Great Lakes state
Subscribers protest: “What up with this Midwest shtick?”
I can only say, “Hey! It’s not that bad!”
As you may have noticed, this is the first mary‘zine to come along since the summer of aught-three. I have a lot to tell you.
One of my favorite e-mails that arrived last summer, after mary’zine #29 came out, was this one from the lovely Maria of NM.
I have been reading your increasingly midwestern preoccupied Mary’zine with conflicted interest these last two issues. The last one I had about had it. My thoughts midway thru the issue were “OK Miss Mary, you have just gone over the line with this one. If I have to read one more, I MEAN one more, cutely amusing email from Barb, I am going to cancel my subscription!!” But of course, they kept coming… AND I kept reading! I finally settled into it this last issue. I settled into the fact that I am truly happy that you have found the SOUL of your family life. You make it all so very interesting and, of course, funnier than anything! It really makes me want to break out of my little comfortable rut of Calif/New Mexico and see how the rest of the country lives their American life. But the food (except for the cherry pies)!!! I think I will bring my salad makings with me. May you live your bliss…. it sounds like you have found it.
All love, Mary!
I was glad to hear that Maria had successfully navigated the stages of grief—or of excessively midwestern preoccupation—and arrived at acceptance. I hope that my idyllic tales of small-town, family-bosom living will be of aid and comfort to you all.
a new life
I still can’t believe it. This has been the strangest, most uncertain, most exciting year of my life. It’s been the same for Pookie, except for the “exciting” part. Here we are in Michigan’s beautiful green (and orange and yellow and red—soon to be black&white) upper (U) peninsula (P) in the northern Great Lakes region. Menominee, humble town of my birth, is way down in the lowest part of the P, right next to Wisconsin, 50 miles north of Green Bay (which explains the plethora of green-and-yellow football bobble dolls and cutouts that decorate many yards). And Menominee is where I am now the proud owner of a four-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood where the trees outnumber the residents, one block from the bay (Lake Michigan) and Henes Park (my refuge when I was growing up) and three blocks from the house where my family lived before my father became disabled with multiple sclerosis. (Can I pack information into a paragraph, or what?)
[See pics at end of post. There’s a mixture from different time periods. If the house is white, it’s back when I bought it. If the house is green, that’s how it is now.]
The upstairs of the house features a large open area (“the loft”) that I have taken over as my home office. There are tall, south-facing windows all across the loft and the adjoining bedroom, which has double French doors leading into the loft, and more windows facing east. There is a 30-foot-long attic bedroom on the west side and another bedroom on the north side. And a tiled bathroom with shower. Downstairs is a large kitchen, a semi-enclosed dining area with bow window, an L-shaped living room, and a large bedroom with vaulted pine ceiling, bow window, and window seats. There is beautiful woodwork throughout the house. The downstairs bathroom is tiled and features a large magenta (!) Jacuzzi. There’s a 2.5-car garage (so important to get that .5 vehicle in there) and a large basement.
Outside, there’s a sizable back porch off the kitchen, a patio off the garage, and a large lawn in back, surrounded by a chain link fence, with several trees, including an apple tree. Pretty large front lawn, too, with a big (maple?) tree. There’s also a birch tree, my favorite. The house is on a corner, with wide streets and no sidewalks. I’m 4 or 5 miles from my sisters and their families in Marinette, Wisconsin, over one of three bridges, because Menominee is tucked in between the bay and the Menominee River. Water water everywhere….
I love being here. It’s great to have Barb and K and K’s husband MP (and their kids and some of the grandchildren) nearby, and to be able to do ordinary things with them instead of just flying in and visiting for a few days. We go to Friday fish fry, rummage sales, shopping, breakfast or supper out, birthday celebrations… and who knows, maybe snowmobiling in the winter. Just kidding about that last part… I hope. One day K and MP drove me to Escanaba to go furniture shopping, and I made quite a haul: at a 25% off sale, I found a big red armchair & ottoman, solid oak sleigh bed, couch and coffee table, Tiffany-style floor lamp, and side table. With the furniture I brought from California, I still have plenty of room to spare.
I’ve become such a materialist. I want to (or at least think I should) write about everything that puts the heart in heartland—and I’ve discovered lots of it, from little kids to a personal banker—but my real interest seems to be in my shopping list. Thanks to the wild disparity in housing prices between California and the Midwest, I sold high and bought low, so it’s the first time in my life I’ve had enough money to get pretty much whatever I want (assuming I don’t want a villa in the south of France). Shopping here is limited to Wal-Mart, ShopKo, Kmart, dollar stores, and rummage sales, so people make biweekly or monthly treks to Green Bay or Escanaba. K and I went to Green Bay recently because they have a Target, where I bought a wok, placemats, flatware (I’ve had only two forks for as long as I can remember), driving gloves for winter, and a “mad bomber’s hat” with ear flaps that hang down. (When I tried it on in the store, K said, “You look like Mom when she took her teeth out!” I bought it anyway.)
OK, this is getting out of hand. I have an almost overwhelming urge to make a list of things I’ve bought for the house … wait …
• things I’ve bought… kitchen island, TV, stove, washer/dryer…
• things I’ve done… (lots of boring stuff plus) framed and hung 11 of my paintings; one of my nephews tried to tell me that “demented” is a compliment…
• things I still have to do… buy real toys for visiting children so they don’t have to play with snakes and eyeballs from my sand tray collection…
• things my peeps have given me… an electric drill & screwdriver set, our grandmother’s oak table, four dining room chairs, many sparkly things to hang from my sun-filled loft windows, a plaque that reads “Home Is Where They Love You”…
• things my peeps have done for me… rescued and refinished the oak table, painted almost all of my rooms, cleaned out the gutters…
• things I’ve hired out… lawn care, furnace repair, carpet cleaning…
What brought me here was my family, and they’re still the anchor, but I have a strong need for solitude. So now I have ready access to human companionship but can still be alone a lot. When I need a break from work (euphemism for “whenever I want to”), I sit by the loft window in my big red armchair, put my feet up, and watch the sky, the trees, and the birds, while I dream, perchance to nap. It’s so peaceful here, and such a change from my old neighborhood—no fights outside my bedroom window, no midnight ranting, no blaring rap music (until I get the new Eminem CD, that is), no police megaphones. Any sound that reaches my ears is completely benign… the drone of a lawn mower (they’re lawn fetishists around here)… the somber but romantic sound of a train in the distance… the screech of gulls out for a good time. I’ve set out to woo the passing birds and local squirrels by putting up feeders in a couple of the trees. One morning I raised the bedroom blinds and noticed a squirrel in the middle of the road down by the park. As if on cue, it came running in my direction. It got closer and closer, then veered off the road, slipped easily through a hole in my chain link fence, and made a beeline for the tree that holds a metal squirrel feeder. It climbed the tree, flattened itself briefly against the gray bark (did anyone see me? no? then let’s go for it!), zipped around to the front of the feeder, lifted the lid, and dove in head first, just the tail hanging out like Davy Crockett’s coonskin hat. It popped back out and paused for a second to turn the peanut around in its paws—checking for an expiration date? carb content?—and then stuck it back in its mouth and bolted down the tree and up the neighbor’s wooden fence and away. I like that my tree is a favorite destination of the local critters. And yes, I know they’re just “rats with fur,” but they were smart enough to take the “cute” evolutionary path, so I’m fine with that.
The weather is turning cooler, but I love it, and I’m eagerly anticipating the first downfall… oops… Freudian slip… snowfall. Everyone—and I mean everyone—thinks I’ll change my tune around about February or March, when it’s still cold and the snow has degenerated into dirty slush. But I don’t really care. I’m home.
And what does Pookie have to say about all this? After several months of travel (three road trips between California and Wisconsin/Michigan), strange motel rooms, strange houses containing rival cats and a couple of dogs, and a lot of disruption on the home front, Pookie is starting to trust that we have at last reached our final destination. I don’t like the sound of that—final destination—but let’s face it, where am I going to go from here?
So, to back up a bit, in early May I made the pilgrimage east to spend some time with my peeps. It was a working vacation: I stayed with Barb and edited a book called The Bacterial Chromosome on her dining room table. I wanted to find out if I could really live here, or if I had romanticized the idea of home and family on my previous visits. Going into the experience, I had no idea what it would bring or how it would end. But I understood that it wasn’t about “deciding”—lists of pros and cons clutched in fist—but about “finding out.” Process painting has served me well.
Unbelievably, my old friend P agreed to drive me and Pookie all the way here in her Lexus SUV. I wasn’t willing to take Pookie on an airplane, and I didn’t think he’d enjoy hitchhiking (no opposable thumb, for one thing), so driving was the only option. P lives in southern Oregon now, so it was an extra day’s drive for her. As we were loading up her car in my carport, trying to cram Pookie’s carrier, litter box, plastic sheeting, towels, water and food dishes, and the big lug himself in the back seat so our suitcases and my reference books, work files, office supplies, radio, and laptop could go in the cargo area, P said, “Why didn’t you bring Pookie up to my house for the two months and fly out from Medford?” I just looked at her. Brainiac that I am, I had never thought of that. So basically, the 4-day drive, plus another 4 days for P to get back to Oregon, were not strictly necessary. But I was glad we did it that way.
The trip itself was uneventful—unlike our big move in the early ‘70s, when we drove from Maryland to California with a dog and a cat in a U-Haul truck towing a VW and had many adventures ranging from a tornado to broken windshield wipers, a flat tire, and a close call with a motel sign (OK, so I hit the sign). On this trip we were fortunate to have good weather instead of the tornados and floods that came a couple weeks later. P stayed for 3 days, and, happily, she and my peeps got along great. But when she was leaving to begin the trek back home, I felt like I was being abandoned. Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a great idea to camp out in Barb’s spare room for two months and attempt to replicate my work and financial life in every detail, waiting for my future to reveal itself.
For the longest time, I didn’t know how Pookie and I were going to get back to California. I figured that if worse came to worst, I could rent a car… a big car. I had a target departure date of early July—I figured that was ample time to decide if I wanted to move. Most people said I should make one more visit, in the dead of winter, to see how I really felt about the place. But I brazenly (and I hope correctly) announced that I didn’t see winter as the big drawback that everyone else did. If I have to eat my words, so be it. But I ordered some cool (warm) clothes and boots from Lands’ End, so I should be fine. [Insert knowing laughs of family members reading this.] I bought a snow shovel the other day, too, and talk about knowing laughs—everybody blows around here. I have a lot to learn about living in the northland. (But this just in: the Northern lights. Wow.)
Anyway, I knew that something would come along to get us back to California, so I put my desire out into the “universe” (of my male relatives): “Gosh,” I’d say, “your Ford F150 truck with the snarling grizzly bear decal that fills the entire back window would be just the thing to drive out west.” Nearly everyone around here has a truck or two, so I seriously thought that someone would eventually say, “Hey, I was going to get a new one anyway—take this, and God bless.” No one did. But one day MP called to say that the Ford dealership where he works had just gotten in a used ’03 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (do you think it has enough names?) and would I like to take it for a test drive. By then I had realized that I should buy a car rather than waste money on a rental. My ’89 Honda wouldn’t be much good in the U.P. winters anyway. So I bought the JGCL. Barb enjoyed teasing me about it: “Sure, I spoil my cat LaMew, but at least I’ve never bought him a car!”
One day, several of our peeps were over at Barb’s house, and Barb pointed to all the F150s and Explorers parked out front and said, “Looks like Ford Country around here.” I quipped, “I guess that makes me the black jeep in the family.” Ha-ha.
(Note that I have not yet rationalized my sudden endorsement of SUVs. But I cannot deny it: an SUV got me here, and another would take me back, and then back here again. I am comfortable with the fact of life that four-wheel drive is an absolute necessity in these parts.)
Living with another person in a chaotic household was a challenge, but one I mostly enjoyed. Little children and grown-up (30-something) children were always coming by to borrow a ladder or bring some spaghetti for our supper or install window fans or see what Grandma had in her refrigerator. I had a short working day, because Barb would get out of school at 3:00 and bring Summer and Sarina (8 and 4 years old, respectively) home to wait for their parents to get off work. Most of our mealtimes had to fit into someone else’s schedule. I’d wake up from a nap at 4:00 and Barb would announce, “Oh good, you’re up—we’re having supper at Brian’s in 10 minutes.” As a teacher, Barb works predictable hours, but most of the others do shift work, sometimes with mandatory overtime. So I had to be the flexible one, because I could work any time, unlike factory, shipbuilding, and retail workers. One day nephew Josh came in and saw me working at the computer, and he shook his head: “Must be nice.” (Summer was impressed, though. She said when she grows up, she too wants to have a job where she’ll “never have to leave the house.” I’m not sure I’m being a great influence.)
When Sarina and Summer were there, I’d be trying to work on a chapter about E. coli or a paper on pediatric cardiac surgery while they watched the ubiquitous reruns of “Sister Sister” on the Disney Channel. I’d turn around occasionally to see who said what or to ask if the mother and father of the separated-at-birth twin girls were going to get married. I sometimes paid more attention than the kids, who often fell asleep in the recliner or played with dolls from the toy box or (in Summer’s case) helped Barb grade spelling tests.
So my real work and alone time had to come after midnight, when Barb had gone to bed and it was just me and Pookie downstairs, eating snacks and listening to iTunes on headphones. Well, Pookie didn’t use the headphones, but he would sit on the back of Barb’s couch and look out the window at… well, nothing, because it was completely still out there. When I was visiting the previous summer, I didn’t understand how Barb could leave her drapes open at night, with the lights on so anyone could see in. At home in my condo, I was always barricaded, blinds down or cracked only slightly to let in some daylight or fresh air, constantly aware of movements and noises outside. So feeling safe was a pleasant change. Sometimes I stayed up until 6 a.m.—another reason (vicious circle, really) why my days were so short, because I’d sleep in until 10:00 or so.
I really enjoyed the kids, though, especially Sarina, who had blossomed in the year since I had seen her last. She was less shy and had become a talker, so would ask me endless questions about what I was doing. For some reason she was dying to know the password for my laptop (one day, she crowed, “One of the letters is an ‘n’!”) One morning when Brian came over to fix Barb’s washing machine, I invited Sarina to come along on my daily walk to the Mobil station to get coffee. It took ever so long to get there and back, what with Sarina looking at every leaf and bug, and cautioning me not to walk in the road and to look both ways when crossing, and I had to figure out what sort of drink to buy for her, not knowing the ins and outs of children’s beverages of the 21st century. We finally settled on some sort of Kool-Aid concoction with cartoon animals on the box and a top that only a child could open. On the way home, between asking if we’re almost there yet and bragging about how much juice she’s drunk, Sarina asks, “Aunt Mary, can we go for another walk?”
Barb and I, sometimes with K and MP, spent all of May and most of June driving around, looking for For Sale signs and checking out neighborhoods in both Marinette and Menominee. I’d say to Barb, “This is weird. I’m looking for a house and I don’t even know if I want to live here yet.” I didn’t want a three-bedroom ranch-style house, and I didn’t want a 100-year-old “charmer” that hadn’t been renovated since aught-whatever. But I believed strongly that finding the right place to live and “choosing” to move would go hand in hand. One day I remembered listening to the Eagles (a guilty pleasure) on iTunes the night before and singing along with “…I’m allllllready gone… and I’m feeeelin’ strong,” and it hit me. I was already gone! The “decision” had been made!
My fantasy dwelling was a house or condo on the water, but none of the ones I saw said BUY ME—or they said BUY ME IF YOU DARE. A house on First Street was practically in the bay it was so close, but the inside of it looked like no one had stepped foot in the place since ‘89…. 1889. I seriously considered a five-bedroom house down the road from Barb’s that had an asking price of $118,000 (!). It had Flower-Power-pink carpeting, horrible orange-patterned tile kitchen counters, and no appliances, but I loved the open-plan, all-vinyl-floored upstairs—the closest thing to a loft I figured I’d ever get. I alternated between thinking, “Am I crazy?? FIVE bedrooms?,” and “It’s the only place I’ve seen that isn’t a stuffy, cramped old-lady’s 2BR with orange shag carpeting.” Summer immediately loved the big house—she lives across the road from Grandma Barb so would be a close neighbor to me also—and announced that it would be fun, “We could sleep over all the time.”
Whenever we went driving around, looking at possible properties, Barb or K would say, “Oh look, there’s a fenced-in yard for Pookie!” And I’d say, “I already bought him a car, I’m not going to buy him a house!” And yet, that’s exactly what I ended up doing.
I wasn’t quite ready to commit to the Lincoln White House (well, it was on Lincoln St. and it was white…), so I looked at a few more places. I had an agent sending me fact sheets from the multiple listings service, but this is how a small town really works: Barb’s sister-in-law lives down the street from one of my former English teachers, who died this year. She had heard that the late Mrs. T’s daughters were going to put her house on the market, so she arranged for Barb and me to see it first. It seemed like my dream house—on Henes Park Drive, right on the bay, with a cedar-paneled studio, a large back porch, three bedrooms, all in immaculate shape. It seemed appropriate, somehow, that I could end up working in Mrs. T’s beautiful studio with its built-in bookcases and desk. It’s true that I was far from her favorite student, being kind of a smart-ass in my own quiet way, so there was a tiny part of me that wondered if her ghost would haunt me for taking over her beloved house. It was a moot point anyway, because they were asking over $300,000 for it. Technically, I could have afforded it, but I wanted less mortgage, more nest egg, so I let it go.
By this time—mid-June—I was beyond idle speculating and really wanted to find a house. It would be a lot easier to sell my condo and finalize moving plans if I had somewhere to come back to besides Barb’s spare room. And yet, I felt I was asking for the impossible: to find “the perfect place” that would cinch my decision to move away from my “almost-perfect place” in the Bay Area and give up all the perks of living there—the weather, the beauty, the restaurants, the gourmet take-out….
2000 miles I roam… just to make this block my home…
And I found it! It’s close to Mrs. T’s, and though I’m not right on the water, it feels like the perfect spot. Barb and K and I fell in love with it right away, despite the fact that it’s huge. (The sellers, with their two kids, wanted to downsize; it was a minor scandal among some folks that I was buying such a big place for just me.) There was much humorous speculation about Barb and K moving in with me. (Also, MP wants to live in the big downstairs bedroom, and nephew Brian wants the garage.) After we had toured the place for 15 minutes, I told my agent that I wanted to make an offer. (Barb claims she saw the woman’s knees buckle.) She was happy to present the offer to the sellers but informed me that she could no longer represent me, because her company was the one listing the house. She said to consider her “the same as the seller” from that point on. And so I descended into Real Estate Hell. I had no way of knowing if the asking price was reasonable, and I had no information about the history of the house. The agent swore she couldn’t tell me anything, that I’d have to “do my homework.”
The house was listed for $169,000, and I offered $165,000. The owners’ counteroffer was $167,000, the standard “split the difference” in bargaining. But Barb and I had gone to city hall in the meantime to see what we could find out. We ended up meeting with a really cool woman who’s the city assessor. Jill took an interest in me and loved the fact that I was moving back here from California. She was impressed with my work and the fact that I’m an “artist.” (Yes, I used the “A” word; it saves time.) In fact, she wanted to hook me up with someone from the local paper to interview me! I said that all my clients live elsewhere, but at least I would be spending my hard-earned dollars at Schloegel’s and Jozwiak’s, so I’d be contributing to the local economy. What she said next really astonished me. She said, “There’s also something about a soul coming home.” I couldn’t believe that came out of the mouth of a tax assessor! She told me to “be brave” and stand firm on my offer, because “no agent in her right mind” would advise her clients to turn it down. She later followed up with a phone call to Barb to see if I got the house, and even left a message on my home phone in San Rafael. We’re going to have lunch together soon, and I’m hoping she will have forgotten about the newspaper interview by then.
I also want to mention another cool woman I met. Actually, she was the first one who made me realize that not every smart person who’s born here grows up and moves away. Heidi is the bank manager at a Wells Fargo branch in Marinette, and also my personal banker (first one I’ve ever had). She’s extremely helpful, and I trusted her immediately. She has a very dry sense of humor and reminds me of the comedian Paula Poundstone, so we have lots of laughs when I stop in to see her. When I was mistakenly charged a service fee two months in a row, I called her and she said, “I set it up so you’d have to call and talk to me once a month.” We’re having lunch next week. Who knew I’d be hobnobbing like this?
OK, it’s time to start making this long story shorter. The agent was amazed that I wouldn’t back down on the price. But Jill was right: the owners accepted my offer just in time for me to leave for California on July 5. Pookie wasn’t too thrilled to be on the road again, but Barb had decided to ride back with me, so she fussed over him and we all survived the trip—in my case, barely. At a motel in Oregon, I fell OUT of a bathtub. It was the oddest sensation. The tub was slippery, I lost my balance, and before I knew it I was falling through the shower curtain, hitting the toilet with my right shoulder, flipping over, and landing hard on the floor on my left side. I got a massive, colorful bruise out of it but wasn’t otherwise hurt. But I can still vividly remember that feeling of “Nooooooo…..” as I flew out of that tub like a slippery bar of soap.
When we finally made it back to San Rafael, Barb stayed for only a few days, because she was anxious to get back to LaMew. (All the women in my family have the cat gene.) I gave her a quick tour around San Francisco one afternoon—through Golden Gate Park, past UCSF, through the Castro, the Mission, past the painting studio and some of my former apartments. Then she flew back home and left me to put the condo on the market and get ready to move.
I had my work cut out for me. Fortunately, I had a great agent—the antithesis of the one here. With the help of Connie, her partner Fletcher, and Julie the “stager,” we got the place looking pretty good. P happened to be coming down to the Bay Area the next week and spent two days helping me pack. The hardest part was having to keep the place spotless for 9 days in a row, and take Pookie off somewhere while agents and buyers were looking the place over. Usually I would drive to the civic center and park by some trees and read for a couple hours. Pookie had become quite accustomed to riding, but he did look at me strangely when we made these little jaunts and never even got out of the car.
The day after the open house, I got four offers. I met with Connie and Fletch to hear the details and almost fell off my chair when they told me that one offer was $27,000 over asking price, for a grand total of $425,000. The prospective buyer had no demands and was, in fact, offering to buy it as is—no worrying about the bars on the back windows or the sluggish garbage disposal, though I disclosed everything but what I’d had for breakfast that morning. I was so relieved when the buyer’s financing came through and it was a done deal. I then had to arrange to have all my furniture and stuff packed and shipped to Michigan. Barbara and Jean helped me pack dishes and other fragile items, for which I was grateful. I made several trips to the dump, the movers came, I put in a change of address at the post office, and took to the road again… just me and Pookie this time. I went the northern route so we could stop at P&C’s in Oregon. I was so exhausted from the move that we ended up staying for more than a week; it was bliss after all that lifting, hauling, and bending. My body is still sore.
The trip back was uneventful—no bathtub accidents—but horribly tedious. Achhh…. I never want to do that again. It took five days, and Pookie and I again bunked with Barb while I waited for the Fourth St. people to move out and the movers to show up with my stuff.
Once I moved in, the real work began. I had remembered unpacking as “the fun part,” but my memory, as they say around here, is good but it’s short. I was still getting editing work, which I had to fit in between the gazillion things on my to-do list. And of course nothing was simple—it felt like two to-dos forward and one to-do back… and much to-dos about nothing. I had to arrange for lawn care, get the locks changed, have the furnace checked, and start up cable, high-speed Internet, and phone service. I had to get a driver’s license, register the Jeep in Michigan, get car and homeowner’s insurance, and pay off bills from the condo. I’m still trying to get settled and catch up on everything. Every day I have to ask myself… Do I clean the garage or make another stab at installing Mac OS X on my computer? Do I prepare invoices, buy lamps and a rake, or assemble the kitchen island? From the trivial to the mundane and back again—when all I want to do is curl up in my big red armchair and do the New York Times Sunday crossword, while the red and yellow and orange trees out my window whip themselves into a frenzy.
On her days off, K would come by early (like, before 6 a.m.) to paint my bedroom, loft, and kitchen. She’s here again now, painting the living room and dining area. She wants to get to the downstairs bathroom next. The former owners had decorated the whole place in country kitsch, including a (fake) Christmas tree in every room and Christmas trees hand-painted on the bathroom walls. With K’s help, I’m gradually making the space my own.
One of the highlights of my week is on Friday nights when Barb, K, and MP and I go out for fish fry. You can only get not-frozen lake perch around here one day a week: the supply ain’t what it used to be. We could go to the VFW or various taverns for this ritualistic event, but we always go to Pat and Rayleen’s, a little family restaurant on Highway 41. We always have the same waitress, and she always remembers what we like. We laugh and carry on like we’re the only ones in the place, but just about everyone there is a regular, so there’s lots of yelling across the room and joshing with the waitresses and other customers.
It’s fun to talk about old times and trade memories and dispute versions of long-ago events with people you’ve known all your life. I still don’t believe I was part of a conspiracy to throw Barb’s Raggedy Andy doll up on the roof… but for me, being back here isn’t about nostalgia; it feels more like time travel… like Back to the Future—“Where we’re going, we don’t need…. roads….”—except that the trip was taken in real time, and I didn’t have to change anything in the past to make the present acceptable. There are enough of the old-timey places—the decrepit deserted gas stations, hulking gray asphalt-shingled early 20th-century bleak houses, defunct department stores put to new uses (mostly selling “antiques”), taverns that haven’t changed one iota since I was born, old factories that look like something out of a novel by Zola, Mickey Lu’s BBQ and Jozwiak’s bar, Henes and Red Arrow parks, the Interstate, Menekaunee, and Hattie St. bridges, the smokestacks and historic lighthouse, and the grand lumber-baron mansions on First Street—where I get jolts of remembrance that take my breath away. But at the same time, I can hardly believe that the past is well and truly—madly, deeply—gone, and I can weave the old and the new together—like the old neighborhood with its all-nouveau riche residents—into an adult haven. This is not your father’s Menominee-Marinette.
This year was the first time I’d been home for my birthday since I turned 17. Barb, K, MP and I went out to our favorite “occasion” restaurant, a roadhouse-style supper club in Peshtigo called Schussler’s. It’s a very friendly place—one big happy family, whether you know the other people or not. The first time I walked in, I felt right at home. There’s a bar with a lovely bartender who makes a Cosmopolitan as good as any I’ve had in the Bay Area. After the first one, I complimented her and confessed my snobbish California assumptions about midwestern libations. She was gracious about it.
I had decided to open my birthday presents in the bar, because it’s festive and I like to spend time there before being seated in the dining room. I had no idea there would be so many—I had already seen the oak storage cubby they’d given me back at the house. The presents kept coming and coming, and soon they covered one whole end of the bar. Everyone who came by remarked on how “someone must be loved.” At first I was embarrassed, but after about half a margarita I was holding each treasure up to be admired by the crowd—the bar was now filling up, despite the fact that it was only 5:00. After a delicious steak dinner (never thought I’d eat steak again) we drove back to K and MP’s, all four of us singing along to the radio—the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.” A sweet sound and a sweet feeling.
Faith-based initiatives? The destruction of the World Trade Center was a faith-based initiative.
I must say, the politics up here leaves something to be desired. Even though Michigan and Wisconsin did end up in the “blue” column, billboards touting the pro-life-except-when-it-comes-to-the-death-penalty-and-war-and-innocent-deer agenda are rampant. My favorite: “Unborn babies are Americans too.” So Iraqi, French, and Chinese fetuses are actually American citizens, at least until they’re born? Wouldn’t that be a good argument against war? Think of all those unborn babies that will die! And shouldn’t we be championing the unconceived as well? Those that do not exist are Americans too! These people seem to think that the separation of church and state was the result of some horrible misunderstanding on the part of the Founding Fathers that must be corrected by any means necessary. They’re starting small, according to one sign: “Jesus Christ Is Lord Over Menominee County.” Today, Menominee! Tomorrow, the rest of the U.P.! But seriously. The separation of church and state was originally meant to guarantee freedom of religion: Let a thousand beliefs bloom. Not Christianity über alles.
There is so much more I want to tell you—did you know you can buy a salami in the shape of a beer bottle with a Pabst Blue Ribbon label on it?… have you ever seen a pickup truck with a shield that runs across the front of it with the words SCRAMBLED EGG or OLD GUY?—but I feel like I’ve come to the end for now. Working on this issue sporadically over the past several months has felt like trying to be cautious at an all-you-can-eat buffet when you’re starving. Too much too soon can lead to indigestion. I’ve only started digesting this amazing experience of returning to my roots after years of insisting I was beyond all that. It’s one of the secret pleasures of middle age, that life can still surprise and delight—it isn’t about sitting around waiting to die, as we all think when we’re young. To me this whole journey has been a lesson in the limitations of the will. Far from not being able to go home again, you can repudiate your birthright with what you think is every fiber of your being—and it can still come back to claim you. The will has the fiber. But Being is made of sturdier stuff—the Spirit. That’s the lesson, I guess, in a nutshell. But you’d better grab that nutshell while you can, because there’s a squirrel down the road that thinks its name is written all over it.
It’s so beautiful here—less spectacular than the Bay Area but rich in color and texture, fresh air and water, and very quiet. The fall colors have mostly… fallen… but the sunsets are awesome and the lake changes color daily. Last Saturday was as warm as a spring day but with a hint of burning leaves in the air. Brian and Josh came over to replace the framework around my garage doors, so while they worked on that, I hauled out the redwood-and-metal 6-foot cross I had made in California and dug a hole in the back yard to stand it up in. I caught a whiff of something I had been dreaming of for years: the smell of the earth in this part of the world. Places near the ocean have their own good smells, but I like this one the best. I breathed in deeply, feeling rejuvenated by it, taken back to the times when my cousins and I would make little holes in the soft spring earth and shoot marbles, or build hills with roads on which to “drive” our little cars. It felt oddly satisfying to be working outside. I replaced some nails and screws on the cross and got it stabilized in its hole with bricks I found in the basement. I had convinced my nephews to accept money for their work (going against a long family tradition), because I felt it was mutually beneficial. I needed those damn garage doors fixed, they needed the money, and if they didn’t do the work to my satisfaction, I could always sic their mothers on them. K came by in the afternoon and put my new mailbox up for me. Then we sat on the back steps in the warm sun and talked. Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.