Every summer from when I was nothing years old onward, the beginning of August was marked by a long drive to Michigan. These drives are carved into my heart. We sang along to the records my dad had recorded to cassettes and then to CDs. We still lovingly call these “The Michigan Tapes” and the songs they contained “The Michigan Songs.” Somewhere between I-70 in Maryland, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nothingness of Ohio, and the celebrated crossover onto Michigan’s roads, “Taxi” by Harry Chapin would come on. And the Camry, the first Honda Odyssey, or the second Honda Odyssey, would explode like a stage at a concert. Through the too many miles and the too little smiles, I still remember you…
I may not always have appreciated these drives because well, they weren’t short. But I think somewhere on those drives, I became a contemplator. There are not many circumstances as effective as turning one into a contemplative kid as nothing but the back seat for 10 straight hours. Also, I wasn’t, I don’t think, a normal kid–if you’ve met my parents, surely you understand why (in all good ways). One of my favorite pastimes was to copy information about the presidents into my spiral notebook. I found this notebook not too long ago. Each president has his own page and his details are carefully plagiarized, down to the names of his children–even the ones that died of tuberculosis.
So on these drives, I looked out the window and thought about the places we whirred past. Who had been there before? Who owned this land? Had anyone stood in that very spot before? Or that one? Or that one? Or this one? Imagining a little boy in his 19th-century overalls and funny hat, I liked to think about the last person to have appreciated a very spot. And now it was my turn. And somehow we were connected. I’ve always loved the past, even the past I don’t know. I just make it up. And the places that the past occupied–they are the relics we have left.
It was on one of these drives that I wrote the following poem about my Grandpa Doran (I actually read it at his funeral). To me, he is Michigan. But only the good things about it, and there are plenty. There’s something about those drives that just lulls a Doran into contemplation.
“Michigan Seems Like a Dream to Me Now”
He’s sitting in the front passenger seat,
The window’s down just enough
And my dad has his arm out the window,
Craving a cigarette.
As Grandpa looks to the right,
He turns around slightly
So he’s got one stern eye on me.
He says he’s been here before
Was here with someone with some name
A name like “Bill Donnelly”
One of those names
And you can picture a man wearing a thin tie
And a prominent belt
And his shoes are shiny…
Because he’s “Bill Donnelly”
They were on a trip
And the way I can’t remember the name
I can’t remember the year either
But with Grandpa,
I feel like all years end in ‘9.’
I can just hear him saying NINE
In his Michigan accent
From his lips,
The most important number there is.
It’s bearably hot in the van
There’s a good book in my lap
Through the large, tinted window
I’m scrolling through fast food places with my sleepy eyes
And listening to Grandpa tell his story
And I’m wishing for him that it were 1959
And Bill was here
with his tie
and shiny shoes
Because then Grandpa wouldn’t have multiple doctors
Or things to think about other than
Where to eat
And I just want 1959.
Among my favorite things to read about and to teach about is setting. In grad school they called it “sense of place.” I love reading about a place and feeling catapulted there by imagery and painterly lines, even if I never want to be there in the first place. One of my favorite writers is Rick Bragg. He writes about growing up poor in Alabama–some state and state I’d not want to be. His descriptions of setting make me want to weep. Maybe someday the pages of his books will simply absorb into my fingers and through my veins and into my brain and I’ll be able to write like him.
Bragg writes of Alabama, “This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven.” And “Momma kept a garden which sounds romantic to people who have never held a hoe.” And, “I grew up in the time when a young man in a baggy suit and slicked-down hair stood spraddle-legged in the crossroads of history and talked hot and mean about the colored, giving my poor and desperate people a reason to feel superior to somebody, to anybody. I know that even as the words of George Wallace rang through my Alabama, the black family who lived down the dirt road from our house sent fresh-picked corn and other food to the poor white lady and her three sons, because they knew their daddy had run off, because hungry does not have a color.” Wow.
Read All Over But the Shoutin’ or The Prince of Frogtown and let’s talk afterward.
There’s something about a great description of a place that tells so, so much more. The building in which I work was built in 1953 to educate thousands of baby boomers. Now it has enough space for two small schools and still has dozens (I’m guessing but I haven’t been able to fully explore, because I am scared to go alone) of unused classrooms.
I recently had my kids write about the auditorium in our school. I set them up with the history of the building and that the school opened as all white. We looked at the few photos I could find online and talked about a time they or I could barely imagine. Then we walked up to the auditorium and through those they-don’t-make-them-like-this-anymore-doors. I let them run amuck down the ramped aisles. They stomped on the stage just to hear themselves exist. They ran through the rows past so many chairs fallen victim to sharpies and sharp objects. They tugged at blood red curtains that may have been sewn by Betsy Ross. Backstage they found an old soundboard and decorations from stage sets of the past. It’s a teacher’s and a writer’s gold mine but I just feel sad knowing that people cared for this place once. My school has brought some life back into the auditorium with fashion and poetry and talent and orange bucket drums but it’s hard to erase decades of neglect or the wrong kind of attention. Each performance in my mind has a tiny shadow cast over it by the fact that we’re in a space that was once what my girls deserve. That auditorium has been cared for and not cared for by thousands of people since 1953 and what remains is evidence of that. A place tattooed by its temporary residents.
In one of my graduate courses I wrote a piece about Memorial Stadium. I grew up down the street from it. It’s Baltimore’s quintessential example of a place that has changed over time but is still referred to by what it used to be there. In my research for that piece I learned that our next door neighbor and my daycare mother, Ms. Mabel, had moved to Ednor Gardens in 1971. (Side note: Ms. Mabel died in 2016 and may she rest in peace.) Because the neighborhood was white and she was not, she had to have a “letter of recommendation” from a white person in order to be able to buy her house. The demographics have since completely reversed. Places change hands and change.
In my parents’ 1950s knotty pine basement there is an old bar. It’s where Aubrey and I used to play all kinds of games that were as above our heads as the height of the bar counter. Over the bar are stick-on letters welcoming some military person long gone. Still I like to imagine him coming home from some far away shore and seeing that his wife had decorated their basement bar for him. Did she balance on the counter to get the letters straight? Did she lose sleep over excitement that he’d see it when he came home? Did he come downstairs, see her handiwork, and they drank and ate and remembered why they fell in love? Did they know that one day the Dorans would use that bar for storage?
I hope in 100 years whoever lives in my parents’ house loves it like we do. In a way, it feels like 1536 is part of our family.
When I drive through the depths of the East Side and Over West in Baltimore, I always get into a stare at stoplights. I look at roofless homes with trees growing through the windows. Still a marble stoop out front. Maybe I can see the staircase from the street, condemned and incomplete. I stare because I am picturing someone getting those keys a million years ago and thinking, “Wow. This is my home.” I imagine the care this house once had when someone swept and scrubbed those marble steps. When a tree growing through the window and past the absence of a roof seemed like only a nightmare or a scene from Jumanji. Yet so many Baltimore houses have this fate. But someone a few squatters and slumlords and redlines ago probably walked in that door, put down a briefcase, hung up a hat, and hugged a child saying, “How was school?” Those are the images I get lost in. What that place was once.
A couple years ago we were going through my dad’s mom’s old photos and came across one of her standing in front of her childhood home. She had been a department store model and she looks like an angel, and now she is one. In the photo she’s dressed up and smiling, ready for whatever date won her affection. I imagine she probably got ready in that bedroom upstairs across the hardwoods from the bathroom. She’d sat at a vanity and smiled back at herself, thinking Yes, I’m ready. I got lost in that photo, as I often do when looking at pictures of her–she died well before I was born and still stuns me every time I see her face in those old photos. I pictured the inside of that house and the love and memories it contained.
I should have kept it at that.
But I couldn’t help myself. I googled the address and the street view came up to reveal a victim of Detroit’s plight. I had to know. And now my image of teenage Ann getting primped is altered slightly by the deterioration of her childhood home. However, despite my day dreamy mind, people are not their place.
My Gram Mary Lou, the toughest little lady I know, grew up in Polish Canton in Baltimore. As opposed to my paternal grandmother’s home, hers is now highly prized real estate. It’s right off of Canton Square. We visited a few years ago and Aub, Mom, and I soaked in her intact knowledge of what was there, and there, and on that corner, and over there where that restaurant is now. I guess this is the better fate for a home you once loved. Still, I remind myself people are not their place.
May you care for your little corner. May you leave no trace–unless it’s the good kind. May you leave each place you inhabit a little better than you found it. And may you think about those who were there first.