75 & counting

MARQUETTE – The year 1939 was a very different time in many respects, but not so different, nor so very long ago.

World War II loomed in Europe, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inspiring confidence in the waning years of the Great Depression and iron mines were booming in the wilderness of the central Upper Peninsula.

There it was that at least one Finnish-American couple were spending their free time together, traipsing through forest and farmland, falling in love.

Tauno “Doc”?Etelamaki graduated from Negaunee High School around 1937 and went to work for Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company (Cliffs Natural Resources, as of 2008), along with his five brothers (out of 11 total siblings), one of whom would be killed there.

But the sociable and good-natured Doc remembers that time fondly.

“As soon as I graduated from high school, I ended up working in the mines,” he recalled. “Things were going very, very good in my day, very well. “

Mae Raittila was only 16 then, living on a small farm near National Mine with her parents and three sisters.

The two would meet first at a carnival, then on a manure wagon and from there, it wasn’t long before they knew it was meant to be.

“Your heart tells you,” Mae said, when asked how one can be sure.

And their hearts – joined on July 8, 1939 at Immanuel Lutheran church in Negaunee when Tauno was 20 and Mae, just 18 – have been joined now for 75 years.

“I was a kid,” she said, twice, when asked how old she was on that day.

The most important thing she has learned since then is, “To be kind,” she said. “And to love God.”

The couple celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary Tuesday at the Eastwood Nursing Center in Negaunee where Mae, 93, now resides. Doc, 95, still lives independently just a few blocks away.

“I remember when Mae first moved into the nursing home,” said Allen Mikkola, husband of daughter Donna Mikkola. “He would go to visit her every day.”

Donna said it created a difficult situation for Doc, since he couldn’t drive anymore, and the walk required a treacherous crossing of U.S. Highway 41.

“He kept walking across that busy highway,” she said. “We couldn’t convince him it was too dangerous, and people kept telling me there’s this man that’s walking – I said ‘that’s my dad!'”

Allen and Donna said Doc was determined to see Mae daily, but he didn’t want to move into the nursing home because he prefers independence.

“He told me, ‘I made a commitment to that woman 70 years ago,'” Allen said. “And he wasn’t about to break it, by any means.”

So John Etelamaki, 70, Donna’s next youngest brother who lives in Champion, makes sure Doc gets to see Mae every day. Some challenges include things like when Doc, who is hard of hearing, falls asleep in his recliner and can’t hear anybody at the door.

“I talk to a lot of people my age and they all go through that with aging parents,” Donna said. “If you’re lucky enough to have them in your life this long, there are problems too.”

Doc and Mae both grew up speaking Finnish with their grandparents, who didn’t know English. Mae still remembers some, she said. When asked what got the couple through the tough times, her answer was simple.

“Sisu,” she said.

And Donna interpreted, “Fortitude. That’s a good English word for it.”

Mae had one more thing to say to Donna in Finnish.

“Mina rakastan sinua,” she said, which means, “I love you.”

Donna and Allen are about to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary next year, themselves. Allen said the single most important aspect of a long marriage is commitment. The next is acceptance.

“In other words, you marry them as they are, with no ideas of changing this or changing that,” Allen said. “If you can’t accept them, don’t marry them. I think that’s really key.”

They will celebrate in Hawaii, somewhere Donna has always wanted to visit, but never has. Allen said there aren’t anymore excuses not to go.

“(Marriage) is always a compromise, because you know who they are, and you know what they like,” he said. “You have to compromise to make sure that they get what they want – that’s important.”

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.