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Sisters Abloom With Energy, Good Cheer Despite Age, Widowhood, Other Trials Of Life, They Know All About Finnish

The Harvala sisters take their mark this morning with soft walking shoes and a streak of “sisu.”

“Sisu - Finnish for determination,” said Edna Kiiskila, 74.

“It means you are going to do it,” said Thelma Kangas, 81.

“Guts,” says Mamie Thompson, 88. “We all have guts.”

Not widowhood, coronary bypasses, the loss of part of a lung or strokes will keep the Sisters Five, ages 71 to 88, from walking Bloomsday together.

From Bellevue and Longview, from Chicago and Ishpeming, Mich., they came to Spokane to laugh, eat, visit - and race.

“Energetic is the best way to describe them,” said Mike Aho, outdoor and teen coordinator for Spokane Parks and Recreation.

Aho was accustomed to his Grandma Thelma visiting Spokane each Bloomsday to cheer the racers from the sidewalks. After she was widowed in 1991, he suggested she walk, too.

“I walk every morning, three miles or so,” said Kangas, of Longview. “I’m no couch potato.”

With Kangas on board (she finished 11th in the over-80 class last year), it wasn’t long before baby sister, Martha Johnson, 71, of Bellevue, wanted to race. Johnson uses a wheelchair, which Aho and Johnson’s husband, George, pushed last year.

That’s when Selina Garber, 76, visiting from Chicago, said she’d go. “If she could go in a wheelchair, I could certainly walk alongside her and I’m glad I did.”

Garber finished third to last, but looking at results in print “I felt a little important. When I went back to church, they couldn’t get over it.”

With three of the sisters participating last year, the remaining two weren’t about to miss out. They called a family reunion in Spokane and began arriving Friday in a 22-foot motor home driven by relatives. A total of 10 members of the family will race today, ages 2 to 88.

Raised in the town of Ishpeming on the hem of Lake Superior, the women grew up speaking and reading Finnish, swimming in the summer and skating in winters on the Carp River. In a Spokane hotel room, they hoot remembering the rambunctious rooster that would keep them in the outdoor privy.

From an era where women married, raised their families and got old without even learning to ride a bike, the sisters emerge remarkably active and alike.

“I’d call it good genes,” said Garber.

“I never eat fast food,” says Thompson. “I cook for myself every day.”

“I think it was the prayers of our mother,” says Kiiskila, of Ishpeming.

Whatever it is, it’s given them memories that go beyond Christmas dinners.

“One of the most important things a family can have is shared experiences,” Aho says. “When you recreate together, you have more than just eating and getting together.”

Following them through Riverfront Park, watching them tease and laugh, Aho said the sisters have influenced his idea of aging.

“I look forward to some of that simple joy and not worrying about jobs, establishing a family, or looking ahead. Now it’s a matter of hanging on for the ride. There is a sense of the present moment which we don’t have. We’re always working for tomorrow.”

Last spring, Thompson was critically ill between March and May, undergoing five bypasses and suffering a stroke. Her daughters are worried about her walking today. But they say she is just too stubborn to admit it.

“That’s exactly why I can walk this,” she retorts. “Sisu.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo