends have been on a cruise ship which made a short stop back in Helsinki. Mona arranged to meet us and give us a personal city tour.
We met Mona on the boat dock. Long hugs ensured all around. We connected instantly, nearly as though I’d just seen her the day before. Through the day we exchanged stories, ideas, memories – care. So much, so fast. And still, so connected.
After 43 years, we picked back up a 43-year friendship instantly and deeply.
I love my Finnish friends, the Lydmons. Mona kept me sane when I needed someone to talk to. Our kids played with her family, and her family has been with ours. It’s a relationship that will likely play out over a half century.
All from a connection 43 years ago as an LDS missionary. Imagine that happening in a life.
Friendships and connection are simply everything. Today in Finland was a very good day. You hold tight to your friendships. Don’t take them for granted. Hold them tight and keep them close. Friendships are what’s all the best in life.
Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column, “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.