A Thing About Sisu

by Alexis Tolkkinen


"Thing About Sisu" is about the realities of growing up Finnish American. A true story about my family.

Ice runs through my veins, a chilly reminder that I am of nordic upbringing, a child of the snow. Being half Finnish has its perks such as feeling a closeness to saint Nicholas and any mention of the Arctic circle. I’ve never been to Finland though my sweet grandmother Maija would tell us stories of her father, Vaari, a man of great intelligence who collected St. John's wort like gemstones, and handcrafted canoes out of pine trees.

When he moved from the chilly climate of haapajarvi, to Lac La Belle, Upper Michigan he brought his love for nature, wood crafting, medicine, gentle but fiery preaching and family to this new country. Vaari was a man with a wide smile, which I've only seen in photographs, high cheekbones and dark brown hair. “All Finns are blonde” many people will say though I beg to differ.

Lac la belle is a large loch connected to Lake Superior, surrounded by tall pine trees, brown bears who dare to occasionally roam, plump thimbleberries and a wild settlement of proud Finlanders. When I say wild, there is no sarcasm connected to this statement. Babies are born in hot saunas instead of hospitals, sermons are spoken in Finn, sauna swimming consists of taking a steam while completely naked as if nudity is next to godliness, and people drink coffee around campfires until stars come up. I wish I understood how to fit in with these backwoods, nature loving relatives but everytime I attempt to fit in, I stand out like a stranger wearing polka dot pajamas.

The lac la belle family log cabin was built by Vaari during the 1930’s and stands strong like a beacon against time. The cabin, facing a wooden dock stretching over a lake, wood burning sauna and wildflowers in every corner, is my home away from home. Many stories are weaved in the floorboards, passed on like a family recipe.

“We need wood for the sauna” father shouted over the crashing waves which drowned my ears. A sigh escaped me, and I glanced up from my beach chair. This was our family vacation and it felt extravagant relaxing while reading a romance novel. Certainly I would have to keep my reading secret to keep mom from snatching the book from my hands. She had a keen distaste for any book in the romance genre. “Can I just read the rest of this chapter” I groaned, tossing my bare feet back and forth over the edge of my chair onto soft satin grass.

“No way. Saunas are why we’re here” he laughed, waving a hand for me to get going. I looked out at a small family of ducks passing by in the distance. Seemed too chilly even for ducks even though I was outside barefoot. Swimming in the cold water was a family tradition. Father always said, “If my parents did it, so can we” so he’d dare each one of my seven siblings to go swimming even during 55 degree weather. As long as we had a hot sauna, the cold couldn’t stop us.

“If you think this is bad I used to roll around in the snow after a steam” he’d remind us. Parents always try to outdo their kids and to father that meant ice swimming, skydiving and winning a chess championship.

I stood up and headed over to the woodshed connected to our sauna.

“There’s no wood!” I shouted.

“Well ain’t that a pity” father responded, picking up a brown ax.

Moosti, grandfather vaari’s 50 year old homemade canoe, which was broken but possibly fixable, sat on the edge of camp with intricate designs on the side. My extended family bragged about moosti as if it were a mansion. Except for my make do dad.

“Well not for long,” father said with determination. To my complete horror he broke apart pieces of moosti canoe with hard strikes. It broke apart easily.

“Solution solved”

Yes, it sat unused in our family camp but if the extended family found out about this, the make-do firewood would cause world war three.

“What? It was broken” he replied when he saw a look of disgust cross over my face.

“That was our antique,” I yelled.

“It was going to be thrown away anyway..” Father replied, heading over to the sauna to make a fire with parts of the canoe in hand.

The rest of the evening passed like a breeze and I tried my best to bite my tongue. Mother baked pulla, Finnish cardamom bread served with sides of hot cocoa.

It took sisu, guts, to get rid of the old canoe and now we waited for dad’s siblings to shout “Perkele”.

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