The Gift

There is an element to life and how we live it that is changing due to technology. Countless essays, books, films show how we lose our humanity with the rise of technology and there is an actual movement out there to slow down, appropriately called the Slow Movement. Analog, to me is part of the slow movement, and when I look back, I now realize that my father was part of that movement. What is amazing is how fast our memories have been lost to a simpler, easy (and cheaper) way and that so much of what we feel is necessary or normal, is not.

My Father was a Finn, born back in 1929. In the earlier third of the twentieth century, when my father was born, Finland was not the Tech powerhouse it is today. And my father, like many others, was born in a Sauna. To give you an idea of the extent of medical advancements at the time my father was born, the first major antibiotic was developed just one year before. In many cases, the Sauna was the cleanest and most hygienic places in Finland. The Sauna was life to the Finn those days, it served as the family birthing center, the social center, a place for hygiene and bathing, and for relaxation. You spent time with your family in the Sauna. You brought close friends into your Sauna. You confessed your deepest secrets in the Sauna and you conducted business deals in the Sauna. The Sauna my father was born in likely doesn’t exist anymore. He was born in a part of Finland called Karelia. And like the sauna, that part of Finland no longer exists either, taken by the Soviet Union during the Winter War in 1939. Yes, my father was born in the Sauna, and back then, in Finland, that was the norm. Shortly thereafter, having lost his home, my father also lost his mother. He survived refugee camps, two wars, and a home life where he was the half-brother. Years later, belonging-but-not-quite-belonging, he immigrated to the United States. But the one thing he never forgot was his love for the Sauna. You see, he was born with it.

When my father came to America, in the 1950s, Saunas in the United States were few and far between, and even to this day, a real, wood fired Sauna that you can throw water on for the occasional burst of löyly (steam from the water thrown on the heated rocks of the Sauna) is hard to find in the USA. So in 1974, after retiring from the US Air Force, once my father achieved the American Dream of home ownership, he set out to build his own sauna. And I, as an eight year old helped as only an eight year old can, by handing over tools and asking questions about everything. As we weren’t rich, my father improvised to build his sauna. Instead of Cedar for the walls, my father used old wood from wartime wooden barracks being torn down on the Air Force Base close by. (my father was the original repurposer, today that kind of wood costs a lot of money). He build the door handles and hooks by finding branches in the woods and carving them. The only area he did not scrimp on was the thermometer, ladle for the water and the Genuine, Finnish Wood Burning Stove shipped from Finland. Years later, I would try to build my own sauna with my father. For the next 13 years of my life, my Finnish credentials were improved with every Sauna I took with my father, his friends and my friends. I learned about Sauna etiquette, to keep sacred that anything spoken in the Sauna carried the weight of a contract and that no one in that Sauna could use those words spoken against you. I learned to speak freely there with my father. I also learned things that may not be considered OK in this day an age, such as running naked outside to the top of your driveway and roll down in the snow, seeing the steam rise from the skin of your body. When I graduated from college and away for good, my father and I would still take a Sauna every time I came home and in that small, sooty, wood enclosed room we would talk about anything and everything, yet many times also sit in complete silence, listening to only the fire in the stove and the occasional hiss from the wood as it burned.

As time sped by, unnoticed, my father kept with his near daily routine of Saunas, sometimes with friends, more often than not, alone. And he kept this routine for 32 years, in the same small, sooty, wood enclosed room. And in the 21st century, as my father kept going in the Sauna, small things started to break, both in that room and in my father. He Survived Colon Cancer, COPD caused by Asbestos exposure in the Air Force (never admitted by our Government and never complained by my Father) and started down the early days of dementia, which I didn’t know at the time. At the same time, the windows in the sauna sooted up to where you could barely see them, the stove, at some point in time, had rusted through and was replaced with another exact duplicate (for he had ordered a spare long ago, thinking ahead).

At this time, I lived in Virginia. And my wife at that time had heard me talk of building a Sauna and bought a small shed to convert in the back yard of our home. I ordered the wood, stove, and all the other parts needed for the inside of the sauna. I called my dad to send me the dimensions needed for the bench and asked him if he would help me build the Sauna when my parents came to visit for a week. I bought two of every tool we needed so we could work together and before he left, we would share the first Sauna, one we had truly built together. When he came down, we started work, and soon I saw the toll life had put on him. He was out of breath with helping to carry the boards to the Shed/Sauna. He had trouble holding the drill steady and screws would only be driven half way. I ended up having to do my work and half of his. And each day we fell further and further behind as my vision of my tough, carpentry skilled father of years ago met with my real father. The kind man now bent and losing the battle and yet not complaining. We didn’t finish the Sauna that week, and I held out hope that he would come back and we could finish, father and son, what we had started, over thirty years before, when I held the hammer, waiting for the right moment to pass it to him.

The vision in my head never came to be. He left before the Sauna was finished, and with him leaving the work behind, I never had the heart to finish on my own. The shed filled with dust and cobwebs, and the sauna stove sat in the garage. A couple of times, I went to Massachusetts and had a short Sauna with him. Over the years, the Finn in me seemed to shrink, and the heat I used to laugh at as the steam burned under my fingers and toes, now chased me out of the Sauna into the cooler changing room, as my father soaked in the heat and sweated. We shared beers now, as we cooled off, and reminisced about when I was young and he worked harder than anyone I knew more than talking about new things. To talk about the new was to acknowledge he had started to fade, his thoughts as sooty as the walls in the Sauna now.

In the end, his hand-built Sauna stood the test of time, and outlasted him. As the dementia slowly took grip on my father, taking away the things he held dear, like driving, carpentry, and volunteering at the local Bingo, the only thing he could hold onto was his daily Sauna. It kept the happiness there in his voice and was his touchstone with his past and memories. My mother had an intercom system between the house and the garage and required him to check in every 30 minutes. But this one time, a few days after my mother had Rotator Cuff surgery and was on narcotics for the pain, she fell asleep. And the intercom stayed silent. On October 26th, 2006, my father had his last Sauna and passed away in that room, as the fire slowly burned out in the stove, the flame in my father was snuffed out as well.

Once my father was gone, the Sauna went dark, and we, as a family, not understanding our Finnish heritage, viewed that place as a room of grief. No matter when my trips brought me home, I could not bring myself to go in that room, where my father died, it seemed it would dishonor him, and also, I was afraid to confront so many years of time spent with my father in there, yet also, particularly in the later years, not nearly enough time spent sweating, talking, laughing and drinking with my father as steam singed my ears, fingertips and toes.

Seven years that room remained dark, and further south, where I lived, I opened up about my father to a friend, lover and confidante. I talked about how he was born in a Sauna, built a Sauna, found joy in the Sauna and finally died in the Sauna. And my straightforward, plain speaking, hand waving, Italian friend saw more of the Finnish way than I did and asked why I didn’t go in the Sauna. And every reason I spoke, turned to dust and made no sense as they came out of my mouth, for the Finn was born in the Sauna, lived in the Sauna, died in the Sauna and even prepared their dead for burial in the Sauna.

I decided I would visit the Sauna on my next trip to Massachusetts. And one Thanksgiving weekend ago in 2013, I did exactly that. I walked into the room, that had no human visitors for over seven years. Cobwebs were all over the Sauna room and the small changing room my father had built. The soot that was all over the walls seemed darker. In a nod to technology, I used my smartphone flashlight app (somehow fitting that I used a Nokia phone to light the Sauna), as the lights no longer worked in the Sauna. The lamp cover was missing in the changing room, and the thermometer was broken and stuck at about 230 degrees F. I felt a chill in that room, beyond the cold of November in Massachusetts, and some of it was my imagination, wondering if the thermometer broke the night my father died in there. However, many things were unchanged. There was still a few pieces of split wood in the Sauna, my fathers old striped Sauna towel, and the water bucket was still sitting in there. I tried to take some photos and videos of the Sauna, yet none turned out as each was blurred and the camera couldn’t focus as it was detecting movement in the Sauna. The simple answer may have been air currents with a lot of dust blowing, but other than a very small vent, there isn’t a whole lot of ways air could blow that much, particularly with the Sauna stove door shut. So make of it what you will. I like to think that part of my father was still there and it makes sense to me as he poured so much of his life and sweat in there, both figuratively and literally.

The next day, I bought new light bulbs and a lamp cover. I ended up having to reroute the circuit breakers in the garage as some of the old power cabling in the Garage had gone bad. I then swept the Sauna free of cobwebs. The walls and windows still covered with soot, as I didn’t have time to clean it fully, but it made the Sauna seem more realistic somehow as that of the Smoke Saunas of old in Finland. And then, for the first time in Seven years, a fire was list in the stove and I walked away to wait the hour for the Sauna to heat.

WP_20131128_017On my return, the Sauna was still not fully hot, although close,and I added more wood, filled the bucket with water and then stripped down and climbed on to the Sauna bench. I sat in my fathers spot and as the heat rose, I started sweating until my whole body was covered and the salt water stung as it rolled in and teared my eyes. I didn’t stay there long, no more than 45 minutes or so as I didn’t bring enough wood. The last two pieces I put in were the two split logs on my fathers Sauna bench that he had been drying the night he died, and while I still miss him, I also now realize I missed those seven years of being in his Sauna.

Over that Seven years, I’ve moved twice. And while I still have no Sauna to call my own, I am still lugging that huge wood burning Sauna stove, hoping that one day, I will build my own. The Hammer I held to pass to my father will have to stay in my hands. And when done, and the stove is first fired up and I’m sweating on the platform on my own, the first person I’ll talk to is my dad. Until that day, the gift is that with a few simple words and challenging my views, a part of my father was given back to me. And this is why small words and actions to one can mean so much more to another. And my gift moving forward is that when I go home, I’ll look to share that Sauna with friends and family that knew my father, and bring others into that circle because sometimes, people know more about being a Finn than a Finn.



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