The only thermometer the sauna has ever known exploded a long time ago, leaving a mercury-red stain on the cedar paneling, so it is impossible to know exactly how hot it is, but suffice it to say that when I ladle a cup of water onto the concrete slab of the building, a full six inches away from the actual wood-burning stove, the concrete sends forth a great cloud of angry vapor. The aluminum bucket holding lake water steams. The metal ladles are painful to touch. I cast water at the cedar paneling, and the wood hisses and sizzles. It is difficult to breathe, so I climb down from the benches where I’ve been hunched over and exit the little building. Outside, the day is warmish for October in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; about 60. A fishing boat trolls past; two geezers bundled up against the wind. I say hello. My body as red as a lobster and covered in sweat. To say that the fogeys are surprised would be an understatement. They can’t even manage a polite wave.
I climb down off the dock and into the 50-degree water. Immediately, my legs burn with the cold; pins-and-needles cold. I dive in. Autumn leaves fall onto the lake and the sky is an immaculate blue. I am alive — acutely aware that I am alive — heart pounding, conscious of every pore in my skin, and I’m ready to head back into the sauna for more punishment.
My dad rebuilt this sauna back in about 1995 or maybe ‘96. At that time, the century-old building had fallen into disrepair. The only redeemable thing about the structure was the wood stove. I don’t know why he endeavored to rebuild, but I think it became something of an obsession.
I have only one memory of my dad and that sauna, and it is of trying to help him when the cement truck came to pour a new foundation. My dad had built his own forms for the cement and between me, and two childhood buddies — Novak and Gulig — we were supposed to help guide the cement into these forms.
But my dad hadn’t built the forms strong enough and we all watched, defeated, as the forms burst, one by one, spilling cement everywhere. Poor Dad sat down, dejectedly, understanding that he had just paid for hundreds of dollars of cement that he would now have to jackhammer up, and then carry away before more cement could be ordered.
I have no memories of actually taking a sauna with my dad, but I have heard stories. Of him entertaining friends and family, of cutting holes in the winter ice with a chainsaw and plunging into frozen water. It was no doubt my dad who heated that sauna so hot the thermometer burst. That was probably a good night.
Wednesday was my dad’s 68th birthday. He lives in a local nursing home; has lived in a nursing home these past 20 years. I wish like hell I could bring him back to that sauna so that we could enjoy it together, but this is an impossibility for a multitude of tragic reasons.
When I’m inside his sauna though, I can sense his spirit. I can see where his hands cut the cedar boards to length. I can see the best and worst of his carpentry skills. I look at his minor mistakes not with judgement, but with appreciation. Before he resurrected the sauna, it was nothing. An ugly little hut on the shore of an insignificant northern lake. But now, the sauna is a place of meditation, contemplation, and relaxation. The sauna he painted a burgundy barn-red some 25 years ago, still looks inviting. Christmas lights draped around the eves glow gaily and illuminate two nearby birch trees.
These days, no one appreciates the sauna more than my father-in-law, Jim. His face absolutely lights up inside the sauna; you can plainly see the heat delights him. I imagine what might have been if my dad hadn’t suffered his aneurysm so many years ago. Maybe I would be sitting on a bench between father and father-in-law. What conversations would we have? What bonds might have formed?
Back in the mid-90s, when Dad undertook the demolition and reconstruction of the sauna, cellphones were not ubiquitous. They weren’t fused to us as they are now. But a person might have imagined that they would be. Inside the sauna, however, a cellphone is useless, and this is also something I have come to appreciate. When you disrobe and enter the sauna, you leave everything outside. You enter this cramped, hot, little space, and there is little to do but close your eyes and breathe. And I wonder about that, too. Was my dad building his own space to recuperate mentally? A space where his body and mind could unwind, where, as he plunged into the lake, his every-day stresses could be washed away like unwanted grit?
Maybe it’s because I recently turned 40 years old, but I spend some time thinking about the notion of legacy, about the sort of imprint I’ll leave behind when I am gone. I cannot say that the sauna and the land it rests upon will always be in my family, always be accessible to me. This is devastating to me, because inside the sauna, I am surrounded by my father’s fingerprints, his legacy. His most optimistic and artistic self. To some, his sauna might be considered a folly. He did not, after all, even have the money to construct benches made from cedar. Instead, they are cheaper slabs of pine, that, when the sauna is really cranking, bleed sap, even now, decades after he nailed them into place.
But, if you have sat in the close silence of his little building, if you have leapt from dock into cold lake, and swum out beneath the star-strewn sky, or laughed with your friends and family, as I have, you will understand that there are places we build, little places, places without addresses, that are filled with love and magic and memories. And my dad created just such a place.
Happy birthday, Dad — I love you.