Tag Archives: Flint

Artifacts to Memories: Books, Bookstores, and E.B.White

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My dear friend, Mary Blocksma, has started a year-long memoir-writing project, and has generously invited others to join in.

I admire Mary’s abilities as a writer. Her background of writing scholastic literature, as well as her sense of fun, make her children’s books some of the very best. An education in library science and research shows itself gracefully – alongside her love of nature – in books about the flora and fauna of forests and shorelines. Her ability to put words together – in poetry or creative writing – often takes my breath away. Mary is also a skilled teacher and editor. This was an opportunity I could not pass up!

The method Mary is using for pulling out and writing about a lifetime of memories is genius: she uses objects collected or saved throughout her life as a jumping-off point. As a fellow “saver” (I shy away from saying “hoarder”) I know that objects are saved for the life events and heart-strings attached to them. Why not use them, then, for the memories that they hold? So, that is the premise.

Mary is calling her excavation “My Life as a Dig,” and has already, in this new year, written several lovely essays. I am planning to devote one of my writing days each week to the project, under the title “Artifacts to Memories.” And here I go!

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I was a twenty-four year old “re-entry” college student, already a wife and the mother of two young daughters, when I first entered a good bookstore. My friend Linda and I had driven off the campus of Mott Community College during a break between classes. Downtown Flint, Michigan was an exciting and welcoming place in the mid-seventies. Interesting shops and little galleries were tucked in among novel restaurants and bars. We were on our way to Hat’s Pub for lunch. Their julienne salad was a lovely mound of matchstick sliced vegetables, meats and cheeses; vegetarian pizza was piled high with alfalfa sprouts; the bohemian atmosphere of the place was always fun.

Walking from the parking lot to the pub, we came upon a little corner bookstore: Young & Welchan’s. We might have missed it, if it weren’t for the stacks of books organized in neat piles and rows on tables on either side of the door. Beautiful books! Hardcover books! Brand new! With price tags that stunned me: $2.95; $4.95; ninety-nine cents! As a student, I was spending a great deal of money each semester on textbooks; I was haunting the campus library for other required reading. As a fairly new (proud) member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, I knew the value of a hardcover book! I had never come upon “remaindered” books before. This was amazing!

There, like a gift from the heavens, was E.B.White. My English teacher had just been reading excerpts of his work! She had been glorifying him as “comparible to Henry David Thoreau,” and “one of the finest essayists of the 20th century!” And right here, in front of me, were Poems and Sketches of E.B.White and Essays of E.B.White…priced at $3.99 each. Even with my meager budget, I could manage that! I bought both books. That was the beginning.

Those two books were the start of a lifetime of accumulating books. I have a section on my shelves for E.B.White, others for Maxine Hong Kingston, Evan S. Connell and Annie Dillard. They sit among treasured individual books of essays or poetry. I have a nice selection of books on paring-down, cleaning-up, organization and simplification. I don’t believe any of that information applies to books!

E.B.White became – and still holds the position of – one of my most treasured writers. I have read, I think, everything he has written at least twice. His essays about life on a saltwater farm in rural Maine influenced my thoughts on farming, gardening and rural life. “Death of a Pig” is one of my read-aloud favorites. Without E.B.White, I doubt I would have ever ended up out in the country with a big garden, on Beaver Island!

Young & Welchan’s became the first “favorite bookstore” in my life. It taught me what to look for, in a good bookstore. There should be a wide range of books on many subjects, organized so that it’s easy to find an area of interest, and a literate staff to assist when needed. There should be benches and comfortable chairs for browsing…and browsing should not be discouraged. There should be coffee. And the entrance should always have neat piles and rows of good books at amazing prices…to welcome the uninitiated.

 

The Property on Fox Lake Road

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The land we bought was part of what had been a 40 acre parcel: a square, 1/4 mile on each side. Fox Lake Road curves a little bit through the western boundary line. It had been split into two twenty-acre parcels, both with access to Fox Lake Road, still 1/4 mile deep. The northernmost parcel had a two acre lot cut out of the northwest corner of it, and had a little cabin on it that was used as a hunting camp.That was owned by Thomas Tange.

The rest of that piece – eighteen acres – was owned by Dick Goller: pilot, plumber and  well-driller with a well-deserved reputation as a con man and a shyster. He was a short, round man with black hair, a booming voice and a big grin.  Though he was sharp at making deals, he also had a reputation for being a little dense. He came in to the Shamrock one morning, complaining that his foot was killing him. He swore the boot had gotten smaller overnight.

“Did you leave a sock inside there?” Bill Welke asked him.

“Oh, I dunno. That’s a thought, I guess!”

With that, he unlaced his boot and pulled it off. To guffaws and chuckles all around the coffee-drinkers table, and to Bill Welke’s absolute glee, he spilled a dead mouse out of his boot on to the floor.

“Huh! Well that explains it,” he said, “…suppose it wasn’t dead when I went to put the boot on. Little guy should’ve spoken up!”

Goller worked mainly from his home in Cedar Springs, but had started taking quite a few jobs on the island. Enough, he felt, for having a second home here. When he started putting his house up, he accidentally built it over the property line, on the land belonging to Tange. He split the 18 acres in half, then, and sold nine in order to purchase the section that his home was sitting on. He priced it pretty reasonably and, to sweeten the deal, he offered to put a well on the land for no additional cost.

So it happened that – just as my husband was recovering from his fall from a roof and getting back to work…as we were moving from Corner #16 to Johnson Mill Road…as I was opening a gallery in Lapeer, Michigan – we got a call from Ed Wojan about buying a piece of land. Ed was in the real estate business, and knew we’d been looking at property on Beaver Island. He thought we might be interested in this deal. We were! We made a trip to the island to have a look.

Seven miles from town, the land had a rough old two-track logging road running through it. My Dad said, “That’s a little too far from town,” and we said “No way!” From our home in North Branch, no town was closer than seven miles; I traveled twice that distance to Lapeer, and twenty miles further to college in Flint. Seven miles seemed like nothing. The logging road would be an advantage, we said. We could use the first part of it as a driveway. The back was a ready-made walking path through the woods. We could drive a truck back there, too, for hauling out firewood.

The property had three hundred foot of frontage on Fox Lake Road. The front third was a fairly open field with  wild black cherry trees and juniper bushes scattered throughout. The back was hard wood forest: plenty, if managed correctly, to provide us with a constant source of wood for heat. On the north side of the property, on what had long ago been the edge of a farmer’s plowed field, were three huge maple trees. That was it…the final selling point. We loved it!

 

 

Life at Corner #16

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Kate and Jen, coloring Easter eggs, 1981

Living one year on Beaver Island had changed me. I had grown up. I had more confidence in myself. I was more comfortable with my life.

Before Beaver Island, I would beg my husband to take us somewhere (usually to his parent’s house for dinner and a few games of cards) two or three evenings a week, when he came home from work. Though I’m sure they got to the point of dreading our drop-in visits, now they were so rare, my in-laws even brought it up. Our relationship with them hadn’t changed.  I was just less needy.

We were busy, too. Our first year back seemed to fly by. Jen zipped through the second grade. She started third grade the same year that Kate started kindergarten. They were in swimming classes for part of the year, and ballet classes for part of the year. I was back in college, in Flint, with a full load of classes, and working as a server at the Big Boy restaurant in Lapeer. Terry traveled to Arkansas for a few weeks to help his cousin with a big job there. I wrote an essay for a national organization, and won an Honorable Mention. Sometimes, with a deadline for a drawing or painting class, I’d turn our kitchen into an art studio. For a few days, meals would be basic picnic fare, as I took over table and wall space for creative endeavors. We planted a big garden in the summers there. My sister, Cheryl, and I started bicycling together. Now and then, I babysat for her children.

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Easter morning, 1981

We had left Beaver Island with a stack of bills, and a packet of information on new land parcels for sale on Eagle Hill Drive. We intended to get caught up, then buy land, eventually put up a small house, and move back to the island with a secure place to live. It was a good plan, and we were making good progress on the stack of bills…when my husband fell off a roof.

Terry broke both arms and sprained a leg. We were lucky! It could have been much worse. With my restaurant tips now our main source of income, all plans slowed. Still, I continued to send little checks, five dollars here, ten dollars there, to the patient creditors on Beaver Island, to pay off our debts. Mrs. Chapman, whose husband had provided us with both gasoline and fuel oil, would always send nice receipts. “Thank you for the effort,” she’d write, “every little bit helps!” I continued, too, to put a little bit in a savings account every week, looking to the future.

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Jen, looking for eggs, Easter morning, 1981

 

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!