There are moments that become locked in your memory forever. I remember smelling jet fuel for the first time as we left the airport, and the other odd aromas of my grand mothers’ car on a hot summer day as we drove from the airport in Detroit back to their home in Harper Woods. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her thick little feet in worn out, dirty white rubber flip flops (the kind you get from a dollar store in the 1970’s) and her pale thighs clothed in long, light-blue striped polyester shorts. She was ahead of her time, wearing men’s shirtsleeves as her regular daily ‘comfy’ clothes. I’m guessing they were once grandpas’ shirts that became so thin from washing that he refused to wear them. She was driving quite frankly, like a bat out of hell. The car was a red Le Car and even as a young child I could tell it was cheaply constructed. The speed limit was 75 on the freeway between the airport and the custom stone home my grandpa built. Grandma was intent on pushing it too, 75 mph turned into 80+ and if my memory serves me accurately, it’s because she had ‘something’ in the oven that was on a timer and needed to come out.
I believe I was around eleven years old on this trip and while the flight was short from Minneapolis to Detroit, I still felt the anxious understanding of the hoops we would jump through to get to the promise land. Arriving at my grandparents’ home always felt like a relief because it truly was the one place where time stood still. The beautiful, one-of-a-kind hand split stone Dutch Colonial looked stately from the street but was truly the house of doors on the inside. Leo and Genevieve used the side door which was attached to a small concrete landing that had three steps that lead to an attached side driveway. It was always an awkward entrance because the screened door barely cleared the stoop and you had to enter it from precisely the right angle to navigate your body and whatever else you were carrying in your hands. Once inside, you were immediately smacked in the nose with either the hot aroma of wonderful homemade Polish food, baking pies (peach was my favorite) or the standard default smell of decaying onions and faint tuna. The reason for the faint fish, was because Grandma used a tuna can feed her (mostly) outside cat she named Bitsy. She would wait until I was around to call Bitsy in to eat. Bitsy’s meals consisted mostly of stale bread rubbed in tuna oil with a small amount of buttermilk poured over the top to moisten the hard bread. The kitchen in their home was small, my guess is it was about a 10 x 10 square. The massive rounded ‘Calvinator’ refrigerator was huge on the outside with tiny shelves on the inside. The shelves held the typical aluminum baking pans and other ceramic dishes of leftovers that grandma saved. I never really looked forward to eating at grandmas because I just never knew if I would ‘find’ bones in our food or how old the leftovers were. She was a great cook; I was just a picky child. Grandma was born in 1916 and the Great Depression impacted her. If cheese, or fruit had mold or mildew on it, you just simply sliced that part off and threw the ‘bad’ part away. They also kept their butter and mayonnaise in the pantry and this habit freaked me out because my parents were a little more cautious, OCD, organized and ‘new’ age than that.
Once inside, I was instructed to take my things to ‘your moms’ old room where the beds and dressers were the same from when my Mom and her sister were girls. I remember it being a dark room, even though it had two windows, it was painted a dark teal and grandma always kept the draperies closed. I always visited in the summer and because they didn’t have central air nor air conditioning of any kind, they were in the habit of opening the windows at bedtime and leaving them open all night with fans sucking in the cool night, siren saturated city air. In the morning, they would button up all the windows and pull all the drapes to keep the inside of the stone home as cool as possible during the heat of the day. The inside ‘cool’ was probably a sticky 75 with a high dewpoint. The options were clammy and sticky or baking hot and sweaty and if it were hovering around 100 outside, we could play in the basement where it seemed to be consistently about 65 degrees. There wasn’t much to do down there. We had a few dolls, and we used the wooden staggered step side table for ‘Barbie apartments’ and played for hours and hours to pass the time until grandpas weekly pipefitter shift at Uniroyal tire was complete and the weekend arrived.
When Friday rolled around, we would be given a quarter to ‘pop’ into area yard sales, then headed over to the bakery and then the meat market before we spent the balance of the day packing and prepping for our trip to the ‘Cottage’, a 100-year-old stick built tiny frame home just steps off Lake Huron. As grandma packed, she softly and sternly barked orders for us to do this and do that and we loved it! We knew that the reward was the promise land, and it was amazing. We either left late on Friday evening or exceedingly early on Saturday to beat the north bound traffic; just like us, people headed to their weekend places. Our place was close to three hours north as it was located at the tip of the ‘thumb’. Grandpa had a light blue pickup truck and they lined it with sleeping bags for our ride. We were told to ‘stay down’ until we come to a complete stop. We were obedient because we wanted a successful outcome too. Our three-hour horizontal truck bed trip was dotted with gas station, wayside rest and ice-cream stops to make it easier on all of us. I knew instinctively when we were approaching the drive to the cottage, the ebb and flow of the speeds as they corresponded with the turns. First a right off the country road onto Lighthouse Road, then a left curve around Lighthouse Park, then a slow of speed to observe what changes the neighbors had made, then a terribly slow and gingerly right turn into the opening to the entrance. Grandpa would jump out and unlock the chain that held the wooden gates closed. He would return to the truck and then the bumpy three mile an hour and 100-foot descent towards the lake was the trigger that told us we were close! In my minds ear, I can still hear pine needles, tall grass, and long branches as they whipped the side of the pickup the whole way down, we knew better than to sit up until the very end, as instructed, we waited until we came to a complete stop.
The air and land smelled of a combo of pine, lilies, mulberries, and freshwater sea. The sights were of lush green, with a strip of golden sand, a thicker stripe of blue water compressed by a powdery blue sky. The sounds were of waves gently hitting the shore, leaves rustling in the aspen trees and seagulls fighting over beach territory. The sounds of nature lasted about 5 minutes while they unlocked the front door and put the cream can in front of it to hold it open so the outside screen door could do its part. And then, boom, a barrage of orders from our grandparents so we could quickly unload and then be unleashed into our favorite 3-acre parcel of land in the whole wide world. We all loved it. Here is where the love for water, waterfront vistas, rural and country all made a debut in my life.
I spent hours and hours playing with my siblings in the water and on the beach, it was and still is what I measure paradise against. We would harvest seaweed at the edge of the shore and shape it like fish fillets, roll it (batter it) in the powderiest sand and then lay it across old driftwood logs in the sun to ‘bake’ it for our imaginary dinner. When we were tired of each other, we would split up and I would take walks through grandpa’s orchard giving land tours (out loud) to my imaginary friends. I was barefoot most of the time and I knew how to navigate the sections of pinecones and needles and some of my favorite ‘hiding’ spots were under huge low draping pine branches and in the very corner of the grape arbor that marked the property line between the neighbor’s property and Lighthouse Road. One season, my brother and I discovered that the juice from the mulberry fruit made a nice skin dye, so we gathered a bowl of them and hid away in the orchard painting ourselves like natives to ‘scare’ the rest of the family. Instead of fear, they just laughed at us and sent us to the lake, each with a bar of soap and an old, thin ratty cotton towel.
On a hot summer day, one where we were particularly bored, I convinced my brother to ‘go’ with me across the street to the forbidden vacant farm. The farmstead ‘Earl Gudakunst — Polled Herefords’ had not been in use for at least 5 years when we decided to go look at the barn. The field was lumpy, and the weeds were so high, they were almost over his head. I was ahead of him and approached the barn first; I could see that a few of the wooden vertical ‘planks’ had been removed. We were two very skinny little kids, and it was no big deal to slip through the 8” slot available to us. As I slipped in, I began to walk towards what appeared to be a ladder leading up to a loft, I looked over and saw my brother standing in the slot waiting to see what my next move would be. Just then, I looked up and saw two large dogs, German Shepherds notice me, noticing them. A split second later, the dogs began to bark, and I told my brother RUN! I scratched my back slithering out of that barn, and I began to run like an Olympian. I lost track of my little brother in the weeds as we both ran like we had never run before. Once I made it to the road, I could not see my brother for a few very terrifying seconds – then he emerged in a different spot and we made a pact never to tell what had just happened. Energy drained and all ambition spent, we hobbled back across the street and down towards the cottage. Grandma was her usual cheerful self and asked us if we would help her with shucking corn for dinner. We said yes and were the most obedient children for the rest of the night. And as the dogs continued to bark on and off for a while, someone asked, “I wonder what’s got them all riled up?” no words were ever uttered again.
The stories of laughter, of mischief, of discovery and adventure mark some of the absolute best of my life and there was always a sense of anticipation each night to learn of which ‘new’ family member or family friend would show up that evening. It might be my Aunt Pix, or my God father, Uncle Lee, and his growing family or possibly my great Uncle Ray and his second wife Aunt Jen. I loved it when the extra cast of characters showed up because it often meant games would be played (like Yahtzee) and additionally, someone would take the initiative to build a wonderfully big beach fire. We would change into our pajamas, grab a few old army blankets (and cushions from the cots in the boathouse) and listen to the adults tell stories of their lives. And we knew that as the grown-ups guzzled their gallon of rose’ they would become more and more liberal with the marshmallows and chocolate we required to make s’mores. It was a win-win until one night I went to bed with a stomachache from too much sugar which oftentimes was also coated in fine sand as the toasty (o.k. blackened) marshmallows slipped through hands as they were passed from parent to child; from this, I learned a lesson about over-indulgence. My parents and grandparents didn’t hover over us; our lives were not tightly orchestrated, and I owe them a thank you for finding the right amount of balance, a perfect chord of exposure between city and country, between formality and freedom.
I learned so many life lessons from brief summer moments on Lighthouse road. I learned what planning, conservation, stability, creativity, and focus can produce. I observed community, family, togetherness, and team work too. I overcame fears of the dark, barn spiders and the howling spookiness of a nighttime storm as it pushes a big lake to cry out fierce sounds. I learned patience, obedience, and tolerance because the radio was grandpas and he listened to the farm reports (pork belly futures are trading…) and baseball games and we had no vote in the matter. It’s taken me a lifetime to process the ‘place’ we call the cottage; I don’t know if it still stands because the hands of time must certainly have won the physical match. The ‘cottage’, our promise land and paradise; it was just a tiny structure made of a thin wall of pine that was only held together with intentions, dreams, and pure family commitment.