Between Your Aunts: A Suite

The house was built outside of Kajaani by Joona’s dad and grandpa in ’97. It was light blue, white trim, beautiful wooden interior. A type of duplex, the grandparents lived on one side and Joona’s family on the other. A corridor with a washing machine, main bathroom, and sauna separated the two sections. A traveler had arrived. Joona invited him to extend his stay in the Kainuu region. This was the first time Joona met someone who knew as much about American politics as him.

His grandfather was eager to meet this traveler as well. They greeted each other warmly. First they went back and forth with Basic English greetings, then Finnish. Aarne was surprised that the traveler got barely, but somewhat beyond basic greetings. Joona saw his grandfather continue conversation without pause, and jumped in to translate. And so they sat straight up in their chairs, interrogating calmly and with keen interest. Joona translated.

The traveler had met his grandson the night before over some drinks, and now would stay for a day or so. He had payed his own way to Finland, was not a student, had plans to study but they fell through, knew some languages, was somewhat educated. Aarne was relaxed and was bemused that the traveler had arrived by chance. Then he asked questions about the traveler’s home country. What were his thoughts of the president and other American policies? The grandfather had run a wood manufacturing business in Russia in the 90’s. Chechans and Russians were good workers, but fought when they got drunk. Still. Good workers.

Joona and the traveler sat on the couch and listened to music and read the news. People would arrive in the evening to play Texas Hold ‘Em. They played a brutal round of cards that ended with Joona dominating the group. Grandpa interrupted the game briefly to hash out plans for travelling to the summer cottage. The dealer had to go; Joona fell asleep while the other guests conversed at the table a bit longer. Joona would have to collect his winnings in the morning.

Joona’s parents returned from the summer home.And after coffee and munkki (which is a nice word for jelly doughnut) and rye bread with butter, they prepared to go. Grandpa came into that side of house, grinning, his blue equipment vest and hat on, excited for a day in the countryside. They drove out 40 minutes to the small town of Vuolijoki, population 3,000, Aarne’s hometown.

They passed the local church. They went to visit it. It is impressive how even tiny towns once constructed such beautiful structures. The church was thickly shaped by stones and wood and plasters. In back was a grave site to those who died in the Winter War. The three read quietly reflected, read the names, and ages at which young guys died. When they came to the Civil War memorial, Grandpa looked at the traveler and said, “We did the same once, the same that Ukraine is doing now. Man is a beast.”

They drove a few seconds more and came to the cemetery. Aarne showed them the spots of his parents and two siblings who died young. That section of the cemetery was not as well kept as the other sections. This was noted. The calm air rustled the trees and swept small white mountains around the face of the sun.

The group arrived at a location near the lake with oddly place houses and patios, and statues. The statues were made by Aarne’s friend who passed away. A giant brown statue of President Urho Kekkonen stood 20 feet tall. Mozart, Verdi, Sibelius, and the sculptor were depicted as beautiful white busts. Aarne was in the process of cleaning them up and preparing his departed friend’s work for exhibition.

—–

After removing their shoes they entered cottage. It smelt of aged wood and relaxation, the type of symphonic odor that children find strange for its restfulness, but older people find comforting for its vivaciousness. Country side homes that have accommodated a generation or two all possess this homegrown smell. When they entered the kitchen, Aarne’s brother Hannu was stirring a stove pot filled with blueberries. He was making jam, and behind him was 10 or so mason jars that he had already completed. The scent was subtle, yet sweet.

While they sat and chatted, Kaarina came in. Her smile was broad as the brim of her hat. Her hands were uplifted and she shouted, “Hyvää Paivää, Tervetuloa, Welcome, A wonderful day! I was just picking more blueberries in the garden.” Her eyes were blue and warm. She shot the traveler a hand and sat down, ready to hear the news and happenings. She had lived in Sweden for 20 years doing banking of some sort, but now lived in Helsinki. And here she was now, enjoying the end days of her vacation. The traveler was heartened to see the glee of such a fine person, and though still in his youth, envied her energy. And he remembered George MacDonald, “Old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes.”

Joona and the traveler left the others and went out to drive to some choice locations: a riverside where horses still drank and Joona used to fish. A country museum of old buildings from the region’s past. A dock where a boat was once stolen. A sharp bend in the road where a winter crash caused a terrible death. A regular grocery store, but the traveler had never stepped into this particular candy aisle before.

—–

The most important of the stops was to Joona’s aunts’ house. Aunt Paula was staying her vacation from Helsinki with Aunt Sirpa. When Joona and the traveler pulled up the two of them were sitting on the porch rocking back and forth. At their feet were two five-gallon jugs of blueberries. “We picked those; you can eat some,” they said. Conversation coursed through current affairs in each person’s life. The aunts invited the boys inside. They asked the traveler to show them his home city on the map; they talked about his home politics and war. Then they talked more about Finnish. Easy parts of conversation switched languages back and forth depending on how much the traveler could grasp. Joona translated for the traveler and for Aunt Sirpa. Discussion turned to Aunt Paula’s many excellent travels past and future.

They retreated from the living room to the dining room for coffee, a slice of blueberry pie, and a little scoop of ice cream. The traveler sat between the aunts who started to imitate the Savo dialect of Finnish. They contorted their faces and sounded like yokels. As they laughed the traveler thought about how the aunts may have been in their youth, when they live and act as happy youth even now, now in their summer vacation.

The savory blueberry pie broke apart in the mouth, the berries danced on the taste buds, and the ice cream turned around and around with the coffee in a harmonious Yin and Yang.

—–

The two young men returned to the cottage and threw an American football for a while. They ran routes, became tired, and the traveler kicked back in a hammock while Joona played basketball. Dinner time came. And a beautiful spread it was. Pea soup, salad, and ruisleipää. Desert would be pancake from the oven, topped with blueberry jam and mallow.

As the five of them ate desert, they watched the European summer sport championships. A Finnish girl, a favorite going in to the race, did not win a medal. She was very broken up. “Sorry Finland,” she said. But Finland came back with glory in the javelin throws. They dominated the competition, taking first, second, and fourth place. For a minute it looked like Finland would win all three medals, and so when they won just the two, disappointment lingered in the air momentarily. The first place winner sensed the situation and pumped his fists, reminding everyone that it was still a big and most excellent victory.

Aarne wanted to know if the traveler knew any good jokes. Unfortunately story jokes were not the traveler’s strength. He only came up with two jokes. However, grandpa brought out a few jokes he learned in Russia. The guys then prepared for sauna. They equipped their feet with crocks and walked toward the lakeside. They placed sausages in a pan over the hot sauna rocks and added a little more wood to the stove. They sat in the heat and grandpa then told more jokes. These ones were Finnish jokes about Russians. Funny, lewd, and short, they were hilarious.

They went out into the cool lake water. It was formerly the third largest lake in Finland, but it shrank. The sky was bursting with clouds of different sorts, struck by the lingering sun from a thousand different angles; light split into a thousand different shades. Knee deep in the cool water the traveler stood looking out. Then he turned, took the soap and shampoo from Hannu and cleaned himself. And thus he took the most peaceful bath in the world before returning to the sauna.

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