Back in 1999 I submitted an article to a writing competition, which I’m delighted to say was published in the book “Sweating with the Finns: Sauna Stories from North America”. I’m pleased to say that its inclusion means that it’s also housed in the archives at Lakehead University, and in the Finnish Literature Society folklore collection in Helsinki, Finland.
To all those who’ve never experienced the Sauna, and to all those who have, I hope you’ll enjoy this adapted excerpt from my story: one that is dear to my heart.
The sauna at Tarmola was a special place. I can see it in my mind’s eye to this day. Perched part way up a huge hill, it was accessible only by a granite slab pathway. The granite was hot to my bare feet during the day, but in the evenings, at sauna time, the granite was cool and smooth and beautiful.
In places, as the path wound up the hill, the earth dropped off to the purple flowers, a few inches high, growing like a carpet in many places. The curve in the pathway occurred around the change house: a place I remember more for its impromptu bluegrass performances and social gatherings than as an actual change house.
Whether after a gathering, an especially late gym rehearsal or a daylong track and field meet, the sauna was always the reward. I was a young child at the time, and I looked forward to being included in the ritual of the sauna.
It started with camaraderie. In groups we’d make the climb up the granite pathway, towels slung over our shoulders. The fire would be stoked long before, by whom, I do not know. As we crossed the hearth, men would turn left, women right. There we would enter our respective change rooms. There was always singing and laughing and, as I remember, some good natured joking and one-upmanship across the simple thin wall that separated the men’s side of the sauna from the women’s.
The change room was large, with a single simple shower head that sprouted directly from the wall. Below was the faucet from which we could fill our pails and large round tin tubs, the latter of which were reserved for us “little ones” to sit in. How I longed to sit on the first level of the bench, rather than the tin tub when I was little. I remember thinking, “I’m not a baby”. I wanted so much to sit on that first bench, and eventually the uppermost bench, which to me signified a rite of passage. But that would come with time.
The fragrance of wood and water and the sizzling sound of steam on the rocks are indelibly etched in my memory… as is the competition that would soon begin.
The bin of rocks and fire was shared, with only a seemingly paper-thin wall separating the women’s from the men’s side. The singing would then start in earnest, sometimes like a round, sometimes in escalating volume. Then the scoops of water would be matched. The women would throw a scoop, the men would throw a scoop, and onward and upward it would go as the temperature rose. Sometimes we “little ones” would escape to the change room, our faces red as beets, to stand on the wooden slats to cool off.
When we returned, the heat would be moist and hot, not dry and hot like some commercial saunas. Sometimes we’d try to sneak onto the first bench, but it didn’t take long for us to scurry back to our tubs, placing washcloths of cool water over our faces.
The sauna was a place of common ground. It didn’t matter if you were young or old, the sauna was “home”. Although the benches represented to me a rite of passage to womanhood, the women didn’t care. It wasn’t a competition among them. They sat where they were comfortable. And these women were comfortable: with their bodies, their friends, with just being. I don’t recall a time when troubles or headaches or stress were an issue. The sauna was all about being in the moment, and sharing that moment with friends and children. I loved it. And I miss it.
Tarmola and that special sauna are now long gone, now an asphalt overpass in Toronto. But in my memory I can still see and feel the sheer simplicity and joy that the sauna experience brought.
When we built our house, the sauna was the first room we finished in the basement. And although it is minuscule compared to Tarmola and is heated electrically instead of by wood fire, it is my haven. It relaxes me and connects me to my heritage. I feel physically, emotionally and spiritually refreshed and at peace. And it always brings back the fondest of memories of the Sauna at Tarmola.
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