Tag Archives: Lake Michigan

Dark Clouds, Blue Water

1 Aug

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She looked at that buck and said “I would love to shoot you,” and, you know, he looked back at her like he understood.  —Conversation overheard this morning Char’s Café, Bruce’s Crossing, Michigan

Leaving New York in the darkness, the quiet morning streets of my neighborhood are like that frayed old blanket that you love for its warmth and comfort.  The flight gets off late, but travels fast through a morning sky of dirty clouds.  Smoky hobgoblins hang in the distant gray.  Chicago bristles in the gloom, the dark buildings flipping me off as I fly past.

Connection made in time for the short hop back over the Lake and into the sun.  Lunch with my brother and we hit the road.  The first gas station we stop at has a live bait refrigerator.  Michigan.

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Nine miles into the U.P. we hit a long stretch of route 2 along the northern edge of Lake Michigan and pull over so I can wade into the water.  I climb back into the car and mom pulls back into traffic, the wind hitting my arms, the sand on my feet not yet dry.

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Joyously empty roads and a sun that doesn’t want to set, the U.P. is magic.  Like stepping back in time to when there weren’t so many of us,  and the world not quite so damaged.  Mom and Pop motels and motor courts abound.  Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert could be just around the next bend in the road.

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Diner Breakfast, followed by a completely unnecessary bakery stop.  Cinnamon rolls and Blueberry turnovers.

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Judy Garland’s birthplace, just because.

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Abandoned liquor store in Crookston, Minnesota.  At the other end of town mom sees a house from a dream. “I kept trying buy it” she says.

And there’s talk, lots of talk.  More in the morning when we’re fresh, less as we grow tired.  But these conversations are marked by their ease,  for at this point the road seems long, and our time together endless.

And now I must sleep, for tomorrow we cross North Dakota and on into eastern Montana and Mom wants to be on the road by 6:00am.  Luckily, I’ve booked us into a lodge with a bar.  I can already taste the beer.

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Alone Again (Naturally)

11 Jul

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Cigarettes and beer on a warm summer breeze. 

To this day, walking the streets of New York, I’ll turn a corner and bam!  There it will be: that essence of summer 1972.  And I have to stop, because, for a moment, I am nine years old, sitting on the porch of our Lake Michigan cottage, holding my little Sears & Roebuck 9 volt transistor radio, listening to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.”

It’s an odd song for a kid to fall in love with.  A father dies, a mother dies, a young man’s abandoned at the altar.  I believe suicide may be contemplated.  But none of this really matters.  Because it’s not the words so much as the gently loping beat, like the saunter of a sun-kissed girl walking along the sand, a melody with the quiet insistence of waves on a shore,  and that distinctly English melancholy of something beautiful coming to an end.

Cigarettes and beer.

It was a crazy summer.  My cousin Joni, sixteen and wild, had run away to California, only to turn up several weeks later, with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue tucked beneath her newly unshaven armpits.  She would play “California” and then solemnly intone to whoever would listen, “It was just like that.”  She was so cool.

But even cooler was her friend Memphis.

First of all she was from Memphis.  Second of all she would take driftwood  and turn it into art, painting it with a big letter “M”, and clouds, and seagulls and stuff.

But mostly, she would talk to me.

We’d sit on the porch as the sun went down and the beachgoers across the street packed up for the day, and in her exotic southern accent she’d tell me stories.  Like how her sister had been home sick one time when she heard that her boyfriend, whose Camaro Z28 was the baddest car in all of Memphis, was stepping out on her.  How her sister had pulled on her bathrobe, tied a scarf over her rollers, and headed out in search of that Z28, and how, finding it parked outside a local burger joint, she had stopped the car, walked inside, and dropped her boyfriend’s date with a single punch.

And we would talk about girls.  She tried to get me to believe that the prettiest weren’t always the nicest, and that I should always give the less attractive girls a chance.  I didn’t really believe her, but I lied and told her that I had a crush on a girl who wasn’t very pretty at all.  She smiled.

And as the night settled in, and the rangers locked the gates and began their patrols, we watched the spotlight on their pickup sweep across the darkness, while the adults inside the cottage gathered around the big table, talking and laughing, playing cards.  The breeze lifted the hair from Memphis’ face and I stole a glance as she looked out across the water.  It was 80 miles to Milwaukee.  Too far to see.

 

Heath came to me last night as we were getting ready for bed.  Having mistakenly tried to eat ice cream from a frozen scoop, I am holding a bloody washcloth to my lips.

“Dad, can we go out on the porch and talk for a while?”  There’s an urgency in his face.  He’s afraid I’ll say no.

“Sure.” I mumble, getting some ice for my lip, which is beginning to swell.  “Go on out on the porch.  I’ll be right there.”

The fireflies have finally arrived, and as I join him they glimmer up and down the block.

“There’s one!” he shouts, jumping up and following it around the porch.  Fascinated by this little piece of light, he is every inch the nine-year old.  But soon he will be ten.  He borrowed my sandals for the first time this week.  Still puppyish, he is growing into his feet.

We talk about his first day at summer school, his new teacher, his friends.  When things go quiet he pushes for more.

“Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

Struggling to maintain the conversation, he leans on the professorial cadences he finds so comfortable.

“Dad.  Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

I laugh, because of course there’s too much.  And then, gently, I say “You know Heath, we don’t always have to talk.  We can just sit together and enjoy the evening.”

“I know, but I like to talk.”

So we do.

 

In a few weeks we will return to Lake Michigan, and a town that is in many ways unchanged.  But it won’t smell the same.  Most of my family are gone now, and sadly, they took their packets of Kools and their Pabst Blue Ribbon with them.

But, for my kids, there are two houses, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins galore, as well as porches, sunsets and the breeze off the water.

I heard years ago that Memphis had become a nurse.  I’m not sure where.  But I like to think she’s still out there, telling stories, painting driftwood, and giving sage advice to precocious lovelorn little boys.

Her hair was auburn.  She was sixteen.  I think of her every time I hear that song.

 

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Grand Haven, Summer 2013

16 Oct

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The week has almost passed and I have yet to see a sunset.  I’ve missed them all.  Every single one.  I love my family, but moving all four of us in any specific direction can be a bit like turning an ocean liner.  And as our vacation draws to a close, my patience has worn thin.

“I need to get out.  Just for an hour or so.”

Thankfully, Amy agrees.  As I head for the door, I add, “Hey Heath, do you want to go for a walk on the beach?”  And miraculously, he says yes.

Walking beneath the planks of the porch above, and then climbing the wooden stairs, we leave behind the cool green world of our cozy apartment, tucked down the side of a wooded dune, hidden in the trees which surround The Khardomah, a ramshackle 1870 hunting lodge turned boarding house where we’ve been spending our week.  Heath and I cross the quiet street, and as we head down the gently curving road we pass the original Highland Park cottages; the Loch Hame, the Bonnaire, and others, built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when this land was nothing but forest and sand, and far enough from town that, for a time, it had its own trolley line. 

As we round the bend, Lake Michigan opens before us, a vast, inland ocean whose sudden appearance down these steep, curving roads, never fails to take my breath away.  We look out over the beach, windblown under dense gray clouds, extending north to the town’s most famous landmark, the South Pier, its dark candy red lighthouse temporarily shrouded in the gray primer and netting of a late summer paint job.  The green flag on the lifeguard stand flaps in the breeze, indicating it is safe to swim, but the water is largely empty due to its unseasonable chill.  There had been red flags earlier in the week, not for riptides, as is usually the case, but for hypothermia, and while I did not swim on those days, the water remained cold enough throughout the week to give me a chill that was hard to shake.  

From the top of the hill we make our way down four long flights of stairs, through the sand and dune grass, to the road, where we stop to check for cars, then skitter across and into the parking lot, before kicking off our shoes and stepping into the clean, white sand, cool now this late in the day. The water writhes beneath the overcast sky, a chaotic world of gray and white, and the sunset looks hopeless.  But as we approach the gentle roar of the shoreline, the evening breeze ruffles my son’s hair.

I ask him if he wants to walk down to the pier, and he says “Sure.”  And so we begin.  Walking easily.  Relaxing into each other.

A pair of jet skis scream from far out in the water, their noise, amplified by the open distance, seeming oddly loud to be coming from such small bouncing shadows.  Heath asks what they are, and I tell him that, basically, it’s a couple of guys flying around on floating jet engines, and that on a day like this it must be a pretty rough ride.  He asks why anyone would want to do that, and I tell him I haven’t a clue.

The water is cold against our feet, and Heath is timid at first, skipping awkwardly back up above the waterline every time a wave rushes in.  But slowly, he acclimates, growing bolder and stepping further out into the cold, reveling in his own courage. 

“Oh My God! I can’t believe how wet my pants are getting”

“Well, here.  You need to roll them up.”

I step out into the water and roll his long shorts up above his knees, soaking mine in the process, his laughter contagious.

Heath has Asperger’s Syndrome, and, as a result, so many things have been difficult to share.  His mind is sharp, and his passions are strong, but his palette is limited.  Going outdoors is troubling, exercise is not his friend, and moving him beyond a computer screen is a battle gently waged on a daily basis.  And yet here we are, on a whim, walking the waters of my childhood.  And with every step I can see something inside him ease.

The jet skiers call it a day, their sputtering, high-pitched whine fading into the distance, and as the light begins to retreat, we make our way down the beach, passing three boys who have built a small mound of sand, and are now wrestling about, each one struggling to be king of the hill.

At the pier I show Heath a shortcut up the rocks, and having reached the top, we follow the battered concrete out from the shore, walking beneath the catwalk, passing  the last few tourists as we make our way around the lighthouse and then out toward the foghorn, its deep, melancholy moan, one of my first memories, long ago replaced by a smooth sonic “ping “.  Stepping around its squat red bulk, we come to the end.  Three fisherman, their equipment scattered about, stand before an infinity of water and sky.  A reel hums as a one makes a cast.  His sinker plops as it hits the water and disappears into the darkness. 

As we head back toward shore, the lights are coming on in the cottages, stars among the hills.  Reaching the end, we scramble down to the sand, and Heath heads back to the water, greeting the waves as long lost friends, kicking at them, and delighting in the galaxies that explode off the ends of his feet.  Looking back, I see the pier lights come on, and notice, up above, in the northwest , a small opening in the clouds, it’s edges stained orange and red, the colors beginning to leak across the sky.  Heath continues on, wading up to his knees, smashing at the rushing water. 

Both brooding and vibrant, a vivid rose now dusts  the turbulent blue-gray clouds in every direction.  And then, with no visible movement, the gray is vanquished altogether, and everything above me goes pink.  Neon as far as the eye can see.

“Heath, look!”

Suddenly the lake ignites, the sky illuminating the water like fire on foil, blazes of pink dazzling the crests of the dark blue waves, mirroring the sky to the point that for one dizzying moment, I cannot tell them apart.  

“Heath!” I cried

“Yeah?”

“Are you seeing this?”

“Yes.”

Catching up to him, I wrap my arms around his chest and gently turn him toward the light.    

“This is the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen.”

But even as I say it, the color begins to recede; the pink melting to orange, the gray closing in.  I hold him for a moment.  We watch, and nothing seems to change.  But when I look away, and then back again, everything is different.

“Heath, have you ever heard the phrase ‘in the moment’?  Do you know what that means?”

“No.” He replies, slipping from my arms and returning the water.

Following, I do my best to explain: the past is gone, the future never arrives, so all we have is now.  How much he takes in, I can’t be sure.  But in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

He’s already there.

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