July 6, 2020
I write this message with the heaviest of hearts. My beautiful mother – Marja-Liisa Lennhoff Eskelinen – died on Saturday evening, the 4th of July.
My family is all down in TX, and it is heartbreak on top of sorrow that I was not able to be with my mom when she died. The coronavirus pandemic has made travel complicated, treacherous, and at times, impossible. So many families around our nation, and the world, are going through the same thing – grieving at a distance, and unable to bask in the light of love that is sometimes possible and necessary at the end of life.
I want to tell y’all a little bit about my mom, and about her love for CCHCC and the work that we do. This is not an obituary for my mom, but a bit of a celebration of a beautiful life, and how that life contributed to the beautiful organization that we all have built – CCHCC.
Marja-Liisa Lennhoff Eskelinen
My mom was a World War II baby, born on May 31, 1939 in Finland. Her father was a scout on horseback for the Finnish military, which was fighting Russia at that time. My mom’s father was killed when my mom was 2 years old. From then on, my mom had a very hard life – poverty, abuse when sent to live with another family, various illnesses including encephalitis, and more. But she was tough and resilient. She was a survivor.
Eventually, my mom was able to travel to the United States, the ward of a Finnish lady who was a domestic servant for a rich family in White Plains, NY. That Finnish lady is who I knew as my grandmother (she adopted the name “Mary Lake” to try to seem more American) when I was growing up. My mom arrived in the U.S. at the age of 15. She entered nursing school and worked as a domestic servant with her foster mom. Eventually, my mom became a nurse and worked at the White Plains, NY hospital, where she met my dad, Miguel Lennhoff. I treasure my mom’s gold pin that she received upon becoming a nurse.
My dad was doing his medical residency in White Plains, NY, where he arrived from Mexico. He grew up in Mexico after his mom fled Austrian Nazis. That’s a whole other story that I won’t get into now.
My parents fell in love and got married, and then had to move to Mexico so that my dad could finish his medical school. Both of my parents spoke English as a second or third language. That was the language they had in common. But then, of course, my mom had to learn Spanish when they moved to Mexico. And she did.
My parents had three children while in Mexico. I am the middle daughter in between two brothers.
Our family moved to San Antonio, TX in 1974, when I was eight years old. We had the privilege of immigrating legally. We also had white-skin privilege. Racism was rampant in San Antonio at the time, especially against Mexicans. When schoolmates found out that my brother and I were from Mexico, they referred to us as “wetbacks”. They were parroting what their parents said. I had a heavy accent in English, having learned English from two parents who spoke the language as a second or third language. I was put in Speech Therapy to get rid of my accent. When my mom found out that I was put in Speech Therapy – which was so humiliating that I never even told my parents – she called the school and gave them the what-for. She explained to them (actually, she yelled, with cuss words) that I had an accent, not a speech impediment. This got me out of speech therapy… It is often a bewildering experience to be an immigrant, even though our path was considerably easier than that of most immigrants, because of our privilege. My family has deep sympathies with immigrants and understands that immigration is often about survival.
We grew up in a trailer park in San Antonio, TX. We made friends with other kids, and our home became the place where kids from all walks of life came to hang out. They loved and appreciated my parents because both my mom and dad were kind, and they were always interested in our friends and our friends would sit and have conversations with my parents over coffee and some baked goods that my mom had made. So many neighborhood people – whether kids or adults – landed at our home and always found acceptance, kindness, and baked goods.
My mom was no longer working as a nurse, but spoke four or five languages, and volunteered with the PTA, helped neighborhood families in various ways, rescued animals, and learned to drive a tiny Honda stick shift. She wasn’t great at driving a stick shift, but she was great at everything else.
Oh, I should also mention that, while growing up in the mobile home in TX, our home became the de facto community clinic, with people showing up with all kinds of scrapes, injuries, allergic reactions, mental health crises, etc., and on two occasions, my dad was called to the swimming pool in the neighborhood to help resuscitate a kid who had drowned.
My mom was an avid reader and she had an excellent political analysis. She had a love for justice that was based on love for people and compassion. Us kids grew up watching the national and world news, hearing our parents’ commentary along the way. They always favored justice and love and abhorred injustice in all of its forms.
My greatest regret in life, and what my mom had to say.
Both of my parents were World War II babies – both their families devastated and diminished (killed) by the war, for different reasons. Our nuclear family felt almost miraculous – the fact that my parents survived to be able to create a family was nothing short of amazing. My greatest regret in life is that my path in life took me away from where my family lives down in TX and that I have been so far away. I wish that TX and IL were closer together! Even with regular trips to TX to see my family, it has always hurt me to be so far away, even though I love my life here in IL and with CCHCC.
The last time my mom visited me here in Illinois was in the early 2000s. She visited CCHCC, met my co-workers and friends, came to events, witnessed our work with clients and our community organizing work, and got a sense of our community.
After she got back home to TX, my mom wrote me a beautiful letter. She blessed my life and work here. She wrote me about the beauty, power and importance of CCHCC’s work, and about the quality of the friendships I had made – most through CCHCC. She told me that if friendships and the ability to have a positive impact are a measure of a person’s life, then, by all accounts, I was living a beautiful life and she was proud of me.
I am not saying this as a “humble brag”, but as a way of explaining that my mom’s blessing eased my greatest regret of not living closer to my family. I know – I know – that my parents wished that I was closer to home with them. But they both have felt that I have been so fortunate to have landed at CCHCC, and they value and support our work at CCHCC.
Fighting for justice and helping make concrete improvements in people’s lives.
I am so profoundly grateful to be a part of CCHCC and all we have accomplished. This year marks my 23rd year at CCHCC. I’m deeply grateful to all of you who participate in and support CCHCC’s work – whether it is our direct client services and/or our advocacy and community organizing work.
Honoring my mom
My mom – Marja-Liisa Lennhoff Eskelinen – was a survivor. She was fierce and tender all at the same time. She was compassionate. She was opinionated. And she was funny in a subtle kind of way. She loved justice and she loved people and animals. And I know that she loved CCHCC, this beautiful grassroots organization where I have found my other home.
I will do my best, always, to honor my mom’s life and also to honor CCHCC – all that we have been, all that we are, and all that we will be and do in the pursuit of justice.
If you feel so inclined, and if you have the ability to do so, please consider making a contribution to CCHCC in honor of my mother. CCHCC will be named in my mother’s obituary.
With deepest appreciation,
Champaign County Health Care Consumers
Claudia, I remember meeting your mother here in Champaign, and I remember her grace and gentle humor, both of which you possess in abundant quantities. May her memory be a blessing.
Thank you for sharing your mom’s story. It reminds me of my grandmother and her journey to America from Germany after the war, her ability to impact many lives with simply her goodness.
I pray that you soon have a chance to mourn your mom’s passing with family by your side.