A Great Lakes State of Mind

“I’m actually forced to write about Michigan because as a native of that state it’s the place I know best. ” – Jim Harrison, author

A Mormon once told me they often sensed each other’s fellowship before its confirmed; like twins separated at birth. Sharing a birthplace tends to work in the same fashion, especially when more than 2,000 miles separates you from that Earth you long called home.

In San Diego, my circle of friends includes two people: people I met in San Diego and Michiganders. Somehow, our orbits intertwine and we instinctively ask with knowing smiles: “Where are you from?”

The answer rarely surprises me, but never fails to delight. Why should you care that I’m from Lake Fenton Township anymore than I care you’re from Grayling (as Mr. Harrison)? Because its another tie that binds us together and gives us a sense of belonging, of feeling understood and a bit less lonely in a world that doesn’t know the joy of a hockey game, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a rouwdy game of Euchre or standing on your porch watching a twister headed your way (I promise, very entertaining).

And yet, some things about home never appealed: deer hunting, unemployment, trailer parks, high crime rates, union battles, poverty, snow.

The first Californian to ride in my car amusedly reached in my backseat and picked up a monsterous life-saving combination ice and snow scraper.

“What’s this thing?” she asked, waving it around like a toy.

“Ghost from my past,” I said. At that point, I still had a car lock de-icer on my keychain. If you don’t know what that is – good for you.

Few friends and even fewer family moved away from Michigan after I started life over in California nearly a decade ago.  When I married in San Diego, there were grumblings among extended family. I was not a “bride’s bride,” but I also could not picture hosting my reception beneath the grim glow of community center florescent lighting.

Many phases passed in an out of my California life, one of which included a misguided attempt at being a blonde. Some may wish they were California girls, but I’m happy as a small-town girl living the Pacific Coast lifestyle. I’m an unfinished, unrefined brunette who make a concerted effort at sophistication.

This weekend, I will travel home to help my parents break-up housekeeping so they can sell the house and live pemanently near my brother in Houston. Many emotions swirl around in my head as I try to focus on the enormous task at hand of dissolving a home more than 35 years in the making.

Every nook and cranny, every beam and wall, every sidewalk crack and lake ripple, every apple tree and blade of grass, every firefly and frog, the remnates of childhood forts illustrates the blueprint to my birth, my history, my soul.

The neighborhood virtually remains unchanged – same families, same jobs, same houses, same cars, same twisting dirt road. All elements of that world remains frozen in time as if only for my memory to retain that sense of childhood and of never growing old.

As we discussed the week’s plans a few nights ago, my mom asked if I could handle the food for an impromptu family reunion on Sunday. She listed off what I should buy at VG’s grocery store.

“Potato or egg salad, chips, sandwiches – subs at the party store are good and we can just cut them up … ”

Flashbacks to childhood potlucks struck me. By comparison, my diet today seemed a bit “fru-fru” and produce heavy. 

“Mom, I think I can handle it,” I said. “Just let me worry about the food.”

She hesistated for a moment and then said: “These are Michigan people. Remember? Please don’t get anything weird.”

“Like what? I asked, laughing. “Pretty sure they don’t even sell avocados in Michigan.”

“Yes, like that stuff,” she said. “Never cared for it.”

Its the little things that change us over time ever so slightly. The more time draws out between me and home, the less I look like it as if my fingerprint lines shift from pressure like water against a rock.

A worn page I dogeared in Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” reads like this: “All things belonging to the earth will never change … all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth – these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.”

The One That Got Away …

Growing up on a lake in Michigan means you get the best of every season.

In the winters, you ice skate, play hockey and aim to sled fast enough to hit the ice for a great slide. The more adventurous even take snowmobiles for a spin on the ice. (Mom despised snowmobiles and motorcycles and forbid us to ride either.)

In the summers, you take the boat out for a twirl on the lake, get friends to rock a raft side to side in order to launch you into the water and of course, you hunt the creatures in the water – snakes, turtles and fish.

I loved the act of fishing and helped my father clean his bigger catches for pan-fried dinners. I never caught anything big enough to keep: a few sunfish here and there was about it.

One bright, cloudless day, my mother decided we would all go the Genesee County Fair after we finished our morning fishing from the Kendall’s dock next door. We had never gone to the fair before and at 8-years-old, it was a most exciting opportunity.

My dad’s friend, Jack, stopped into the house to join us for our fishing. Though Jack was married, he virtually lived out of his car and kept a well-supplied clothesline across his backseat. He would visit the house, play guitar with my dad, drink whiskey and sing Johnny Cash songs. Jack was gaunt, gravely voiced and has a face like sunworn leather. I painted him pictures, which he still had at his home when he died years later.  I loved Jack.

Jack brought his bait and tackle box down to Little Long Lake, which sparkled like diamonds in the summer sunshine. A slight breeze cooled the sweat on our foreheads.  Daddy made sure all the fishing poles were in good working order before he handed Whitney one and me another.

Whitney could not handle baiting her own hook.

“Worms are so gross,” she would squeal. Anytime she faced an obstacle that made her uncomfortable, you had a limited amount of time before she might burst into tears. My father would give in and bait her hook.

I, on the other hand, was something of a “tom boy.”

I snapped off half of a nightcrawler, snaked it onto the double-barbed hook, dangled it over the side of the dock into the water for a second watching the red-striped bobber ride the ripples and then looked out at the lake. When I found the spot I wanted, I drew back my right arm, followed my hook with my eyes and in one sharp move, launch the hook. The hook and sinker plopped into the water.

Fishing on a lake takes on a great feeling of earthen majesty. Your connection to nature feels immediate as if it courses through your veins. The provincial notions of life spring forth to surround and envelop you.

As we all settled in with our ritual, Brent, the Kendall boy, came down to investigate our use of his family dock.

“Can I fish?” Brent asked my dad.

Brent had a quiet, strange way about him. One day, my mom woke from a nap on the couch to find him sitting in the living room watching cartoons. Another time, he knocked on the front door with a grip of daffodils to sell. She was about to oblige when she scanned the yard and realized the flowers were in fact just picked from our fenceline. Many years later, his mother, Dawn, would recall that as her most embarrasing moment as a mom.

Brent also had zero fishing ability. His Snoopy pole bit the dust the prior summer; the line got caught in a tree over the lake when he didn’t look at his hand before releasing his line. He only noticed when he tugged mightily at the line without looking and it didn’t release from the tangled mess he created above. It hung there for weeks until his dad, Gary, cut it down.

“Brent, no more fishing for you,” his dad said.

My dad firmly said,”No Brent. You cannot fish. These are our poles, but you can watch and stay out of the way.”

Some time passed. I retrieved and cast my line several times. The “click-click-click” of the reel gives one such a calm as to be in a dream.

Suddenly, my line jerked. My arm gave in, I pulled back and realized I had a fish. I reeled in the line some, pulled, reeled in, pulled and then, a largemouth bass jumped up into the air on the end of my line. He was beautiful. He fell back into the water and I screamed: “I got one!”

Daddy and Jack came running over to the dock from the shoreline. I reeled the fish up and the bass struggled on the hook, his gills beating open and shut. I realized the poor fish swallowed the hook.

“Daddy, what do we do?”

“Hold on, baby, Jack has better tools than I do,” he said. “We’ll get him free. Good job, baby.”

He patted my shoulder and I beamed with pride, as I looked down at my bass waiting in the water.

While we both looked at one another from opposite ends of the pole, a flash of silver passed in front of my eyes. In an instant, I felt a piercing pain below my lip that began to tug. I screamed and turned to see Brent, with his back to me, yanking on the line.


He turned around. He froze instantly with his mouth wide open and eyes like dinner plates. He dropped my dad’s unattended pole and ran up to his house.

Jack ran back to help with my fish to discover he had two lines to cut.

“Erica! What happened? Hugh!” Jack yelled.

My daddy came running. When he saw me, he became enraged.

“That damn kid!” he said. “I’m gonna sue his damn parents. &*%?@!”

He swore a blue streak all the while Jack worked on cutting me free.

I suppose I cried, but I can only remember feeling scared. The throb of adeniline pulsated at my temples. After Jack cut me loose, he released my bass who swam off like so many fish tales.

We sped to Dr. Martin’s office, where he met us after hours. He was not wearing a tie or his sheet white doctor coat; he looked like an ordinary man.

“Alright, let’s give this a look,” he said, while we stood in the hall. The office seemed foreign in the quiet absence of babies crying and phones ringing. “Hmm. Alright, dad take little brother into the waiting room. We’ll be out in no time.”

I looked at the short-haired Whitney, who was delivered by a different doctor, and tried not to smile. Her little angel face squinched up and she gave what I recall as her first glaring stare. She never cut her hair short again until she joined the Navy.

Dr. Martin numbed my lower lip, which already looked much bigger than other girls’ and was now swollen from the hook. When the tissue was numb, he threaded the barb the rest of the way through, snipped off the end and pulled the hook out through the inside of my mouth.

The small hole in the bottom right side of my lip healed over time and so did the anger between our house and the Kendalls.

All Dawn could manage to say with a nervous laugh was: “At least there wasn’t a worm on the hook.”

I always felt to blame for ruining the plans for the county fair. We never went to to it in the many years we lived in Fenton. I also long regretted not getting to bring my own fish to the dinner table.

I guess it wasn’t meant to be. But it sure would have made one Hell of a fish tale.