Monthly Archives: February 2016

What Brought Me Here

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What was it that drove me, with my young family, to leave relatives  and friends, to quit jobs and leave college, to take my children away from their home and their grandparents, to move to a remote island in northern Lake Michigan?

I had history on Beaver Island. My father and my grandfather had been raised there. I’d enjoyed many wonderful family vacations there. I always cried when I had to leave.

Still, surprisingly, it was my husband who suggested it.

We had come to the island together in 1970, at age seventeen, before we were married. I had managed to get a weekend off from my job at the hospital. My parents were on the island, on vacation with my brothers and sisters. We decided to drive up to join them. When we called to let them know we were coming, my mother gave us instructions, “When you get to the Boat Company, be sure to tell them who you are,” she said, “and they’ll be happy to help you with parking and everything.” What she meant was that I should let them know who my family was, so they’d know I had island connections.

As instructed, we walked in and Terry introduced me as “Bob Ricksgers’ daughter.” Before we had a chance to ask about parking, the man behind the desk said, “I don’t care who she is, don’t come in here with that long hair and a cigarette, with that attitude…” It was a poor start to a sad weekend. My Grandpa George was an old island gentleman who always put on his good clothes to go to town; Grandma Florence always wore a dress, even when doing farm chores. Her only exception to that – in her entire life – was when she had put on overall’s one day to help with haying. They both thought Terry’s patched up bell-bottomed blue jeans were a disgrace, and didn’t mind saying so. They found him a place to sleep in the barn. The Homecoming Parade – that I had sold pretty heavily when planning this trip – consisted of (this is his assessment), “one beat-up pickup truck, a few kids carrying signs, a manure spreader and two Indians on bicycles.” He was glad to get away.

The next time we came to the island was in  1976, for my grandfather’s funeral. He had died at the beginning of the year, in Chicago, but the funeral was planned for spring on Beaver Island. My sister Brenda and I each left our children in the care of in-laws, and brought our husbands. With all of the family gathered, it would have been a good time for Keith and Terry to impress on everyone what good husbands we had. Instead, they went out to the bars together, and left a different impression entirely. We were embarrassed, and furious. We hardly spoke to them all the way home.

So, my husband’s history with Beaver Island was much more lackluster than my own.

We had talked about moving away from Lapeer. We could both see reasons why a fresh start in a new location might be good for our family. We had discussed other locations in Michigan. We had researched opportunities in Yakima, Washington. We looked into jobs associated with the new pipeline in Alaska. We had not considered Beaver Island.

One day, while Jen was at kindergarten and Kate and I were visiting my Mom and Dad, I happened to pick up Dad’s most recent issue of the Beaver Beacon. An article talked about a coming visit to the island by recent Nobel Peace Prize winner (with Betty Williams), Mairead Corrigan. What an opportunity!

I made arrangements to go to the island at the time Mairead Corrigan would be there. My friend, Linda, came with me. We stayed two days. It was a wonderful trip for a hundred reasons, not least of which was hearing a wonderful, inspiring talk by a woman working for peace in our time, and dancing the Irish jig with her later, in the bar. I came home with lots to tell about the good time I’d had.

I was happy to be back home with my family, though, and anxious to get back to classes. Life settled back into a normal pattern.

But then, my husband did something to make me very angry. He broke a promise, quit a job, wrecked a car…or some combination of those things. I was really mad. I’d been giving him the silent treatment for a couple days. In an effort to get back on my good side, on a whim, he threw out the suggestion…”What do you think about maybe moving to Beaver Island?”

Well, that was that!

The 52 Lists Project #9

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List the things you treasure most:

  • Family and friends, right on top of the list, of course.
  • Rosa Parks, my sweet little dog.
  • My job, because it’s usually enjoyable, and it’s always so nice to be able to pay the bills.
  • Mementos, a few: special photographs, one piece of art and some other little gifts.
  • My books: all of them, but especially Heidi by Johanna Spyrii, The Essays of E.B. White (actually, all books by E.B. White), Poems by Emily Dickinson, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, The White Lantern & Other Pursuits by Evan S. Connell, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant by the Moosewood Collective, and bird by bird by Anne Lamott. Last but not least, Naming Nature by my dear friend, Mary Blocksma, for the excellent writing and wonderful information…but also because she mentions me (even refers to me as “slim” and “cheerful”) on page 163!
  • Art supplies. Really. I just love a gorgeous sheet of deckle-edged rag paper. Can’t beat freshly sharpened pencils…or, for that matter, a good pencil sharpener.
  • Cloth napkins. Especially the heavy red ones.
  • Candles, in perfume scents: floral and musk and woodsy.
  • Bath salts.
  • The smell of cedar, milk weed blossoms and fresh cut grass.
  • Laughter, when it’s real. I love to be taken over by fits of uncontrollable giggles…and I can’t resist a baby’s laugh.
  • Memories, for they keep me in touch with my own past, and keep loved ones close.

Off-Track

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I like to get my writing done early. One good thing finished right off, before I get busy with my day. No stress about finding time to do it later, no worries about forgetting about it. It doesn’t always work out. Today is one of those times.

Last night, I went to bed early and slept all through the night. There was no moonlight writing and tea-drinking so, my daily blog was not yet done when I got up this morning. I did not get up early enough to have extra time.  Taking time to write would have caused me to be even later for work than usual, so I didn’t.

I did stress about it a little bit, while I was working at the hardware store. I had a big rearranging project going on there. It involved moving shelves and much ladder climbing. I thought I might be ready to collapse by the time I was done. I did a little composing in my head as I worked.

Turns out, I was not as exhausted as I thought I would be. It was a beautiful, warm day, though, with lots of snow melt. As soon as I got home, Rosa Parks and I went for a walk. Now I’m tired. Too tired, at least, to tackle the writing I was going to do. My move to Beaver Island will have to wait.

I have a good book started. I think – since I’m already off-track – I may just let everything else go this evening, too, and just read.

Before I Move

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It seems I’m having difficulty moving from one address to the next. Once I pull up all the memories of a place, from wherever they’ve lay hidden, it’s hard to move on. I want to linger there, with the young person I was and with all of her unreasonable dreams.

We got our first stereo system when we lived at Charbridge. Before Terry and I got married, I spent way too much money on a nice radio. It had all kinds of special features – or seemed to at the time – all enclosed in elegant dark wood. My mother had always had a radio, for news in the morning and music through her day. A radio seemed necessary.

In college, in a discussion with other students, something was said that caused me to say I didn’t have a stereo. The looks of surprise and pity  elicited by that comment caused me to realize it was a music system that was necessary. We went shopping that very weekend, and put one on lay-away. It had a turn table, an eight-track tape player and a recording feature with two little microphones. Somewhere, still waiting to be converted to compact disc, I have old eight tracks of my little daughters playing Donny and Marie. Jen sings, “I’m a little bit country…” to which little Katey responds, in baby talk, “…an’ I a idda bit wock an’ wo-o-ooh!”

Mrs. Baldry took care of my daughters when I was attending classes. She had a daughter, too: Lara – named for the character in Doctor Zhivago – was just a bit older than my Jen.One year she knit sweaters for each of my girls. Jen’s was red, white and blue ombre’ yarn; Kate’s was in shades of pink.

Jen went to Schickler School for kindergarten. She brought home more songs for our repertoire: “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt”  and the Schickler song (“S-C, that’s the way I begin, H-I are the second letters in…C-K, those are the third…L-E-R is the end of the word…”). In classrooms set up at the dining room table, in the basement playroom or on the living room floor, she tried to teach Kate everything she learned.

My sister Brenda and her family moved back to Lapeer during the time that I lived there. She often visited me at Charbridge. We’d play games while we visited. One time, her tire went flat on the way to my house. It would be difficult to stop, on the highway, to deal with something like that. Her husband was at work, so she couldn’t call him, even if she could get to a phone. I was expecting her. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. She continued to my house. There, we could see that it was, in fact, a serious flat tire, and pretty mangled by the time she parked in front of my house. Obviously, she couldn’t drive it back home. Without a second thought, we got out the backgammon board to entertain ourselves until our husbands could deal with the problem. Turns out, that wasn’t the best course of action…according to the guys, anyway.

I got my own car, when we lived at Charbridge, so that I could drive to and from my college classes in Flint. It was an old Volkswagon Beetle. Most of the floors were rusted away; the gas gauge didn’t work; the windshield wipers were missing; there was no heat. It was a standard transmission…and I didn’t know how to drive a standard transmission. The price was right; we decided it was perfect. Terry spent a few evenings trying to teach me the particulars of driving a stick shift, then gave up in frustration. “Just drive it,” he yelled, “you figure it out!”

So, that’s what I did! Lurching and stalling, swearing profusely, shivering to beat the band, I drove it to and from Flint to my classes all winter long. I’d dress in layers: with no heat, and all the gaps and holes in the car, driving on the highway was like standing in 70mph winds. I’d pull off on Oglethorpe Drive to pick up my friend, Linda. She’d come running out with afghans, scarves and her son’s ski masks. And a big grin.We’d be off again, jerking through the gears, pulling off to chip ice from the windshield as needed, hoping not to run out of gas.

The future seemed huge, in those days, and anything at all seemed possible.

 

Timeout for Art: Studio Time

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Though I’ve stuck to my commitment of doing a sketch a day, the results are less than stellar. One night, in pajamas and in bed with my sketch pad and Miss Rosa Parks, I decided to use the little dog as subject matter. Rosa doesn’t sit well for photographs and, it turns out, she’s not much of an artist’s model, either. I had only her little nostrils drawn when she moved away. I started again, and had the perfect outline of one ear when she moved again. I got one line tracing her back from shoulders to tail when she flopped on her side. I set it aside and went to sleep. The next day, I used the same page for a sketch of my dinner napkin. On other days, it was my water glass, an edge of blanket or the corner of a room. Nothing much, and nothing finished.

I did manage a few hours in my studio this week. I now have twenty-eight small collage-paintings underway. I’ve been working on them in groups of four; each set has similarities in color and collage elements. My goal is that, when finished, each painting would stand on its own, but that they would also look good all displayed together. I don’t want it to look like a bunch of “sets of four,” but like a cohesive group of twenty-eight or maybe a hundred, if I get that far.

To pull them together, I mixed them up and arranged them on the floor. Then I chose a procedure, a color, and other factors to merge the disparate pieces. First, I used the wrong end of a paint brush to make tiny dots in a meandering line with copper-colored iridescent paint. Forty dots, with the line starting on one piece and finishing on the next. Not every painting got this treatment, but maybe six pairs did. Then I rearranged the paintings. Next, a tiny brush to make little teardrop shapes in large arcs of deep blue. Again, the pattern went from one piece to the next. Then rearrange. I continued this way through several procedures, sometimes a bold dotted line in a subtle color, other times a bright color with a more timid mark.

I want the paintings to share characteristics, but not to shout it. Even if these little details go unnoticed, they should serve to make the pieces  relate to each other when displayed together. I have a long way to go before these are finished…but I like the way they’re coming along.

More of Charbridge

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Jennifer, summer, 1975

“Pivotal,” I said, regarding the not quite four years I lived at Charbridge Arbor.

Many things contributed to the impact those years had on my life. Few were directly related to this address.

My daughter, Katey, was born in December of 1974, less than two months after we moved in. Having a child is life-changing. One would think that having a second child was more of the same…but, no. A second child changes everything: the worry; the work; the family dynamic; the love. It’s much more than double…it’s more like one hundred-fold. So, that was the first big change in my life during the years I lived at Charbridge.

I started college. I was not one of those people that thrived in high school. I was smart and capable, but hated almost everything about school. I couldn’t wait to graduate, to be done with that forever…but, I found, forever is a very long time. Once I was married and had children, I had fulfilled every goal I was brought up to reach for. What next? First, my friend Linda and I took a couple evening enrichment classes at the high school. My sister Brenda enrolled in classes at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, and suggested that I do the same. I was terrified; I would have never done it without her encouragement. I may not have anyway, but…

Because my daughters were born via caesarean section, and  Kate was born with pneumonia and other complications that required a ten-day hospital stay, and we had no health insurance, we had racked up a very large hospital bill. Once hospitals cure you…or deliver your baby…they have little recompense to get you to pay the bill. For this reason, it is my theory that they hire the vilest, cruelest, most demeaning bullies they can find, to try to collect. One day, after a particularly harrowing conversation with one of those gentlemen, our telephone service was turned off for lack of payment. Inconvenient…but a relief, nonetheless. A couple hours later, the electricity was disconnected for the same reason.

Now, with a six-month old baby and a three-year-old, I was getting concerned. Where was my husband, anyway? It was hours past the time he should have been home. I had no car, no telephone and no lights. I fed the baby and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for Jen. My husband came home after dark. He had quit his job, he explained, then went to the bar to get up his courage to come home and tell me about it.

Looking back, I can think of several different conclusions this scenario could have brought me to. Many of them even make sense! At the time, I thought, “Obviously I cannot count on him to support our family, so I’d better plan to do it myself.” To that end, I did not intend to go out immediately and get a job. No, that would have been far too practical. Instead, I enrolled for classes at the community college with my sights set (I was just so unbearably naive!) on an Arts degree!

Finally, Charbridge Arbor changed the view I had of myself. It’s a testament to how very young and insecure I was, that a nice home could bring up my self esteem…but it did. It changed me from the inside out. I tried out different things. I permed my hair; I pulled it back into a bandana (“She looks like she could tell fortunes,” was Grandma B’s assessment of that look!). I bought Puma running shoes and tried to take up jogging. I piled my daughters into the stroller and walked all over the town. We went visiting: we’d stop in to see Terry’s Uncle Chet and Aunt Ada, or we visited my sister Nita on Court Street (she lived in the same apartment I had started out in!). When Jen started kindergarten, Kate and I would walk with her to the door, then we’d often get in the car and go to see my Mom and Dad. We went to the park so regularly, Jen thought it was hers. I enrolled my daughters in swimming classes, and then took them myself, too. I taught myself to cook Chinese food. I baked fancy sweet breads for holidays. I started collecting baskets, and books. Many of these patterns have stayed with me, and help define the person I’ve become.

When we left Charbridge Arbor, it was for the adventure of moving to Beaver Island.

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Katey, Easter morning, 1978

Charbridge

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Charbridge Arbor was a brand new housing complex in 1974, when we moved in. It was across from the shopping plaza on M21 and had several paved streets, lined with parking spaces, that led to the rows of apartments and townhouses. Ours was in the very back row, the first unit in the second building. There was a back way in and out of the complex, just past our street, that went out to smaller roads and rows of cute houses with nice sidewalks and shade trees.

On the street side, there was a strip of grass, then sidewalk. A cement walkway  through another bit of grassy area led  to the porch, two steps up, and the door.

Inside, the entry hall. “Finally, a real foyer,” I exclaimed when I saw it, as if it was something I’d been sorely lacking. To the right was a closet behind a set of metal bi-fold doors. To the left, a landing, then stairs went up, parallel to the entry hall. Straight ahead, a wall with a square opening in it delineated living room from dining room. the tiled floor gave way to gold carpet in the living areas. A door on the left wall revealed steps that led downstairs to the basement, exactly under the stairs leading up.

The dining room was small, but open. It was divided from the living room only by the partial wall, and from the kitchen by bar-height counters. A hanging light fixture (“A chandelier!”) was centered over the area for the table. Light came in from windows in the kitchen and living room. A broom closet was tucked in behind the kitchen wall.

The tiny corridor kitchen was surprisingly easy to work in. One window, straight ahead, looked out to the parking lot. On the right, the stove and refrigerator were divided by a cabinet and narrow counter. On the left, the double sink was in the center of a bank of cabinets. Overhead cabinets lined both walls.

The living room was large and airy. Sliding glass doors led out to a patio flanked with wood fences for privacy. Beyond that was a grassy strip, and a stand of trees beyond.

Upstairs, two bedrooms and a bathroom. There was a linen closet on the landing. The front bedroom, that my daughters shared, had a walk-in closet. The bedroom that faced the woods was the one my husband and I shared. It had a full wall of closets, behind metal bi-fold doors.

The basement was just one big room. It housed the furnace and hot water heater. There was a hook up for laundry facilities there. Eventually we got a washer and dryer. Before long, we turned half of the room into a large play area for the girls, with bean bag chairs, a bouncing horse and a small indoor slide. In time, I took the area by the stairs to use as a studio. At first, though, the basement was the repository for everything that didn’t meet the standards for our beautiful new home. Many moving boxes never got unpacked, as I deemed their contents unworthy of the space.

I still get nostalgic for that place, sometimes. I had never lived in such a spacious, well-planned and finished home before. Turns out, I never have since, either. That’s only part of the reason, though. It wasn’t so much the address, as the things that happened there. Of course, I didn’t know it then, but the time I lived at Charbridge was pivotal in my life.