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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Save Your Kids the Trouble?

I stacked boxes on front porch
My mother was not a hoarder, by any stretch of the definition, but she did accumulate a lot of stuff in her home of 68 years. Three children grew up there. Also, my mother loved clothes and jewelry and knick-knacks and holiday decorations. She was a reader — books, newspapers, magazines. (No, she did not stockpile the old newspapers and magazines: those were recycled, as were many of the books that didn’t come from the library.) Photographs, clippings, old family-designed and -crafted holiday cards, and other souvenir mementos meant a lot to her, too. So when she died recently, my sisters and I had a lot of sorting to do, and we haven’t finished the job yet. 

There were some wonderful, heartwarming surprises awaiting us! One priceless treasure was a scrapbook our mother had put together in the middle 1940s, when she and our father were dating, then became engaged, and eventually married in Chicago and embarked on their new life together in Aberdeen, South Dakota. My sisters and I had never seen this scrapbook before. It was hidden away (why hidden? simply forgotten?) on the back of a top shelf. Along with saved slips of telephone messages and theatre programs and tickets, our mother had written notes on the pages to which the souvenirs were pasted. 

On the first page of the scrapbook is a theatre program from early 1946. My father (not yet my father) had come by train from South Dakota (where he led a survey crew for the Milwaukee Road) to Ohio to visit his father and stepmother in Columbus and stopped in Springfield on his way. In Springfield he and my mother (not yet my mother) attended a play. There is a note left at my mother’s office (she worked as a secretary after high school graduation; the college scholarship she was awarded would have paid half her tuition, but her parents could not afford the remainder) saying that “Mrs. Gilbert” had called. That would have been my father’s stepmother in Columbus. Subsequently my mother made a trip out to South Dakota to see my father, and they became engaged. We girls did know about the trip and the engagement. As my mother said, she knew she’d better come home with a ring after traveling so far to visit this man!

A letter dated August 23, 1946 (not pasted into the book), from the woman we always called Auntie Grace, our mother’s best friend and roommate before Grace and Gene were married in 1945, was signed “‘Becky,'” Gene & the girls,” her maiden name being (I think) Becker, and she and Gene were married in August of the previous year, so the twins must have come along right away. “Just a year ago today you arrived in Kazoo for my wedding. Seems like years have passed since then!” She writes in reply to Nora’s news that she and Lloyd are engaged to be married. “Believe it or not I wasn’t even surprised — just ever so happy for you. I guess I’ve sort of known all along that “this was it.” It just sounded “right” for some reason or other. I called Gene right away and when I said “Nora’s engaged!” he just said “Yes” — he’d expected it too.” Grace/'Becky' hopes Lloyd will be transferred from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Chicago so the two couples will live closer to each other. That didn’t happen, but in 1950 my father changed jobs and went to work for a smaller railroad (from the Milwaukee Road to the Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern), and he and my mother and I moved to Joliet, 45 miles southwest of Chicago, where my two sisters were born. 

newspaper wedding story and wedding corsage
On the page with the newspaper story of their wedding, with my mother (not yet my mother) looking radiant and beautiful, she had written by hand on the now-brittle page, “My lovely double white orchid corsage — many envious glances were directed at this!!” (My mother was the queen of exclamation marks all her life!) Wedding luncheon at the Blackhawk Hotel in Chicago: Grace and Gene were there in Chicago for the wedding, along with my mother’s mother and Phil Mueller, best man. Who was Phil Mueller? HIs name is unfamiliar to me. 

“On Decoration Day [this would have been 1947] we moved into Ted & Anne Streibel's while they were out of town for the summer, Ted on the Sperry Car, & Anne & children visiting. August was a terrifically hot month — and Dr. King says I’m right about being pregnant! On one of the cooler evenings we took in our first rodeo — Edna joined us (Bob in Madison now).” She was pregnant with me — barely — and so in a sense my parents’ “first rodeo” was mine, too, as I attended in utero.

Birth announcements, holiday letters, theatre programs, newspaper clippings — she saved everything, but there is nothing more pasted into the scrapbook after the first childless Aberdeen days. Once the first baby came along and then the move to Joliet, Illinois, and, in time, two more babies, my mother’s paper mementos remained loose, in boxes and envelopes. For example, as a senior in high school, I received a National Merit letter of commendation, along with five others in my class. Two or three were awarded scholarships, but our superintendent is quoted in a newspaper article as saying he is proud of all of us. (One of the other letter recipients, a boy from my homeroom, I learn died two years ago. How is that possible?) Ephemera, all of it.

Her daughters only saw our mother’s scrapbook after she died, when one daughter discovered it high in a bedroom cupboard. Had she forgotten she had it? What if my mother had decided to clean out those cupboards and “get rid” of all that old stuff, “to save her kids the trouble”? I shudder to think of what we would have missed!

Not all objects remaining in the family home are equally precious, but each speaks to me of my mother: 

Child scribbles -- mine? -- in an old looseleaf cookbook
Battered box heavy with coins to be donated to church ladies' circle
Souvenir Leelanau shirt from July visit
Cast iron skillet perfect for cooking a single egg
A grade school class picture, she 2nd from L in 2nd row
With her brother, stepfather, mother, and sister
Not stylish, but warm -- and she loved it!
Also, going through these things together has been and continues to be an important grieving and bonding experience for my sisters and me. Our mother’s death was unexpected. I thought she would live to be 110. She was fine only the day before she went to sleep for the last time. In one way, you might say it’s “trouble” or “a lot of work” to go through her things, and so it is, but that’s not the whole story. These tasks are valuable to her children in their mourning process.

Sister Deborah
Sister Bettie

Monday, September 17, 2018

Death and Donkeys

Donkeys outside Arizona ranch bookstore
Death, donkeys, and books, that is. Let me explain.

We can probably agree that life is a mystery, and love is strange, but nothing is stranger or more mysterious than death, and not that every death feels the same, for each brings its own universe to bear upon the bereaved. When one’s mother dies, whatever her age, a watershed comes to divide life into before and after. And, as I’ve noticed with other people in their days of mourning, the most trivial and contingent encounters can become magnified into significance within the aura of death.

My son and my mother
My mother would have been 96 years old in October. She was still living in her own home, doing her own laundry and fixing her own meals, very active socially and in her church (overlapping domains, those), enjoying meals out with friends, spending time with family, reading books and newspapers, working crossword puzzles, and caring for her two companion cats. We (daughters and sons-in-law) worried about her going up and down basement stairs to do laundry and tried to persuade her to think of selling the old family home and moving to an apartment, but she “wasn’t ready,” she said. And so one day her youngest daughter took her to the doctor (she was fine) and downtown to pay her property taxes, and later that day she talked to her middle daughter on the phone. I would have been calling or sending her a postcard from Lake Huron or both the next day but instead got a message that she had fallen asleep in her chair and not awakened. 

A good, long life. A good, peaceful death. And yet, now, for her daughters, nothing will ever be the same again. 

An old cookbook I had never seen before
The Artist and I had looked forward to a little getaway after our work-filled summer, so we were over in Alpena, after an overnight in East Tawas and breakfast with friends, when the news came to us. We had crossed the state west to east on Tuesday, recrossed it from east to west on Wednesday, and covered most of the lower peninsula from north to south on Thursday. I took with me the book I’d taken to Lake Huron, A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin. In every story that mentioned death, that event jumped out at me, but Berlin’s writing, so moving, affected me deeply on every page. Yet the sentence that engraved itself in my heart, because of the time of my reading, was a tearful exclamation from the author’s sister, dying of cancer, which Berlin made part of one story: “I’ll never see donkeys again!” 

My mother will never see Michigan again. I’ll never see my mother at Sunrise Landing again. Donkeys…. Yes, I can easily imagine shedding tears at the thought of never seeing donkeys again, although in my case it would probably be horses. My mother, though — I don’t think she had time for a thought of anything she might never see again, dying peacefully in her sleep as she did. 

She had a lot of clothes but wore this jacket a lot

My husband and I were staying in my mother’s house, the house she occupied for 68 years (I lived there for almost 16 myself), when I came to the end of Lucia Berlin’s book, and I needed something else for those dark but wide-awake 3 a.m. hours. My next choice might seem a strange one — a murder mystery, Critical Mass, by Sara Paretsky -- but circumstances made it a logical choice. Not only are Paretsky’s novels are all set in the Chicago area (my mother lived 45 miles SW of the city), but my mother and one sister and I (the other had a scheduling conflict) had gone to see and hear Sarah Paretsky in person onstage in Traverse City where she appeared as part of the National Writers Series in the fall of 2013. 
This particular volume was also a copy signed by the author and with one of my mother’s address labels on the front-facing endpaper. So whenever I picked up the book, and as I turned the pages, I was reading a book my mother had held and read, written by an author we had gone together to hear speak, and when Paretsky described farms, cornfields, and small towns south of Chicago in the novel, the terrain described (minus murdered bodies) evoked memories of my Illinois girlhood, 4-H and all, and all of us were connected by the physical book as well as the story it told. 

In her kitchen
Years ago, someone I knew only slightly wrote a quasi-philosophical paper around the time of her father’s death, and I was perplexed by some of the books she mentioned in the paper, books that spoke to her at that time in tones of deep significance but that seemed to me tangential at best to her theme. I understand her state of mind better now. In such circumstances, everything is highlighted, foregrounded, important — but by “everything,” I don’t mean contemporary world events as much as the weather, the season, chance encounters and random remarks.  

Both of these books are well worth reading, whether or not you pick them up in a state of grief. For me, though, they will always have added depth, due to the associations that will always cling to them for me. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Book Review: HARD CIDER

Barbara Stark-Nemon’s new book, Hard Cider, is quite different from her debut novel, Even in Darkness. Both novels present characters based on members of the author’s family, and Hard Cider will undoubtedly hold readers’ attention, as did Even in Darkness, from start to finish, but the differences are at least as numerous as the similarities. The earlier novel was set in the 20th century. The new work, its story unfolding in the present, is much closer to home.
Most of the action in Hard Cider, except for a brief New England section, takes place in Michigan, primarily in Leelanau County around Northport. The new novel is closer to home in a figurative sense, as well, with much of the material coming from the author’s personal experience. Marriage, family, heartache, and dreams. When you get beneath the surface, none of it is as simple as it first appears.

Abbie Rose Stone, first-person narrator, retired from a dual career in teaching and speech therapy, dreams of launching a commercial hard cider business from the family vacation home outside Northport. Locals, summer people, and repeat visitors to the area will recognize many familiar village and township scenes. Knitters, quilters, and craftspeople will be especially charmed to find their favorite Northport shop, Dolls and More, prominently featured, proprietor Sally appearing under her own name. Other names have been changed, and a few characters may be imaginary. Nevertheless, the novel’s locale and cast will be presently vividly to any reader’s mind, including those readers who have never set foot in northern Michigan. As for readers who know the territory — well, if I were far from home — say, in Paris — reading Hard Cider, I would be transported to northern Michigan.

Sally at her shop, Dolls and More, with beautiful yarn
Retirement and an unexpected inheritance have given Abbie Rose Stone an enviable freedom. While her husband’s law career still keeps him tied closely to Ann Arbor, Abbie Rose spends as much time as possible in Northport — its beaches, woodsy trails, and orchards (apples, though, not cherries). Her children grown, she’s ready to make her next dream come true.
Whenever I could, I haunted Charlie Aiken’s orchard — first in May, when the young trees burst into blossom, their sweet scent drawing bees to pollinate, and then as fruit set and the schedule of spraying and fertilizing marched into June and July. I helped out frequently, especially on a day after a vicious thunderstorm damaged orchards in a swath across the whole peninsula. The youth of the trees and ou solid spring pruning kept the danger to a minimum, but Charles, James, and I spent a whole day trimming and clearing. 
But Abbie Rose loves the Leelanau peninsula in all its seasons, even savage winter.
The lake no longer pounded out rhythms to the falling snow, and the softened fields, laced tree branches, and muffled sounds combined to create a winter wonderland that never failed to thrill me. No snowbird behavior for me; I loved northern Michigan in the winter precisely for its harsh beauty and isolation. Short days and long nights brought me inward, forcing a welcome shift to indoor work with my hands....
Winter orchard
Parents' worries do not end when children grow up and leave home, however, and her sons still give Abbie Rose cause for concern, especially Alex, the boy whose growing-up years were the most difficult. Whenever she hears his voice on the phone, Abbie’s heart gives a lurch. She can’t help wishing to have this son living nearby again, pursuing his own physician assistant career, of course, but also serving as consultant to her cider business. Steven, her husband, given his already strong reservations about Abbie’s dream project, is even more dubious about his son becoming involved, i.e., “dragged into it.” This, then, is the Stone family. Close, loving, happy, and successful, but with undercurrents of tension and worry. 

The novel opens with a scene from the family past: the Stones return from vacation, the youngest child only a babe in arms, to find their Ann Arbor home burned to the ground, the work of an arsonist, everything in it lost. Other significant pieces of the past emerge gradually, in bits and pieces. Happy families are not all the same. Each family has its particular complicated history, and this is certainly true for the Stones. 

Neither do all complications lie in the past. Like so many downstaters who come to know Leelanau as their vacation “happy place,” Abbie Rose comes to Northport for peace and quiet, for a chance to unleash her creativity but also to “get away from it all.” While Steven is in Ann Arbor and the boys off leading their own lives, she cherishes her winter lakeshore solitude. Who, then, is this young woman appearing one day on the road? Where did she come from, and what is she doing here? Abbie is curious but can’t help feeling a bit irritated, too, by the stranger’s presence.

Antique apples at John and Phyllis Kilcherman's farm
Hard Cider steers clear of murder but provides plenty of mystery. Moreover, since this is not a formula genre novel, “solving” the mystery does not end the questions to be faced by the book’s sympathetic cast of characters. Instead, as life throws them curve balls, old decisions have a long reach, as new knowledge makes new demands on Abbie and her family, challenges we realize will continue long after the novel’s final page.

If you’re like me, you read a variety of books for a variety of reasons: to learn about the world or to escape it; to find characters like yourself and/or  unlike yourself; to stimulate your mind, calm your soul, challenge your preconceptions, and/or calm your fears; to immerse yourself in a place or to take you far from where you are. Barbara Stark-Nemon’s new novel will satisfy booklovers’ needs and desires in these and other directions, I’m sure, depending on individual starting points. 

Besides, don’t you love being Up North? Or wish you were? Or wonder what it’s like? There’s that delight, too.

Looking toward Lake Michigan

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Contradiction, Ambivalence, and Time

Open Doors
To believe both A and not-A, the truth and non truth of any statement, is to believe in an impossible state of affairs, says logic. If “I am standing in the rain” is true, “I am not standing in the rain” cannot at the same time be true. Logic takes a binary approach to reality and separates the realm of fact from that of non-fact, with no wishy-washy grey areas. Is it possible to believe a contradiction? What would it take to do that?

Someone I know personally though not intimately distinguishes his life’s acquaintances as either “wonderful” or “terrible” human beings. These judgments continually astonish me me. I have been unable to determine what broad, general categories of sins or characteristics decide him to banish any particular individual into the “terrible” group, but I’ve heard enough specific examples of those to be astonished that anyone manages “wonderful” status. His is a world of angels and demons — or, we might say, the worthy and the not-worthy. I have no trouble seeing more or less goodness and badness in people, but can anyone be purely good or evil, without flaw or without some spark of goodness? 

Often I think of the story (and I know I’ve written about it before, sometime in the 11 years this blog has been in existence) within Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, of St. Peter and the stingy, selfish old woman. When she dies and arrives at the pearly gates, the old woman is asked by St. Peter if she has ever, in her entire life, done a single thing for another human being. She answers that she once gave a peasant an onion. After that story is told within the novel, a character thanked for a kindness demurs, saying something like, “It was only a little onion, such a little onion.” 

Such a little onion!
In certain situations, though, a little onion might make all the difference, no?

True, not true. Worthy, not worthy. What about desirable and undesirable? As Labor Day approaches, I think a lot about ambivalence. Is ambivalence a kind of contradiction existing in the realm of emotion rather than belief? To want more and at the same time not-want? To be relieved and simultaneously disappointed? 

Summer’s end calls up conflicting emotions in many of us, but an emotion is not true or false. It just is. There’s no arguing with it. Sometimes we can talk ourselves out of an emotion or be talked out of one, but that only means we stop feeling a certain way, not that we never felt that way. It was, and now it isn’t. As, when the rain stops, I don’t doubt the rain of the past hour.

But can we feel satisfaction and dissatisfaction at the same time? Or does our spirit alternate, tugged first one way and then the other, between two opposing and contradictory feelings? Psychology identifies what it calls double approach-avoidance conflicts — wow! — in which two choices are presented, each with both attractive and repellent features, such that the closer we approach one decision, Choice A, the worse it looks, while the one we are tempted to reject looks better and better — until we change course, turn and approach Choice B, only to see its negative aspects more and more clearly as we get closer, while Choice A’s appeal increases with distance. An example might be moving to an exciting new place vs. staying in a familiar, comfortable home. Talk about ambivalence!

Time, however, offers us no choice. We don’t get to choose whether or not we will traverse the days and years of our lives. 

Do we want summer to end? Wish it would go on forever? Well, feel one way, feel another, feel both ways at once or in turn — it doesn’t matter. The nights turn cool, the leaves turn color. That word: turn. Turn, turn — “To every thing there is a season.” In time, there will be return. Until there isn’t.

Good night, Aretha. Good night, John. We’d have kept you with us longer if we’d had a choice. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What the Weather Is Saying To Me

One day last week I had a few hours away from the bookstore. Having Bruce at the helm (i.e., desk and sales counter) gave me a chance to accompany the Artist on a trip down to the landfill south of M-72 — kind of a tradition with us, that trip, though it’s gotten much, much more expensive over the years. Still, we enjoy the drive and a stop in Cedar for ice cream on the way back. Then, since Bruce likes to leave by 4 at the latest to get back to Traverse City by 5, the Artist and I got ourselves up to Northport together to finish out the day. 

The day (it was Friday) had turned cool and cloudy, with a fallish breeze ruffling the goldenrod along the roadside, and I remarked to the Artist, “I don’t mind this kind of weather at all. It seems to say, ‘Slow down. Take it easy.’” He said he felt just the same. And so we slow downed and took the evening easy after a simple supper, big bowls of ramen with spicy pork and vegetables. Overnight it rained at last, and the weather, wordlessly, told me I could take time off from watering the garden and should hold off hanging laundry out on the line, too. The grass doesn’t need mowing, the météo added, again without words. I got the message. Since then, of course, we’ve had more rain, including one really big overnight storm. No, make that two more big storms now.

In the late 1980s, I lived for two years (minus the summers) in Cincinnati, Ohio, and before leaving my apartment to walk to campus each morning, I made a phone call to an automated service that delivered that day’s weather predictions. If the day would be turning cold before my walk home in late afternoon, the forecast warned me, without saying so explicitly, to take a warm jacket. However clear the sky at sunrise, when rain was in the forecast I carried an umbrella. Cincinnati’s hilly terrain and European architecture make for fascinating walks, but all walks are best enjoyed when the walker is prepared for the weather. 

Weather. As people say, we talk about it but do nothing about it. I can't help thinking that's part of our love for weather talk, forecasts, predictions, and after-the-fact reports. In general, we are not called upon to do much about it, and not being called to action for a change can be quite a relief.

As much as I enjoyed slowing down a while (and I’m still “on vacation” from watering, even in Northport, where the rain has done that job for me while the awnings are down for cleaning), it’s time to pick up the pace once again, because this week is our last Thursday Evening Author event of the 25th-year anniversary season. Please join us at 7 p.m. for geology, poetry, and live music from Thomas Hooker of Texas and Cherry Home, Northport. (If there is such a thing as a part-time local, that’s what Tom is.) This is our last TEA! And Labor Day is right around the corner!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Haunted By Moose

The area encompassed by Leelanau Township is 227.6 square miles. Isle Royale in Lake Superior has an area of 206.7 square miles. On Isle Royale there are 1500 moose. 

Can those of you who live in or know Leelanau Township imagine it with a moose population of 1500? Where would they all sleep? Okay, that’s just being silly, but the overpopulation problem is real, as the wolf population on the island is now reduced to two, and those two — mother and son are also sister and brother — cannot reproduce. Elderly besides, they are unable, without help from other wolves (presently unavailable), to take down moose and survive instead on a diet of small mammals and the occasional moose that dies of natural causes. 

My TEA guest this week (that's Thursday Evening Authors, the literary series celebrating my bookstore's 25th anniversary), author Loreen Niewenhuis, told us that one devastating cause of wolf die-off was canine parvovirusA domestic dog infected with the virus was brought to the island, and the infection spread through the two then-resident wolf packs, killing large numbers of animals. Another problem was inbreeding. In colder years, and with fewer humans living on the Lake Superior shore, wolves could cross back and forth from the island to the mainland. Illness, inbreeding, climate change -- all have contributed to killing off wolves on Isle Royale.

Poor wolves, you may be thinking, but the moose have problems of their own. Think of overcrowded human cities and endemic poverty. Also, moose cows commonly produce twins. Without predation by a healthy wolf pack, the moose population is on the rise. (If you missed Loreen Dog Ears Books’ TEA this week, you can read a bit about the problem here.) Moose love balsam fir. The trees don’t get very tall, as the moose browse their tops. What would happen if too many moose “deforested” the island?

Since I’ve been reading Collapse: How Societies Decide To Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond (and I wonder if the title was chosen or guided by the publisher, because it hardly seems the Easter Islanders made a conscious decision to starve) and can’t help seeing parallels between human populations and societies and those of our animal relatives. With those thoughts in mind, this morning I was not only haunted by problems of human civilization but also haunted by moose. Maybe I am just haunted in general by the challenges of life on this beautiful, tough, fragile, dearly beloved green and blue planet of ours.

Loreen Niewenhuis has spent the month of May on Isle Royale for four years and will go again in 2019 as part of a 61-year study, the “longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.” The current plan is to introduce new wolves onto the island, in hopes of bringing the wolf-moose system back into some kind of “balance,” although Loreen says that one thing the Isle Royale study shows very clearly is that the idea of “balance” in nature is more fiction than fact. 

I don't know how to wrap up or conclude this post, either. I'm sure the haunting will continue for a long time, maybe for the rest of my life, though I will probably haunt the moose and wolves only in the pages of books and leave the big adventures to people like Loreen.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

More Than a Metaphor

Fresh-mown hay lying in rows
An unexpected theme emerged serendipitously, a gift of Fate. How would I have predicted that the environmental writer who went to Russia with the World Wildlife Fund would end up living in a little village where people still made hay the old-fashioned way? That’s what happened in The Storks’ Nest, by Laura Lynne Williams. Still captivated by that book, how could I guess that my husband would then bring home for me a book called Making Hay, by Verlyn Klinkenborg?
…Haying is what I always loved about the farm; alfalfa, far more than corn, summed up agriculture for me. It was raised and baled on the farm, fed on the farm, and spread as manure on the farm. No one ever trucked it away. It had the right smell. And rural life never looks better than when haying weather hits Minnesota, Iowa, or Montana.
I agree. And while I’m sure few people in Minnesota, Iowa, or Montana associate hay-making with Michigan, yet here too, in cherry and apple country, the magic and sweat of hay perfumes and punctuates summer. 

Well-stacked wagon
Two books, though, are no more than a coincidence. What odds would you have given that a book on history and economics, falling into my hands in a stack of books brought to my bookstore for trade credit, would reference in the very first chapter trips the writer made to Montana to work with friends on — yes! — their hay harvest? And yet that was the case with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. 
…[W]hile I was a student in college, I came back for the summer … with two college friends and my sister, and we all worked … on the hay harvest, I driving a scatterrake, my sister a muckrake, and my two friends stacking hay. 
In Klinkenborg’s book are all the details of every piece of machinery involved and how it operates and the fixes required when something goes haywire

Fresh alfalfa hay, maddeningly fragrant and so picturesque when bales dot a mown field: I confess I love the look more than a vista of orchards, even when the trees are in full bloom. 

Former hayfield, now in cherries
One cherry farmer friend told me they’d made hay on their farm this year, not because they have livestock of their own but for another farmer in the township who does. Back a few years ago, a next-door neighbor mowed our meadow and fed the mixed grasses, wildflowers, and volunteer alfalfa to his Scottish longhorn. I miss those cattle and Bob, too. I miss having our wild hay feed the neighbors’ cattle. 
Alfalfa persisting in the grass....

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Nothing Is What It Used To Be

remains of cherry tree

Up to the days of Indiana’s early statehood, probably as late as 1825, there stood, in what is now the beautiful little city of Vincennes on the Wabash, the decaying remnant of an old and curiously gnarled cherry tree, known as the Rousillon tree, le cerisier de Monsieur Roussillon, as the French inhabitants called it, which as long as it lived bore fruit remarkable for richness of flavor and peculiar dark ruby depth of color. The exact spot where this noble old seedling from la belle France flourished, declined, and died cannot be certainly pointed out; for in the rapid and happy growth of Vincennes many land-marks once notable, among them le cerisier de Monsieur Roussillon, have been destroyed and the spots where they stood, once familiar to every eye in old Vincennes, are now lost in the pleasant confusion of the new town.  - Maurice Thompson, Alice of Old Vincennes

Thompson dedicated his historical novel to Dr. Placide Valcour, who inspired the book by providing the author with an “ancient and, alas! fragmentary epistle” from the year 1788, the mildewed remains of a letter written by none other than Gaspard Roussillon. The paragraph quoted above is the opening of the first chapter of the novel, a chapter called “Under the Cherry Tree,” and it struck me as appropriate not only to my theme today but also to the place from which it originates — Northport, Michigan, in the heart of northern Great Lakes cherry country. 

(J. Maurice Thompson, who died in 1901, is a well-known Indiana author. His best-known classic, The Witchery of Archery, is available again in reprint, but first editions from 1878 still command well over four hundred dollars.) 

Welcome to Northport
Recently a Northport local and born-and-bred native said to me sadly, “This isn’t the town I grew up in.” I can understand and sympathize, because even in the scant quarter-century that I’ve known Northport it has seen a lot of changes (I am grateful for some and sigh over others), but when I look past the confines of this little Michigan village I can’t find a single place that has not changed in the lifetimes of its residents. The South Dakota town where I was born, the northern Illinois town where I grew up — both are nearly unrecognizable when modern scenes are compared to old black-and-white family snapshots. What would I find if I searched out the dusty old Ohio road (probably paved now) where my grandparents raised fruit and vegetables and kept chickens for eggs to sell, where my grandmother milked a cow, and where the simple house had no indoor plumbing into the 1950s? That neighborhood today would not be the place where my mother grew up, I’m sure, just as, when I visit my mother these days in northern Illinois, my own sensibilities continue to be jarred by housing developments across the road where my girlhood self watched thunderstorms and sunsets over fields of corn and soybeans. Even the grade school my sisters and I attended (new when I entered third grade) has already been torn down to make room for yet more houses. Houses, houses everywhere! No more vacant lots where we kids could dig "forts" and climb wild trees.

Nothing is what it used to be. Anywhere.

The other side of the coin is demonstrated by towns that have vanished (or nearly so) rather than changing. Virginia Johnson, my August 2 TEA guest at Dog Ears Books, describes in her memoir, Ira’s Farm, a northern Michigan village called Harlan that no longer exists. Isadore in Leelanau County can still be found at the crossroads of Schomberg and Gatske Roads, and the Catholic church still stands, but all the “bustle” of the earlier Polish community moved down to Cedar a long time ago.

Nothing stays the same. 

Another fascinating book I’m reading right now is The Storks’ Nest [Life and Love in the Russian Countryside], by Laura Lynne Williams. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, the author moved to Moscow in 1993, where she met Igor Shpilenok and moved to work with him — eventually to live with and ultimately marry him and raise a family — in the Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve. Williams describes their remote village, its population having declined from over 300 to a mere nineteen inhabitants:
…The villagers here have never had it easy. There were so many strikes against them: floods, famine, purges, collectivization, war, resettlement, and the absence of a road. Now the only people left in Chukrai are those who weren’t smart or lucky enough to leave. And then there are Igor and me, two naturalists who find solace in the village’s remoteness, in its total immersion in the wilderness of the Bryansk Forest, and in each other.
Williams tells her love story but does not romanticize the villagers’ lives. Alcoholism and poverty for some or, for others, endless, back-breaking physical work and poverty are their lot in life. 
When the grasses grow long and the sun shines, the villagers make hay. All day they swing their scythes, making nearly full arcs around their bodies. The grass falls in neat rows, and soon the open fields around the village are laid flat. The villagers stop only to sip kvas and eat salo and bread. The women wear white scarves tied tightly around their heads to divert the heat. One cow needs approximately three tons of hay to last the winter. One fit person could make this much hay in approximately twelve days. Hay is usually cut twice: first in July and again in August. About three days after the hay is down, if there is no rain, the villagers help each other stack the dry grasses and compress them into dense piles. The men toss the hay up on the stacks with their pitchforks, and the women trample it with their feet. 
The villagers cut hay all day, day after day, until the work is done, but Laura finds herself exhausted after a few hours, and this, mind you, is in the 1990s, not the 1890s. When one old woman in the village dies, by the time her body is discovered it has been ravaged (I won’t go into details) by rats and by her own cat. Her burial — there is no funeral service, but two other village women prepare her body and dress her for her coffin — turns out to be more an occasion for drinking and eating, especially drinking, than any memorial to the departed. Life has changed many times over in Chukrai. In the course of living residents' memories, people were executed or sent to prison or fled invaders, and houses slumped back into the earth. Has only hard work remained the same?

These days in Northport cherries are harvested with mechanical shakers rather than being picked by hand (but workers still get out on foot to prune the trees). No one grows large fields of potatoes or asparagus commercially here any more, as far as I know, and sure it is that school no longer closes in the fall for what used to be called “potato vacation” (i.e., so the kids could work the potato harvest). Housing prices have soared, making home purchase difficult for young families. Yes, much has changed, not only the new marina buildings, new sidewalks and streetlights on Nagonaba Street, new golf course, and new recycling station-in-progress north of town. Old tree giants that used to stand in front of what is now the Tribune and on both sides of the former Totem Shop (now Porcupine) are, like le cerisier de Monsieur Roussillon in Vincennes, Indiana, long gone. 

Beautiful boat harbor
New recycling station will be here
No more trains
But just as the waters of the Wabash River still flow through Indiana, Northport still looks out on Grand Traverse Bay. Mountains, lakes, and rivers — they keep us oriented in place, through changes over time.

There have been days this summer when I’ve wished I could “freeze” Northport right where it is now. We’ve left behind the sad doldrums of a decade ago but aren’t insanely crazy-busy and crowded like Glen Arbor. Right now is not "the good old days" to some, not the "brighter future others" envision, but it seems good to me. I guess I just have to keep murmuring my mantra, reminding myself over and over, I’m here now, I’m here now.