As I spread the threadbare but clean tablecloth over our table, I glanced out the window. My husband and I and our two children were living in the small, rural village of Hämeenkyrö, Finland, in the 1960s. I saw my four-year-old daughter, Marika, and three-year-old son, Petri, playing with our dog on our small patch of green grass. My husband was tending to some chores in the garden. I straightened the cloth, and when I looked up again I saw a stranger walking up the path to our front door. She was a gray-haired woman and seemed to limp a bit. She didn’t look poor by any means; she wore a beautiful flower-print dress and a long apron. In her hand was a bulging bag.
My children followed her as she came into our kitchen. “Excuse me for entering your home like this,” she said, “but I had to come.” She hefted her bag onto the table. It was full of food. As the butter, meat, sausage, and freshly baked bread made their way onto the table and then into my children’s hands, tears came to my eyes.
“Can you be our grandmother now?” Marika asked the woman.
“If I may!” our guest answered. “I’d be happy to, and you can call me Aunt Toini.”
In that moment I recalled my prayer to Heavenly Father: “Please send someone to help us!” Aunt Toini was an answer to my prayers, and not only did she bring us food, she also brought lessons of love.
Life was simple in Hämeenkyrö. We had bought a small house by a beautiful forest. I had recently joined the Church, but my husband was not interested in the gospel. We were trying to be self-reliant. We grew potatoes and other vegetables in our garden. I sewed the children’s outfits and patched our clothes. We needed and were thankful for surprise packages of clothing my mother sent from northern Finland.
But as time went on, things got worse. Our family had to strictly ration food. At times my husband and I would eat only potatoes so the children would have a bit more. This is when I started my pleading: “Dear Lord, please send someone to help us!”
I found a job, but it didn’t help enough. There wasn’t much of my salary left after meeting my expenses, including bus fare and the babysitter’s payment.
Though we struggled I always taught my children to be grateful for all we did have. Petri often blessed the food: “Thank You, Heavenly Father, for this porridge, but could You please give us a piece of sausage too, if You have some?”
At those times I pleaded even more, “Please send someone to help!”
In a neighboring village Aunt Toini was living in comfortable surroundings, but she was not comfortable at all. Her past haunted her. Though she had always been well off and had plenty of everything, her sister had not.
Her sister had had a family—a husband and three-year-old twin daughters. Her sister’s husband had been severely injured in an accident at work. After a short while she had become sick with tuberculosis and in desperation went to Aunt Toini asking for the small sum of 20 marks and bread for her girls. But in selfishness Aunt Toini had refused to give help in any way. A short time later Aunt Toini’s sister died of tuberculosis, and her husband died as a result of his injuries. Strangers adopted their three-year-old girls.
“It was my fault that my sister died and those little girls had to be adopted,” Aunt Toini confided to me that day I first met her. Tears blurred my vision as I listened to her sad story, and I sensed she was seeking forgiveness.
“My sister lived in this very house,” she told me. She looked me in the eye and handed me 20 marks. “Here you are. Pray that God will forgive me.” After a little while she pulled herself together, stood up, and said, “Well, let’s get to work. I’ll bring some wood so we can make supper.”
As she carried water from the well, I offered a different prayer: “Thank You, Heavenly Father! Blessed be the full bag and 20 marks!”
Every Saturday Aunt Toini came at the same time, with the bag full of food and 20 marks. She never asked how she could help; she just went to work. Occasionally she would stay at our house for a day or two. At those times she would always be the first to get up in the morning to make the porridge. She bought us some new pots and pans when she noticed the need. Sometimes she would wash our laundry by hand.
The weeks went by quickly as we looked forward to Saturdays and Aunt Toini’s visits. I would sometimes tell her about the Church, and many times we prayed together. Marika and Petri were very happy every time she came, and Aunt Toini never forgot to bring some sausage for Petri. It seemed she enjoyed the time with our family, and I thought perhaps we were giving something back to her.
Aunt Toini visited us regularly for three years. Then one Saturday she didn’t come. Nor did she come the following day. Later we learned that Aunt Toini had just left a shop and was heading to our small cottage when she collapsed to the ground, never to recover.
My husband and I and our children attended Aunt Toini’s funeral. We didn’t know anyone when we arrived, and we didn’t know when it would be appropriate for us to lay our flowers on her grave. We decided to be the last to lay down our flowers, to express our gratitude, to say good-bye.
After the funeral a woman approached us and told us she was Aunt Toini’s daughter. “You could have laid your flowers down first. You were so dear to our mother,” she said. “What was the power that changed her? She used to be a stingy and selfish person. But during the last three years she changed into a new person. She was so tender and loving.”
I didn’t know what to say except, “It was love.”
Though it has been more than 40 years since I first met Aunt Toini, I am still learning from the lessons she brought along with her bag of food. She was my teacher. She taught me how to long for forgiveness and how to give service and help. And now I realize that though she came to feed us, she too had been fed.
Twenty years after her funeral, Petri found that we are related to Aunt Toini through my husband’s lineage. We performed temple ordinances for her. Oh, what a joyous day it will be when we meet each other on the other side of the veil!
Aunt Toini was an inspiring example of love and a change of heart. I’ll forever remember her bag full of food and 20 marks and hope that I can walk the same path she did, for it is the path the Savior has set for us to follow.