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Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Kyllikki “Kay” Clark

I met with Kay a couple of weeks ago and the first thing we sorted out was her first name. “It is Finnish and we pronounce it ‘Koolikki’ but that is difficult to explain all the time so since I have been here I just ask people to call me Kay – it is much easier that way.”Kay was born in 1929 in Terijoki, a resort area near to Finland’s coastline on the Baltic Sea. Her parents, Eino and Aili, were of Finnish descent for as far back as anyone can trace. Kay had a sister just a little younger and another one who is eleven years younger. “I was born during a period of great national pride. Swedes and Russians had invaded us for most of our history but in the twenties and thirties there was an awakening of our culture and a celebration of our arts, poets, and history. I was named Kyllikki after a character in an epic Finnish folk story — she was a beautiful woman, naturally.” Kay added with a wide smile.

Kay’s forefathers were all from the far northwest of Finland but, due to her father’s job as a Training Officer at a military school, her parents had moved to the Baltic region in the east by the time she was born. “Our home was just a few miles from the Russian border but we never went anywhere near there. My sister and I went to the small school nearby, although apparently I was a little mischievous and ran away from home a few times. I had been in elementary school for a couple of years when, in 1939, the war started and soon after the Russians invaded. We Finns were not going to make it easy for them but being so close to the border we had to be evacuated from our home and went all the way across the country to the area of our forefathers in the northwest where three of my four grandparents still lived. We were fortunate to be on the last train out. It was very upsetting and we did not know what was going to happen.”

Once there Kay’s family built shelters for protection from the increasing number of bombing raids being carried out by the Russians and over the winter of 1939 they were also under attack from fighter planes that would fire down on anyone on the ground — soldiers and civilians alike. “We also lived in fear of Russian soldiers parachuting down into our community.” She showed me some of her drawings, which vividly depict this period of her life, and several years ago, following encouragement from highly regarded Valley Artist, Paula Gray, these childhood memories were presented in Kay’s own art shown held at Lauren’s Restaurant in Boonville.

“Food was very scarce but we would be sent out to pick fruit in the woods, mainly blackberries and lingon berries which are a staple of the Finnish diet. We were in an area of many lakes and my sister and I were also sent on our bicycles to the towns near the lakes to meet up with the fishermen. We would get in line and wait to receive our one pound of fish. Because there were two of us we got two pounds to take home to the family. We Finns are hardy people, we are very proud of what we are able to endure. During the war there was a severe coffee shortage and people made it out of grain. Finns love their coffee; we’re crazy about it. The weather is very harsh in the winter and of course at that time it hardly gets light at all, just as in the summer when it is virtually daylight all the time apart from a couple of hours a day. This takes its toll and in Finland there has always been a lot of mental difficulties for many people, particularly in the north.”

“In 1941 there was a ceasefire — we had to make peace before the Russians overran us completely. We could not have survived much longer. They took a big chunk of Finnish territory, including many important cultural areas plus the only port we had that did not freeze over in the winter. It was very important to us but it had to be in the peace agreement. They also took our old town, and the area around it where I grew up. We had signed a deal with the Germans against the Russians so that they would be pressured into negotiations with our government. The German air force had even bombed the Russians in our country. It was a tragic thing to make a deal with Hitler but our country had to be saved. Our prime minister who negotiated this was never forgiven even though his decision stopped the Russians. He was put in prison for the rest of his life. He was in a very difficult position.”

The War came to an end in 1945 while Kay was in High School. “We had been lucky, my father had been away fighting for most of the war but he came home unharmed. Many other relatives had not returned, some of whom we never heard from again and had no idea what happened to them.” The family moved to southern Finland with her father’s job once again and she graduated from school there in 1947. “I had liked school but was not a good student. My sister was!”

There was no money for Kay to go to university and she had not been a good enough student to earn any kind of scholarship so she looked for work. There was a shortage of teachers and at that time qualifications were not too important so she applied for a job as an elementary school teacher and was accepted. “I had cycled twenty miles in my best dress and high heels to apply for the job and then when I was accepted I moved out of home to the town where the school was. I had no training and found it very difficult at first. I sometimes wanted to jump out of the window into the potato field next door to the school but over time it got easier and I grew to really enjoy it.”

During one summer she and a few friends from school decided to visit England where they got temporary jobs working at a YWCA Hostel as maids. “We knew a little English but that trip really helped improve it. A posh Englishwoman called Lady Pringle ran the hostel and she would sometimes let us sit with her for dinner where we learned correct manners and all about English history. She called us ‘the barbarians from Scandinavia’ but overall she was wonderful to us.”

“When we returned to Finland I moved to work in a bigger school close to my parents’ house but after a couple of years I began to wonder what I was going to do with my life. I decide to go to the capital, Helsinki, and enrolled at a commercial college on a two-year business studies course and then, after graduating, I got a job in the accounts department of a big company.”

Some years earlier, Kay’s great uncle had gone to the United States and settled in Minnesota. “I wrote to him and asked if I could come and visit. He said I could and I arrived in 1954, getting a job at a Co-operative store in a small town. While I was there, the boss from my job back in Finland came over and paid me a visit. He told me my job was still available back home if I wanted to return but I’d need to get more experience first if I wanted to advance. He then went on to see his friends in Berkeley, California, one of who was a Finnish-American who owned a Co-op in town. My boss talked to his friend and I was offered a job. I moved to California and became a checkout girl on the register at a co-op in Berkeley. I met many wonderful people there, mostly young idealistic people of a new generation with a new way of thinking. The idea of a Co-op was a very good one to them.”

Kay gained a lot of good work experience so when she returned to Finland in 1955 she became a consultant for her old firm and was sent out to many branches to train the staff. Before leaving the States however, she applied for a green card with the Immigration Department. “After a couple of years I wanted a change from being sent away all the time to different places. I was young and childish some might say, but I missed my friends. They moved me to the Personnel Office where I stayed for a few years. Then, out of the blue, my Immigration papers arrived and in 1963 I returned to Berkeley.”

Upon her return Kay went straight back to work at the Co-op. “An elderly couple, whom I had met during my previous time there, were still customers and one day, after I had been back for some time, they came in with their son, a tall man who I learned had been a forester in Alaska. His wife had died and he had two young sons about 12 and 6 years old. The younger one said he liked me and soon after their father asked me out. Not very long afterwards I married this man. His name was Burton Clark.”

This was in 1965 and they bought a house in Richmond and spent a lot of time renovating it. Burton’s parents, sister, and nephew all lived there and it was too crowded so Burton and Kay bought another house in Kensington, near to Berkeley and the relatives moved in there. Burton worked in timber management out of San Francisco and he was often called out to various projects all over the State. Meanwhile, Kay remained at the Co-op. Over time Burton began to talk about retirement and knew he did not want to retire in the City. “I said we had a big back yard and the neighbor has a big tree but I knew it would not be enough!”

“We would come up to the Fort Bragg area for family trips and gradually spent more time looking at properties up this way. We loved the Anderson Valley and I started to get the local newspaper. You can tell a lot about a place and its community from its local paper. I have subscribed ever since. Homer Mannix was the publisher/editor in those days and I remember the print was very pale some weeks and difficult to read. We used to have a cat who was light grey and white, the same color as the paper so he was called Mannix.”

Eventually they decided to buy and having seen a property of 16 acres on Nash Mill Road they bought it. “It had wonderful views but was on some steep slopes. You could not carry a bucket of water without spilling it but Burton really wanted it and it was a good price. We bought in 1975 and Burton built a one-room cabin for us to stay in. We had been coming to the Valley for a time, to the Fair and other events, and knew a few locals such as John Pederson and Lyle and Grace Lucat. There was a hippy commune next to us and they would sometimes sleep in our cabin when it was raining and we were not there. Then they messed it up and we put a stop to that. For some time, while Burton built the cabin, we came up and camped and then when that was finished he began work on a main house. I was now part-time at the Co-op and also stayed in town to look after Burton’s ailing mother.”

They moved here full-time in 1979, living in the cabin for four years or so until the main house was finished. “Moving to the Valley was worth the wait. I love it here. We planted apple and pear trees and always had a vegetable garden. That was Burton’s hobby. I was the homemaker and joined different groups in the community and I’m still in the Unity Club. We used to go to all the Valley events. Burton passed away in 2002 but I manage here fine on my own, with my cat, Tigger, as company. I am in no hurry to go into any old people’s home, although the Elderhome in Boonville will be fine one day but not yet. Our oldest son, Brian, lives in Little River and comes to see me regularly, the other son, David, is in Virginia. I get picked up and dropped off twice a week by the Senior Bus driver Natalie and taken to the Senior Center for lunch where I see many friends. I like the meals and even if it’s something I don’t really like there is always the wonderful salad bar prepared by Gloria Abbott. And there is always my friend, Maire (Palme-Tranberg), a Finnish lady I can talk to in our own language. I love doing that.”

“I used to go back to Finland every three years or so but I can’t remember when I last went. It has been a sort of tapering off. My parents did come here once and my sisters. They are both widows too. My father asked me, ‘I know Burton likes it here but do you?’ I said, ‘I do,’ and father accepted that. I am not on the computer but I do write letters to my sisters and call them a few times every week. It is very inexpensive now.”

“I am not allowed to drive anymore as my eyesight is not good, but I think it might be my brain! Not being able to drive frustrates me in that I cannot join in more with Valley life. The lack of independence is annoying but I do not want to kill anyone by driving. I am not worried about being alone here. I entertain myself with my art and crafts. I took a class with local artist Paula Gray and found it very inspiring and encouraging. My show at Lauren’s was the result and I have also taken art classes in Ukiah. After Burton died I moved my studio in to the living room where the light is better and I can enjoy the views. I am very positive about my life and think I have been very lucky to have the friends and neighbors I have here. People such as caregiver Judy Nelson and other helpers like Wendy Patterson, Martha Hyde, Sheila Columbane, and Kyle Clarke make it possible for me to live here. This is my home.”

As I do each week, I asked my guest for her thoughts on some of the hot topics of Valley life.

The wineries? “They look very nice of course but I hear that the children of families who have been a long time can no longer afford to buy property here because it has become so expensive due to the vineyards presence. That is not good. I am not blindly against alcohol but I do wonder about its affect on youngsters. Look at that vandalism at the high school last week. I enjoyed the days of apples and sheep when we first came here. I hope there are some limits on the wineries and that they do not completely take over the Valley.”

The AVA newspaper? “I enjoy it very much and more or less read it all every week. I love the interviews you are doing and how they let us know a little bit more about people we have known for many years. It gives us more of a community feeling when you know something a little extra about each other’s background. When Burton died, Bruce Anderson at the AVA asked me if I was going to be OK and said that if I ever needed any help let him know and he’d come right over. He’s not like some people think he is.”

KZYX local public radio? “I don’t listen. I’ve nothing against it but I am useless with radios and televisions. I am an idiot with such things. I’d rather read or draw.”

I posed a few questions to Kay from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert,” Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

Favorite word or phrase? “My English is not very good so I do not say anything enough to have a favorite word.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “I have the same answer to this.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “The sun coming in through the window makes me feel very good and uplifted. I am a Lutheran but religion is not where I get my inspiration. That would be from nature and wildlife. Burton used to talk to the deer around here and over time some of them became like family.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Rudeness and disrespect to people and animals.”

Sound or noise you love? “The birds singing; the quietness of living up here; a soft breeze blowing.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Gunshots. In Finland a sound I hated was drunken people shouting and swearing. Many Finns cannot hold their liquor and they drink a lot.”

Favorite curse word? “It is a Finnish word — ‘Perhana’ — which means approximately, ‘drunken devil.’ It helps to say it out loud if I have something annoying on my mind.”

Film/song/book that has greatly influenced you? “I love the classical music of Finnish composer, Sibelius. And I shall always remember the Finnish national anthem. The book that most influenced me is the epic Finnish story, ‘Kalevala’.”

Favorite hobby? “Drawing things that depict my childhood in Finland. And making greeting cards.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “Teaching. I really enjoyed teaching the little kids. You can get so much from being around them.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Housekeeper. I am no good in my own house so it would be very tough to do it elsewhere. I would also not like to be a taxi driver or a bus driver.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Our wedding day. Or the day Burton’s youngest son said, ‘I like you.’ Or when the other son, Brian, had run away and then came back.”

Saddest? “Burton’s passing. I had got used to knowing he was going to pass but it was still very sad. I would have loved for him to have got better and still be around. Death is so final.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “I can’t give myself too much credit for anything. That is a very hard question for me to answer. It is much easier to find something negative.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well if he were to say, ‘Welcome in, what would you like?’ I would reply, ‘Can I have another pair of walking sticks. This time with wings on’.”

To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee will be Pat Hulbert.

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