Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Michigan Finnish Sauna Memories

My matriarchal ancestors are Finnish. Great-grandmother Mariah Matilda came from Finland with her four children. The women lived on Drummond Island in a house we still enjoy. The Kemppainens across the road had a sauna, and on Friday nights, baths were enjoyed in order of who could stand what heat level. Older women first, small children with their mothers, couples next, bachelors last. Mariah liked her sauna hot. She sat on the top bench with my grandmother and slapped herself with birch branches while my mother washed us. I can still hear the hiss of water poured on the stones again and again as my great-grandmother raised the temperature. I remember scrunching as close to the floor as possible with a cold washcloth over my face, wondering if I'd live long enough to run outside and watch the steam fly off my body, struggling to endure the heat longer than my brothers. All the women had baskets or wooden carryalls with their sauna supplies. I loved the smell of the sauna; the hot rocks with wood fired underneath, handmade soap, the steaming cedar walls and benches. The easy laughter. My mom opened the sauna door when I was an adult, and snapped a picture of me that looks like this Painometalli plaque from the 50s that hangs in our bathroom. Aunt Suoma got her mother and sister Saima an addition on the Drummond house that includes a sauna almost as big as the living room so the ladies wouldn't have to walk across the road to bathe. At South Lyon Farmers Market, I bought an exfoliating soap sack and a bar of sumptuous soap made by Cellar Door Soap Company, and today when I picked up the mitt, I smelled the childhood sauna of long ago, heard the women's laughter and felt the exuberant joy of carefree community with my family.

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