“Fly away through the midnight air / as we head across the sea / and at last we will be free. You’re a bluebird.” –Paul and Linda McCartney
Oh, to be that bluebird. Or an eagle flying overhead, alone in its solitude of majestic beauty. Or a tiny hummingbird, wings propelling it forward towards nectar from a pot of flowering calibrachoa. Via migration, birds return to their homes, year after year, sometimes wintering thousands of miles away. The older I get and especially now that my parents are deceased, the more I have the desire to return to the place I grew up in order to breathe in the air, soak in the glorious Kansas sunshine, and wade deeply into the river of memories. Right now, my body is going through some intense physical healing after surgery on my right leg, and this has made me appreciate even more those moments in my life when my family and friends have joined me in another one of my migrations towards the house I grew up in.
About a year and a half ago, I took an awkward step off of a friend’s porch. Since then, I’ve put my body through every kind of treatment available to try and fix my injury. I repeatedly told physical therapists and doctors that something still wasn’t right even after all of the treatments. I was not healing. I would walk or run one day and be completely unable to walk the next day. I certainly did not help myself by attempting to run or power walk road races when my leg felt strong. Once I cycled into the insurance-driven loop of procedures (x-rays, physical therapy, steroid shots, waiting for appointments, etc.), it would take over a year before I finally received approval for an MRI.
Even then, the initial doctor who read my MRI said that he didn’t see a problem; plus the hospital where I had the MRI done could not figure out how to send the results to my doctor in Traverse City and into the Munson system. I ended up taking a copy of the CD I had received on the day of my MRI with my results to Traverse City. Luckily for me, my new orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Hagen, disagreed with the initial findings, and he agreed that something needed to be done. As someone who had been getting up every morning for the past thirty years to run before I did anything else for the day, and then falling into this routine of barely being able to go outside and take photographs of my beloved eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, sunrises, well, anything to do with Higgins Lake, I was going stir crazy. My daily pain level hovered between an eight and nine (out of ten). I was one pissed-off chick.
On April 7th, I had arthroscopic surgery in Traverse City, and the “no problem” that one doctor found was fixed by Dr. O’Hagen. He repaired my acetabular labral tear, cleaned up all of the surfaces of my hip joint, stretched the socket out to make sure it went back in right, and he used two anchors and sutures to repair the tear. He cut my illiotibial band in three places, removed all of the painful bursitis, and stitched me back up. The bruise on my right leg and hip is the size of Texas, but it is a most lovely shade of purple.
I have a long road to recovery, and my goal now is to walk and hike without pain. Running, something I love like dark chocolate, is in the distant future. I do believe that my age played a part in some of the comments I received in my treatment last year at a different facility. “You are older, so you are going to have pain” is the clear favorite, told to me by a male PT and runner. This is despite the fact that my x-rays, and eventually my MRI, showed great bones and very little arthritis. No, the reason I had pain was because I had an acetabular labral tear. When I told my new PT (Josh) in Traverse City what I had been told last year, he laughed and said that “It would make [his] job easy if [he] could say things like that.” Physically, I will continue to heal and will end up doing the things I want to do again. If the body can heal itself over time with proper care, how do we heal emotionally when our mind and bodies ache from missing someone? I think of my daughter and my parents every day, and I miss them beyond words.
It was for this reason, in part, that I flew to Denver, Colorado, to spend time with my cousins, their families, and some friends for a few days in late January. While in the Denver area, my cousin Julie took us to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where we saw eagles, bison, deer, and hawks among many species roaming the area. Do not miss going to this beautiful wildlife area. My cousins also took me to the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado, and, on another day, I took a trip up into Poudre Canyon with my friend Susan, and we saw bighorn sheep, birds, and slackliners. We stopped to watch one particular slackliner as he found his inner strength, walking across a tightrope high above the ground. I can’t imagine what kind of endorphin rush he was hypnotized by, but I think I understood his desire to be a part of the air we breathe.
Before leaving Denver on a Sunday, Audrey and I viewed the expanse of the Rocky Mountains from the roof of her daughter Lauren’s apartment building. Once we hit the road, we began the slow descent out of the mountains towards Kansas. With about 70 miles to go before we hit the Kansas state line, we stopped at the Queens State Wildlife Area near Eads, Colorado. On a cool and windy day, we parked at the end of a road and stared in amazement at the reservoir exploding with snow geese. There were so many birds that I could not capture them all in a single frame. The water seemed like an endless beach of white sand, only this sand was on the move and making noise. Audrey and I were spellbound. It was difficult to leave such a beautiful area.
We continued our drive, telling family stories to each other, marveling at all of the hawks we were seeing, and the murmurations of starlings popping up into the brilliant blue sky. It was as if birds were guiding us to our destination wherever we went. After a long day, we arrived in Dodge City and checked into our hotel. After dinner and a few adult beverages, available in the casino next to our hotel, we went to our separate rooms for the night.
While in Dodge City, we visited old friends, and made new ones as we learned more about the town we grew up in. I hadn’t seen Dena, a friend I grew up with, in over 40 years. Sam, the reference librarian at the Dodge City Library, was extremely helpful with information as it pertained to Wilroads Gardens, a community east of Dodge City along the Arkansas River, where I grew up. Audrey and I had lunch with friends of my parents one day, and it felt so good to talk about my parents and hear stories of the past. We drove past houses and places that had meant something to us when we were younger. We went to Wilroads Gardens and drove to the house I grew up in. Liz, a friend who had grown up two doors east of me, had forewarned the new owner. We met Don, and he was kind and gracious. He allowed us to cut through his field so I could go stand down by the dam near what used to be the Arkansas River, a place that was extremely important to me growing up. As I worked my way past tangled vines and tumbleweeds towards the now abandoned dam, I heard a meadowlark somewhere near me, welcoming me home.
That night, I slept well in my hotel room, but in the morning, I was awakened by someone whispering: “Melissa.” I sat up in my bed, expecting that Audrey had somehow found her way into my room. Although my room was empty, I could not shake the feeling that someone had been there. Despite an initial feeling of eeriness, I felt calm and peaceful. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that birds have the “ability to do something we can’t do: modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye” (51). If only I had been able to do this, I might have seen who was responsible for the voice bringing me comfort and healing. It was as if the spirits of my parents and grandparents were telling me that I would always find peace in the town I grew up in, and I could return to Michigan, now soothed with some emotional healing, through the sharing of memories, landscape, and stories.
Back in in Michigan, I watch eagles, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, loons, and chickadees on almost a daily basis. Since I am hobbling around on crutches for a while, I am limited as far as taking pictures. I am frustrated, but I can also sit back and imagine the life of these birds. Where have they been? What can I learn from them? They can travel places I cannot. If only I could fly and soar at a moment’s notice to the place where I grew up, breathe in the air, and find the younger version of me. I would explain to her that she would one day return again and again to this spot to understand how it held her steady for all of those years, but also gave her wings to fly.
With the drop of the needle on a brand new turntable my son bought me for Christmas, “Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes blasted from the shoebox-sized speakers on my desk. Static, crackling noises, and the occasional skip over a story-there-somewhere scratch in the vinyl all contributed to a 33-rpm rewind into the past. I danced and sang as if no time had passed since my parents had given me my first two rock-n-roll albums in 1965. I soon followed the Supremes with the Beatles IV album. My husband and son seemed to fade into view as I reverted to my ten-year old self. Musical nostalgia worked its magic fingers into my heart and soul.
When I was young, my parents played music in our living room on a stereo that was as long as a bathtub, but not as wide. One of the first albums my parents bought specifically for me to play on the living room stereo was Burl Ives Sings Little White Duck. Am I fascinated today with ducks and all things feathery because of this? Is Burl Ives responsible for my obsession with listening to a song repeatedly until I am sick of it? I still have the album. I’m resisting the urge to play it right now on my new turntable.
Matt’s gift to me triggered memories that I had long forgotten. Daniel Levitin in The World in Six Songs, suggests that “music triggers memories long ago buried, and this seems especially true of popular love songs” (278). While growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, my mom, dad, and I listened to music on the stereo and in the car. Radio station KGNO catered to my parents’ crowd, but I loved listening to KEDD, “The Rock of Dodge City,” on the AM radio dial. On television, we watched The Lawrence Welk Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Hee Haw, Shindig, The Monkees, and any show we could find that focused on music. I learned the ways of love by listening to music in my home and car. Music created a different version of an idealized fairytale romance than books did, well, at least the books I was reading. Is there anything more romantic than listening to George Harrison sing “Something” as you sit in your bedroom and contemplate life? If the bedroom walls in the house I grew up in could talk, they would tell you about a dreamy-eyed teenager who spent an enormous amount of time imagining her life, framed in a song.
I could also dream on the dance floor when I ventured out to listen to Dodge City bands live. Friar Tuck and the Monks at the National Guard Armory! Birth live and on-stage at the Warehouse! Their covers of popular dance songs, and especially love songs I was sure were being sung to and for me, further sent me spiraling upwards to the land of all things musical, and downward into an avoidance of anything called homework. Whenever I hear a song from my past, a story always seems to mirror the lyric of the song.
If “memory wants to be true to the way things are, but it also wants to tell a story that suits the teller” (162), according to Charles Fernyhough in Pieces of Light, then some of my stories seem a bit confusing to me now. Why was I so obsessed with Grace Slick? As soon as I got home from school during the week, and long before my parents would arrive home from work, I would rush to the stereo, insert a spider (45-rpm adapter) into the record, slide the record down upon the spindle, let the music begin to play, and then sing and dance. Yes, I was that weirdo. I played “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” while I worked on my best Grace Slick impersonation. Was it just her voice that compelled my fascination with those songs, or the forbidden desire for an altered state of mind? Or did I just want a very cool boyfriend who could play a rocking guitar? The story I would tell today that would suit my older and wiser self is that I loved the freedom of belting out a song about love in my house, and singing “White Rabbit” made me feel very cool and dangerous at the time. When my parents were home, I played music in my room, and in our small 1940s farmhouse with paper-thin walls, I started to believe my name was “Turn it down.” When I sang with my mother in the kitchen, we were as loud as we wanted to be.
My mother and I both loved to sing, and she taught me the art of making up silly songs in the kitchen while doing dishes or eating fried carrots as fast as she could make them. My father would sit in the living room, a mere twenty feet away, smoke his cigar and drink a Coors beer after a hard day’s work. I think he enjoyed hearing us as we became giddy with laughter at our nonsensical verse. We could really cut a rug in that tiny kitchen.
When my son was growing up, I realized that music was another way in which we could spend time together. I liked playing with cars and Legos, but music had a way of working its way into our lives every day. We played music constantly in our house, and Sesame Street worked its way into our daily lives. I can sing “C is for Cookie” and “Rubber Duckie” to this day, and my son is 35 years old. I also started making up songs just for my son. I still make up instant songs, and I wrote songs for the workplace band I used to be in.
Over the holidays, we were visiting the neighbors and their extended family, and my 88-years-young neighbor mentioned a song I wrote, “Radio.” I had performed the song with the band, The Cremains of the 10th Circle, when they visited my home a few summers ago. She and some of her family members, friends, and neighbors, had attended our basement rock-and-roll party. Perhaps this was my Grammy-award-winning moment. Someone remembered a song I wrote and performed. Hold the applause, and pass me a beer!
Rod Stewart sings that “Every Picture Tells a Story,” and I believe that every song I love has a unique story hiding behind the lyrics if I am willing to pay attention to it. My memories of the first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song “Texas Flood” are a bit muddled though. Even though I cannot remember what radio station I heard it on, or where I was at the time, I remember thinking that I had just fallen in love with a song, a guitarist, and singer. I could not get enough of that song. Is there a difference in our memory-making process when we are older as far as falling in love with a song? I wonder.
I still love the Beatles and the Supremes, and I easily time-travel to that space and time when I could dance and sing in my house and feel nothing but love and joy surrounding me. Yes, there were many, many nights I listened to songs of heartbreak in my room as I grew up and teenage boys messed with my heart, but I also played songs that forced me to get up and dance.
When I was with my cousins in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last September, Sybil played “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars on her phone for us. I have the song on my running playlist, so I knew the song well. We all began to do some sort of version of dancing. We had it. We owned it. And now whenever I hear that song, I am safe in the arms of music nostalgia. How will I tell this story ten years from now?
For the moment I think about my mother, and how she would have joined us jitterbugging our way around my cousin Audrey’s house that day. I am fortunate that my parents, especially my mother, loved music so much that it was a necessity, like bread and water, in our daily lives. So even though the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go?” and the Beatles “Words of Love” may have opened my eyes to the ways of love, I believe that songs I have yet to hear will be teaching me many more things as I dance and sing my way into the unknown.
*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2015 issue.
My mother gazed at the six-foot tall Christmas tree. My father and I stood next to her and watched her focus on the decorations. I unwrapped an ornament from the small box I had carried into the nursing home. “Were you looking for this?” I placed an egg into the cup of her outstretched hands.
She examined the red and green velvet-covered egg as if she might find the key to her past. She traced the small gold angel on the front. She opened the tiny hinged door and peered inside. A small white angel holding a mandolin stood on a white cloud-like pedestal. My mother glanced up at me. Behind the mask of her illness, an unspoken question seemed to hide. I wondered if she recognized the egg as one she had decorated years ago. She was no longer verbal. She handed the egg back to me, her thin white fingers still smooth and beautiful at the age of eighty seven.
I unwrapped three more pieces of my mother’s artwork and placed them on a table next to her. As a child, I had watched her poke tiny holes into each end of the egg, blow out the yolks, and then carefully clean the eggs. She used goose, ostrich, and hen eggs for most of her work. She dyed some eggs with onion skins before scratch-carving intricate scenes on them: An owl in a tree. A farm in Kansas. A fish, Pisces, made for me when I was sixteen. On other eggs, she used scraps of material, jewels she picked up in antique stores, or fingernail-sized toys, angels, or skaters. She created miniature scenes inside each egg. It was her way of telling a story. One day, she no longer recognized her workroom as her own.
As I presented each egg to her, several of the staff members cooed and commented over each one. I said, “My mother decorated our Christmas tree with eggs every year. The local paper ran a story about her once with a picture of my son holding one of her eggs.” My mother looked at me as if I might be lying.
We continued examining the eggs, and I explained the history behind each one. My mother nodded her head as if she might be agreeing to my version of the events. My father leaned in to point at a miniature skater in one of the eggs and said, “You made that one for your grandson.” She frowned at him as if this statement could not possibly be true. My father’s eyes began to water, and he walked over to the one of the easy chairs in front of the television, sat down, and began talking to one of the other residents.
My mother’s eyes began looking past me towards something unseen, and I knew she was growing tired of my nonstop storytelling. I began wrapping up the eggs and returned each one to the small box. “When I get home, I will place these on my Christmas tree. You can see them again when you come to our house.” The hint of a smile crossed her face. A gift for me.
I approached my father and said it was time to go. He walked over to my mother and bent down to kiss her goodbye. She turned away from him. I reached for my father’s hands and reminded him to put his gloves on.
We passed through the double doors as the loud alarm went off signaling our departure. Snow had begun to cover the cars, sidewalk, and dead grass. My father said, “I’m sick and tired of this weather,” as he smacked his cane down on the sidewalk. I looked at his face filled with sadness mixed with anger, and I realized that the loss of my mother would forever be my father’s deepest sorrow. We made our way to the car as the wind swirled around us. As it increased in its volume, it was as if a thousand choir bells ringing.
We are not a rock band, but we could be. Collectively, we are four women who love taking photographs. Sandi Beaudoin, Jeannie Dow, Jo Przygocki, and I have all taken photography classes from Jerry Meier of Meier Camera in Midland, Michigan, so that we can improve as photographers. After six years of asking, Jo finally convinced Jerry to take a class on the road to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our first stop was Mackinaw City, where we lined up along the shore, set up our tripods, and began shooting pictures. From the challenge of photographing a lit-up Mackinac Bridge while a freighter slid magnificently underneath, to the gentle morning fog and mist percolating above the Upper Tahquamenon Falls, we were focused. I, however, felt like my camera and I were on two different planets. Suddenly, it was exam time, and my brain decided to take a vacation.
Besides my brain being on a separate vacation than my body, I was in pain. I had received two steroid shots the day before, one in my leg and one in my groin, for a nagging injury that is now celebrating its one-year anniversary. I only have myself to blame. Trying to run through an injury is a very bad idea. Since I haven’t been able to run a road race for months now, or even run on the road, my endorphins are at an all-time low. Somehow this lack of a natural high has also affected just about everything else I do. While I stood on the beach with four fabulous photographers attempting to take a shot of the freighter American Integrity going under the bridge as the sky began to darken, I had a case of brain freeze and fumble fingers. Shutter speed? Aperture? Manual? Program? Define those terms! Use in a sentence! By the time I figured out what I should do, the sky was dark, and the freighter was halfway to Gary, Indiana. We packed up our gear and moved on.
Our next stop was the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. After a short four-mile drive, we parked, loaded up our gear, and walked a mile along a spacious path to the shoreline along Lake Michigan. We quickly learned that we should not leave a lantern on, because a voice from the dark will shout “turn your light off.” We also discovered that setting up our tripods while it was still light out would have been very advantageous, because the dark sky park is really, really, dark, and you can use only the tiny red lights on your headlamp. Later, Jeannie said that “learning the relationship between the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture in order to achieve the star trails” from Jerry was crucial in being able to get the shot she wanted. Once again, I learned that I tend to panic when under pressure. The clouds moved in, we packed up our gear, and walked back to the van. It was time to take off our Troll hats (people living south of the Mackinac Bridge) and journey to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and join the Yoopers.
Jo drove us through the night as we made our way towards Paradise, and we began to wonder if “Almost Paradise” was more than just a song. We made our turn and headed to Tahquamenon Falls. We arrived shortly after midnight and settled into the cabin Jo had rented for us near the Upper Falls. With no television or Wi-Fi, we enjoyed the sound of our own laughter and stories.
The next morning, we headed towards Munising for our first attempt at shooting waterfalls. Although all of us had taken photos of waterfalls, Jerry was with us, and we would be able to ask questions and make the necessary adjustments to our camera settings on the spot. Since it was a Saturday, the Munising Falls area was filled with photographers and sightseers. After deciding we had the shots we wanted, we headed to the parking area. Park Ranger Cheryl Debelak provided us with some wonderful suggestions as to where we might want to go next. We explained that I was injured, and so long hikes were out of the question. After brief stops at Miners Falls, Miners Castle Overlook, and Chapel Falls, we worked our way to the Log Slide Overlook, one of my favorite places in Michigan’s UP.
The Pictured Rocks area along Lake Superior is difficult to describe because it is so beautiful, and depending on where you stand, hike, sit, or camp, the terrain can be spectacularly different. At the small overlook above Lake Superior, you can see Au Sable Point and its lighthouse off to your left, and the Grand Sable Banks to your right. At one spot along the trail, the dunes seem to drop off right into Lake Superior. Hiking down to Lake Superior at this point is not for the faint of heart.
As we headed away from the Log Slide, and off towards Grand Marais along H-58, we continued our discussion of what worked and what didn’t work for our photos, referenced songs we liked, and told stories. At some point during our adventure, Jeannie had referred to us as “Jerry and the F-Stops,” and the name fit us like a lens cap. After taking a few shots of the lighthouse in Grand Marais, and, once again, me listening to a complete stranger telling me what I should be doing (How do I attract these people?), we headed to the Lake Superior Brewing Company for dinner and drinks.
Although the place was packed and out of whitefish (WHAT?), we had a great meal and adult beverage of our choice. We also wrote our names on the bathroom door, all with the assistance of our waitress who provided us with a Sharpie. I have never seen a bathroom and its door covered in so many names! If you are ever at the restaurant, look for our names. We are famous now. We went to the gas station across the street where the attendant seemed unaware of the old adage that one should never smoke a cigarette next to someone gassing up a vehicle. Apparently he hasn’t blown anyone up yet. We drove back to our cabin at Taquamenon Falls and relaxed. We had an early photo shoot planned for the morning.
Our last morning in the UP proved to be cloudy and misty. We headed to the falls. We were the first vehicle in the parking lot, and as we walked along the path, we began to hear the sweet sounding roar of the falls. I set up my tripod from above the falls while the rest of the group headed down about 100 stairs to shoot closer to the falls. I was jealous. I cursed my leg, my stupidity, and my stubbornness, and then I attempted to photograph the falls.
While alone, the more pictures I tried to shoot, the more frustrated I became. I got out my notes, and I tried to get my brain to work. When the group came up from the falls, I complained that I absolutely could not get a good shot. Jerry immediately looked at my camera settings and explained what I needed to do. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we headed to another part of the falls.
While the group, once again, climbed down to another vantage point below the falls, I focused my camera from an overlook facing the top of the falls. This time I got the shot I wanted. Although I have yet to get one of those dreamy waterfall pictures that Jeannie, Jo, and Sandi are so good at taking, I know that I will get one eventually. As Sandi said during one of our discussions on the trip, learning to “take my time and do the math,” is essential to taking a good shot. Clearly this is something that I need to work on.
We stopped briefly at Whitefish Point and shot a few photos before beginning our drive home. Our conversations in the car were also instructive as we reflected on what we learned. We also pondered non-photographic knowledge such as the amazing number of songs that have the words “sunshine” or “rain” in them, the five things men and women should never say to each other, and we discussed our plans for the immediate future after our weekend.
There is something to be said for taking the show on the road, and the benefit of having the teacher along to guide you on your way. Being with friends I happened to meet along my journey into photography was the best part of all. This made me think of the creative writing classes I used to teach at Saginaw Valley State University, and the connection between nature and writing. I tried to take my classes outside at least once a semester, and I wish I had done this more. The similarities to taking photographs are quite apparent. For me, the creative process works best, despite repeated failures in taking photographs or receiving rejections on poems or essays I have submitted for publication, when I am living and breathing my subject matter. When Jerry taught our classes in Midland, we did not spend all of our time in the classroom and talk about pictures. Instead, we were out in the field shooting pictures of a full moon rising, car lights, sunsets, people, and buildings with unique architecture. What is it about the interaction between nature and humans that subconsciously forces us to get our creative juices flowing?
I imagine most of us have pored over photographs remembering the people in the photos, reminiscing about the landscape, and telling stories about the time someone did something memorable enough to warrant bringing out the camera to shoot a picture. What if you are in the photograph? How does that alter your perception of the moment? Do your memories instantly trigger at the moment of recognition? What if you were not in the photo, but, instead, were the photographer? How will your memory store the moment? After three days of shooting photographs with this group of photographers, not only do I have photographic evidence of my trip, but I also have a new appreciation for the art of photography. Sandi said it best: “The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” My learning curve has been as steep as a Sleeping Bear Dunes Climb.
Ten years from now, I can only imagine what my memories will be of this particular moment, or the stories I will tell about my weekend with Jerry and the F-Stops. In the song “Photograph,” by Ringo Starr, he suggests that “all I’ve got is this photograph.” Sometimes that can be a beautiful thing. Freeze Frame.
I can’t believe September has reared its cool, crisp, leaf-changing face already. Where has the summer gone? I’ve participated in road races, had company, visited a friend in Colorado for a few days, taken photography classes, avoided cleaning my house, and spent four memorable days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with my cousins. During one of our numerous adventures, my cousins and I were so fabulous and beautiful that one young comedian performing in the Blue Whale Comedy Festival at the Inner Circle Vodka Bar referred to us as the Golden Girls during his set. As he pointed at us, clearly the oldest patrons in the bar, the young crowd managed a few laughs as they turned to look at us and make sure none of their mothers were in the bar. At least I think that is what they were doing. Well, Mr. Comedian, let me take the microphone now and tell you a bit about us. You should only be so lucky to sit at our table.
First of all, we are a force to be reckoned with. Among the group, we’ve battled breast cancer, a brain tumor, the loss of a child, and the deaths of our parents due to various types of cancer, MS, Alzheimer’s, and other serious illnesses. If the worst thing that some punk comedian can come up with is to refer to us as “golden” because of our age, well, there’s nothing worse than the scorn and ridicule from one of those very “golden” girls. I won’t hold Mr. Comedian’s young age and lack of experience against him. I know it’s his job to insult people, but it’s my job to write about an experience and figure out what the hell happened. I admit that when Mr. Comedian walked past me with a smug little smile on his face at the end of the evening, my initial instinct was to slap him upside the head. It did cross my mind that assaulting a comedian in a bar might be something he was hoping for! Since I don’t remember ever watching an episode of the Golden Girls in my life, I wasn’t sure if I might be playing into some episodic fantasy of his. I sure wasn’t going to provide ammunition for his next comedy shoot out. My cousins and I walked out of the bar with our heads held high, and our tongues razor sharp with insults about comedians who aren’t particularly funny.
My cousins and I are all over the age of fifty. Perhaps we do resemble the Golden Girls of television lore. I have never watched the show, and I refuse to watch it now. I do know that as a collective group of cousins, we rely on love, our family history, a sense of adventure, and a glass of wine or bottle of beer at the end of the day as we celebrate with each other. A little vodka might be called for now and then, and a comedian that might actually be funny. As cousins, taking a walk down memory lane and telling true stories about our own mothers can be a lot more fun and entertaining than any joke or story Mr. Comedian would ever imagine or invent.
Margaret Lyn (my mother), Barbara (LouAnn, Amy, Audrey, Julie, and Sybil’s mother), and Jean (Teena’s mother) all raised some very fabulous women. My cousins and I miss our mothers terribly. They put the spine in our backbone. They created the funny for our funny bones. They taught us to love from deep within our hearts, and insisted on kindness to others as a ruling principle. My mother had a wicked sense of humor, and I think she might have taken that microphone from Mr. Comedian and said something truly witty and funny as a rejoinder to his weak attempt at insulting us. I realize that the television show the Golden Girls was fiction. Hell, I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, and people still ask me if I knew Dorothy. Well, no.
I have lived in Michigan now for almost forty years, but my Kansas roots and my family were the foundation for the person I have become. When I get together with my cousins, we laugh, cry, and honor our mothers and fathers. We all have a great sense of humor, and we will laugh if a joke or story is actually funny. If the best joke telling that Mr. Comedian can come up with is to toss a weak Golden Girls lob at us as an insult, well, he might want to think of another line of work to help him survive his golden years.
In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch tells Sundance that he’s “got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Bifocals, or not, vision is critical to anyone’s success. Different activities require varying degrees of vision, and on April 23rd, my “vision” skills were put to the test.
Early that morning, I tapped into my “do not break anything” vision skills. At the start of the Houghton Lake 5K Trail Run, my son and I, along with about two hundred and thirteen other runners and walkers, listened carefully as the gentleman starting the race gave us some advice. He warned us that we would be running through mud, puddles, tree roots and rocks (marked by orange spray paint), and “you’ll see.” Since Matt and I had both run the race the previous year, I wasn’t too concerned about the mysterious “you’ll see.” Instead, I found myself preoccupied pondering the presence of bears in the woods and my mostly rehabbed iliotibial band. One of my neighbors had recently told me that her daughter had photos of a bear wreaking havoc in her daughter’s back yard at Higgins Lake. I had visions of bears wandering away from Higgins Lake, swimming across Houghton Lake, and hiding in these particular woods waiting to pounce on unsuspecting runners. I reminded myself to stay in a pack with other runners at all times. The whoop-whoop sound of a State Police Trooper’s siren signaled the beginning of the race.
I quickly lost sight of my speedy son as he surged ahead. I kept pace with a large group of runners for about the first mile, and then I hit a section of very deep ruts. A large pile of cut timber lined one side of the trail, so I assumed the ruts had been caused by trucks and equipment. I lost sight of people in front of me, and I could not hear anyone behind me. I felt the slip-slap-slop of my hips trying to realign themselves after each awkward lateral move. As soon as the ground smoothed out, I picked up the pace as I avoided orange rocks and tree roots, crossed over swampy areas, hip-hopped over hula-hoop-sized puddles, and somehow prevented myself from falling when I tripped over an unmarked tree root. I crossed the finish line mostly intact. My “do not break anything” vision skills had guided me along the trail. It was time to head home and prepare for the day’s next event. My vision for a poem the previous year had led to an opportunity to read it in public.
When I was young, I never imagined myself as a runner, even though I racked up some blue ribbons at track meets. I stopped running when I graduated from my small country school and started ninth grade at the junior high in Dodge City, Kansas. I did, however, start writing at a young age, and I had visions of being published as early as my teenage years even after I received my first rejection letter from Seventeen magazine for my heartfelt poem about being confused about boys.
My inspiration for the poem that the Dunes Review had recently accepted for publication stemmed from a vision I had while visiting my cousin Audrey in Kansas in 2015. One night the cicadas were so loud that the stars in the sky seemed to vibrate. Birds shimmied to the beat. Dogs in the neighborhood howled. I scribbled down lines in my journal. A writing prompt from writer Laura Kasischke’s workshop at the Bear River Writers’ Conference a few months earlier popped into my head. I imagined myself standing in front the house I grew up in out in the country east of Dodge City. I began working with the lines. Was I under the spell of poetic vision? I seemed to be breathing in images from the past, both real and imagined. The poem began to take shape, and after months and months of revision work, my vision paid off in the best of ways: publication and the chance to read it to an audience.
As my friend Julie and I began our journey to Traverse City, I told her that when she, friend Jeri, and I had been at Brilliant Books the previous fall, I had mentioned to them that the Dunes Review hadn’t accepted any of my work since 2010. Over the years, I had submitted a piece occasionally for the biannual lit magazine, only to have it rejected. I convinced myself that this vision during my previous visit to Brilliant Books had somehow led to the subsequent acceptance of the poem for the new edition of the journal. I was scheduled to read about midway through the list of writers, and when it was my turn to read, I stepped up to the podium. In a voice that only the ghosts of dead authors could hear, I said the title. Fellow writers and audience members quickly encouraged me to speak up. I stopped, placed my right hand on my sore right hip, and said, “Hello” in a weird sort of British accent, and started over. I have no idea why I used a British accent, since I grew up in Kansas and lived there for twenty-one years before moving to California for two years. For the past thirty-nine years, I have lived in Michigan. As Hoyt Axton once sang, “I’ve never been to England, but I kind of like the Beatles.” Apparently my vision skills had somehow been affected over the years by listening to the Fab Four, reading a gazillion books by British authors, and watching the movies Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility far too many times. Most likely my Michigan/Kansas accent worked its way into my reading, but I can’t seem to remember.
After the reading, Julie and I headed back to Higgins Lake via the backroads. We quickly realized that we would both have our “driving at dusk and then into total darkness” vision tested. Anyone who lives in Northern Michigan knows that if you are driving at night, you are destined to encounter deer making poor decisions. They will lurk silently around every corner. They will stand idly along every straightaway glaring at you with their cataract-like eyes. I turned on my “deer-vision” as I slowed the car down and prepared for the one hour plus drive.
Deer mocked us on each two-lane stretch of highway. At various locations along the backroads, we felt as if we were characters in a horror movie. Night of the Deer Zombies seemed like an appropriate title. At one hilly curve, nine deer nonchalantly watched us as I slammed on the brakes. I had a brief vision of MDOT renaming this part of the road “Dead Women’s Curve” in our honor. The vehicles that had been following us since Traverse City willingly played this game of hop-scotch with us as I alternated between complete stops and sixty miles per hour. Not once had the other drivers attempted to pass us. They somehow sensed my “deer-vision” while they were probably wearing their bifocals. I briefly considered stopping at Military Road, jumping out of my car and demanding a thank you for guiding them through deer hell, but, alas, I could not convince my hands to un-grip the wheel. Julie and I figured that we had avoided over forty deer.
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was worn out and wound up. My legs hurt from the morning’s trail run. My husband inquired about the reading, and I launched into a ten-minute soliloquy about reading my poem and the exhausting drive home. I grabbed a beer and sat down on the couch. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined myself riding off into the sunset à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I don’t plan on robbing any banks and going out in a barrage of bullets. My vision for a happy ending goes like this: I will be running a road race at the age of ninety (certain to win my age group), composing a poem in my head that the editor of the Dunes Review will love, waving at the deer hiding in the woods, and dreaming of a nice cold beer after I cross the finish line.
I can’t believe it has been eight years since my mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Because Alzheimer’s strips away memory and function at such a slow rate, it seems as if my mother died long before her body took its last breath. It’s as if one day she was kissing my cheek, and the next day, she entered into a long sleep as her body started to shut down. With every labored breath she took, I tried to remember everything my mother had taught me about facing the tough times. We had a joke we would say to each other when we needed to get to the point, but there were hundreds of side stories that would try and jump into the mix. Instead of saying that’s another story, one of us would say, “That’s a whole nother story,” Our language. Our stories.
I still feel my mother’s presence every day, especially when something wonderfully unexpected happens: A red cardinal at the bird feeder when I’m preparing to submit writing to a literary journal. A burst of sunshine through the clouds when I am feeling sad. A handwritten card from someone. I still have all the cards and letters my mother wrote to me after I moved away from home.
A whole nother thing I learned about myself after my mother died was that I would often ask myself what my mother would do in a particularly stressful situation. She constantly told me to “kill” someone “with kindness” if someone happened to be causing me pain. That can be a very difficult thing to do. I have not always been successful. I am working on not reacting negatively when someone does something unkind to me, and I am focusing more on the good things that happen to me and cherishing the moment. These good things seem to be happening more often now, and when I least expect it.
After six weeks of painful physical therapy, I decided it was time to test my body in a road race. Because my son was signed up to run the St. Patrick’s Day road race in Bay City, Michigan, I decided I would attempt the 5k walk. I hadn’t run since January 23rd, so I promised my physical therapist that I would walk slowly. My husband and son both doubted that I knew what “slow” meant. They were right.
I felt good at the starting line. I was surrounded by people anxious to get going in the thirty degree temperature. I put my earbuds in and started my playlist. I waited for the race to begin and the crush of bodies to move forward. As soon as I could, I passed a bunch of people and began walking. I tried to go slow, but my body seemed to be dictating my pace.
With a little over a mile to go, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Becky, as I would soon find out, indicated that she liked my pace, and she wanted to walk with me. I knew I was going at a pretty good clip, and I had just strategically passed through a group of walkers blocking my route, so I didn’t have to slow down. I was in the groove.
As Becky and I continued at our fast pace, we began to chat a bit. I pulled out my left earbud, so I could hear her better, and we really cranked up our pace. I explained that I had recently finished PT, so I wasn’t sure how I would do. Becky was a great motivator. It was one of those moments where I felt as if my mother was keeping watch over me, and somehow picked Becky out of the crowd to cheer me on.
We ended up finishing the race fairly close together. Becky had a better kick at the end and finished just ahead of me. We were passing quite a lot of people as we headed towards the finish line, and I felt pretty good about that. Becky and I chatted briefly after the race, and I headed off to find my son.
Matt had run a good race at a sub-seven minute mile. He was 11th in his very competitive age group. As Matt drove back to Midland, I checked the results on my phone. I was shocked. I was second in my age group. Although the fastest walker in my age group had a 12:11 pace, my 13:31 pace was a keeper. Becky also finished second in her much younger age group. Despite my husband’s reminder that I had promised to walk slow, I told him that once Becky showed up, I felt as if I was meant to walk at that pace for the race. Some things are just meant to happen.
On the day before the anniversary of my mother’s death, my friend Darcy sent me a link to a poem about a woman dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Beth Copeland’s poem is about erasure, and I thought of my own mother’s memories being slowly erased as we moved through her illness. I missed her laugh and her moments of “whole nother stories” that we would no longer share. I wish I had written more of those stories down. They seem lost somewhere in my own memories, but sometimes one of those stories will find its way into an unexpected moment.
I thought about the moment during the road race when Becky and I were nearing the finish line. I could hear Becky saying “we’ve got this” in my left ear, but the earbud in my right ear suddenly seemed to ring out louder. Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” blasted through the sounds of the race, well-wishers, and music playing somewhere nearby. “Baby, I will be your parachute,” seemed to take on even more meaning. As I marched my way towards the finish line, I looked up into the beautiful blue sky, and I thought that if only my mother was still alive, I would have lots of stories to tell her. The one about my promise to walk slowly. The one about a stranger showing kindness to me. The one about drinking a beer with my son at lunch after the race. Or the one about my long drive home and the fact that I could not wipe the smile off of my face. But that’s a whole nother story.