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Traces of a Life

When you go, people see in you what they wish to see in themselves.

By Taru Anniina LiikanenPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 12 min read

Ilona arrived at the house closer to 8 pm., but thanks to the spectacular Finnish summer weather, it was still bright as day. The sun was high above the tall pines that lined the field behind the sauna and the barn, which was a good thing. There was barely any light this deep in the countryside, and the next-door neighbor was half a kilometer away. Getting inside the house with her bags would have been a pain in the dark.

She left the rental car in the driveway and locked the doors, but felt ridiculous doing it. The safest place in the world, and she was still treating it like it was Brooklyn. Needed some time to get used to it again. Ilona grabbed her bags and walked through the overgrown grass and up the three stairs to the porch of the old, wooden house, getting the key from under the doormat, leaving the door open behind her.

Inside, it smelled like it always had, only stronger. Wood, a little bit of mold, smoke. Even the smell of fish was still impregnated on the walls. Together, it was all Dad.

Ilona left her bags on the old wooden sofa where she would be sleeping, and opened the windows to let in some new air. Then, she proceeded to stuff her groceries in the fridge. It was still connected, although someone had come clean it up, to throw away the food before it could rot. Throw away the empty bottles that must have been all over this place. Probably Mom.

But she hadn’t cleaned everything. On the wooden bench beside the table sat Dad’s tackle box, like it always had, just waiting for him to grab it on the way to the lake. Ilona lifted it up on the table and opened it, the several layers of separate little boxes with colorful lures jumping out like a present.

She let her fingers run over the squiggly, soft lures, carefully in case there were hooks inside them. These had been her favorites to play with as a kid, when Dad had still been alive. When she’d been sitting in his boat, trying to learn how to fish. She'd watch his face turned toward the sun, looking out into the horizon, for once looking happy. Fulfilled.

Later, she’d wondered if her father would have been more at peace with life if he truly managed to become one with the lake. Now more than ever. Had it been an accident, or had he finally found what he was looking for?

Ilona closed the tackle box and put it back in its place, on the bench. Someone would have to clean it all up, decide what to do. Maybe it was her, but now wasn’t the time, she thought as she looked through the kitchen window to the front yard, to the place she’d spent all her childhood weekends playing in.

The lake behind the woods, only a short barefoot walk from the house. The sauna, the barn, the front yard blooming with dandelions and daisies, and the forest where she’d foraged for whatever was in season with Mom in the summers. Blueberries and raspberries and cloudberries, thrown into a glass of milk later on, to be eaten with a spoon. On a good day, vanilla ice cream. Different colors of mushrooms Mom used to make soups and sauces, dry them up or cook them and conserve in jars. The bushes full of cassis in the yard Mom had picked to make her flue-curing, magical hot juice in the fall. Two apple trees Mom had still visited every year, at Dad’s request, after the divorce, to harvest the fruits to make jam.

He had always needed some help getting through life, and it showed here, everywhere. The soft layer of dust and dirt had not accumulated during these last few weeks, after Dad’s passing. Depression and addiction had lingered on the walls for decades, perhaps even before he was born.

Trauma was inherited sometimes, Ilona knew. That was why she was paying top dollar to her therapist in New York. And still, there was no way to get rid of this sadness, not without coming here and immersing herself in it. Letting in the grief, acknowledging it and letting it sit with her for a while.

But first, she needed to wash the city and the plane off her skin.

This was a traditional Finnish country house, so there was still no indoor plumbing. Dad hadn’t bothered to put in a bathroom, leaving the outhouse as the only option. The only way to get water was from the lake, or the well behind the barn. There was no way to take a shower, either. The sauna, in a separate, red little house at the edge of the yard was the only place to get cleaned up. That, or the lake.

Ilona grabbed the keys and a flashlight, and headed outside. She found wood in a shed behind the sauna and made a fire, just as Dad had taught her, and left it to warm up. Then it was time to carry some water from the well for the sauna and the kitchen.

When she was done, Ilona grabbed a beer from the fridge and walked up to the old record player in the living room, pulling out Dad’s vinyls. The Beatles. She picked up Let It Be and placed it carefully on the plate, B side up. It took her a couple of tries to find the right song, his favorite, but when she did she sat down on Dad’s chair with her eyes closed and let the heart-wrenchingly melancholy notes of “The Long and Winding Road” surround her.

These little things were what Ilona had left of him now. Dad had never liked being photographed, and even less so in the last decades of his life, so there was barely any evidence of him, his changing face. This was where he was, in these small traces, fragments of a life.

Even in the end, Dad had wanted to believe that the road he had taken would lead him back to Mom, eventually. He’d never understood it was himself he had lost, as a little boy. When his father had left him to deal on his own. Just like his father, and his father before him. A cycle of abandonment and sadness none of them had the words to break.

The record had ended, but Ilona was so deep in her thoughts she hadn’t noticed until a screech shook her awake. She knew there was an owl there, somewhere in or behind the barn. There’d always been one, taking care of the mice, and Dad had been so proud of it. “The neighbors might have watchdogs, but nobody else around here has a watch owl,” he’d bragged, faithful to his style.

It was good to know the owl was still there, alerting her if anything weird happened, Ilona thought as she got undressed and headed across the yard and to the sauna, wrapped in a towel and the mist of the early July sunset.

It had been a long time since she’d been in a Finnish sauna, she realized after her first couple of minutes. She was throwing too much water on the stove, having to cover her face to be able to breathe. Had it always been like this, had she just forgotten? It was a good thing Dad didn't see her acting like this.

Her writing career had been her excuse to not come to visit more often, but it was that inherited sadness that had truly kept her away. She'd needed to stay away to not plunge herself into it. And she no longer felt comfortable around the people of the small town. They saw her as someone different, someone who tried to be better than them. She knew better than to think so, but why show weakness?

Dad had changed after she’d left, too. He hadn’t become jealous like so many others, of course. But he did get nostalgic for a future he never got, never pursued until it was too late. He had imprinted his own desire to escape on her, talking about his dreams of traveling the world. Way back when his future was still open. Way back when he had no kids.

“I was free and independent like you,” he’d say, looking into the distance with humidity in his eyes.

When you leave, people imprint their own desires onto you. You become what they wish to see in themselves.

Was she free and independent? Was she a success? Would she be able to stop it in herself, break the cycle of loneliness? She had so many more words for abandonment than Dad, but was naming the monster enough to keep it at bay?

Only time would tell, Ilona thought as she grabbed her towel and headed toward the forest.

There had been changes in the terrain. Some trees had grown and some cut down into stumps, but she was still able to make her way to the lake without the flashlight, without shoes. She still knew every stone, every root by heart, knew where to step without hurting herself.

The path ended abruptly in an opening, with just enough space for a wooden dock and Dad’s boat. Otherwise, the access to the lake was covered with trees. Ilona walked all the way to the end of the dock, dropped her towel and eased her naked body into the dark water. She swam a small lap, scanning her surroundings, wanting to see if anything had changed. But even though it was light out, there was nobody around to see her for miles.

There were no stairs, so she helped herself back up on the dock with her arms and sat down on the planks, without bothering to cover herself. The air was cool, but not cold. These were the best times to be fishing, at sunset and dawn. If it was rainy, even better. “The fish are up when humans aren’t,” Dad had told her. Ilona wished she had grabbed a fishing rod.

All this time, after she’d got the news and before she’d made it here, she had been holding in her breath. Now she allowed herself to breathe in the night air, and it felt good to be there, for the first time in years.

She’d vacationed in tropical paradises across the Caribbean, the islands of the South Pacific, in idyllic Mediterranean towns. But there was one thing those places with their bustling wildlife and wide, sandy beaches couldn’t give you.


No birds, no crickets, no noisy neighbors. Nothing.

The kind of silence she paid a lot of money for in her New York flotation tank, to quiet her mind when the city got too much. Except this silence was irreplaceable. You could touch it, smell it, taste it. And it didn't feel oppressive.

Ilona lay down with her back against the dock and closed her eyes, with her feet still in the water, letting memories float by her as they wished.

One, from when she’d been about ten years old, when she’d been in the forest looking for whatever she could find. She’d come across a true treat: wild strawberries the size of a blueberry, much sweeter and tastier than anything you could ever buy in a store. She’d gathered as many as she could find, spending the entire day outside, not realizing the mosquitoes were eating up her legs and that constant scratching wasn’t doing her any favors.

In the middle of the night, she’d woken up when the itching had gotten too much. She'd run out the door in her pajamas, to the lake.

Ilona had headed straight to the dock, dipping her legs in the cold water, lying down and letting out an “ahhh”. Only then had she noticed Dad had been sitting in his boat, looking far away into the horizon, with a bottle in his hand. He’d laughed at the sight of her, running through the forest, looking for relief for her mosquito bites.

Sometimes, she had been funny enough to stop the darkness in him, even if just for a moment.

Ilona kept her eyes closed, the thoughts passing her by, some of them sticking for a little while.

Another memory emerged. A vacation with an ex-boyfriend, an investment banker, somewhere in a luxury resort on a poor Caribbean island. A little girl, covered in dirt and with darkened spots all over her legs and arms. Mosquitoes taking over her tiny, fragile body as she held her hand out, asking for money to buy food. Her boyfriend’s uncomfortable expression as he shooed the girl away, tried to get rid of her as fast as possible.

Was that the world Dad had wanted to see when he was young? Was it really better than this? Would he have identified with the greed, embraced it, or would it have made the weight of the world on his shoulders even heavier? Would he have seen it, from his own hurt? Would he have understood that the tiny, abandoned girl’s pain was a lot like the one he carried? Would that have helped him put words to what he felt?

The sound of flapping wings broke the silence. Ilona didn’t turn around, try to look for the source. She knew it was the owl. Must have spent many nights here, keeping Dad company in the boat, watching over him. Perhaps even his last.

Maybe Dad hadn't been alone in the end.

She wasn't. She had her words. She would work her way through it, out of the cycle of abandonment. But now it was time to let the grief in.


About the Creator

Taru Anniina Liikanen

Finnish by birth, porteña at heart. Recovering political ghostwriter. Fiction, relationships, politics, bad puns, popular and unpopular opinions. Occasional dinosaurs, because dinosaurs are the best.

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