Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Maire Palme
by Steve Sparks, May 27, 2011
As a nearby neighbor, it was decided that Maire came to my house and we sat down in the dining room, she with a cup of peppermint tea and me with a large mug of coffee, and the ‘interview’ began.
Maire was born in Helsinki, Finland in December 1942 to mother Toini Lehtinen and father Vaino Palme. This happened during a snowstorm so for once there were no Soviet bombings that night and she was born in a hospital rather than an air raid shelter. “We lived very near to an important radio tower so were targeted by the bombers. My father was once saved from severe shrapnel wounds thanks to the thickness of his very heavy winter coat.”
On her mother’s side the heritage can be traced back to Lapland, a region stretching across the far north of Finland and Sweden. Her great Grandmother was a member of the legendary Saame tribe and a witch/practicing shaman — a spiritual being with the ability to heal, work with energies and 'see' visions. “She had a gift for healing and had great psychic ability. This was passed on down to me and I have inherited this gift from her. My mother became a prominent writer in the women’s liberation movement in Finland. The Finns are very self-effacing — a Finnish saying to explain why, on the rare occasion, we do speak about ourselves, is ‘If the cat doesn’t lift its own tail, who will?’ We are very trusting and do not lie, and cannot believe others would lie to us. Therefore we are gullible sometimes. There is little crime, almost no rape. Although they try to be Christians there remains a lot of pagan worship there. The language is regarded to be one of the most difficult to learn and it is a very educated country — there are many taxi-drivers with PhDs. It is a very different culture to anywhere else and our values are very different to many here in the US.”
On her father’s side, the Palme’s came from an island in the Baltic Sea that has been fought over by Sweden and Finland for centuries and they were from many generations with a great sailing tradition. “My grandfather was a decorated war hero after his exploits rescuing Estonians from Soviet persecution on the ice-breaker of which he was the captain. Coming from that island, my father did not even speak Finnish, he spoke Swedish as a child. He raised us as Christians but he certainly had Jewish blood and always denied this. My theory is that he had to marry a blue-eyed blonde — my mother — to avoid detection by the Nazis. His brother, my Uncle Walter was a famous Finnish war crimes prosecutor, bringing many collaborators to justice. My father was a very successful entrepreneur and started his own insurance company when he was just twenty. My parents met in Helsinki, the capital of Finland and were married in 1939. My father needed to learn Finnish and put an advert in the paper looking for a teacher. My mother saw this and applied. As soon as they met it was love at first sight. Despite his family’s objections, he divorced his first wife and married my mother, causing a big scandal for the prominent, wealthy, and upper class Palme family. It was unacceptable to them that he married a Finnish speaker. My mother was this mysterious being from Lapland, full of joy, someone who loved to socialize. My father and his family were very conservative in comparison — they had nothing in common except love.”
With the success of his business, Maire’s father was able to pay the bills and support her mother’s activities in the world of art and bohemian lifestyle. “Her group of friends were philosophers, thinkers, artists, writers, and I was exposed to this scene at an early age. I was reading at the age of three and went on to receive a very good education, being raised by various governesses in a household that had maids, cooks, gardeners, etc. My sister Virve was born two years after me and she is a brilliant woman who speaks seven languages. However, I was the ‘princess,’ a real tantrum thrower, and very spoiled. My earliest memories as a child living in the city of Helsinki during the war are of being bombed all of the time and I still vividly recall the damp concrete smell of the shelters. My mother was a child psychologist and my father ran this huge insurance company. He was regarded as too important to fight in the war whereas my friends’ father’s all went off to fight. We lived in great opulence and our wealth was a constant source of embarrassment for me. I tried to hide this from my friends. My father was rarely around and mother was busy with her writing. I was the only brown-eyed kid at school where I entered poetry recital competitions. I was very outgoing and my mother wrote plays that the school would perform, with me in the leading role. I loved art and, like all Finns do at some point, I studied the Kalevala — Land of Heroes — the most important piece of literature for us, a national treasure telling the heroic stories of our distant past. It is like our national ‘bible’.”
Over the years my socialist leanings led to many clashes with my capitalist father and by the time came for me to move on to university he wanted me to be a supreme court judge and to do my art at the weekends only as a hobby. He was a good man, a philanthropist who gave lots of his money to various good causes and the artistic community. I was very spoiled, the ‘Jewish princess,’ and he always gave me jewelry and perfume. I wanted to teach and create art and had taken a test to go to art school but knew the problems this would cause at home. I was accepted but just days later, in the late summer of 1961, we received a phone call that my father, who was in Sweden on business, had died. It was a very strange emotional thing for me. I could not cry. There was a sadness but I was overjoyed at being accepted at art school and now all the dread of explaining this to my father had gone. I felt a sense of release. A few weeks later, it was discovered that my father had gone bankrupt and had lost everything. My mother had to get a ‘real’ job and she became the director of a kindergarten. We had no money and now I could be genuinely one of the Finnish poor, no more faking; I could also be a genuine socialist!”
Maire went to art school and following her third year there, with one year still to go, she went to Spain in the summer of 1965. This is when fate stepped in... “I could speak little Spanish so I went to a beginners class in Madrid. One day in class, an American boy, R.T. walked in and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I knew this was wrong and that I could not be there with him but I could not walk away. I was hypnotized. He spoke to me saying ‘You are mine.’ We started to date, the classes ended, I was supposed to return to Finland but instead we went to Morocco and were married in Casablanca — he loved the film by that name and I was his Ingrid Bergman. We lived on a boat in the Casablanca harbor for six months and he sold his art. Our marriage made the papers in Helsinki — I was twenty-three, he was thirty-five... He would frequently disappear for days on end without explanation — I think he was kin the drug smuggling business — hashish. Many years later I found out he was using a dead person’s identity — a man who had died in Louisiana years earlier. Ultimately it transpired that he was a criminally insane psychopath but he won me over with the line ‘You are the most intelligent woman I have ever met’ and I fell for it. I often wanted to run away but couldn’t. Our money ran out and we went to Finland to see my family. My mother said immediately — this is the worst person you could have met.’ I grew to dislike him but continued to look for a good side — I was very gullible. He talked people in to letting him have art shows at various top galleries — he could persuade people to do anything. I even did his art for him sometimes. He had a brilliant mind with an IQ of 200 and was always scheming while I made money as a teacher, artist, and pianist. We had a child, David, born in 1966 and a year or so later R.T. went to New York. I should have stayed in Finland but my adventurous side took over and I followed him, thinking I could change him.”
Maire and R.T. lived in a wealthy neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where she made many friends. A second child was born in 1968 — Daniel — “in memory of my father I insisted on classical Jewish names.” She found herself an agent and began a career in commercial art that was very successful for about three years. Then R.T. got restless at his job with I.B.M. and wanted to move away. They pulled the children out of very good schools, bought an old camper, and left town.
“I did not want to go but he threatened to kill me if I left him. He had stopped me seeing friends and I felt I had nobody to turn to. This is a horror story. He had my money and told me that in America women were kept ‘barefoot and pregnant.’ My culture of trust and honesty did not question his actions.” They traveled around the east coast and the south and somehow he always seemed to get hold of enough money to get by. “I was still living in a dream world but had my two wonderful kids, my magical kings.”
In early 1972, when they were in Norfolk, Virginia, Maire finally decided she had to leave him. “I told him and he said he would kill the kids and me if I did. I called his bluff and tried to leave. He grabbed me by the throat and seriously tried to strangle me — I still have the marks on my neck to prove it to this day. I managed to fight him off. He grabbed the kids and drove off. I could not get any help from the law. I did not see them for seven years and had no idea what had happened to them.”
This was the most miserable period of Maire’s life. “For a couple of years I could not tell my mother what had happened. I contemplated suicide but couldn’t do it as the kids might still be alive and might need me one day. For several months I was so very unhappy, although I did return to work in the commercial art world to support myself and threw myself into meditation and yoga. Around Thanksgiving of that year I had arranged to go on a date with a local doctor but decided to cancel. I did not have a phone so I went into the local bar to make the call. I had sat down and was having a beer when the door opened and a man walked in. My whole body began to sing. The man came over to me and although he was obviously quite shy, he uttered the words — ‘I have been assigned to you.’ It was Gordon Tranberg and we have been together ever since.”
Maire continued with her art but had little money, using bedsheets for the canvas. She also did lots of mediation and personal counseling. “I loved my work while not being ambitious — that is regarded as a ‘lust for glory’ in Finland and is not thought of as a good thing. Gordon supported my work and did everything for ‘my glory’ He drove a taxi while I painted fifteen hours a day sometimes — mainly portraits of ordinary people, usually the lost or homeless. Money was not important to me. All the misery in the world comes when we think about ourselves; all the happiness comes when we are thinking about others.”
Gordon and Maire traveled around the country selling her art on street corners but the sadness in her heart continued and she found it very upsetting to look at other children. She found herself spending time with childless women to avoid the pain. However, she found herself able to forgive her husband and had no hostility towards him. They traveled all over the Mid-west, New York City, and spent two years in Minnesota, always selling her portraits and making a living from that.
In 1979, she received a letter from the Finnish embassy stating that the children her husband had said were dead were in fact alive and living in San Diego. Her husband had spent time in prison for armed robbery but was now back on the streets, where he had abandoned the boys. She learned from the authorities that the boys had been in several foster homes following the sexual assaults on them by their father. They had been fostered in Texas and Arkansas and with rumors reaching her that the father was planning to kill them and her Maire decided to wait and see. “It was on e of the most torturous periods of my life. It was at this time that I found out about all of his criminal activities and his false identity. He had committed evil acts but I did not hate him. I believe he had little choice because of his own terrible upbringing. Gordon and I moved to San Jose for a time where we both got jobs working at Intel but in 1981 I decided I could wait no longer. I had to contact the boys. I went to San Diego alone. When I met the social workers they said my husband had told them I was mentally ill, so it was decided that I should be tested to prove my sanity. However, because no Finnish educated psychologists could be found — Finns fail frequently the Western mental tests due to their unique, but sane, interpretation of reality — the plan was cancelled. I was given the right to visit my sons, after I had written several letters to them, that proved my sanity, but any attempt to release them to live with me, was refused. I started legal proceedings against the Social Services but after learning that my sons would have to testify in the court about their experiences with their father and foster-parents I dropped the case: They had suffered enough. They were obviously scared of everything; they had been through so much misery by that point. The older one, David, was quite hostile towards me and they both blamed me for everything. My husband had brainwashed them. The adoption process to other families, that had begun before my arrival, ran its course.”
Maire moved to Oceanside to be nearby the boys and they did visit her on occasions. At one point, David even said he wanted to move in with her and Gordon but he was adopted by a family in San Diego, where Daniel was also found a home. “Gordon and my painting kept me sane during those years and following many successful shows we were fine financially. By the mid-eighties, rumors began to spread again about my husband issuing further threats so Gordon and I moved up to Gualala on the Mendocino Coast. The boys both moved out of their foster homes at eighteen, David to attend the University of Michigan, near to which he later settled, while sadly Daniel disappeared for five years — something he has done a couple of times since. He is a good talker, a charmer like his father. I try to communicate with David but he does not accept me. He has two children, now twelve and ten but I have no contact with them. I send them my art and may be one day they will want to see me. At this point Daniel could be anywhere. I have seen him once in ten years. I wanted to love them both so much but David cannot forgive me and Daniel I cannot trust.”
Despite the tragedy of her personal life, Maire continued to be successful in her career. She sold her work at one of the top galleries in La Jolla, San Diego, and Palm Springs and this continued for a time after she moved to Gualala in 1987. Her art can be viewed at her website at www.mairepalme.net . “Ultimately, I moved to a Zen Monastery in Sonoma Mountain and was able to clear my mind and move on. I started to laugh again and realized I could truly forgive. I continue to have forgiveness for my husband — I have studied the human mind intensely for the last twenty years and believe it can be changed and therefore I can forgive anyone for anything.”
From 1996 to 2001, they lived in Santa Rosa and Maire worked at the Consciousness Research Foundation. “I taught at a bookstore in Santa Rosa and continued my mediation and Tai Chi. I did spiritual readings for people and was booked up for six months at a time. I wanted to inspire people to find their hearts. That was my purpose.” In one of her classes she met Robert Hulbert who told her about his sister Kathy who he thought Maire might be able to help. “I knew nothing about Boonville or Anderson Valley but we came up here and then our trailer broke down in the middle of town. We got on well with Kathy and next thing we had moved in with her for a time. We loved the Valley immediately and when a place became available on the Gowan property on Gschwend Road we moved our trailer in. We soon became friends with our neighbors, Alex and Joan Champion and began to get involved with Valley life. Gordon took the EMT class and I started to make friends with some of the seniors, through the senior bus driver, Dick Sand — people such as Charmian Blattner, Marietta Young, and a fellow Finn — Kay (Kylikki) Clark. Soon I was helping them with any health issues where my mediation and Tai Chi could be of some assistance. I have worked a lot with Hayes Brennan since his stroke and have been inspired by his wife and daughter — Linda and Kira. Being around the Brennans has taught me the importance of living in the moment, of talking to the trees and appreciating nature. Hayes is my Zen Master. Over the past few years I have learned a lot about the Valley. I love the variety of people we have living here, unlike the homogeneity of life in Finland; and of course the redwoods are wonderful, heavenly in fact... Gordon and I have decided we will stay here and die here. I plan to teach meditation and Tai Chi at The Grange at some point soon — people need to know that happiness is available for everyone.”
I asked for Maire’s opinions and thoughts on a few of the topics discussed here in the Valley.
The Wineries and their impact? “Pass.”
The A.V.A. newspaper? “I am a socialist like the editor Bruce Anderson and have enjoyed my dealings with him. I feel for him and understand that sometimes he must create stories. I very much enjoy the interviews with local people and Mr. Anderson has always published everything I have written too. He even said he likes the Finns!.”
KZYX radio? “I listen all the time.”
The school system? “Well, based on the teachers I know we are very lucky. School is who the teachers are and we have some great ones.”
I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Maire.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When I see somebody finding joy in their life.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When people unconditionally trust that someone else knows better than them.”
Sound or noise you love? “The sounds of nature.”
Sound or noise you hate? “The bass sound on some car stereos.”
What is your favorite food or meal? “Buckwheat and blueberries — they are the secret of a long and healthy life.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Albert Schweitzer — the theologian, philosopher and medical missionary whose quest was to discover a universal ethical philosophy and make it directly available to all of humanity. He refused to teach Christianity to the natives of Africa, realizing it would be destructive to their own belief systems and do untold harm in the long run.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A Native American drum, my pencils and paper for drawing.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “A film would be ‘Kundun’ — about the life and writings of the 14th Dalai Lama, directed by Martin Scorcese; a book would be Krishnamurti’s ‘The Freedom from the Known’; and a song or tune would be ‘Swan of Tuonela’ by Sibelius, a Finnish composer.”
Favorite hobby? “Tai Chi”
Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “An ice hockey player or a nuclear scientist.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “On a production line — that would kill the soul I would think.”
How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was 13 and went for a walk in the park with a 16 year old boxer. He tried to kiss me up against a wall but I moved out of the way and he kissed the wall. That ended the relationship promptly.”
Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “No. I feel happy with what I have done; no regrets.”
Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “I had a near-death experience at the age of four when I nearly drowned and had to be resuscitated. If I become a burden at some point I would like to die by drowning not in a hospital bed — we Finns do not like to feel we are a burden. The Norwegians simply take themselves into ice-cold water. It is quick and painless.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “For me it was not childbirth. It was sitting in meditation and realizing that I can choose my own thoughts, that we have a freedom to choose.”
Saddest day or period of your life? “Sunday, February 28th, 1972 — the day he took my children and tried to kill me. Every time I hear the song ‘American Pie’ I am reminded of that day — the day the music died. It is back in my life now.”
Favorite thing about yourself? “That whatever happens I can always laugh and move on. The eternal little girl inside me can find joy in the most miserable of situations. It is a genetic gift, passed on to me by my mother.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “We have cancelled Hell — there is only Heaven and everyone comes here now.”
To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Heidi Knott.