Marja-Liisa Lennhof, Whose Life Embodied the Finnish Spirit of “Sisu,” Dies at 81

In memory of:

Marja-Liisa Lennhof

Born: May 31, 1939, Tuupovaara,
Died: Jul 04, 2020, Boerne, TX
Age: 81

Marja-Liisa Lennhoff, née Eskelinen, of Boerne, TX passed away at home on the evening of July 4, 2020 at 81 years of age. As was befitting of her brilliant spirit, Marja-Liisa left this world on the evening that our skies in the United States explode with blossoms of light.

Due to the pandemic, no public services are planned, but Marja-Liisa’s family welcomes words of comfort and remembrances. Please see the bottom of this obituary for more information about how to help celebrate Marja-Liisa’s life.

Marja-Liisa was a WWII baby, born on May 31, 1939 in Tuupovaara, Finland, to her mother, Iiris Viola Rakel Kurkela (Eskelinen) and her father, Viktor Eskelinen. She was born at a time when Finland was in turmoil, at war with Russia. 

Marja-Liisa Lennhof

Her life started in war, poverty, and illness. Despite all that, Marja-Liisa lived a full life that spanned two continents (Europe and America) and many countries, taking her from Finland at age 15 to the United States, to Mexico, to Canada, back to Mexico, and ultimately back to the U.S., where she lived until her death at age 81. Marja-Liisa spoke several languages including Finnish, English, Spanish, and some German and French. Most of these languages, besides her native Finnish language, were learned as a result of immigrating to other countries, and also learning to communicate with other immigrants from other places along her own journey.

Marja-Liisa is survived by her devoted husband, Dr. Miguel Lennhoff. They were married for just over 57 years when Marja-Liisa passed away. She is also survived by her three children: Michael Leonardo Lennhoff (Darlene) of Boerne, TX; Claudia Lennhoff of Urbana, IL; and Victor Felipe Lennhoff (Lauren) of San Antonio, TX; and her grandchildren: Daniel Lennhoff (Elise) of Boerne, TX; Sabrina Lennhoff Brown (Brandon Brown) of La Vernia, TX; and Annaliise and Henry Lennhoff of San Antonio, TX; and her great-grandchildren: Landon, Aubrey, and Noah Lennhoff of Boerne, TX.

Marja-Liisa is also survived by several siblings: Half sisters Hilkka Lilja Kärkkäinen; Eija Birgit Trankulle Sjölund; Kirsti Elina Kurkela; Heikki Aslak Kurkela; Irja Eriika Kurkela; Helvi Kaarina Kurkela; Hilja Meeri Mirjami Kurkela; Helena Sisko Matveinen; and Väinö Pekka Kurkela. She is also survived by numerous nieces and nephews, and grand-nieces and grand-nephews in Finland, Sweden and other countries.

Marja-Liisa was preceded in death by her father, Viktor Eskelinen, who was killed in the Russian/Finnish war in 1941 when Marja-Liisa was only two years old. Viktor Eskelinen was a soldier in the Finnish military – he was a scout for his troop – and he was killed when he and his horse stepped on a landmine. Marja-Liisa was also preceded in death by her foster mother, Mary Lake (her American name) who was a Finn living in White Plains, NY, and who helped Marja-Liisa go through Nursing School. In addition, Marja-Liisa was preceded in death by her mother, Iiris Viola Rakel Kurkela (Eskelinen), as well as by her brother Pauli Petter Eskelinen in November 2019. She was also preceded in death by her mother-in-law, Martha Bander Lennhoff in 1990.

Marja-Liisa was a proud Finn whose life embodied the Finnish spirit of “sisu.” Sisu is a unique Finnish concept. It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. It is a word that cannot be fully translated. Marja-Liisa’s life exemplifies sisu.

Marja-Liisa lived a quiet, gentle, graceful, kind, but brilliant life, full of the sisu spirit, and she impacted many people’s (and animals’) lives simply with her goodness. 

She was a proud Finn, and she had a profound love of nature, and a passion for rocks, fossils, plants, and animals. She also had deep compassion and kindness for people – especially those who were in need or who were hurting physically or emotionally.

Marja-Liisa left Finland when she was 15 years old to move to White Plains, NY, where she lived with her foster mother, another Finn who immigrated to the U.S. and used the American name Mary Lake.  Marja-Liisa and Mary Lake both worked as domestic servants, while Marja-Liisa also went to nursing school.

Marja-Liisa graduated from the School of Nursing in White Plains, NY at the age of 22 in 1961. At that time, newly graduated nurses were given real gold pins to wear, and the pins were inscribed in the back with the name of the nursing school, the year of graduation, and the initials of the newly-graduated nurse. Marja-Liisa kept her gold pin all her life.

Originally, Marja-Liisa wanted to go to school to study either Anthropology or Archeology, but she was discouraged from doing so by the guidance counselors at that time – she was told that women could not have careers in those areas, and she was guided toward the nursing program. Marja-Liisa loved being a nurse, but she also carried her interests in anthropology and archeology with her for her entire life. She remained outraged that women had been discouraged from a variety of fields of study and careers in past decades.

While working as a nurse in the White Plains, NY hospital, Marja-Liisa met the love of her life, Miguel Lennhoff – who came

Miguel and Liisa

from Mexico City, Mexico (where he immigrated as an infant from Austria, as he and his mother escaped the Holocaust) – to work his medical residency at the hospital in White Plains. At that time, there were many doctors, nurses, and medical residents who were immigrants from countries all over the world – countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and America. A special group of immigrant – as well as American - friends and colleagues developed in the hospital and helped one another adjust to life in White Plains. Many became life-long friends. 

Marja-Liisa spotted Miguel Lennhoff as soon as he arrived at the White Plains hospital, and felt that he could use some “looking-after” – he seemed so gentle and naïve to her, and she felt that he could use her help in adjusting to life at the White Plains hospital. But, as Miguel tells it, as soon as he saw Marja-Liisa, he instantly thought to himself, “I will marry her.” And so, their romance was born and they were married in 1963 in White Plains, NY.

As a nurse working in the White Plains hospital, Marja-Liisa treated many patients, including some famous people. One of Marja-Liisa’s patients was the comedian Phyllis Diller (now deceased), who autographed a photo for Marja-Liisa in gratitude for the excellent care she provided to Ms. Diller.

After Miguel Lennhoff completed his residency at the hospital in White Plains, NY, he had to move back to Mexico City, Mexico, in order to fully complete medical school. So, the newly-weds moved to Mexico, and Marja-Liisa, was once again an immigrant to a new country where she had to learn to speak a new language. She was no longer able to practice as a nurse because she did not have a license in Mexico, and she became a full-time mother and homemaker.

All three of Marja-Liisa and Miguel’s children were born in Mexico – Michael Leonardo in 1964, Claudia Iris in 1966, and Victor Felipe in 1972. Marja-Liisa and Miguel moved to Montreal, Canada in 1970 for Miguel’s work as a medical researcher. They drove to Montreal from Mexico in a tiny VW beetle, carrying their two young children, Michael and Claudia, and camping gear and various possessions in the VW. They stopped and camped along the way. And, when they were moving back to Mexico in late 1971, they traveled back the same way, but this time Marja-Liisa was pregnant with their youngest son, Victor, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico. The children – Michael and Claudia – remember these trips as “fun” and enjoyed camping along the way. Marja-Liisa and Miguel had a different recollection about this mode of travel across three countries (they used words like “awful”, “terrible”, and “horrible” in their recollections).

While in Monterrey, Mexico, Marja-Liisa made a habit of feeding the hungry neighborhood children. She would fix sandwiches every morning, and children would line up at the back door to the house to get their sandwiches.

She also rescued injured animals and birds, and nursed them back to health. In doing so, she taught her children compassion for all living creatures.

The Lennhoff family moved to San Antonio, TX in 1974, and Miguel went on to work at the VA, state hospital, and mental health clinics. Marja-Liisa continued to stay home to raise the children.

Thanks to Marja-Liisa, the children grew up eating healthy home-cooked meals. Marja-Liisa was an excellent cook, and also an excellent baker. There were always breads, cakes, and cookies in the home. She also grew her own herbs, and vegetables, fruit, and peppers.

Marja-Liisa’s love of cooking and love of plants inspired her oldest son Michael to become a chef and to love plants, herbs, and peppers as well – many of which he, like his mother, uses in his own cooking.

When her kids were young – especially when Victor was young - Marja-Liisa volunteered at Coker Elementary School for many years, helping the teachers, back when copies were made on mimeograph machines. And when Michael and Claudia were in middle school, Marja-Liisa finally learned to drive on a small Honda Civic, which was a stick-shift.

As a mother, Marja-Liisa created a home where many people from the neighborhood were welcome and came and spent much time with the Lennhoff family. Her children’s friends – including neighborhood kids who were considered “bad” or “trouble makers” – often found refuge and acceptance in the Lennhoff home, where they could enjoy conversations with Marja-Liisa and Miguel, and would be treated to Marja-Liisa’s baked goods. 

Miguel and Liisa

Marja-Liisa’s nursing skills came in handy many times over the years, and she was calm and cool under pressure. One particularly devastating incident happened when the youngest child, Victor, came to stand on a bed of fire ants. The fire ants swarmed his body, biting him all over, and he went into shock. Siblings Michael and Claudia called for their mother. Marja-Liisa rushed out, grabbed Victor off the anthill, swatted the ants off of him, performed CPR when he stopped breathing, and she ordered Michael and Claudia to draw a cold bath with ice for Victor. She placed Victor in the bath, gave him Benadryl, and saved his life with her quick medical response.

Many years later, while living in Boerne, Marja-Liisa learned about the mother of one of Claudia’s friends who fell ill with a mysterious and debilitating condition. As soon as Marja-Liisa heard about the woman’s symptoms, she suggested that the woman be investigated for Guillian-Barre syndrome. It did indeed turn out to be Guillian-Barre syndrome, and the woman was hospitalized and treated, and recovered well, thanks to an early diagnosis.

There are too many such examples to tell here. Suffice it to say that Marja-Liisa always put her nursing experience to use, and she continued to read and learn about medical and health issues throughout her life.

In fact, Marja-Liisa was an avid and voracious reader for most of her life and she was knowledgeable about many things, which made her a fun and engaging person to talk with who could discuss almost any topic. Her kids say that she was one of the smartest people they have ever known. Her love of reading inspired her children to also love reading and develop life-long reading habits, which they, in turn, have also passed on to their children.

Marja-Liisa made sure that her children had happy childhoods – she was generous in taking her kids, and inviting their friends to come along, to movies, parks, lakes, and the beach. Favorite places included Canyon Lake and Padre Island, including Port Aransas. Marja-Liisa also enjoyed trips, going near and far, to places such as Maryland, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Illinois (to visit Claudia), among other places. One of her favorite things to do in life was to go down to the Gulf Coast with her family, and to take seemingly-endless walks on the beaches of Port Aransas and north Padre Island, hunting for sea shells and sand-dollars.

While living in both Mexico and later in Texas, the family often went hiking and camping, exploring and fossil hunting. Marja-Liisa had an eagle-eye for fossils, as well as sand-dollars. The kids grew up with lots of fossils, sea shells, and other wonders from nature surrounding them in their home.

Marja-Liisa also enjoyed her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She would take them places, let them bake with her, give them ice cream and baked goods as treats, and do arts and crafts with them, including coloring.

Little Nature Store

Marja-Liisa was also artistic and skilled at several crafts including crochet, knitting, needle point, and sculpting clay. She wrote poems and would occasionally paint or draw. She taught her children and grandchildren various crafts.

Marja-Liisa was the emotional center of the Lennhoff family. She was the greatest supporter of her children, championing their education and their work, and cheering them at every challenge and obstacle, even when they felt they could not overcome it. 

Besides her deep devotion to her family, Marja-Liisa was also a good friend to many, and her life was graced with beautiful friendships too numerous to name them all. But special long-lasting friendships included those with Joyce McAdoo and her family, Jose Amado and Yolanda (deceased) Treviño,  and Ynez and Enrique Garza (both the Treviño and Garza families moved from Mexico to San Antonio, and the Lennhoffs followed), Sylvia Lambert, and many others.

Marja-Liisa also had many beloved pets over the years: dogs, parakeets and parrots, and a goat while in Mexico, followed by lots of cats while in San Antonio and in Boerne, TX. Most of the cats were rescued and adopted. She also had a pet tarantula named Esmeralda and several hermit crabs. And when she and her husband Miguel purchased some land near Comfort, TX, Miguel surprised Marja-Liisa with donkeys. Both Marja-Liisa and Miguel loved the donkeys and were very devoted to them, and going to visit the donkeys was a favorite family activity for many years. One of Marja-Liisa’s cats deserves special mention because he, in particular, was like a little soul mate to Marja-Liisa. He was a black cat named Rascal, and Marja-Liisa had him since he was a tiny kitten. He grew into quite a large cat, and every evening before bedtime, he would climb on Marja-Liisa and drape himself around her shoulders and she would carry him around as she prepared for bedtime. Rascal’s death in 2001 was a profound loss to Marja-Liisa. She was certain that she would see him in the after-life, and her family hopes that they will have a joyful reunion.

Marja-Liisa had a love for justice that was based on love for people and compassion. Her kids grew up watching the national and world news, hearing their parents’ commentary along the way. They always favored justice and love and abhorred injustice in all of its forms.

Marja-Liisa Lennhoff Eskelinen, a proud Finn who exemplified sisu – was fierce and tender all at the same time. She was compassionate, generous and kind. She was intelligent and curious, and humble. She was stubborn and opinionated, but she was a good listener, and, truthfully, she was pretty much always right. She was whimsical and spiritual. And she was funny in a subtle kind of way. She loved justice and she loved people, animals, and nature. She left this world, and the many lives she encountered, better for her having been here. 

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial donations be made in Marja-Liisa’s name to the non-profit organizations she supported: Hill Country (TX) ASPCA (https://www.hillcountryspca.com/), World Wildlife Fund (https://www.worldwildlife.org/), American Indian College Fund (https://collegefund.org/), and Champaign County Health Care Consumers (IL) (https://www.healthcareconsumers.org/).

Arrangements are under the care and direction of the staff of Holt & Holt Funeral Home of Boerne. To share words of comfort with the family, please visit www.holtfh.com.

Author: Claudia Lennhoff