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Irene R. (Palonen) Nelson

Obituary for Irene R. (Palonen) Nelson

February 7, 1919 - March 26, 2018
Lanesville, Massachusetts | Age 99


Lanesville resident Irene Nelson died peacefully on March 26th at age 99. She passed at Care One Essex Park in Beverly from complications of a broken hip in early December, according to her daughter, Valerie Nelson.

Irene Rauha Palonen Nelson was born in 1919 in Norwood, Massachusetts of Finnish immigrant parents and grew up in a tightly-knit Finnish-American neighborhood there called Swedeville. From an early age, she fondly remembered summer vacations in Lanesville, where her parents joined other Finns from around the state in renting rooms in the Village and in spending the days at Plum Cove Beach. In the 1950's her mother, Martha Palonen, built a home in Lanesville, where she lived for the next 35 years, providing a place for all the family to visit.

Irene learned to speak English when she started school in Norwood and stayed close to her childhood friends for her whole life. When she was 12 years old, her father died of tuberculosis and she was sent to recover from TB in a sanatorium in Western Massachusetts. After two years, she returned to live with her mother in Norwood. That experience probably explains her resilience (or what is called in Finnish "Sisu") and her enjoyment and patience in living "one day at a time".

Irene was an active member of the Finn Hall in Norwood and participated in many of their diverse cultural activities. She learned to play the piano and accompanied singers at Finnish Relief Fund concerts in 1940, where money was raised to support Finland in its "Winter War" with the Soviet Union. She was a member of the calisthenics club and learned to dance the polka and the schottische at the Hall.

Irene graduated from Simmons College in 1941 and married Robert A. Nelson, a third-generation Swede from Avon, just before he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Stationed in Washington, D.C. she went to work at the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Perhaps if she had been single, she might have become a spy, but when her husband was shipped overseas, she returned to Norwood and their first child, Robert Henry, was born in 1944. Their daughter, Valerie Irene, was born in 1947.

Irene and Bob spent years in Seattle, where he was a professor at the University of Washington and then in the Washington, D.C. area, where he worked for the federal government. They enjoyed many summer road trips back and forth from Seattle to visit their friends and family in Massachusetts, and later traveled widely, including to Europe, Japan, and New Zealand.

Irene formed her own business, Finlandia Importers, which sold Finnish products to gift stores around the country. She maintained her connections to the Finnish- American community as a member of the Kipina-Kerho club and traveled each year on buying trips to Finland, where she also visited relatives.

After her husband Bob died in 2009, Irene moved to live with her daughter Valerie in Lanesville. She continued to enjoy her Finnish-American heritage as a member of the Vasa Club in Rockport and the Lanesville Community Center, and with many afternoons having the traditional coffee with "Nisu". She appreciated the friendship and support of Gloucester's caregivers, including from Meals on Wheels and Action, Inc., and from her constant golden retriever companion, Kashi.

Irene is survived by her daughter Valerie of Gloucester and son Robert and his wife Jill of Chevy Chase, Maryland; granddaughters Claire and husband Josh Whale of Kigali, Rwanda and Martha and her husband Aaron Schwartzbard of Washington, D.C., and grandson Frederick and his wife Kim of Underhill, Vermont; and two great-granddaughters Savannah and Summer.

Burial services will be private. Donations in her name to the Lanesville Community Center at 8 Vulcan St., PO Box 7044, Gloucester, MA 01930 and would be appreciated. On May 13th, the LCC is sponsoring a concert, "Traditions of Finnish-American Music", which will present the rich and diverse Finnish music history of Cape Ann. The concert will be held at the St. Paul Lutheran Church, starting at 7:00 p.m. and all are welcome in celebrating the Finnish music that Irene loved.

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