Water was everywhere; frozen slabs of the Yellow China Sea all around us. We were on a ship waiting for the pilot to take us into the harbor of Tanku, Tientsin. The pilot had gone to celebrate the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat, 1947.
A fire broke out on the front deck in a cargo of bamboo. The water pipes were frozen. Miraculously we were saved from the looming catastrophe of the gasoline and bombs in the hold.
Mother held me, her youngest, twenty months old, tightly. She had just put all the warm clothes on us five children a moment earlier since we were all shivering cold from the icy Mongolian winds. People were screaming all around us. Three missionary ladies who were traveling with us took my older siblings to the other end of the ship looking for any chance to escape the fire. No life-saving equipment could be found. One of them wrote later that they thought they might have to jump into the icy sea with one child each, hoping to save themselves and a child.
Shortly the screaming calmed down. I heard my father’s familiar voice – but in a language I did not yet understand. He was praying in Chinese, asking God to save us all. My five-year-old brother, Samuel, had escaped the lady who was holding him. He returned to the cabin and on the way he met three men. One was dressed in white and had a cook’s cap on his head. He face shone like the sun. With him were two Chinese men in wet blue jackets and black trousers. Their clothes smelled of smoke. They too were smiling.
During the prayer these two men decided to face the danger of the fire. Like the friends of Daniel in the Old Testament, they knew that God could help them and save everyone on the ship. Together they lifted the heavy, burning piles of bamboo and threw them over the railing. Soon the crew joined them. The frozen water in the pipes had melted and the two men and the deck were doused with water. The danger was over.
Anna wondered what she had come to China for – bringing all her five children. How could she risk their lives as well as her own? The fire on the ship was evidence enough of the dangerous situation they were facing. Had she really understood God’s call? Had He really convinced her that she should take the children along? The decision had been hard.
Life back home had not been easy either. The war years, first with two tiny children, Usko and Toivo, she had to escape from the constant bombings in Helsinki to an unknown village in central Finland in 1939-1940.
Her firstborn son was diagnosed with diabetes when he was two and a half years old. When the twins, Samuel and Mary, were born, her firstborn was always asking questions about heaven. A month later, his fear of sirens warning of the returning bomb planes was changed to the joy of hearing the angels welcoming song. For Anna and her husband, Toimi, the loss of their firstborn son was a terrible blow. Toimi had hoped so much that the boy would grow up to be a missionary like himself.
One year later another son, Toimi Emmanuel, was born. Anna was sure about his name long before he was born. Toimi meant Action. He would be very active, just like his father. Emmanuel – ‘God with us’ – she was sure that some day he would reflect also that truth in his life.
The bombing went on. She had to take the children away. There was an air-defense station on a hill very close to their home. The Russian bombers wanted to destroy that station, so the danger was very real. She took them by train to Vaasa in Ostrobotnia and stayed in a small cottage in the village of Kuni a few months. Still the war continued. Again she took the children to safety, this time to Petalax, a parish some miles south of Vaasa.
All through the war, Toimi kept the Mission Fire burning. China needed them, as well as many others, as soon as the war was over. He held mission courses in their home, right in the line of bombing planes. No bombs fell on the house.
Whenever he was able, he visited churches around Finland with this one message: ‘The Gospel must be preached to every nation.’ Many church leaders thought he was crazy. Finland was at war with Russia. If any preaching could be done after the war, maybe it would be in Russia, when the border was wiped out.
Finally, when the war was over, Anna’s youngest child was born. Soon Anna noticed that there was something wrong with this child. A nurse took the baby away. Later the Pediatrician, Arvo Ylppo explained to Anna: “This child might never be normal. She has had a brain hemorrhage and her brain is damaged. That is why she has cramps and fits so often.”
The conflict was very real. Toimi was planning to return to China as soon as travel was made possible. He suggested leaving the children with relatives. After all, Anna had grown up with her grandparents, and she managed alright. Anna did not say anything. An old scar was throbbing inside her.
It was true; she had grown up with her grandparents and her aunt and uncles. She was loved by them, but she had never understood why she could not live with her own parents in Helsinki together with her four siblings. Only when she was sixteen years old she joined her own family. She felt like she was a stranger among them. She did not want her own children to feel what she had felt and ask the questions she still was asking – though never spoke out loud: “Did the not want me?”
Anna struggled with the difficult, almost impossible, decision she had to face. Should she take the children along on such a dangerous journey? A journey to a country she knew and loved, but which was in a terrible turmoil of war and diseases.
“Never! If the children stay in Finland, I will stay!” Though her relationship with her family was healed, the pain of that scar returned again and again. She did not know at the time that it was that pain which gave her strength and fortitude to face the enormous problems ahead of her. She knew by this time, when she herself had given birth to six children and lost one of them, that her parents truly loved her, that they never had planned to leave her, and that they never forgot her. They just did not have the words at the time to explain all the difficult decisions they had faced when Anna was a little girl. They thought at the time that it was best and safest for her to stay in Gesterby, Sipoo. Strikes and mutiny against the Russian rule over Finland (1809-1917) made life for a simple Railway worker’s family very insecure.
Water all around us again.
Eight months later we were traveling on a river boat, going up the Yangtze, fleeing from Mao’s troops who were fighting the Kuomintang army in Manchuria. The water carried us to safety.
We had lived in a neglected old house in Mukden (Shenyang) several months while waiting for an opportunity to travel north to the Mission station my father had built. Our father had taken much of our household goods to DongFeng, where he and mother worked before the war. Most of our household goods had been given us along our nine-months of crossing the United States on our way to China. Now all we owned was around us on the deck of the steam ship Mingfeng: four folding beds, a few suitcases, and mother’s sewing machine. The river journey from Shanghai to Chongqing took two weeks. From there mother took us by airplane to Kunming. Father joined us several weeks later, coming over the mountains on a lorry, bringing our belongings that could not be taken by air.
Anna had to start all over again with empty hands. She had to put her children to sleep on the cement floor – with just a sheet underneath. She prayed with the children before putting out the light. She sat in the kitchen and started sewing. How fast the children grew out of their clothes.
One of the boys called from the darkened room, “Mummy, there’s something scratching the wall here!” She hurried to the room and switched on the light. Large rats had come in through a hole in the wall. She got a shock! How could the children sleep here with the rats coming in? There was nowhere else to let them sleep. She prayed again with the boy who was awake: “Jesus, please keep the rats outside!” No more rats came in during the weeks they waited for dad.
Water all over again around a ship, s.s. André Lebon, taking us further away from Dad who stayed on in China.
Water – deep blue water – carrying us home to an unknown homeland.
Water – grey in the early morning mist. A grey line on the horizon – the place where she was born. A little girl’s heartbeat almost choking her – the grey water would carry her home to see and feel and hear Grandma and Aunts whom she had only seen in black and white pictures.