I grew up in small-town suburbia. Nice middle-class neighborhoods were surrounded by farmland, open meadows, and woods. Simply put, it was “the sticks.”
Our town was too small to have a zip-code; we “borrowed” ours from a neighboring town. It was close enough to Detroit for my Dad to make the hour and a half drive each way to work; Dad was a tool and die foreman for General Motors, a good job that enabled him to provide well for his family for the rest of his life, and for Mom thereafter. Mom grew up in Detroit; Dad was transplanted there after having spent much of his childhood in rural Pennsylvania. But by the time I was born, Detroit had changed, and the old neighborhoods weren’t considered safe anymore. I was less than a year old when they moved out to “the sticks” to give their growing family a better life.
And my two younger brothers and I did have a good life – everything a kid could ask for living in small-town suburbia. We had bike adventures on the trails through the meadow known by every neighborhood kid as “The Field” at one end of the block; at the other end, we caught frogs, turtles, and got generally covered in mud at “The Creek.” We walked nearly a mile to school on the path through “The Woods,” and on snow days when that trek was cancelled, we went sledding down “The Hill.” Simple titles for uncomplicated times. I had a happy childhood growing up in the sticks; we all did, and we reminisce about it often.
After high-school, at age seventeen, I joined the Army – it was an opportunity to experience the world outside my comfort zone. It’s something that if my daughters were old enough to do now, I’d try to discourage; the world is just too volatile a place in this age. My parents might’ve had their reservations too, but they were proud, and consented to sign the forms, sending me off to see the world and find my place in it. I did find my place while I was in the Army; I met my husband while I was enlisted, and after our tours of duty were finished, we got married, and started our own family.
I’ve been home countless times since for family reunions, holidays, special occasions, or just to visit for a few days when time and scheduling allowed. It’s been nearly a decade though, since I’ve been to the old neighborhood and haunts. My brother’s house, in even a smaller town than that of our childhood, has become the hub for family gatherings; he’s got the room, that’s were the nieces and nephews live, and Mom and my other brother would come from opposite directions, all the family converging in one place.
Early this June, I returned to the place of my childhood. I began to grow uneasy the closer I got to the area I once knew like the back of my hand. I felt lost. Nothing was familiar. Two-lane roads that once sliced through farmland were now four-lane congested thoroughfares lined with strip malls on either side. I recognized the old Schwinn Bike Shop, amazed that it was still standing after all these years. Dad took me there to get my first bike that wasn’t a hand-me-down from one of my umpteen cousins. Shiny cobalt blue, with a banana seat and high sissy-bar in the back, it seemed to fly effortlessly over those trails in The Field. Long after I’d outgrown the bike, I flew effortlessly down the dirt road that veered from the main road, driving the family Suburban with my friends all piled inside.
The dirt road is still there, too, but looks out of place, veering off into woods – a bit of country in the midst of what had become city. Strip malls grew sparse on the main road, and were replace by large gated communities, one after another. Behind the gates loomed large, pretentious looking houses with golf course-like lawns and shrubs pruned into perfectly-shaped meatballs. These communities all had titles, often with the word “Knoll,” “Pointe,” or “Ridge” in them. There was a “Hidden Oaks,” and they must have been hidden them well for I saw none, which was followed by “Seven Oaks,” but I didn’t stop to count. “Who lives in all these houses?” I said aloud. Who can afford them, and where has the middle-class gone? When did all this happen?!
When did Mom get old?
The reason for my return home was nothing so festive as a family reunion, or so relaxing as a leisurely visit. Mom was in the hospital. Living in that big house where we grew up, alone now since us kids moved out and Dad died, she’d fallen. She laid in the hospital bed, looking much smaller and more frail than I remembered her being when I last saw her right after Christmas. But even now, her strength shone through, and I am proud this amazing woman is my mother. When asked by her children, nurses, or the doctors how she felt, her response was always, “Can’t complain; it does no good.” It’s her creed, and the way she’s lived her life. Faced with an amputation of her leg below the knee, she might have been afraid, but neither cried, nor felt sorry for herself. We shared family stories, laughed, and teased each other instead. Aside from the reason for the visit, and the obvious surroundings, nothing had changed – family is strength, and we had that.
I stayed with my brother although it was much longer drive than staying at Mom’s house would have been; I don’t think I could have handled the silence in the house I remember as holding so much family laughter so long ago. As is my habit at home, I sat on the front porch at dawn, drinking coffee and watching things wake up. My brother mentioned a fox with kits lives in the brush across the road and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of them in the early morning. But something was different – the view had changed from how I last remembered it. I realized I could actually see the brush. There used to be a fifteen foot strip of woods on the edge of his property; a barrier between the yard and the road. Now, only a dozen or so maples remained, and I wondered why he cut down the woods. The answer was found by looking on the other side of the road – the remains of a stand of ashes; skeleton sentinels standing as a stark reminder that this was the area of the state hit first and hardest by the Emerald Ash Borer, a foreign invader which has wiped out millions of ash trees in Michigan and other states. My brother had to take out seventeen dead ashes stricken by this exotic pest. Once I noticed them, I saw dead ashes everywhere on woodland edges during the drive from his house to the hospital.
And I had plenty of drive-time while staying at my brother’s house those couple of weeks. He lives about 45 minutes away from the hospital, down one of the most winding, hilly roads I’ve driven in a long time. It was a pretty drive through woods, farmland, and a couple of sleepy, one-stoplight towns – similar to those drives on that dirt road I barrelled down as a teenager, and same kind scenery I see everyday where I live now. Despite the reason – or maybe because of it – it was the most relaxing part of the day. He asked me the last time we made the drive together before I came home if I was tired of it. Nope – windows and sunroof open, and tunes blaring to drown out my singing, I wasn’t tired of it at all; I enjoyed it.
Leonard – 1 square mile; population 350 – was one of the two one-stoplight towns I passed through each day. A banner stretched across the road announced the upcoming Strawberry Festival in July (at home Shelby and her friend were on the corner selling quarts of strawberries just picked from her friend’s uncle’s farm). The town was a stop on the old Pontiac, Oxford and Northern rail line during railroading’s heyday in the 1800s. The P.O. & N, dubbed the Polly Ann, had been converted “Rails to Trails.” It was the town’s only change that my brother knew had occurred here since he was a kid. The Leonard Market was still there on the corner same as it always was, a big white-washed brick building with wide-planked floors, advertising deli sandwiches, cold pop, milk, bread, and Walt’s Crawlers. I never knew Leonard existed – it was outside the realm of my small childhood kingdom. I never knew my brother had ties to this tiny, little town; his friend Joe’s family owned property there – 40 acres of farmland they dreamed of retiring to one day. My brother spent summer days here, selling field corn for 5 cents an ear from a stand on the road – corn they’d pilfered from the neighboring farmer’s field the night before. I’m sure they knew better – eight-year olds probably don’t know the difference between sweet corn and field corn, but they certainly know better than to snitch corn – or anything else.
The cottonwoods were in bloom while I was there; their fluff flew through the air so thick at times, it seemed like a snowy day in January instead of nearly the beginning of summer. Driving through a fluff-snowstorm, I noticed a sign on the side of the rode: Watch for drifting snow, and it struck me as a funny coincidence. The seasons have changed, but the sign is still accurate. Fluff-drifts flew in a whirlwind as I sped past. It reminded me of the mammoth cottonwood at home in South Haven. Dating back to the Civil War Era, it was a town landmark until a few years ago, when town officials decided it posed a risk to cars parked along the street, and pedestrians walking along the sidewalk. People protested cutting it down. Professional opinions were sought, debated, and in the end, all that remains of the grand old tree is a large “wheel” of its trunk housed in the Historical Society’s building.
One morning, I skipped my usual coffee on the front porch and took a long walk down the country dirt road that my brother’s house is on instead. It was a beautiful walk – everything was still misty and fresh from the night’s rain. Early summer roadside “weeds” bloomed in ditches – ox-eye daisies, hawk-weed and sweet red clover are some of my favorites, and white anemones lit-up darkened areas where trees arched over the road. I saw a mocking bird, recognized a yellow bird to be some type of warbler but gave up trying to identify it; I’m more familiar with the bright yellow gold finches at the feeder at home. A Great Blue Heron flew directly in front of me, up from the flooded ditch as I walked by.
I reflected as I walked. So much had changed since I was a kid, safe and naive in my little slice of small town suburbia. The world is in constant motion; nothing remains the same forever. Battle lines are drawn and wars are fought; boundaries merge, and new countries are developed. The state of the economy changes; long-standing companies file for bankruptcy, and others emerge victorious. Life goes on. Trees die, but new ones grow in their place. People get old, babies are born, children still sell produce from roadside stands, and their parents seek to provide them with a better life then they themselves knew.
Change is inevitable. Some changes are welcomed; some can be fought and reversed. Some are immediate, and others creep up on you gradually and unnoticed, until wham! There they are glaring at you in the face, and you wonder how it all happened. Sometimes you drag your heels, kicking and screaming all the way. There are times though, as Mom says, you “can’t complain; it does no good. Sometimes you’ve just got to flow with the tide, and accept where it takes you.”