Cherries is the word I use to describe…. (I have a feeling this issue is going to be full of in-jokes. Take what you can and leave the rest.)
Well, it’s been quite a month or two in Lake Ibegone. First I be gone to Wish/Mich for 10 days, where I had the best vacation ever, and since then I be gone in my head trying to figure out what’s next. My whole world has been turned U.P.side down.
didn’t expect a miracle
You may recall that when I went back to the U.P. last fall for my brother-in-law Skip’s funeral, I rediscovered my family. (Funny, they’d been there all along.) To refresh your memory, here are the main players: my sisters Barb and K; K’s husband MP; nephews Brian (and wife Deb), Josh (and wife Jana), and Mike; niece Lorraine (and husband Aaron); and great nephews and nieces A.J. (8), Cody (2), Summer (7), and Sarina (3).
To come into this acceptance of family at my age seemed like a miracle. I have spent my entire adult life in a gay family circle—my ex-partner is as much family to me as anyone I share DNA with—but I had always downplayed the importance of the blood connection. Now I have to admit that seeing myself in Barb’s face, and having a long, strange history in common with her and K, even though we experienced the family in distinctly different ways, does feel special. The primeval feeling of the place where I grew up, on the shores of the Green Bay of Lake Michigan, adds to the miracle of acknowledging my attachment to that chain of life. I won’t go so far as to describe myself as the prodigal daughter, but I left home at an early age to make my way in the big world, and now I’ve come back with my “fortune,” which will someday benefit my sisters’ progeny and their progeny, and so on and so on. Someday they will be saying, “Boy, that great-aunt Mary really was great!”
My mother always made a strict distinction between blood and non-blood relations. When Lorraine (Skip’s daughter from his first marriage) was much younger, she went to hug my mother, who said, “You don’t have to hug me, I’m not your real grandmother.” I think Lorraine was scarred for life, but then so were the rest of us. For me, blood doesn’t really enter into it, except as a starting point.
So I was looking forward to going back for a longer visit, preferably one that didn’t include a funeral. I expected to have a good time, but what I didn’t expect was another miracle.
back from a future
I arrived on a Thursday night, and it wasn’t until a week later that I got around to taking Barb’s big purple truck and tooling around downtown Menominee by myself. I especially wanted to visit Spies [pronounced Speeze] Public Library, where I had spent many happy hours reading and conjuring a future for myself. In the children’s room I had read every adventure story they had, and when I was allowed upstairs in the adult section, I read every book I could find about girls at college, a world I desperately wanted to join.
The library had changed, of course. There’s a new addition and a new entrance, and the children’s room, instead of feeling underground-cozy down a flight of marble stairs and through a dark anteroom filled with glass cases displaying Indian arrowheads, an ostrich egg, somebody’s old bones, and pictures from the bygone logging and shipping days, now has big windows that look out on the boats in the marina. It’s appropriately modern and cheerful, and there’s a computer for looking up books. Except for the Hardy Boys, I couldn’t remember any titles or authors, just feelings I got holding certain books—books about deep-sea hidden treasure, or the Black Hawk Indians, or a boy who ran away from home on the back of a great bird. Unfortunately, librarians have not yet figured out how to catalog books by feeling. Subject, Title, Author, Thrill, Desire, Aching Loneliness.
The display cases are gone, and there are no longer any dark rooms. My old haunts have been spruced up and brought into sync with the future. I don’t begrudge the changes. The past is continually being remodeled—razed, amended, reinterpreted. I had hoped to find an artifact, a long-lost book that I wouldn’t remember until I saw it again, but instead I felt that I was the artifact, the bridge, rooted on both ends of a space that seemed to encompass all time. I felt perfectly synchronized, in tune with my pastpresentfuture—oneword, onereality. And I realized that when the present aligns with the past—when there has been a complete exploration and acceptance of what brought you to this moment—then the future is aligned also. It’s like a lock that slides home and holds fast. Anything that happens from now on happens on that same continuum, because you are the continuum. I’m done defining myself in opposition to everything I experienced as a child. It’s all One. And it’s all good.
In the marina, dozens of boats are bobbing gently in the water. The bay is a rich, dark blue. It’s a beautiful sunny day, not too hot yet, and I inhale the fresh air with pleasure. I’ve always described the sky in my hometown as overcast and oppressive, like raw space curving right before your eyes into a bell jar every bit as confining as Sylvia Plath’s. So this feeling of freshness and possibility in the air is invigorating. Gee, when did everything change?, I wonder.
As I stand there, taking everything in, I feel surrounded by and deeply connected to this completely familiar, old-new place that seems surprisingly benign, considering how I had demonized it when I was aching to leave. Although my sisters and their families live over the river in Marinette (WI) now, it’s Menominee that still touches me, that makes me want to drink in (or drown in) the miles-long stretch of bay. The ocean is impressive, but it’s too vast for me to feel a part of. The bay that laps along the edges of my hometown and its twin city, the watery horizon that was so important to my dream of leaving that earthbound institution called the family, has a deep hold on me. Its little whitecaps on a windy day are dearer to me than the biggest surf in the Pacific. My “lake sisters” DH and KM will know what I mean.
Both Menominee and Marinette seem more prosperous now, although well-tended ranch-style houses with monogrammed awnings and cute flags and weathervanes on the front lawns still sit next to 100-year-old boxy two-story Scandinavian-immigrant houses with gray asphalt siding and rotting porches. The ubiquitous taverns are one-story gray asphalt boxes with no windows, sparkling on the outside with neon Old Milwaukee beer signs, dark as pitch inside and unchanged since before I was born. I kept wishing I were a photographer so I could go back and document the decay, a.k.a. history, of the place. Many of the buildings that housed thriving businesses when I was a child are now boarded over, torn down, or turned into something else. Meyers’ bowling alley, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Niemann’s IGA, and the Gateway Cafe (where I had my first independent social outing in the 7th grade, having scrounged up a dime for a cherry Coke) have been demolished to make room for McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, and Jiffy Lube. I know it’s a cliché to even mention the march of time, let alone the march of corporate America, but that’s each generation’s old fogies’ job, to miss the old and diss the new. Someday today’s kids will wish Wal-Mart hadn’t been replaced by wireless shopping pods installed in their foreheads at birth.
In short, I found the whole area to be comfortable with both its well-being and its decay. Or maybe I’m the one who’s become comfortable with my well-being and decay. Very possible. Very possible, indeed.
If my mother were reading this, she wouldn’t like the fact that I’m on page 3 and am still writing about buildings. When I was back there for a visit some 20 years ago, I went around taking pictures of the taverns, boarded-up gas stations, crumbling buildings of no known provenance, and other peculiar Midwestern old-country architecture that reminded me so much of the 1940s, in which I had spent the first years of my life. I always knew there was a reason I’m attracted to industrial areas, the railroad tracks and smokestacks and tall machinery framed against a blue sky, the Fuel & Dock and ships coming on the great waters and leaving perfect black and white pyramids of coal, ore, and salt. Back then Mom complained that I wasn’t taking any pictures of people. But I knew what they looked like, I wanted to have a record of Prescott foundry, Tiny’s Tavern, the Koffee Kup Cafe across from the train depot, places my father worked, drank, or hung out.
I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the place itself because I’m considering moving back there. (That’s the miracle, thank you for your patience.) For 30+ years I’ve considered the San Francisco Bay Area the only place in the world I’d want to live. But in my ruminations about the old and the new, and the lake so blue, I was stunned to realize that it would be an entirely different experience to live there as an adult, compared with when I was wriggling to get out from under Mom’s thumb. I can conduct my business anywhere there’s computer capability, and I would have a greater choice of housing for much less money than I could afford where I live now (I want to bring my inflated Bay Area dollars and Californicate the U.P. housing market, just as they’re doing up in Oregon). Most important, and the whole point really, I could bask in the glow of being part of a close-knit family system but retain my independence, or try to, by announcing over and over again that I don’t like to be dropped in on. That, or I may come to like it. Expect another miracle.
I just realized I hold two opposing beliefs: (a) that there are endless possible pasts and futures, endless “me’s,” and (b) that I was meant to live exactly the life I’m living now. If that life moves in the direction from which I came, it will feel like my destiny, ironic but true.
Yes, the drawbacks are legion. The winter. The summer. The lack of world-class restaurants and California farm produce. The lack of my favorite radio stations. The lack of large independent bookstores. The distance I’d have to travel for painting intensives and to see my Left Coast friends. But there are a few things there that I will never have anywhere else…
• bombing down the road (oops, “25 [mph] in town,” cautions Barb) with my sisters, singing “We Are Family” (“I got all my sisters in me….”);
• hopping on the back of Barb’s all-season John Deere tractor, this time lugging picnic supplies instead of blowin’ the snow doncha know, across the road to Barbaraland to roast wienies and marshmallows with my peeps;
• sitting in a comfortable lawn chair sippin’ on a Mudslide, watching two muscley dudes build a deck on the front of K and MP’s house while K watches their every move and demands perfection—and MP says to the guys, “Don’t ask me, she’s the boss”;
• hanging out on the new deck later that night, drinking only water or Fresca but gettin’ jiggy wid it when MP brings out the boom box and turns up the oldies station and we get up/get down and boogie to “Baby Love,” “Think!,” “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “Sugar Pie Honeybunch”…. I’m transported back to MSU at the height of the Motown era, how lucky I was to have Aretha and the gang as a soundtrack to my debauched college life…. But we really get down with the Village People. Oh to have a videotape of me and my sisters in a chorus line, facing the dark street, singing to the night as we shape our middle-aged bodies into the Y the M the C and the A, right out there on the front deck, no railing yet so it’s like a stage, on the corner of a tree-lined street, kids coming by and dancing to our beat, other kids mooning us as they skateboard down the street;
• staying up late with Barb, each of us playing Bejeweled or Spider at our separate work stations, singing along to the radio until 3:00 in the morning, talking about anything and everything between periods of companionable silence. I couldn’t remember a particular time when I cracked up at Barb’s antics, so I asked her. She replies,
There were 2 times when I left the room and we laughed about things. One time I had changed into my nightgown and came in dancing King Tut style. At this you cracked up right away. The other time you were standing facing the printer dancing and I put on that Patriotic Cat in the Hat hat and was dancing behind you, waiting for you to turn around, and you finally did….
• going out to breakfast with whoever calls first (everybody works different shifts at their factory or car dealership or welding job, so the shopping or rummaging or eating-out group is constantly changing), meeting K and MP, sometimes Josh and Jana, at Pat and Rayleen’s (a little family restaurant on 10th St.) for bacon and eggs, staying in constant touch throughout the day on cell phones, Brian stopping in to drop off some mattresses he had to move out of his in-laws’ place or to cut Barb’s lawn, Josh and Jana wanting K and MP to go with them to see some modular homes, so we all troop over there and the salesman says, “I see you brought the whole herd!” As we move onto the lot to look at model homes, Barb emits a quiet “Moooooo….”
surreal i can taste it
I had been practicing driving Barb’s truck, so on the Monday after I arrived, I take ‘er out for my first solo run, over the Hattie St. bridge past the old paper mill to the Menominee airport to pick up KM, my friend and coworker from the University of Michigan/Graduate School of Business Administration/Bureau of Business Research, whom I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. Her husband Don has flown her UP in his private plane to have lunch with me and to see how the other half (of the state) lives. I take her (with many fits and starts—I keep thinking the brake is a clutch) to Pat and Rayleen’s where she has a burger and fries and I have more bacon and eggs. (Don’t they say that there are no calories when you’re on vacation?)
I am aware, as are all people who are growing older, that my reality has too many layers.
After lunch, I take KM on a tour of the area—she lives in the woods downstate but fantasizes about living on Lake Michigan, so I show her the house on North Shore Drive where I lived from age 0-7. I stop outside, hoping the man whose face we see briefly in the window will come out and invite us in. (How weird would it be to stand in the rooms in which I experienced so much early trauma and joy?) But he doesn’t come out, he’s probably calling the cops, and then KM looks up and sees a Cessna flying overhead and it’s her husband! He’d said he was going to practice landing and taking off (or vice versa, I suppose), so he’s following the shoreline and, I don’t know, it hardly qualifies as serendipity let alone synchronicity, but there is something so delicious about all these different realities coming together in the same place—the adult me and the child me with the friend of 23-year-old me looking up at her husband in the sky with diamonds. I am immediately reminded of being 4 years old and telling a friend that I was going to Chicago to ride the “train in the sky” (the el) and she should watch for me in case we flew overhead. In that moment (and pretty much for the whole week) I felt like a living stratum of time, a future fossil that in the fleeting, eternal present encompasses all the layers of a life, all folding into one another in constantly changing forms, a kaleidoscope.
I drive KM around Henes (pronounced Hennis) Park to see the bay up close and then down the highway to First Street past all the grand old houses, built by the old lumbering and iron-mining families in the robber baron-slash-grand philanthropy days, and the beaches with wide lawns running down to them and the boats in the marina, and the library (built in 1903), the Menominee North Pier lighthouse (1877), and then across the Menekaunee Bridge, past all the bars I imagined Barb snow-blowing past last winter, and then, since we’re in the neighborhood, I show her Barbaraland (which KM later, in a typical flash of brilliance, dubs the Barbaretum) and bring her inside to meet my sister, who’s making bead necklaces (I seem to have gotten all the slacker genes in the family; home alone, I would have been taking a nap) and even drive her past K and MP’s house (they’re both at work) so she can see the new deck where we danced and sang the night away until it started pouring rain and I called my peeps pussies for going inside.
Then it’s back over the bridge again to Colonel K’s Pasties where we stop so she can take some of the nasty things home on the plane. She gets frozen ones (rutabaga [!] and beef) so we schlep up the road a piece to look for ice and a newspaper to wrap them in. Then back to the airport, where Don has been having a fabulous time trading pilot stories with the local flyers. I see their plane up close—it looks smaller than the purple truck!—and we hug and say our good-byes. KM e-mails me later to say they got home safe and that they’d had perfect flying weather both there and back. She pronounces the whole trip a surreal experience and I have to agree, though probably for different reasons.
When I get back to Barb’s, we pick up some sub sandwiches and head out to Porterfield to visit Lorraine and Aaron and the kids on their beautiful old farm with umpteen acres, yellow farmhouse with a red living room, donkeys, and a dog and a cat peeking out of different holes in the side of the 100-year-old barn. It’s the quietest and most peaceful place I’ve been in a long time. Not that their lives aren’t usually hectic, but on the afternoon we visit, the setting is the very essence of idyllic—visually stunning, with long green fields, the sun slowly setting, not a breath of wind and not a sound except for our own voices.
A.J. is shy, but he finally invites me upstairs to his room to show me his books. I take notes on what he likes and what he already has… the Magic Tree House series, Captain Underpants, Harry Potter. He thanks me many times for sending him books. He’s a big fan of dinosaurs but has branched out to race cars and now, according to Lorraine, plans to be paleontologist-slash-race car driver when he grows up.
I’ve known Lorraine since she was A.J.’s age. She’s smart, and I always assumed she would go to college. But to see her now, in her element, being mother, wife, farmhouse restorer, animal tender, hay baler, helper in Aaron’s workshop where he builds beautiful furniture, makes my heart stand up and holler. You ask, whither the family farm? It’s hither. Between the two of them, Aaron and Lorraine are the Jack and Jill of all trades. (Aaron also works fulltime in a foundry.) Sometimes Lorraine seems apologetic about her life, as if I must think she’s not living up to her potential. In high school, her vision of the future was to “go to college, get an M.B.A., and move out to L.A. and hang with Motley Crue.” Now she’s got a sweet husband, two kids and a bunch of animals, with plans to get some cattle and chickens, restore the master bedroom, rebuild the barn and other outbuildings, and make the furniture business self-sustaining. I am so happy for her.
On the way home, Barb and I discover we’re both hungry again (quel surprise!) so we stop at Perkins on 10th St. for a chocolate malt. We feel like naughty kids, sneaking away for a late-night treat. (The joys of middle age are life’s best-kept secret.)
every day packjam
I’m moving all around in time here, so let me back up a couple of days (BEEP BEEP BEEP). Looking back at the notes I scribbled at the end of each day—bare-bones reminders of where we ate, what we did, and who we saw [sometimes my notes are too bare-boned. I jotted down my sister’s K’s hilarious comeback, “Thanks, but I need my ass” without noting what prompted it]—I’m amazed at how much we packed in. I don’t know what we did more of—talking, laughing, singing, eating, or shopping. Usually, I was just “there,” but many times I stepped outside myself and drank in the sweetness of the moment. I knew this trip was going to be special when MP was driving Barb, K, and me north through Oconto after picking me up at the Green Bay airport. Oldies were playing on the radio, and we were all singing along—MP contributing the “ooooooooo” high notes (prompting me to wonder, Why is singing falsetto so satisfying?). I don’t remember which song it was, but during “The Sounds of Silence” (“Hello darkness my old friend”) or “I Will Follow Him” (“wherever he… may go…”), I look out my window to the west and see the red sun blazing as it slowly disappears below the horizon. It’s like having a dream come true, but a dream I never knew I had…. the blessing of being part of a loving family…. of seeing “family” as a positive force instead of an albatross of guilt and obligation. It’s partly a bond of blood, but the bond of history and shared experience, the bond of respect and love are just as important.
On the first full day of my visit, Barb, K, MP and I go out for a fish fry (deep-fried lake perch) at Pat and Rayleen’s (they should give me a free lunch for all this publicity). Sitting there with my peeps, anticipating my long-awaited supper (I had planned my vacation specifically so I’d be there for two Friday fish fries), I’m feeling a deep sense of comfort and freedom because we’re at the top of the heap now, no parents to worry about and appease. So I say that it’s nice to feel like equals, there’s no pecking order. K turns to me, and in a voice that rings throughout the restaurant says, “And you’re the oldest pecker!” We all burst out laughing. I am, indeed, the oldest pecker of them all.
One day we drive out to Riverside Cemetery to see Skip’s headstone and to visit the future site of my “ash-condo,” as I have dubbed it, next to Mom, Dad, and brother Mike. Friends have expressed surprise that I don’t want to be scattered over the bay or something, but I’d just as soon stay contained for as long as possible.
On the day of our picnic in the park, we have to stick around the house to wait for the fire marshal to come and bless the big metal half-tank Barb uses as a fire pit. She spends the time cooking and cleaning while I nap. Later I drive us over to Angeli’s for Barbie-que supplies and to a liquor store for Mudslides, White Russians, and ice. Around 5:30 we all start gathering down in the park, spray each other with Off, and then pig out on hot dogs, salads, beans, fruit, and chips. A sizable portion of the clan is there: K and MP, Brian and Deb, Deb’s brother John, Lorraine and Aaron, and the four kids. MP and I compete for custody of the deviled eggs (let’s just say I get as many as I want). The kids find a snapping turtle in a dirt pile and take it down to the creek, but not before K brings it over to us for closer inspection, eyeeeuu!
In due time, the grapes become projectiles in the hands of kids and adults alike. I try to get Summer to tell me what kinds of books she likes, and she claims to read “everything” (she’s 7). Deb reminds her that she likes fiction better than nonfiction, and Summer exclaims, “Fiction is amaaazing.” Deb says that when Summer writes about her family in school, she always includes “Great Aunt Mary.”
When we (and the mosquitoes) have eaten our fill and it’s getting dark, Brian stays behind to be sure the fire is completely out, and the rest of us go back up to the house. A.J., Summer, and I perch on the back of the John Deere, watching so the ice chest doesn’t fall off, while Barb drives. “The adults” try to find room in Barb’s two refrigerators for all the leftovers while A.J. and I sneak away to the computer room where I supervise his game of Dino Defenders, which he can’t play at home because their computer is “broken.” (Or at least that’s what they’re telling him.) I’ve never even seen a computer game in action before, so it’s kind of intriguing to watch him learn the commands as he goes—the object is for the main character to trap or kill a series of ferocious dinosaurs, but the learning curve is steep and A.J. keeps dropping the guy off a cliff into the river, at which point he has to start over. After about an hour of this, I’ve seen enough to last me a lifetime, but now Cody has come in and wants to sit on my lap and watch. He’s brandishing a green sucker that gets alternately dropped on the floor and stuck to my shirt. Cody says “Da” whenever A.J. has to start the game over. He’s consistent, so I know it must mean something to him, but I have no idea what. A.J. is so grateful for the chance to play that I let him continue until Lorraine comes in to say it’s time to go home. He of course tries to wrangle more game time, saying he just has to trap one more dinosaur (he’s clearly stretching the truth), so Lorraine and I talk while A.J. tries to get his guy over the river, again and again, aiming for the woods where all the dinosaurs are. I’m amazed at his patience.
One evening, when we’re on our way over the bridge to have burgers at Jozwiak’s tavern, we come up behind a large bus. It’s not a regular tour bus on the way to an Indian casino, in fact it looks like it could be a rock’n’roll bus. On the back window are several M&M stickers—I mean the little candies with arms and legs and big M’s on their chests. I don’t dare hope, but… could it be? Would the real Eminem please stand up? please stand up? I can see it now. The great M is heading for an appearance up north—to Marquette? Superior? Houghton? Canada? Somehow I can’t imagine him using the M&M candy logo, but a gal can dream, can’t she? Once I’ve imagined him on the bus, it’s no trouble at all imagining him tooling down Hwy 41 and spotting the big painted letters on the side of Jozwiak’s building—“BBQ and pizza”—and stopping in for a coupla Wabashes, thinking he’s safe from his legion of fans—because who would know him in this rinky-dink town? So he’s chillin’ in the back of the tavern with his roadies, talkin’ about their loves, their losses, whatever rock’n’roll guys talk about, and suddenly who should appear but this big ‘ol middle-aged dyke with blue spiky hair and a Berkeley t-shirt, her “herd” close behind her, whooping it up because oh my GOD, it’s YOU. What UP, Em?
At the turnoff to Jozwiak’s, the bus keeps going straight. I sigh at the abrupt termination of my fantasy, and we go in and eat our burgers while watching a very drunk old man try to make it from his bar stool to the door.
The next morning, Barb and I, K and MP, and Josh and Jana tour modular homes, check out a few prospective lots, and then head up the highway to Seguin’s cheese store so I can get some goodies to mail home to P and C as thanks for feeding Pookie while I’m gone. We’re in there for a long time, because I’m agonizing over what kinds of cheese to get. I’m drawn to the ones in the shape of a cow or Wisconsin, but I don’t think my friends are as enamored of that novelty as I am. I finally settle on some Gouda, extra-sharp white Cheddar, and baby Swiss. I throw in a package of Wisconsin beef summer sausage and some fudge from Mackinac Island. I arrange for the shipping and then join the others in browsing through the tourist merchandise. I buy Barb some earrings for her birthday, and K and MP buy bracelets (MP wears his all the time now, even to work, where he gets teased by lesser men than he). I find a nice canvas cap with M (for Michigan, for Mary) on it. On the way home, we stop for Perkins’ malts again.
That night we’re sitting out on the new deck when “little Mike” calls. He hadn’t made it up for Father’s Day because of some trouble I don’t fully understand. MP talks to him for a while and then hands me the phone. We’ve had no contact for 12 years. I’ve been holding on to an image of him as a sweet kid of 14 who wanted to be around me all the time, who was really funny and smart. Now, of course, his voice is unrecognizably adult, he’s had a bad marriage and a couple of kids and is going through a divorce. The Mike I knew is no more. After some awkward small talk, I decide to just put it out there. I say, “I really want to see you, to see if I can find the sweet and innocent ‘little Mike’ I remember. Are you still sweet and innocent?” He laughs flatly and says, “No… but Josh is.” We say we’ll e-mail each other and I give the phone back to K so she can say good-bye. I’m really sad. I feel like I’ve gained one nephew (Josh) and lost the one I thought I had.
Later, MP and I are sitting out on the deck alone. He asks if Mike and I had “a nice chat.” That starts me crying, and I just shake my head no. He’s quiet, waiting for me to speak. I tell him about the phone call and say that I always thought Mike had so much potential. MP agrees, and we talk about him and Josh and about MP’s hopes for them both. Later, he asks Barb if I’m OK, because I had been crying. This isn’t the brother-in-law I thought I knew. There’s a lot more to him than “the baddest guy around.”
MP is notorious for not liking to be hugged, so I don’t ambush him like I used to (and like my mother used to), as if imposing bodily contact on someone is delightfully sneaky. But one night as we’re leaving, Barb and I hug K, and then I look at MP all the way across the room. As a joke, I put my arms out as if to hug him and the whole room at the same time, and then he does the same. We both laugh, and I feel that we have found a compromise both of us can live with.
But what really surprises me is when MP talks about wanting to have a recommitment ceremony with K. When they got married originally, my mother made all the decisions. She moved the ceremony back to February from June, because she assumed that K was pregnant. (Their first child didn’t come along for another 2 years.) She chose the church (hers), the colors (she had Barb wear her prom dress, so everything had to match that), and, believe it or not, she even chose the best man—Barb’s boyfriend at the time. I assume that they managed to consummate the marriage without her help, but that was about all they had control over.
By the way, I asked MP if there was anything he wouldn’t want me to say about him, and he said to go right ahead. He may be regretting those words right about now.
I’ve encouraged them to have another ceremony, and I promised to come out for it anytime, even in the dead of winter. I offered to be his best man, but MP didn’t jump at the chance. Now get this. There’s no love lost between MP and his family—he’s the fourth of 12 kids and was physically abused by both his father and his older siblings. So he’s talking of changing his name to McKenney. I don’t know if he’s serious, but his even suggesting it says a lot. My baby brother who died was named Michael. He was 4 years younger than me; MP is 5 years younger. I know he can’t really be my brother, but I like the idea of his being a kind of grown-up representative or reminder of the Michael I barely knew and deeply mourned.
On Thursday, while I’m off having metaphysical insights at the library, Barb and K bake me cookies to take home—Barb makes the chocolate chip and K makes the peanut butter. I should have protested, “No, no, no, I can’t possibly eat any more,” but I was salivating so much that I couldn’t get the words out. Barb also bakes a cherry pie, because the three of us have discovered it’s our favorite dessert. We eat it Friday after another round of birthday shopping.
My last meal is a fish fry, of course, back at Pat and Rayleen’s, of course. Afterward, we drive to the lighthouse pier and walk all the way out on it. We can see across the water to Red Arrow Park in Marinette, so we go there next. We sit on a park bench above the beach and talk and watch some kids who are splashing around in the water. Barb calls Lorraine to leave her a message, and we find out later she couldn’t understand a word of it because we were all laughing so much.
It’s time to wrap it up. We stop by Josh and Jana’s, because Josh has taken half a day off work so we can say good-bye. Brian tries to convince me to stay another day so I can meet his other two kids who are coming for the weekend. Lorraine shows up at Barb’s at 7:00 the next morning to say good-bye. MP has to work on Saturday, so K drives me and Barb down to Green Bay to the airport. As we’re heading out of Marinette, we pass the dealership where MP works. K suddenly beeps the horn and says, “Hey, Michael’s out there!” By then we’re past the place, but I stick my hand out the small window opening and waggle my fingers in his direction. Knowing approximately when we would be passing by, MP had come out to wave to us. I think that says a lot, not only about the family connections, but about the scale of the place.
back to a future
A year ago I could not have predicted and would not have believed that I’d seriously consider moving back to the U.P. (or across the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house in Wisconsin). There are advantages to small-town life that are easy to overlook if you’re used to living the life of a sophisto-cat…
• You can get anywhere you’re going in 5 minutes and park right in front.
• Once you get away from the shopping malls and fast food joints, there are many pleasant neighborhoods with trees and lawns and wide streets and friendly people. If your brother-in-law knows all the police on a first-name basis, so much the better.
• It’s pleasant to live at a slower pace. Here in San Rafael, though my life is as slow as I can make it, I expect catastrophe at any moment. Part of the slowness I felt back there was from being on vacation, but more than that, I felt safe in the bosom of my homies.
• If you don’t have to work at a dirty, low-paying job, and if you have computer contact with everyone else in your life, including clients and bookstores that do free shipping, and if you got most of your traveling and sightseeing and club-hopping out of your system back in the ‘70s, then the down-home life is just fine. The key is money. Most people who get more money will try to swim upstream into a higher class, but they will never feel completely at home there.
• Ambition in a small town (if you’re not in the echelon who want to be judges and mayors) consists of making a decent wage, buying a house, and supporting the kids in the style to which they would like to become accustomed. If you’ve already done all that, your cost of living will be way low. There’s no concern about status except perhaps in the doohickies you choose to put on your vehicle (I saw a pickup that had been covered with newspapers and shellacked), a status system to which I am impervious.
• You feel physically more comfortable there, because a dress code is virtually nonexistent. and no one cares if you have a bad hair day. As long as you’re not a kid or trying to get into an exclusive country club, you’re pretty much free to be, you and me. Hardly anyone mentioned my blue hair, except when all three of us became the Blues Sisters for a day. A lady in an antiques store asked if this was a new trend, and we told her we were trying to start one. We said we were sisters having a good time together, and as we went giggling out of the store, she said she could see that.
• If you want to see people, they’re all within a very small radius. You grab your phone on the way out of Shopko and call to see if K and MP want to go out for lunch or to a movie. Or Brian calls on the “bag phone” in the truck to see what’s up, and you decide to have a picnic in the park. I don’t know yet what you do if you don’t want to see people.
• Here is a very big thing, that I value more as I get older. If you need help, you got it. People will get out of their beds in the middle of the night and come over to give practical or moral support. If you need a ride, a paint job, a lawn mowed—anything up to and including a calf birthed (I think I’m kidding)—your peeps got your back. And they got you, babe.
It was nice to get home (to Calif.), but it wasn’t that “inhale the fresh ocean air and kiss the ground” sort of feeling I used to have after getting back from a visit with Mom. I had been thinking about Pookie all week and anticipating our joyful reunion. When I came in the house, I called his name and there was a long silence…. then a plaintive little “mew.” He came creeping down the stairs as if he couldn’t believe his eyes—she’s back!!!! I think he was traumatized by all that alone time. He got back at me by being very aloof for the rest of the day. But when I vacuumed the next morning, the familiar, hateful noise must have reassured him that we were back to normal, because he warmed up to me after that. Now he likes to sit with, I mean on, me when I’m at the computer. I can’t reach the keyboard when the big lug is sprawled across my lap, but I can use the mouse to play Spider or Forty Thieves while I’m listening to “Loveline.” Life, she is sweet.
For me, “back home” has become a phrase that no longer denotes a direction. I went back home. Now I’m back home. But should I move back home?
At first I thought the idea of moving was just an idle fantasy born of a fun vacation in perfect weather. And maybe it is. But the idea refuses to go away. It’s not that I’m unhappy where I am now—au contraire. My cup runneth over—but somehow it doesn’t seem to spilleth. One cool, sunny morning, I sat out on my patio, working on a manuscript from Italy about TREM (triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells) and watching Pookie roll around in the oleander blossoms, and I felt expanded, not divided. My life here is ideal in many ways, but there’s one big thing missing. Barb and I are in daily contact by e-mail, but it’s not good enough anymore. I want to share my life, not just run it by remote from my command post, the computer.
Call me crazy, but I fully expect not to have to give up anything essential—of my essence—to go UP. There will be plenty of trade-offs, I know. I’ll be blowin’ the snow with my sis in tow, or vice-a-versa while I shiver and curse-a. I’ll be screamin’ and kickin’ for Yu Shang’s chicken or Chevy’s fajitas and margaritas. I’ll be like Hawkeye on M*A*S*H* when he wants a BBQ bash and calls Kansas City, askin’ for delivery. At least I’ll have the Internet, you bet.
But I can’t just UP and move, I’ll want to spend a couple months there on a “working vacation” to try small-town life on for size. If I go sometime in the fall, Barb will be teaching and I could attempt to replicate my work life using her PC. The problem is Pookie—and her cat LaMew. How would I get Pookie there, and could the two male cats coexist? LaMew is much smaller and has a shattered front leg from getting shot by some a-hole neighbor several months ago. (He gets along amazingly well on three legs—LaMew, not the neighbor.) Would Pookie take advantage of the wounded rival, or become the big pussy he really is and hide behind the couch the whole time?
For a while, Barb and I were e-mailing feverishly back and forth, trying to work out how I could come this fall and how we would accommodate Their Two Royal Highnesses. She made it clear that her casa be mi casa and that she would welcome me with open arms. That reassurance is better than insurance.
Finally, I decided I would have to drive there, but it was out of the question to make the trip with Pookie in my two-door Honda Prelude. Maybe after 1,000 miles or so, he would realize we weren’t going to the vet, but I really don’t think it would be pleasant for either of us. Could I rent a van? I half-jokingly asked P if I could borrow her RV, and she said “Sure.” Suddenly, Barb and I were making real plans, including her flying out here and driving back with me! We figured we would let the chips (and the cats) fall where they may.
I think it would be a blast to take a road trip with my sister, but if we did it this year she would have to get back in plenty of time before school starts on August 25. So she would have to come out here in a couple of weeks! I went into a quasi-panic, almost calling my therapist J to beg for help in making my decision… but I already knew what it was. I wrote to Barb:
I’ve been thinking about our Crazy plan, and I think I have pinpointed just exactly what is Crazy about it….. One plane trip (yours) and two cross-half-country road trips (1 for you, 2 for me) accounting for more than 16 woman-days (if I did the math right) of hot, tiring travel with the lingering aroma of urine and feces…. why?…. to accommodate a CAT, albeit a beloved one. Not knowing the reception said CAT will get at the other end is nothing compared to all that slogging back and forth.
Just as suddenly as it began, the whirlwind subsided. We had talked about knowing when the time is right, and that includes knowing when it’s not. I still feel a strong urge to be there, but that will have to remain a dormant impulse for now. Maybe I’m gonna wash that vacation right outta my hair, or maybe it will all come together in 5 years when my mortgage and Barb’s mortgage are both paid off and we have some financial elbow room.
I’m having a hard time finishing this, because there’s no real ending. The Wish-Mich-or-Bust plans resurfaced when J asked me if I had a friend who would be willing to drive cross-half-country with me and then fly back. I said, “Well, P has said she’d like to do it,” and there was this big silent DUH hanging in the air between us, and I admitted, “I never thought of that.” So I checked with P later, and she has her hands full this fall, what with retiring, packing for the move to Oregon, going to Tahiti for 2 weeks, stuff like that. But by spring she should be Free To Be, Her and Me. Then I could have my 6-week working vacation while Barb is teaching, and maybe a short real vacation when school gets out. The possibilities are morphing daily, this way and that, the kaleidoscope is spinning, and if this were a movie you’d be seeing calendar pages flying off to indicate the passage of time. The scene that follows is still a mystery. All I know is, I’m going to follow my heart. Pookie will just have to deal with it.