Julie Genisot: Reviving Yooper heritage brings lesson

5:59 PM, Apr. 18, 2013  |  Comments

Last month, my daughter brought home a project for school. It was an assignment focused on heritage and tradition. The questions were specific and I had a hard time answering them.

It made me a little jealous of families that are still able to hold on to their own heritage with strict observance. I look at them and think how lucky they are to have kept their past so close and treasured. It reminds me that, not too long ago, my own family held fast to its culture for a full generation after immigrating to America.

A question from my daughter's homework has stuck with me. It was simply put: "What traditions do you practice in your family?"

You'd think I'd have an answer right off the top of my head but it was a struggle to come up with even one thing. Since moving to the Fox Valley many years ago, I've misplaced parts of my Finnish/Yooper heritage that I shouldn't have. I've thrown out Saturday saunas and pasty dough, along with polkas and viilia (Finnish yogurt). I'll never miss the viilia but I do miss the other stuff.

Most Saturdays when I was a kid, there was a sauna going somewhere, either at home or at my Aunt Annette's house. If it was at home, it meant I'd have to take my bath in the steamy confines of the sauna. If it was at my aunt's house, I'd skip the bath and settle into a huge Radio Roll she'd purchased from the bakery. Often times, my young cousins were there, too. We'd play around my aunt's farm until dusk settled and Saturday night TV called us into the house.

What I remember most from those Saturday nights were the hummingbirds that buzzed without end outside her kitchen window. My aunt was a tough old woman, built for a difficult life of farming, but she still had time to feed the hummingbirds and light the sauna.

I recollect the sound of her accent, thickly Finnish despite her being born in America. After she died, I dreamed she was sitting at a kitchen table, still talking in that rich voice that never fell all the way into an American tenor.

Perhaps Annette had it right, diligent as she kept her family heritage in the forefront of her life. Maybe she knew that it's too easy to forget a culture that's never celebrated.

Further remembering brings back the "Chmielewski Brothers Polka Funtime" - a TV show my father insisted on watching every week. I think about my mother rolling out pasty after pasty and her strong fingers pinching the pies tight around their half-moon edge.

Perhaps it's an offshoot of middle age that I want to bring some of that back.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had a party, a pasty/sauna party, to be exact. We invited neighbors and friends that we've known for years - people who are used to our personality quirks. A couple of them took a sauna and everyone ate some pasty. In the background, I played music from Bobby Aro, The Fabulous Finn.

The day before the party, I even made Finnish cardamom bread from scratch. As I worked the dough to the proper consistency, I felt like I was relying on a skill that lay long dormant. The task was organic in nature and strangely poetic. Pride swelled inside of me when the final braid of bread was complete and baking in the oven, turning perfectly gold and plump.

For dessert, we had chocolates straight from Finland, filled with rum and cognac. And while it wasn't anything like my Aunt Annette's house on a Saturday night, we had fun speaking Yooper and scolding anyone who pronounced "sauna" wrong.

By the end of the evening, I felt like I'd pulled a little of my background into the foreground - like I'd picked a treasured memory up and said, "See, this is where I came from."

Too often, we look at culture through a very narrow tunnel. We have a hard time seeing beyond the stuff that's right in front of us. We forget too easily that the substance of today is filled with all of our yesterdays.

I'm glad I celebrated my heritage, if even for a little while. I'm happy I could share it and show it out loud.

Maybe the next time my daughter brings home an assignment from school on family traditions, I'll have better answers for her.

- Julie Genisot is a Sherwood resident and a Post-Crescent Community Columnist. She can be reached at pcletters@postcrescent.com

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