Summer in Michigan — just the thought of it brings a smile to my face. Both my husband and I hail from a small town in southeastern Michigan, and this summer we returned for a whirlwind of a trip that examined our past and our ancestry. Day after day brought new discoveries and old places into focus. By the last days of the journey, my mind swirled, and I yearned for the quiet necessary to examine and absorb all I saw and learned.
The sojourn to our home state contained many elements of serendipity when the Tecumseh District Library in Michigan contacted me about making a presentation on my great grandfather’s Civil War Journal. He enlisted in Adrian, Michigan, on April 20, 1861, just down the road from Tecumseh. I agreed and decided to approach other organizations and ask if they’d be interested in my presentation. Within weeks, I’d booked three over a ten-day period in June.
A month later, a friend of my husband’s contacted us and asked us to save the date for a weekend in June for his fiftieth high school reunion. The weekend fell right in the middle of my presentations. I then made a Facebook page for my classmates asking if anyone would like to get together during my visit home. Twenty-plus people said, “Yes.” I did the same thing with cousins and yet another reunion came together.
My memory was very much put to the test. Many of the folks we saw remained in the area or had parents still in the area. I left Stockbridge when I was eighteen. My husband moved away about the same time. Both of our mothers moved from the area in the 1980s. Except for Facebook, I’ve had very little contact with any of these folks in four decades. I brought name tags, but even then I made mistakes with names.
The kids I’d gone to school with had all gotten older! Of course, I wasn’t looking in the mirror when I made my discovery. Once I identified my former playmates–some of whom I knew from my first memories–I could see those former faces in the eyes and gestures of their current conditions. The years floated away as stories spilled from the fountains of our memories. We still carried a bond born of drinking the same water and attending the same schools. While growing up in a village of 1,200 people always seemed boring to me as a kid, I can see now how our childhoods were really very blessed with simplicity, discipline, and love.
The stories of their lives poured forth. Some brought smiles, and yet others brought tears. The divorces, diseases, and death mark us and bring forth a solid and courageous character that few could have imagined back in Mr. Johnston’s history class the day we drove him to distraction, and he lit a cigarette right in front of us in the classroom. When he’d realized what he’d done, he tossed the offending fag out the window. We all remembered that day, and amazingly, we all had the same exact memory of it.
One of my former classmates lost a son in the line of duty as a police officer several years ago. Just starting his career, the young man had been in a high-speed chase when he lost control of the vehicle. The pain on my friend’s face when he spoke of the horrific accident while in the line of duty moved me to tears, and we shared a moment of grief for what we both had lost.
We flipped through the pages of our senior yearbook, and I heard one of the women in our class had been murdered by her husband. Another had died from complications with diabetes. And yet another, sat alone in his apartment miles away, afraid to come out and join us because of what he deemed a life of failure.
It might have seemed that the evening was full of tears. Yet, it was not. We shared our stories, we sympathized, and then we laughed about the pranks, the teachers, the silliness, and the fashion of 1973. We parted with promises to meet again next year for our forty-fifth. It had been nineteen years since our last reunion, and I think we all felt the passage of time. When warmth remains after so many years, it’s worth embracing and repeating.
But the reunioning wasn’t yet over. We still had my husband Bob’s fiftieth to attend. And for me, this would be bittersweet. My brother Don, who committed suicide in 2008, was also a member of this class. These were the guys and gals I grew up admiring. They all remembered me as Don’s kid sister, Patti, a little tow-headed nuisance who followed them around whenever they came to our house. Here I was married to one of their own and one of Don’s best friends to boot. I was more emotional during this reunion than my own because it brought back the pain of losing my brother–long before his suicide.
Two of my cousins also graduated that year, and when I saw them standing together, I felt the first inkling of tears. Linda and Judy and Don–they were the family trio the year of their graduation. Their open house was combined and held at our house. During the banquet, roses were placed in a vase for all those who had departed. I teared up again when they read the name, “Don Camburn.” Then the final event was the singing “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” from Finian’s Rainbow, the musical the class put on their senior year. It was the first musical ever performed at our high school, and Don had a starring role. When the class members stood to sing the song, I saw Don on the stage–all six-foot-six-inch of him–singing, and my eyes began to fill once again. But the rendition was slightly off beat and key. What a relief. It’s hard to cry when you are trying not to laugh.
Two weeks of memories of places and people I haven’t thought about in years. Now they are bombarding my brain. And the more I remember, the more I wonder about those who weren’t there.
Visits to grave sites and former homes, chats with family members and old friends, and rides on the backroads of Michigan showed me that I had nothing to fear from the past that sometimes has appeared as a monstrous apparition over the years. Time and distance have allowed me to soften the dark memories and embellish the good into myths that warm my heart.
We ended the trip with a birthday party for Bob’s mother. She turned ninety-five on Friday, and six of her seven children gathered at her nursing home to pay her tribute. She didn’t say much, but she smiled and gobbled down her cake with gusto.
She deserves it, as we all do. May I still enjoy my cake and eat it, too, at ninety-five.