Heated conversations: a family tradition

We spent Thanksgiving in western New York, where my father and stepmother live. Each time we visit, especially at this time of year, a song by Dar Williams plays on repeat in my head:
“There’s another part of the country with a land that gently creaks and thuds
Where the heavy snows make faucets leak in bathrooms with free-standing tubs. . .”

After taking the train into Buffalo, we drove south through that creaking, hilly country.

The holiday this year included aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends of the family. Over the long weekend, we took walks along the Allegheny River, which swings through western New York before it joins its larger destiny in Pittsburgh (the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico); we played games, and of course, we ate. The best part for Ursula and Virgil, though, was the sauna. For that, the four of us plus two cousins drove a dozen miles to the lake house where my father and stepmother spend their summers. Dad had gone ahead to light a fire in the special stove, so that when we arrived, the smooth lake stones mounded on top of the stove had already heated the room.

My father was born to Finnish parents and lived in Finland until he was four. He’s taken saunas his whole life, as have I and my brothers and our children. A quarter-century ago, he built the sauna on the lake. Since then, we celebrate every visit with a family sauna.

First comes the ritual of measuring the children against the door frame in the changing room. By now, the wooden board contains so many penciled lines, names, and dates, that Dad sometimes has to search for a place to squeeze in a new mark. Ursula checked where she stood in relation to her older cousin, who is now in college, both to her height that day and to her height when she was Ursula’s age. Ursula also located my mark from 25 years ago. Holding her thumb and forefinger about five inches apart, she showed me the distance left between us. Yes, I agreed, she’s almost reached me.

Inside the sauna, we arranged ourselves along the top bench. The cousin who’s a year younger than Ursula stationed herself near the deep kettle that we keep filled with water. She poured water into wooden mugs and passed them along the row, and tossed water onto the heated rocks at regular intervals. Dad sat in the middle, surrounded by family, glad to be sharing the tradition with us.

What excites the kids most, though, is not the tradition, the heat, or the conversation: It’s the shock of transition. So almost as soon as we were seated, they started clamoring to leave, to run into the lake. The adults could hold them back only so long, and so we let them go. I watched Ursula, steam rising from her pink body, dive into the gray water with a joyous yelp. Virgil followed, jigging at the water’s edge before taking the plunge. I hadn’t heated up quite enough to join them, so I watched instead. During the summer, that lake is full of activity on the shore and on the water. But on that chill, overcast day, we seemed to be the only people around. Everywhere I looked, docks were pulled up and cottages closed for the season.

After another round in the hot sauna, we all dove into the freezing water and came up laughing and hollering. As if on cue, fat snowflakes began to fall.

Learn more
Hear Dar Williams sing “Southern California wants to be Western New York.”

Basic information about the Finnish sauna: history, health cautions, construction.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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