It turns out my head is still trying to be on vacation this shivery, rainy day in Oregon–one that will be repeated almost daily until spring’s reprise. I was perusing photos from the last leg of our northern Michigan jaunt and lo, there are more moments of rich color and curiosity to share with you.
Jutting north along the western side of Grand Traverse Bay (part of Lake Michigan), Leelanau Peninsula may seem a repeat of beauty that has been encountered before. It gave me pause to consider that about 10,000 years ago, three different lakes were tiered here and there, at different levels. Now they are an invisible part of this far reaching Great Lake, one among the five whose basins were carved out by glacial ice sheets 14.000 years ago. Leelanau Peninsula, then, was geologically layered by that powerful glacial activity.
These forested lands are part of widespread color tours in the U.S. each October–some say Michigan has the best, who knows for certain?– but this terrain is easy on the eyes with vibrant yet soothing vistas (did you know oaks turn color later than maples?). It had not quite peaked when we were there. This is a prime area for artists to congregate and thrive, as well as excellent earth in which orchards thrive and many vegetables flourish. Lots of migrating birds arrive or pass this way. Once again bodies of water beckon me beyond low-rolling hills to that vast undulating cobalt blue. The five interconnected Great Lakes comprise the largest body of freshwater on earth, six quadrillion gallons, and is the longest freshwater coastline, as well. Lake Michigan alone is 22,300 square miles of water. However, there are also over 11,000 inland lakes, as well.
This peninsula, a popular scenic area, gives rise to much tourism which calms down a bit as temperatures and leaves drop—but then ski season opens and hearty wintering folks head up north. It may not be the Cascade Range (so near where I live) or other majestic peaks, but downhill skiing in northern Michigan is nonetheless a big draw, as are snowmobiling and sledding, cross-country skiing, ice skating and more. For there is nothing quite like the northern Michigan winter that will soon arrive–ferocious, pristine and also playful.
We stopped by Lake Leelanau to look for more good stones and admire the clarity of water. We cruised by tiny Suttons Bay and surrounding lands. Our intended destination was Leland, on the western shore. Northport is near the tip of the peninsula; the slideshow below offers a glimpse at that lovely village and farm land. We also paused to enjoy Lake Leelanau’s musical sloshing waves, water so clear you could see the bottom.
Relaxed and full of visual treasures, we drove contentedly along in the breezy, sunshiny day.
After perhaps 45 dreamy minutes, we entered Leland late afternoon. I has been long known for art galleries, higher end shops and the historic Fishtown. Leland has been an operating fishing community since the 1850s (far longer when considering the fact that Ottawa Indians resided there until Europeans arrived). It still has a distinctive culture and is considered one of the last working fishing districts on the peninsula. One can visit old fishing shanties, smokehouses, canneries and walk the weathered docks, note the fish tugs. I thoroughly enjoyed poking about. The shops were soon to close so I saved a good deal of money, I’m sure.
And so rounds out and ends the seven day tour of “up north” Michigan, a first trip after decades having been gone.
The mystique of many waters, and the pleasure boats and boats with fishing aficionados as well as working fisher persons…the delicate meat of tasty fish (planked whitefish, the best)…the great swaths of deciduous forest mixed with towering pines and the slim, short-lived birches and rustling poplars…the flattening land and open skies…the sweet tangy wind of the great and small lakes. It is an alchemy that makes me dream of cabins and night music and finding love and gliding in a canoe under a silvery, beneficent moon and tender-hot sun. It is all still there.
Every morning they are already on the train and if I haven’t had my two cups of black coffee to wake me up, I find myself sitting across the aisle from them by default. I try to avoid them because I don’t think much of the dog.
It’s a couple in their sixties or more plus their dog. The woman wears those glasses that change with light conditions, big black frames. I like her purple bag. The man wears glasses, too, and somehow he looks like he has had good jobs. He always has that brown hat and leather jacket on. Their yipping, scrappy mongrel dog acts energized and whiney if I look at it very long. I want to say it’s a boy, I don’t know why, females can be scrappy, too–I’m one of them. The four-legged is maybe a terrier mix. My Great-uncle Ken had one once. I never liked it; it’s fur got knotted and it smelled bad like he did. It was too friendly, if you know what I mean, I had to give him a push, kick him away. Uncle Ken would laugh then pick him up then like he was the most adorable kid who did a cute trick.
So maybe that’s why I took an instant if minor dislike at the start. The couple is okay, chats to themselves very little; the woman hugs the little beast. I wonder when it will get kicked off the train. When has it been okay to bring animals onto public transit? No one looks blind, no one seems out of it. But she dotes on it more than necessary so I guess it’s her dog, a creature who helps people who’ve got trouble out in the world. A mental health dog. She mumbles to it at times, poor old gal.
I suppose you can say I was one of those people, though. That is, I got into trouble for years, used to make wrong decisions, not the reasonable ones. Like stealing stuff I could sell and hanging out with older criminal types and driving without a license and getting into a fight here and there. But after a long vacation in “juvie”, that was enough. Now I’m twenty-two, go to work every day cleaning an old, once-fancy apartment building with thirty large units, thanks to my cousin’s friend who manages it. I don’t mind being paid to clean as I’m an orderly and clean-cut person now, you couldn’t spot me as anything else unless you were savvy. Anyway, I like to leave things better than when I arrive. One week-ends there are a few offices to clean. I make ends meet, barely, and live in a studio apartment twenty blocks from work.
One morning this dog lady and her husband or boyfriend, they’re directly across from me. I have a headache and don’t want that dog near me. But there’s nowhere else to sit so I plop down with a canvas bag full of my own special cleaning aids. The lady looks up, big eyes startled, as if I look weird or she recalled something serious or had sudden pain. And she hangs on tight to the dog who has gotten an interest in the bag I just dropped. I have a bologna sandwich in a paper bag in there, too, so pull it onto my lap.
The hungry pooch settles down a bit. The man glances my way, stares through me as if he is thinking hard and the woman follows his gaze. I look away, turn my body a bit, but when I look back she is still gazing at me. I tend to get a little paranoid. Do I know them from the past? Did I steal something of theirs? I doubt that’s the reason she’s looking at me, that was five years ago, but ignore her as usual without much luck.
“You a cleaner?” she asks, eying the bag which has a spray bottle or two sticking out.
Her voice sounds rusty and quiet; her eyes stay with my bag, her dog squirmy. I nod, look out a window.
“We got a place you could clean. We pay decent. See you here all the time, you seem okay.”
Her husband looks at me then, checking me out. I stare back, give a hint of smile, an acknowledgment.
“I’m pretty busy, thanks, though.”
The lady shakes her head, that bleached blond hair bouncing a bit. “Shame. We need somebody.” She hugs the dog.
But the man sits forward, leans forearms on his bony thighs. “I have a store. Pawn shop. Too dusty these days but the old help I had to fire, stole things.” His language sounds distinctive, like he was raised elsewhere and can’t shake the accent.
My head involuntarily turns to him and I try to be nicer “I’m sorry.”
He nods, slumps back, puts an arm around his lady. I’m surprised to see him act fond of her as she gives more attention to that half-cute, half-annoying dog than to him. It yaps at me but not meanly. I get off the next stop.
I think about the pawn shop all week. I like to collect things. Legitimately now. A powerful draw to a store full of odds and ends, of old stuff and junk. It must be good if they are still running it at their ages. But I’m busy already, tired of cleaning by Saturday.
One night I wake up and lie there in pitch black. I have been dreaming of a dog trotting and prancing about, and then I’m trying to catch him, rushing past aisles of towering shelves that teeter and fall about us as we start to run toward the exit, his tail disappearing out the bright door. He barks with joy; he does not attack my legs.
It is a sign of something.
This time I look for them. It takes me a couple of minutes to spot them down the way and find a small space to sit. They glance my way, say nothing. I don’t want to jumpstart a conversation when they got the message I wasn’t interested, but I’d like info, anyway.
The lady looks disinterested but politely. The dog is snoozing or pretending on her big lap.
“Do I have to apply for it? I might get a day free now and again.”
The man turns; the lady smiles down at her dog.
He says, “You could stop by tonight at five and fill out an application if you want. But we need someone soon and more than now and then…There’s a guy, he might take it.”
“Oh.” I think that over. “Okay, give me the address.”
It’s not so far from the apartment building I clean, two stops after mine. I try to recall if I have seen it but don’t think so.
The lady pipes up. “Nice you’re thinking it over. You never know.” She let the dog down. It was on a leash but manages to sniff my boots all over then sits up tall, looking me over. “That’s Kristoff. He’s five.”
“Okay, so I’m Jamie Marsh,” I say.
“Cheslav and Mel Krakov. ”
We relax a little as if relieved for that much to be over.
“Our store is Cheslav’s Castoffs.”
How corny, I think, but my stop is coming up and I stand. “Later, then.”
From the outside it looks sort of haunted, mysterious, a set for a Hitchcock movie, all that heavy grey stone so darkly wet now it is raining. A small gargoyle above the door. There are offices in the stories above, and at least their rooms look brighter. The store front windows are a jumble of objects arrayed on too-dark flowing cloth. Dusty looking. Immediately I think how it can be more eye-catching and I am unbalanced by eagerness. I’m just a cleaning woman and a good one.
I pull open the black metal door and a jangling bell rings. Kristoff runs forward, tail wagging, then sits with tongue out and waits. His face looks happy, like he’s had a good day. I feel like talking to him, not his humans, but of course say nothing. The low lighting casts a somber sheen on the tables and shelves full of shadowy items, and a display of shined up musical instruments and a pieces of furniture that look worth something.
“So, you came,” Cheslav strides forward, hand extended.
I shake it. I hadn’t suspected he had such energy, while Mel takes halting steps behind him. She has a paper in her hand that I am to fill out, which I do while sitting on a stool at a black metal cafe table in one corner. Afterwards, they take me on a quick tour. I am shocked that it looks a lot like it did in my dream, but aging pawn or junk shops just look this way, I realize: groaning with tools to watches and clocks to inlaid or otherwise exotic boxes to fancy lamps to roll top desks to a couple old-fashioned phones to brass candlesticks to glass bowls to…. I feel dizzy looking up, it’s not organized in any way that makes sense to me. Lots of hidden corners behind shelving, high ceilings rather cobwebby and making me sneeze several times. Mel hands me a tissue and also blows her own nose.
“What do you think?” she asks, wiping her nose dry. “Do you find it interesting, Jamie? Like odd stuff?”
I feel myself starting to shrug but that’s my old way so I offer, “I think I do.”
“Good, then we’ll check out the application,” Cheslav chimes in.
“Why bother?” Mel picks up Kristoff, who has been following us everywhere. “That other guy never came, after all,” she says glancing at me. “When would you start, say, once or twice a week at first?”
“What do you pay?”
Cheslav walks over to the front counter as I look at the sparkly earrings in the glass case between us. “What do you need?”
“Eighteen an hour, at least six hours a day, Saturday and Sunday. Your place needs a lot of help and I work hard.”
Cheslav rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll get back to you.”
Mel walks me to the door, fuzzy dog in her arms but reaching to lick my hand as I grab a door handle. “It’ll work out. Kristoff likes you.”
When Mel truly smiles her whole face changes, beams. I like how that happens, though clearly she doesn’t feel all that well with bum legs.
So, my adult work record and personal recommendations (a cousin and a friend of his) satisfies them and soon I work there every week-end. My friend Louise says I’m nuts, the offices are less taxing and more money if I work overtime. But they’re boring and Cheslav’s Castoffs is not, I tell her. Which is better, a good environment or just money? She doesn’t argue; she cleans bathrooms and more at two big gyms and a massage joint.
When I get done with the cleaning which is never-ending, really, taxing and requires me to wear a respirator, I start to order things a bit. Front windows are first. I find and shake out some bright red and yellow fabrics to replace the dirty velveteen cloths. I clean up and better situate fine tea sets and a violin, trumpets and two kinds of flutes and elegant vases with fake flowers and plants (need to talk to them about trying out real flowers now and then) and so on. I worry that I am too aggressive in my desire to fix up the appearance but after they tentatively agree, Cheslav and Mel take turns strolling by, checking things out yet say little after two weeks. I keep at it.
Kristoff finds me a few times a day though Mel calls after him. I don’t want to get too friendly, he’s her prized possession, I get it so I just acknowledge him with a short pat on his little head, let him look over my work, too. He likes the giant feather duster I use so I have to watch that but avoids the cleaners so it is okay, overall. I like his pep.
I begin to feel at home there, with the customers who notice me as they leave with their money or something they like. All sorts of strange things come in–embellished saddle for a small pony, a drum kit that has been bashed half to bits, a groups of so-called Native American rings that Cheslav insists are fake turquoise and what is the woman trying to pull? I steal looks at them, some from sketchy places and some from uptown, some desperate and others just passing time. But most often I’m cleaning, polishing, rearranging. And I find that although I admire most of the objects, I am not the least bit interested in pilfering them. I oddly like my work more, just being there.
After six weeks, Mel and Cheslav corner me by the five grandfather clocks.
“How is it going for you now? You’re pretty good.” Cheslav says this as if moderately interested and being nice.
“Do you like it enough to work here full-time?” Mel gets straight to the point, one hand holding the small of her sore back, lined face excited. Kindly.
“Going good. And yes.” I’m as surprised as they by my easy response. But I’d far rather be here than cleaning apartments. “Can you afford me, though? I have bills, you know, and my studio isn’t so cheap.”
“We have a house with much room–” She clutches Kristoff tightly and he yelps.
Cheslav takes the dog from her carefully, sets him down so he could explore. “We pay you well enough, Jamie, and if things work out well, we’ll talk more.”
“Give me two weeks to hand in notices.”
At closing time about three weeks later, Cheslav finds me in the kitchenette where we took breaks and ate lunch.
“I want to tell you something. So you understand things.”
I respect him and I like to hear his accent–faintly Russian– but I feel a frisson of fear. He is going to get personal about things. I hate personal in general. Can’t we just be a good employee and two good employers and call it good?
“Mel has slowly changed since you came. She had two hip surgeries and didn’t much want to get back to the store. But I won’t yet retire. And when our son was killed last year…”
“A war correspondent. Afghanistan.” His right fingers and thumb press closed his eyes.
“He was so good in every way. But he paid the price of such work. Our Kristoff…blasted away at forty-five.”
A chill runs through me; I feel a little sick. I don’t know what to say, how to comfort an old man, a father. The dog creeps up to my ankles, panting as if he’s made a last round of the store and is reporting in.
“Kristoff…” I pick up the dog. He licks me on nose and cheek before I can fend him off.
Cheslav gets a hold of himself. “Glad we found each other, Jamie, hope you can stick around.” He gave her a rare gap-toothed grin, then waved at his wife. “Here she comes. Don’t say anything, eh? Things take their time.”
“There you are, Kristoff! Found a new buddy, have you? Such a fine dog you are.” She takes him gently, pulls him close. “Another day comes, another goes, Jamie. Time to get home and rest.”
I turn away. I’m not ready to feel all this, I’m only a grown up delinquent who became a good cleaning woman to survive, and I’m grateful for this curious job. And they find me more than acceptable. That simple realization settling in my head is priceless.
(Please note there are captions for the many Interlochen pictures; just hover with your mouse over photo.)
The symphony of winds rushing and skipping through acres of broad leaf and conifer trees, lake water slapping then gliding along a strip of shore: these sounds long ago saturated my brain and blood. The sonic tableau is further enhanced with human-created instruments and voices. The musical phenomena in which nature and people collaborate gifted me with a series of wonderment. My times spent attending internationally renowned Interlochen Summer Arts Camp (overshadowing all other camps) remain potent points of grace arising from a crucible of trying times.
I stay the impulse to write of my beloved father, how he taught and conducted orchestras there in the richness of summer’s glow. I might tell a bit about my four older siblings who studied, practiced and performed on their own respective instruments–cello( my oldest sister; also me), clarinet, viola, flute, bassoon and more as they changed preferences. And a couple of them later became summer counselors for the younger campers. Oh, wait, my oldest daughter taught art there for two summers. But they have their own stories.
And I will not be writing at length regarding the illustrious history of Interlochen Center for the Arts, both an arts camp (established in 1928) and soon a boarding fine arts high school school, other than to say it has offered programs for aspiring artists from grades 3 to 12 who have come from around the world. The place has expanded since I attended to include a College of Creative Arts, as well.
I’m not very interested in cataloging triumphs or failures (for example, I won first chair in the cello section of orchestra one summer only to lose it to my still good friend and far better cellist, Susan). Nor teachers’ strengths or weaknesses; the stress of competing against talented kids from all over the world; cramped yet lovely rustic cabin life; the regimen of getting up at the crack of dawn and flopping into bed exhausted, too tired to gossip or plan hijinks. And when allowed breaks, the best thing was to sit lakeside and sip a soda or dash off a letter home. And visualize a future in the arts, that shining life of work and inner rewards–and perhaps outer.
Maddy Administration Building
Sculpture outside of Visual Arts Bldg.
It was, in truth, not a time so much of great youthful fun as it was strictly scheduled and enforced hours as each worked at perfecting one’s capabilities as a young artist who was engaged in performing and visual arts. In short, it was intensive summer school for kids with many talents, but conducted in the midst of beautiful forested acreage by a lake. And it was heavenly regardless of the toil that came with it. I was thirteen and fourteen then fifteen and by then “excellence above all”was a main credo. It was the family’s, as well, as music and striving were seemingly what was needed; it felt natural.
My fingers ached, even bled at times despite thick calluses formed; my shoulders muscles bunched and sometimes spasmed after hours of practice in small field stone “huts”, side windows opened to a pungent, damp breeze. Still, sweat rolled down back and chest in high summer, my cello sticking to the bare spots of skin that hugged it. At night, it cooled enough. As I walked dirt paths through a bluish-lavender twilight, my cello snug at my side, music still swirled about as I passed Interlochen Bowl, an open air stage full of performers. It was as if music and other mysterious energies moved the very atmosphere I breathed. I felt, at times, as if I had walked through an opening to an idyllic garden of delights. Nothing was the same there as the outside world; all was finer, richer, sweeter. Tough but better. And at home I had plenty of creative engagement. This was just, well…Interlochen.
Practice room in fieldstone hut
An appropos saying above a practice hut
Enjoying memories of performing
Perhaps as I finished voice lessons (hoping I’d have a chance to ace the audition for a musical theater production) I’d slip into the dark, musky backstage at Grunow Theater, spellbound as chameleon actors rehearsed. My small notebook would soon be full of messy notes for future reference…for something, I was certain. I learned more about the arc of storytelling, of drama’s effect when leavened with humor. And witnessed again the enchantment of imagination’s constructs. How I longed to tell such stories: a heavy velvet curtain swinging open, revealing a saga of human loving, toiling and dreaming. I started to consider playwriting more seriously, a leap from silliness I made up as a kid.
I also learned the basics of playing a full-sized harp, a resonant and wondrous thing, and thought for a couple of years that would become my instrument, it was so amazing to me and felt not so unnatural to play. In the end it was not. Frankly, it seemed too big to deal with as well as complicated to ever master.
I had taken some dance classes as all female children did back then, at least those who liked to jump about or impress their mothers. But I hadn’t had years of strenuous ballet study like the lithe dancers at Interlochen. Nonetheless, I visited the Dance Building often, in awe of flexible, strong girls who laced up their pointe slippers. It was a favorite place to take a break. I had secretly loved to dance almost as much as making music and writing. I just hadn’t had time with so many musical activities and other pursuits, and it was not encouraged by my parents. So, one summer I decided to take an elective for fun, a beginning modern dance class. My heart pounded as I prepared. Self-conscious in my snug black leotard and very pink tights, new ballet shoes so constricting. I longed to fling them off, run and leap. Maybe I was too athletically inclined to hope to dance there.
(Please click this time on circles for captions.)
The practice room where I danced.
Such light from water and sky…
The other side of the building; I’d zip down to the lake at the far edge to cool off and rest.
The dance teacher whose name I’ve forgotten watched me as I perspired through exacting warm ups. The glimmering Green Lake was behind our building and there were so many windows that blessedly, swift gusts from open water helped cool the vast mirrored room and us. I worked as the piano accompanied our movements each class, and studied my teacher and the others. I was so afraid I’d be determined to be anything but even a beginning dancer, tossed out of class. But I was determined, kept at each difficult position or move and did learn. I felt exhilaration, discomfort, mystification, deep joy of the body being freed. I felt terribly strong, similar to when I ice skated, but dance was even more interesting.
It was such a relief to give myself to movement, to not have to talk or sing or play cello–just let my body lead me, teach me. And I waited to learn a real choreographed dance, an event I considered my true reward. In a week we were making something good, and I followed each instruction, melded with others. Took my place with anticipation, made it past the run-throughs. In a short time, we would have a whole performance to offer.
The teacher beckoned to me at the end of a class. I felt breathless; was it good news or bad?
“How long have you been dancing?” she asked, her kind face betraying nothing.
“Oh, well.” I wasn’t sure what to say. If I told the truth, would she tell me I should not be there? “I had a few years of rhythmics classes as a kid, a little ballet…not so much.”
She put her hand lightly on my shoulder and sat me down.
“Do you want to dance? Is that why you took this class or to just have a lark?”
“Oh, I love dancing, it’s wonderful being in your class. I’m a music major, though.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Because you should dance more. You have such natural talent, I’m surprised you haven’t had training. In fact, I believe you could be a real dancer, make it a career eventually.”
“What?” I felt as though in a dream, the sort you must awaken from despite it being perfect.”But I’m already fifteen! I’d never be able to compete with other talented kids who’ve worked so hard–”
“But you could. You could go home and take dance lessons and work really hard, then study dance in college and do something good.” She smiled and gave me a quick hug. “I was like you, once. I followed my dream when it didn’t make sense. I began rigorous study in university and went on as a modern dancer, dancing all over the world. And I teach here. You have promise–modern dance suits you well. You dance from a very deep place. You should consider doing this, okay?”
I didn’t feel I could answer, as tears welled up. I nodded, smiling, and left.
Modern dancing that summer was the first time I’d fully discovered safety and exhilaration living within a body that had, as a child, endured years of sexual abuse. The first time someone had told me–beyond my figure skating (perhaps more a sport to me, not quite the art I longed for)–that I was acceptable physically, even valued in rarefied worlds defined by ideas and creative activity. Instead, my young being, my flesh and bones had long been burdened with self loathing and abandonment, the lurking, subterranean fear of vulnerability. Dancing that summer along with my teacher’s firm encouragement and appreciation sparked a change in self-perception, in my desire to do more than even survive capably, if possible. Or sometimes, stay alive. Just get by. The fine teacher never even knew it. Or maybe she suspected.
Although I did not become a dancer–there were other needs, trials and goals that took precedence–I yet do dance and experience relief and joy to do so.
Contemplating the lake’s beauty and music.
Such windows for a stage!
There was much more to those summers than dancing, singing and acting (I got a decent part in “Pirates of Penzance”; sang in concerts), playing my cello and a little harp, and learning more writing skills. There was hanging out in the dusty, smelly art studios, watching others make curious objects. And I realized I wanted to explore visual arts more, as well. There was sitting in an audience in the open air Kresge Auditorium, not just performing. Being moved far beyond my ability to verbalize my feelings as great, music was performed. The greens-to-blues lake within audience view shimmered and soothed. And there was time spent getting closer to new friends, some kindred spirits with whom I kept in touch for years, and setting out on a sailboat upon undulating waves, and gathering around campfires. It was the singing trees and the breath of sky like a scarf about me; the taste of summered water; the pulsing light and tantalizing shadow upon the paths that led me to more discovery. I was at home in the world where art was being made by many, where I, too, was following my passion to create.
Wha used to be art studio space is now for percussion and pianos
New Upton-Morley Pavilion, outdoor venue
Waterfron, more manicured than decades before
My times at Interlochen heralded healthier changes while strengthening my certainty that art can salvage lives, that a grand variety of arts created and shared is more fulfilling and exciting than anything else for many thousands. For me. I saw this in many others, how they came needing more and emerged from the time spent with something new. As I once wrote in a poem, there hopefully comes for many that “deepening at the seams”, those stitched together places where this human life tugs and even rips apart our yearning selves. We can heal those tears of the soul. Praise the ongoing design and redesign of greater moments. For me the result is a life full of empowering magic, lived with good love, and I get to be part of a worldwide community that loves to conjure something fresh, remake what is known. If only there was even more time to grab hold and give it away, tenfold.
This group of photos was taken by CJ’s cafe (my old family nickname, ha!) and
Kayla’s life was upended when Great-Aunt Bertie fractured her second hip and stayed at the nursing home, then rehabilitation services. But that was nothing compared to the current state of matters. Fractures and rehab are manageable for stubborn old women, it turned out. After Bertie decided to move in with her often absent nephew an entire state away, Kayla felt adrift in two time zones, the past and present all at once. She could not find her bearings. She kept hearing Bertie call out for her and simultaneously had to answer a student whose voice bot more insistent.
“Why?” She had implored one more time the last week Bertie was there. “I only teach twice a week this term and we’ve always managed. We can get someone to come in when I’m not here if needed.”
Bertie sniffed, more due to great colonies of dust that refused to stop rebuilding in her home than the present topic. “Nelson has a sprawling but one-story house, as we’ve discussed, Kayla. My house is an impediment for me at this time. I ought to sell but I don’t always do what my financial adviser advises. A few months, a year at most with Nelson and I’ll be back. Likely.”
“You’re not the least convincing. It sounds as if you’re absconding and worse, maybe giving up.”
Bertie stomped her cane hard on the worn pine floorboards.
“Have you ever known me to give up a fight? You’re a fine one to make such pronouncements, taking care of me for five years now when it was supposed to be one or two at most. The left hip was almost nothing, this one a trial. But even a medium heart attack did not take me down long and when you willingly arrived, there was plenty to do as well as the completion of your degree. You stayed after your Bachelors, then got your Masters, good for you. And then remained well after I needed you, I might add. But we both know it was an auspicious arrangement.” She eased forward in her seat just a little and winced, masking discomfort with another impatient thunk with her cane’s rubberized tip.
“Yes, a perfect arrangement until now.” Kayla’s voice caught in her throat and a lightly freckled hand went to her chest, then fingered bronze-colored beads she had worn to work over an old ivory cotton sweater.
Her hands always did something, wound and unwound a strand of hair, drummed lightly on any hard surface, twiddled a pen or pencil. The rest of her was just as still as a watchful cat whose tail nonetheless twitched. But for her there was an underlying anxiety never quite quelled. Others said that, although she was reserved and to herself, she was in quiet command of students, at meetings, under pressure. She often seemed much older than twenty-seven. They also entertained an alternative judgment: rather cold. Kayla sensed rather than heard what they said at Crane Community College as she elbowed her way around student hoards and faculty groups chattering away, making her way out and back home.
Bertie’s home, of course. Which her Great-Aunt was now abandoning. And her.
Bertie had more she might say to her Great-Niece but she knew better than to utter a tiresome homily–at any time. She was not a giver of wisdom, a corrector of wrongs, a font of inspiration. That didn’t mean she didn’t know a few worthwhile things.
Kayla had remained sheltered a bit too long, that’s what Bertie had surmised. The girl had now hidden long enough in Bertie’s comfortable home. So much education to acquire, such a varied amount of duties and care needed for the Great-Aunt and who else would do the job she did impeccably, with longstanding love? All that was true. But who cared for whom in the end? Bertie, a long retired mathematician, had been a widow for twenty-odd years before Kayla had come to live there. She’d been a boon, aided in more speedy healing of this or that health matter. But Kayla rarely if ever went out with a co-worker or anyone else, did not attend concerts or see a movie or go on even a short day trip by herself. They took long, dawdling drives like two tired oldsters. When she got the college position to teach sociology, she worked and came right home. Cared for that big groaning house and Bertie, a mere (but sturdy) twig in comparison yet also admittedly creakier than desired.
Bertie, at least, had begun to yearn for a change of scenery as well as another floor plan. Enough was enough. She was entertained by the company of her mildly flamboyant nephew and his artsy wife. There weren’t such stairs there to take her down. They’d be glad to have her since they’d become the antsy retired, already weary of so-called fun travels to exotic places.
Bertie was definitely leaving, then finally gone. Who knew what the future brought? Kayla could stay as long as she liked, the bills would be dealt with, but she’d be fending for herself.
That young woman was never going to see life’s shining and confounding facets without getting out there and discovering them.
The first week was so terrifying Kayla thought she’d have to call in sick, but staying alone there for more than a day would only make things worse. She was used to getting up and making them a tasty breakfast, sometimes taking a tray to Bertie’s room, or setting the dining room table with a third-best, flower-strewn tablecloth. It started the day off so well. Now it started with a halt and a slump.
And then she had errands or class, then was back for lunch to check on Bertie who might be dozing over a book by a living room window or out in the garden yanking at various green or brown stems with great enthusiasm, despite weakened hips. One thing came after another, everything orderly, reliable. At night they would sit by the fireplace and read classics, poetry and sociological studies (Kayla) or natural sciences and history (Bertie) or watch a public television series. Occasionally a movie they could agree on. Bertie would crochet badly but happily. She always said the same thing at end of day; “Sleep well, the sun rises too soon for young and old alike.”
Kayla should be exalting in this new freedom, nonetheless. Let loose of an old lady who could be cantankerous if in pain, even just slowed down, more opinionated than Kayla ever thought to be or lost in her own interesting thoughts. But Kayla forced herself out of bed and got dressed, made an ordinary if semi-palatable breakfast and went to her work and faked it the best she could.
It was true, her adult life had been Bertie, college and then teaching and that was it. It hadn’t been her intention but the longer she stayed, the better it felt and her Great-Aunt had been amenable. It puzzled and hurt her that her elder had determined to stay with the long missing Nelson. But it must make sense at age eighty-three.
People at work did ask her who she was dating or what were her plans, and she smiled enigmatically (she hoped), changed topic or said something obscure and acceptable. So when it appeared she was not in such a rush to leave her desk at end of her day two weeks in a row, she got a few looks. She had no intention to no become chatty, though Tom Heinz cast a sharp eye her way, mouth opening then shutting as he hurried on.
“So what do you have going on that you’re here late again? You and Bertie on the outs or what?” Wanda asked as she paused between coffee runs. She drank more coffee than was advisable despite living “clean”, as she put it, both utter mysteries to Kayla.
“No, just have things to catch up on, all the grading we have to get done.”
“The bane of teachers! But you usually get right out and come in early, if needed.” Wanda gulped a draft of rancid coffee from her stained mug, frimaced. “She’s okay, isn’t she? I meant, she’s all mended, right?”
“Of course! She’s just visiting for a few months, a nephew, that’s all.” It just slipped right out, such personal information! But she smiled, a no-teeth exposed sort of smile.
“Ah, I see,” Wanda said and smiled back. “Left you to your own devices, did she?” Then she wandered back to her desk humming, sipping from her bargain store mug.
Kayla shook her head–what a character she was while also aggressively smart–and wondered what the woman could possibly know about her life. Yet it struck a chord. Wanda could be strident, quick to make inferences and blunt. They went back to work. Later, Wanda sidled by and a hand grazed Kayla’s shoulder which startled her so that she swiveled in her chair and stared at the woman in muted horror.
Wanda pulled her hand back, crossed her arms before her chest then asked, “Want to go for a drink sometime or dinner?”
“I can’t possibly, you know that, I have to get back to Bert–oh, well…” She looked up at Wanda, whose right eyebrow was raised in a starkly drawn arch. “No thanks, not tonight.” Not any night, Kayla thought as she went back to work.
On the way home she noticed streetlights were already on. Autumn had arrived in all its burning glory and faded now, and soon would come winter’s onslaught. She pictured a fire flaring and crackling in the massive fireplace, how comforting it would be again, and then sadness rose up on the crest of a ghastly wave. She had to pull over and let tears fall, but only a moment. Bertie was only visiting, she’d get tired of their fun and games soon and be back. Wouldn’t she?
She drove home and parked in the driveway. How monstrous that house was, how excessive a home for even two or three or more! How could this have escaped her so long? The many dark windows closed her out with their blank stares. She must leave on a few lights each day. She must get take-out food tomorrow. She must get a dog. No–dogs were forbidden in Bertie’s house if not professionally obedience-trained or left unattended for longer than ten minutes.
Kayla started to shake though it wasn’t yet unbearably cold. She was shaking in her heavy grey socks and worn black leather boots because her life felt like quicksand so many moments without Bertie.
And no one was there to save her. No one. Only herself. And she was trying and it was not quite enough.
The third time Wanda asked her out to dinner, Kayla agreed because she was so sick of eating take-out Thai and frozen chicken tenders. She just didn’t feel like making a tasty meal. But she might like eating at a restaurant. She might not fully like Wanda, but it was better than no one sitting across from you day after day, night after night.
It was a contemporary eatery where hip younger adults went to dine and drink. It had a generous vegetarian menu which Wanda liked, and meat enough for Kayla to order something. After they did so, Kayla looked around at the boisterous crowd. Most were drinking as they ate, something that seemed unnecessary. Wanda had ordered a beer and one for Kayla although she said she wasn’t much of a drinker. But this label was excellent, Wanda said, why not try it?
Maybe it would quiet the quaking in her diaphragm, Kayla thought as she watched Wanda’s burgundy red lips move rapidly. Her ears were on overload already. Why did people like this environment? What discourse could happen in such a place? It made her think of earliest college days, when too many crammed in a booth. The purpose had been less about conversation and good food and more about filling up residual emptiness, hunting for a potential partner, erasing the bad day or night before. She got that though she denied it even as she saw it.
Wanda waved a hand before her face. “Yoo hoo! You here or not? When was the last time you ate out and where did you go?”
“Oh, we never ate out. Maybe on a Sunday if we didn’t feel like cooking, but that was unusual. Let me think. Embers–for steaks, I think.” She took a sip of beer and swallowed without wincing.
Wanda grabbed her own beer. “That old staid place! It’s high time you discovered the great foodie scene here.” She held up her bottle, waited for Kayla to clink hers, then sat back. “I’ve wondered about you a long time, you know that? You’re the mystery person in our department. Everyone has a theory about you; no one knows anything. I tell them you have great depth but choose to keep it hidden.”
Kayla took a fast sip. This was not going to be about personal revelations or she was leaving. “Is that right? What makes you think so? Never trust your first impressions.” Turn it back on her and lead her astray, that was it.
“Your classes, for one thing. You must manage to make Intro to Sociology fascinating–your classes always fill up fast. And your other one–what is it?–has a waiting list this term.”
“Societal Impact on Women’s Life Goals.”
“Right, that one, sounds good. Tom said he stood at your door one time, opened it just a tad and listened to much of your lecture. He was surprised by how you interact with the students, and they, you–so easily. Impressive, he said. And seems like he’s always looking your way now.”
Kayla bristled. “I hadn’t noticed. Anyone can pop in if they just ask me. I love sociology and found I have a knack for teaching despite initial misgivings about doing it for a career.”
“What misgivings?” She leaned chin on hand, streaky blond hair swinging about her face.
“I thought I’d do research…I guess I still can.” She felt a sweep of heat up her face and then agitation came zooming back, so took a big bite of food. She’d not said even this much to a colleague before. It wasn’t their business, how she felt, what she desired, other than how it might impact department goals. It had to be the beer and convivial atmosphere. She felt disoriented all of a sudden, needed to finish her turkey and bacon burger and leave.
“I know what you mean. We get derailed sometimes. Like me. I started in this direction later than most as my husband was ill a long time. I never got past this job so now am wondering what to aim for again or if I should just stay on…”
Kayla felt herself recoil. Boundaries, weren’t they important, anymore? But she agreed they both had experience with sickness and care taking. “I sure hope he’s better. You’ve never acted worried, just self-assured. You have a lot of great ideas and energy.”
“Yeah, I do make my presence known. ” She looked at Kayla, eyes gleaming. “He died a year before you arrived–was it really two years ago? Married four years, though.” She took a long swig.
“I am sorry, Wanda. Truly”
The burger suddenly felt like too much but she ate it, anyway. How did they get to this intimate stuff already? She never would have thought someone like Wanda had had such a terrible loss. She drummed her fingers on a thigh, sipped, surreptitiously checked her watch. So much emotion in one night.
“Thanks, it’s okay, things have a way of changing again. I’m dating a little, not from the college though. You?”
“No, not in a long time. I like being on my own. That is, I used to hang out with Bertie, spend time with a couple of her friends, all such smart ladies and gentlemen. And often have been alone. It’s okay that way for me, I am a solitary creature despite my interest in groups of social beings and their behaviors.”
“Naw, can’t be that okay.” Wanda dug into her salad. “I don’t imagine that much time alone with a very elderly lady is so good for you– you really think so?”
Kayla released a long sigh. She felt warm inside and out, no longer too empty or too full; the crowd seemed more settled, their voices a drone of contentment. It was alright being there. More than decent.
“Maybe not. I grew up in a small family, then went to college, and when Bertie asked if we could work out an arrangement I thought for two seconds and agreed. Really, she helped me. Gave me free room and board to just keep an eye on her and house matters. And she is not dull companion, believe me. It was a perfect solution for us both. Or maybe still is.”
Wanda chewed her kale, radicchio, avocado and tomatoes, looked thoughtful but waited.
“I miss her, more than I expected. She was more involved with my life than I knew. Or vice versa.”
“Well, you love her. I get it. She loves you. That’s the whole thing. Or it might be, ultimately. Worth thinking over and debating, anyway.” She shrugged luxuriously and sat back, satisfied.
Kayla leaned into the table, hands expressing her thoughts as she spoke. “But also, maybe I’m just lazy or don’t know what to do outside of work, work, work. Or my rotten anxiety curtails a life that works well and seamlessly like most seem to do. Like yours despite your challenges.”
“I seriously doubt that, all of it. You have what it takes, you just got too comfortable. You know how common it has been to do what you’ve done, right? For centuries women have taken care of others, of their elders. Not a bad thing, no. But there is more for us than that, right? And I was where you are, in a way, with my cancer-ridden husband…life just upends us and we have to redirect ourselves, figure out each next step.” She laughed as if it was some sort of epiphany. “Kayla, life never gets easier, it just gets more familiar, you know? You’ve had a door pushed open. So now what?”
Kayla narrowed her eyes at this woman with the too blonde hair and dark eyebrows, with her pronouncements, suppositions. And she felt such a wave of relief she was afraid she could faint, but sat up straighter.
“Walk through it…and maybe that’s what Bertie was offering me. Not just changing up her care plans. She was so ahead of her time, after all, a respected mathematician for forty-eight years. She knows how to be alone and how to not be alone.”
“Exactly. So make the most of this, I say! Get out more to art and history museums, films, restaurants, author readings, take a trip, go on a mountain hike! Let others become a friend, Kayla. And so you know, I can go hot and cold, I’m not all that together. But for sure you will not sink. If you think you might, give me a holler, we’ll go out for a beer and burger. Well, veggies for me.”
She winked at Kayla, which sure seemed presumptuous, as if declaring an actual possible friendship. But it was pleasant, too, Kayla thought as they paid their bill. She found herself laughing as they forged a path through sidewalk throngs to find her car window. It displayed her first parking ticket. The time had passed so quickly.
The house seemed to be glowing when she got home. For a minute she thought Bertie had come back without advance notice and she hurriedly put the car in the garage. But, no, the house stood empty, she could feel it’s expansive, worn elegance wanting company even as she walked toward the door. She had left a few lamps on so windows were radiant with amber light. Kayla turned the lock with her key, walked in, thought how lovely it would be to light a fire and read a few sonnets. How she might possibly swing a simple dinner for two or three colleagues around upcoming holidays.
The next place on our Michigan trip is along Old Mission Peninsula. It is a countryside that romances. There are graceful hills, winding roads, vineyards and orchards, with glimpses of the East and West Bay, part of Lake Michigan. It carries travelers for 18 miles and in spots is only a mile across. The final destination are the tiny village of Old Mission and Mission Point Lighthouse. Since the road meanders above the surrounding coastline and farmland, the views of the water are superior. I admit I kept looking for mountains since I’m from Oregon, but the landscape was pleasingly peaceful.
Many people take this trip to enjoy wine tasting. Though we don’t drink, we enjoyed seeing the luscious grapes, getting glimpses of wineries/estates and were quite taken with tasting rooms, as pictured below. You’ll notice hops in on photo. I didn’t see the name of the vineyard associated, oddly; it must have been down another side road. It appears to have been a schoolhouse once upon a time; now the bell likely remains silenced due to lack of opportunity.
The village of Old Mission was about missed but the general Store was a good place to browse. I was desperate for a fresh pack of AA batteries to take more photos. They had a couple left–and cost more than expected. But it was fun to look around and the sales persons were dressed to match the old-time theme. (I regret not asking to “snap” them now!)
Along the way we got out to better see the lovely Old Mission Congregational Church, built 1891. It is apparently popular for weddings and other events, and I can see why; it is an exceptional spot. We also noted down the road was a log-built replica of Old Mission Church/School, first erected in 1840.
Then it was on to the Old Mission Point Lighthouse, built in 1870. It was a windy, chilly day, brilliant with sunshine. The wooded trails were easy traversing for three or so miles. Not many were hiking, to our surprise; it was so peaceful with such quiet, colorful trees all about, birds trilling, black squirrels scampering. We also availed ourselves of more shoreline, where Marc searched for good rocks and I walked and took more photos. I love birch trees but found fewer than hoped, noting so many had fallen. Someone told me birch trees only live about 20-25 years and then they just fall to the ground. I was always in search of more on our trip!
Before we left we stopped by the original Hessler Log Home from 1854, all deconstructed and reassembled. A far simpler life but plenty of backbreaking labor each day! I don’t know if I could have lived that life successfully, as much as I am enamored of the outdoors and a country lifestyle. Those pioneer women and men were made of stronger stuff.
We headed toward Traverse City, on the way enjoying the country rolling by and the many beautiful old barns. Several so-called “Quilt Barns” are decorated with painted single quilt squares, chosen by barn owners for historical and personal significance. I managed to shoot only a couple in passing as we rambled along. But I’m certain quilt lovers can find these online, as this newer tradition is well known.
We were in a hurry to get to Traverse City due to rumbling stomachs and sun sinking lower hour by hour. The “TC” (as Michiganders calls it) area is the largest producer of tart cherries in the U.S. and it also generates primary income from tourism. Ski resorts are not far away (and many go cross country skiing (I tried the former many times and the latter once–fun but the latter quite hard work) and water sports, of course, are popular.
Before checking into our hotel there was still time to roam along waterfront of Grand Traverse Bay, where Lake Michigan begins to feel again like an ocean at moments, then the pedestrian friendly downtown. And we did eat very good, down-home food at Traverse City Pie Community (the meat and fruit pies are truly delicious; also sandwiches and soups and more); we dined there once more before trip’s end. Can you spot Charlie Chaplin dangling above a downtown portion of the 28 mile long Boardman River? Click on picture #5.
Well, TC is only 14 miles from Interlochen, the place I have been waiting to show you, but it is better to leave that more personal tale to another photo story. Until next week, happy First of November to you!