Fresh Ideas: Reincarnating Michigan summers

My 99-year-old aunt in Michigan loves children, all the more so, maybe, because she never had children of her own. This wasn’t for lack of desire, but a result of the war (World War II) which she will tell you, “destroyed the life I had imagined would be mine.” So my aunt lives vicariously through the lives of her nieces and nephews and their children. In the meantime, she satisfies her longing for connection by donating money to orphanages in Latvia (our native country) and to knitting soft, fine, merino wool socks for those orphans as well as for children she imagines might frequent the local Salvation Army store in Grand Rapids.

This summer my grandchildren (Savannah, almost 11, and the twins, Wes and Abby, just turned 7) flew back to Michigan with me in July for a 10-day visit. As my aunt phrased it, “It was a dream come true.” Although our weekly telephone conversations have always been long and detailed, nothing compares to “real life.”

For the grandkids, too, meeting my aunt and experiencing Michigan’s “tropical, rain forest feeling,” as Savannah characterized her first impression, was to make concrete the many stories I had told them about both.

And for me, there was pleasure in seeing a particular love of place replicated in not only my son’s eyes years ago, but potentially now in his children’s.

So, what made an impression on my grandchildren? For Savannah, it was the “deciduous trees,” because she noted, “I’ve seen pine trees in Nevada.” All three loved eating straight from my aunt’s well-tended raspberry patch, as well as the currents and gooseberries. Hanging their wet swim suits on a clothesline attached to two trees at the Chippewa River, being startled by a fish in the river, and guessing which clump of plants might be poison ivy and which not, intrigued them as well.

They tackled the big dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore with gusto time and again, climbing up hundreds of feet and then racing down at breakneck speed, sliding toes first, then digging their heels for a slower descend. We were lucky the day had been cool and rainy so the dunes weren’t blistering hot, but refreshingly damp.

We also drove across Big Mac, the nickname for the seven-mile-long suspension bridge across the Straits of Mackinaw and took the ferry to the famous island in Lake Huron where no cars are allowed.

Here the kids and I rode bicycles around the island (eight miles) while my aunt sat on a bench in town, patiently watching the horses and buggys vying for space on the packed-with-tourists main street of town.

When asked, the grandkids liked swimming at Lake Michigan the best of all. My childhood friend Ruth supplied us with snacks, drinks, towels, and boogie boards and the kids dug in the sand, floated, swam and “rode” a rubber “rug” that bucked like a bronco. The “big lake” is like an ocean, but lacks its sticky saltiness. At one point Savannah, assuming Ruth was American, asked, “What are you two speaking?” When I said “Latvian,” she asked, “Where did she learn it?” To which, I said, “She was born in Latvia like me.” So Savannah concluded, “Oh, then Ruth is family!”

My brother Sig and Sandi hosted the family reunion. Pure heaven for my aunt. She hugged everyone delighted in Sandi and Sig’s teenaged grandchildren. My son Sev had purposefully flown in several days earlier also, to revisit the haunts of his childhood summers. When it came time to take photographs, time itself seemed to conflate. Sev and his cousins, Nikki and Nate were the parents of the six grandchildren there, and yet I had an eerie feeling Sev, Nate, and Nikki also exist in some parallel universe where they’re an eternal 3, 5, and 7 years of age. Who was I? A grandmother to three or six?

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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