On a recent evening I switched off the light in the office and walked to the mobile command vehicle, which had been baking all day in the summer sun.
As I eased my bulk into the driver’s seat, I was enveloped by intense heat. I paused for a moment before turning the key in the ignition, easing back in the seat and closing my eyes.
This wasn’t mere surface heat that comes from the sun shining on one’s skin. It was a deep, penetrating heat. For a brief interval, I was transported back to my grandmother’s basement.
Grandma lived on the Iron Range in a house my granddad built. To get there, one traveled, quite literally, over the river and through the woods. The house was situated in a clearing among majestic towering pines, on a bluff above the river.
There was also a wood shed, a rough garage, an outhouse, and a small one-room cottage where my great-grandmother had lived.
Grandma and grandpa were Finns. Like many of their contemporaries, they, along with their families, emigrated from Finland to northern Minnesota.
They brought many of their traditions with them. One of the traditions they took most seriously was sauna.
To get to the sauna in my grandparents’ house, one descended the stairs into the basement, which was cool and faintly damp. On the right was a collection of shelves, many lined with Watkins products, which grandma sold. On the left was a washing machine, complete with wringer. Ahead, in the corner of the basement, was the sauna.
First, one came to a changing area fashioned out of shower curtains that hung floor to ceiling. The smell of the plastic curtains permeated the basement. The floor of the changing area was soft, lined with an assortment of multi-colored rag rugs.
One entered the sauna through a small, tight-fitting door. I can still hear the sound of that door opening and closing after all these years.
Inside the sauna, the floor was covered with a sort of wooden grate on which to walk. There was a faucet and shower in the corner to one’s left. In the other corner, to the right of that, was a metal box filled with heated rocks.
Along the opposite wall was a two-level bench. The serious participants always sat on the top level, where the maximum heat collected.
At night, when the day’s activities were done, we would file down the stairs to where the sauna was already hot and waiting.
There was a feeling of anticipation as one took the first step from the cool changing room into the welcoming warmth of the sauna.
When I was very young, I found the heat uncomfortable. As time went on, however, I came to love the deep, penetrating heat.
As one adjusted to the heat, one would throw dippers of cool water onto the hot rocks, which would hiss like a living, breathing creature, and generate vast clouds of steam, increasing the intensity of the heat.
Sauna is not just a way to bathe, it is a method of cleansing one’s body and soul.
The children took the first shift. The women went next, and the men were last, when the heat of the sauna was most intense. The women went as a group, and the men went as a group. Friends and relatives would sometimes stop by to join in the sauna, and later to play cards.
They taught me not to tolerate the heat, but embrace it; to rejoice in its powers of healing and renewal. Tired muscles relaxed in the moist heat, and rivulets of sweat poured down our steaming bodies, washing away impurities as waves of steam rolled around us. It was a sacred experience.
In the sauna, the old ones could never get enough steam, and dipper after dipper of water was tossed upon the rocks.
We emerged from the sauna renewed and refreshed, our bodies glowing. After putting on clean clothes in the plastic-curtained changing room, we scurried upstairs to have Schwan’s vanilla ice cream served in fancy glass bowls and topped with raspberries we had picked from grandma’s enormous raspberry patch that afternoon.
Such was the tradition in our family.
It has been many years since I had a proper sauna. The house overlooking the Swan River has changed hands, and grandma’s raspberry patch is long gone.
For a few brief moments, however, while sitting in a hot car in the newspaper office parking lot, I returned to those days of long ago, and remembered how things were back then.