Last week I returned from a trip to Upper Michigan, a place I hadn’t set foot in since the summer of 1992 when I was eighteen and we helped my grandma pack up her house and sell almost everything. I was working at The Gap that summer and didn’t want to miss a paycheck, so made my mom buy me out for something like $271. We drove up together from Oklahoma in her blue Geo Prizm and stayed at my grandma’s guest house, situation on a piece of land that had first belonged to her family, then sold, then came back in to the family when Grandma Lempi bought it and fixed it up for her many children and grandchildren when they came up to visit. Upper Michigan is not on the way to anywhere. When you make a plan to go there, you tend to stay for awhile, and hence the guest house was well-frequented. There was a tumbledown barn to play in and an attic accessible only by ladder from the outside. It looked out over a field my great-grandparents had worked as homesteaders. The sauna well-sunk into the earth still stood as our place to get clean and dry off with very scratchy towels.
My grandmother was born in 1921. She passed away in January after a brief illness at 101. Her community in Montana held her funeral the week she died. We all knew that she would be buried in the summer in the UP, next to my grandfather, her husband Harold. When I told my Italian friends and colleagues months in advance that I was travelling back to the US for a burial, they were amazed. And frankly shocked. How do you know someone will die? A suspicious look. Crystal ball? Witchcraft? I don’t know how many times I explained the physics of seasonal burials. You cannot bury someone in the winter up north, I explained. Why? bad luck? No, frozen earth. Where have they been keeping her? Somewhere really cold, I hope. It’d have to be very very cold, they nodded. She’s being buried that far from where she died? In America, è così. More shrugs. And how will she get there? A plane? Yeah, I guess a special plane. Shrugs. Where is the grave? A place I haven’t been for a long, long time, I responded, but I always knew that when I did, even if it was for one last time, it would be for this reason. I was then taught the word for coffin – up to that point I’d just been saying scatola, which literally means a box, like a shoebox. Shaking of heads. Bara. I put too much r in it at first and pronounced barra? No, no, bara, one r. This was a completely new word to me and unlike any other word I know for a box in which one buries a body.
Upper Michigan felt unchanged from 1992. Time moves more slowly there. You can’t get a pedicure for love or money, even though a dozen places advertise their services. We made daily runs to the Wal-Mart on the hill above Houghton for groceries and sundries. A few stops in to more traditional, local grocery stores felt like a veritable time machine: wood laminate paneling, wide aisles, oddly symmetrical cans. The canal shimmered blue in the sunshine and steamed each morning. Mornings started out cold and warmed up, if the sky was clear; if not, it was a chilly 50F. Cars were big. Inflation such as we saw in Spokane last summer hadn’t seemed to arrive yet to the UP. Prices also trapped in time, likely due to a significant part of the population living on a fixed income.
A couple hundred people were present at the burial at Waasa Cemetery. My mom and her six siblings were present, along with many cousins of my generation and their children, plus a turnout from the Lutheran church that Lempi attended all her life. I felt a little odd that I had inadvertently opted out of the huivi headscarf – all the other women had one on, and I meant to pack one but forgot. My mom and her sisters were wearing huivis from Lempi’s drawer, dispersed by one of the five sisters. My brothers were pallbearers. We sang a couple of hymns, including “Abide With Me,” one of Lempi’s favorites, as also evidenced in the quilt she made for me for Victor’s baby shower. (Later on, I realized that a song I like in Finnish is a cover of this tune, so in fact I do know it well.) I got sunburned at the graveside. The sky looked like Finland. Another funeral was taking place on the opposite side of the cemetery (those summer burials tho!) and after they dispersed, we all walked over to review additional family plots in need of markers.
I saw a ton of family and cousins I haven’t seen since the nineties, and met some new more distant cousins. It was lovely to be with my parents and both my brothers for the first time in literally ages.
I also availed myself of consistent and excellent access to wood saunas with lake access and managed no fewer than four saunas in four days, my tote ever at hand with swimsuit, sandals, towel, etc.! Reviewed as follows:
Thursday: Huron Bay, Lake Superior – with my cousin Brittany, excellent wood sauna, changing room, mosquitoes galore, sweaty fun cut short by exploding mug of paraffin wax! Lake dip superb and not at all as cold as expected, but lake located a half mile away so much mosquito dodging en route back to camp.
Friday: Eagle River, Lake Superior – with my cousin’s son Braden, a huge barrel sauna, excellent heat, but no shower or changing room had me changing behind trees and on porches. Fortunately it was twilight but I was so keen on a sauna that nothing could stop me. Lake water was frigid but Braden, who is accustomed to ice baths after practice, took it all in stride while I splashed and whined.
Saturday: Otter Lake – sauna alone in a tip-top spa-grade sauna with in-sauna shower and a changing area stacked with clean towels, Aveda products, and a lit candle! It was short and sweet and goodness was I grateful for a scrub. Alas, no lake dip due to marshy, mosquito-filled lakeshore, but cold shower and bucket drop more than made up for it.
Sunday: Rabbit Bay, Lake Superior – closest yet to an authentic Finnish sauna thanks to smoked fish, cold beer, exuberant Finnish-American company, and a proper swim in Lake Superior that made me feel wholly renewed, PLUS an initiation into the castile soap + lake plunge routine! A splendid finish (see what I did there).
A perfect week to a place I might never get to go again, but where I oddly felt like I fit in, even if living there might drive me crazy. Grateful to my grandmother for her continuing gifts to our family of good company, kindness, laughter, excellent humor, and a deep appreciation for coffee, pastries, and saunas.