By Arne Vainio, M.D. 

News From Indian Country

She was thin and frail and ninety-four years old. She lay in the hospital bed and she only took a breath once in a while. I sat by her bedside and I timed my breaths with hers and I always had to take a breath before she did. I was twenty-one and this is the first time I saw someone go through the process of dying.

It seemed to me she was always old. She had long white hair and she tied it in a bun on the top of her head. I remember her baking bread in her old black cast iron cook stove. My grandfather carried that stove on cow trails on his back and it took him four trips from Chisholm, which was seventeen miles away. Her wood fired cook stove was going every day, even on the hottest July days. The only time she didn’t use it was every couple of years when my aunt Bertha came to visit from California. Then she had to figure out how to use the electric stove Bertha bought her a few years earlier. Otherwise the electric stove held a flower pot and was never used as a stove.

She went to the Unitarian Church sometimes. My grandfather was an atheist and never went to church. We liked to look through her big gold bible sometimes because the pages were so thin and everything Jesus said was in red writing. I still remember many of those passages. One time I found twenty dollars in there and that must have taken her a long time to save. She put her finger to her lips and nodded her head back and forth and I put the money back. I knew she put it there because it was the only place my grandfather would never look.

She baked bread and pies and she canned berries and vegetables and fruit whenever she could get it. I remember riding with her and my aunt Helmi to the Echo Trail. This was an all day trip and was the place they most liked to pick blueberries. I was bored within an hour, but they came there to pick and we started out before the sun came up and we stayed there until sunset.

She had a huge garden and she watered it from rain barrels she had on the corners of the house. It seemed like she was always working in the garden.

She was love and she was kindness. I sat at the edge of her hospital bed as she took her slow and labored breaths. I took her gnarled hand with the parchment paper skin and a map on the back of her hand made from veins. Her hand rested in mine and she didn’t move or say anything until I leaned over and whispered, “Grandma. It’s Arne.”

“Aarne.” She whispered back and she squeezed my hand. Even at age twenty-one I knew she was holding my father’s hand. I let her squeeze as long as she could. She said my name the way she always said my father’s name. She didn’t say it very often as I was growing up as he committed suicide when I was four and the adults never talked about it.

My aunt Bertha fell in a nursing home and died last October. I used to go and visit her every 3 months or so. I tried to ask her about my father, but she never wanted to talk about him. She would answer my questions about my grandmother. My grandmother emigrated from Finland to America when she was nineteen years old and she traveled alone on a ship. She answered an ad to be a housekeeper for my grandfather and they were married sometime after that. In true Finnish tradition, they built the sauna first and I believe my father and both of my aunts were born in the sauna.

My grandmother grew up in Pori. This is about twenty miles from the sea on the western side of Finland. My great grandfather was a furrier and he made and sold jackets and hats. He worked hard and he brought his work into the city to sell. When he got the money, he would stop in a bar and get drunk. Sometimes he spent all the money and my grandmother would have to drive the horse and cart home and get into trouble for not stopping him. She was only nine years old at the time.

My wife Ivy and our son Jacob and I went to Finland in 2010 when Jacob was ten and we met family members we were unaware of before that. We wanted to go to Pori, but we didn’t have time. I wanted to walk where my grandmother walked and I wanted to smell the same sea she smelled and I wanted to hear the same birds she would have listened to.

We’ll be traveling to Finland soon.

The true ancestral Finnish sauna is called a savusauna. This is a smoke sauna, which means there is no chimney. The stove is an open firebox with the stones above it. The smoke and fire go right through the stones and the smoke goes out through openings in the upper part of the walls. Water is thrown on the rocks after they have been heating for hours and hours and the steam drives out the smoke and ash.

Our friend Steve Leppälä is traveling with us and he and I are on a historic sauna quest. We are trying to find as many historic saunas as we can and we have taken several already. Steve managed to find a working savusauna in Michigan and as far as we know, it’s the only one in the United States that is in use. There are estimated to be 25,000 of them in Finland.

In July I started cutting trees to build a savusauna. This is solitary work. It was hot and humid and the mosquitos and deerflies and horseflies were relentless. The peeling iron I used is sharp and I bled freely into the logs I was cutting. They have to dry for a couple of years so they don’t shrink when I put the walls together.

No one had any money in Finland when my grandmother was growing up and some old letters we found speak to that poverty. Stovepipes and chimneys cost money and I believe in my heart my grandmother took her saunas in a savusauna when she was a girl and then a young woman in Finland.

Steve and I have been invited to take a savusauna at Suomen Saunaseura (The Finnish Sauna Society) in Helsinki and we will go as guests of the well-respected journalist Rauli Virtanen.

This is a great honor. My grandmother dared to cross an ocean alone and she worked and struggled and saved so someone in her family could someday get ahead.

That someone is me. That someday is now.

Kiitos, Isoäiti.

Thank you, Grandmother. It’s Aarne.  I will walk in your footsteps in Pori and I will smell the sea and I will listen to the birds and I will know your hand is in mine.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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