The leaves are turning north of the Mackinac Bridge. The winds off of Superior have become stiff and cold, and the air carries that harsh nip of fall. When I breathe in, I remember briefly old high-school crushes and nights ablaze with the staccato roar of the drumline. But in Port Austin, lower south, the trees are still green, and the air is still rich with the warm scents of pampas grass and water. The only clues of autumn's approach, occasionally, are a single crimson leaf on an otherwise verdant oak, or a sudden breeze a bit more cool than expected. But otherwise, of summer's end there is no sign.
After several weeks of hiking through the Keweenaw Peninsula, far to the north, my wife and I find ourselves back on my family's five-acre plot, a few miles from my childhood home. I've tried my best to spend my time well on leave, and thus far I am satisfied with my progress. I've wandered through tree-lined gorges and abandoned mines, hiked the low mountains that tower over Lake Superior, and even dropped in for a morning of meditation with the Buddhist monks in Marquette. I've laughed and shared memories with old friends over endless pints of English beer, and best of all, I've done it all in the constant company of my spouse. The past few weeks with Anne have been a joy. No relationship is ever perfect, but since I've come back on leave, I have found myself reminded again of just why my relationship with her is so worthwhile. All in all, these past few weeks have been great.
But of course, there are still old haunts that I have yet to revisit, and as even my wife understands, there are some journeys which simply must be made alone.
On my final day of leave, I take the rental car and drive the eight miles back into my hometown. I leave my windows open and crank the stereo, reveling in being able to blast my favorite rock station from back in high school. I park the Sebring in the parking lot behind the middle school gym, and step out into the afternoon sun. I adjust my sunglasses, and pause to tuck a cigarette behind my ear. It's after Labor Day, and the Thursday afternoon air is hot and still. I start off by taking a stroll downtown. All the shops I grew up with are still there, though a few have changed hands. Some have gotten new paint jobs, but all in all, it's still the same quiet harbor town I remember. That's what I love about this place. Without so much as a McDonald's or even a second stoplight, things here remain relatively constant. Time marches on, of course, but the things that give Port Austin its spirit remain untouched. Satisfied, I keep moving.
I wander down to the marina, and pause to admire the various late-season yachts docked in the harbor. Impressive things, and as always, nicely framed against the backdrop of the breakwall. As the sun shines down on the water, I close my eyes and take a breath. I relish the cleanness of the air; take in the keening of the gulls. Living in Germany, I haven't seen gulls in over a year, and after having grown up with them, though I'd come to see them as little more than airborne rats, I find that now I can actually appreciate the sounds they make. I spend a few minutes regarding them, wings of ivory flitting to and fro in the light of the sun. I briefly debate taking another stroll out onto the breakwall, but decide against it, knowing somehow that there are other places to see. Besides, I remind myself, the breakwall's really best at sunset. I keep walking.
I wander down an old residential street, past a bakery where my father used to buy custard donuts for us every Saturday. I pass more quaint shops, and a few houses belonging to elderly family friends. Most, I'm told, have moved away or died. As I venture west, the trees become taller, and the houses slightly more ornate, until finally, I find myself at one of my favorite childhood hangouts, a large public commons known as Gallup Park. Gallup straddles the tiny street on which I grew up, and on one end--the south--boasts an impressive tennis/basketball court, while at the base of the hill stretches a neat three-way diamond of softball fields. Across the street, the hill that is the park's dominant feature becomes more prominent, and is dotted erratically with towering red pines. A gazebo sits at the base, and it's atop this hill where are stored some of my fondest childhood memories. I used to joust here against my friends on our ten-speeds. In the winter, the many trees and stumps became both hazards and weapons for overeager sled racers. I remember spacing out for hours just laying on my back under the ample shade, napping until nearly dinnertime.
The afternoon sun spears through the boughs today as it used to over a decade ago, and when I close my eyes, it's easy to imagine that I'm thirteen years old again, small for my age with shaggy blond hair and glasses. For a second, I still live just down the street, and it's still just me and my mountain bike, staring out on that first monumental day of summer. From somewhere distant, I hear a lawnmower. The warm breeze picks up slightly, and with it comes the rustle of air blowing through the grass and pine. It occurs to me that such sounds have been been going on since before humans walked the earth, and will likely continue on long after we disappear. The Divine moves in those blades, a Universal Conductor of sorts. Its chlorophyll bows and strings render a symphony. Addressed to nobody in particular, a whisper escapes my lips.
I breath more deeply.
I open my eyes, smiling, and move on.
I swing back into town up my old street. I grew up in an old two-story home in a wooded residential area of Port Austin. It stretches from just east of Lake Street and reaching north from Jefferson all the way to Spring Street and the waterfront. Much here, too, is the same, though sadly several years ago a wealthy couple from Detroit bought my childhood home and gutted it. It now is reborn as a tacky pseudo-colonial; the screened-in porch is long gone, and the exterior is now covered in a slate-gray vinyl siding. The entire second floor has been redone. I still wonder if my old bedroom remains.
When we first moved in, my mother freaked because the previous occupant of my room had seen fit to draw ornate graffito tags across the cerulean-blue walls. She, of course, thought that they were atrocious. I, being eight years old, disagreed. Between the colorful tags, the generous amount of space, and the maple boughs leaning outside my window, I felt as though I had been given a sort of funky treetop loft space. From the years of 8 to 19, that second-floor room was my sanctuary. I spent long summer afternoons there, laying over the foot of my bed, staring out the window as I listened to Sting and worked out ever more complicated form studies in my sketchbooks. I understand that things change, but all the same some part of my still rankles at the arrogance of the new proprietors. A voice whispers somewhere.
Bastards bulldozed my childhood.
I shrug. Forget them
. The room may be gone. The memories remain. Nothing stays, and I can live with that. I keep walking.
Skipping over downtown, I walk by the old Port Austin Bank building, now a trendy restaurant where I spent my adolescence busing tables. My father still tends bar there to this day. It's a nice place, but I can't even look at the building anymore without remembering the smell of honey vinaigrette. I must have mixed a hundred ten-gallon buckets of the stuff during my employment there. Food's still good, though, and the staff all mostly remember me. Since joining the Army, I can't walk into the place without the owner--himself a Vietnam veteran--insisting he buy me a drink. Based on my most recent visit, the Chicken Wellington is still first-rate.
Beyond that, I hang a left on Railroad, past the old Community Playhouse where my mother sang in both Gypsy
and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
All childish jokes about my mother aside, the place really is a nice thing to have in such a small town, and it was there that I first developed an appreciation for the arts. And best of all, after my dad left the Navy, our first home in Port Austin was located right across the street, just next door to the Post Office. Much nicer, and much in the same condition as always, this first home is a two-story house painted a cheerful yellow. It's here that I lived between the years of between 6 and 8. Though I do miss the place sometimes, it honestly doesn't hold the same significance as the one I lived in by the Protestant Church. It occurs to me now that between living next to a Post Office and a Christian house of worship, I've more or less grown up in the shadow of both Church and
State. Walking right on Spring, up towards Bird Creek, I elect to leave the implications of that sudden irony for another time.
On the other side of town, the spire of St. Michael's Catholic Church dominates the sky, and in its shadow is located a quiet but well-maintained cemetery. I'm given to understand that my grandfather's headstone is located there. Cutting down the banks of Bird Creek, I ford the now-shallow riverbed, suddenly possessed of an intense need to pay it a visit; I'm not entirely sure why.
I didn't know my grandfather that well, though I spent a great deal of time with him as a boy. He wasn't a talkative sort, and he always had a fractious relationship with my mother. The only things I ever learned about him came from her. I suppose my grandfather was simply a private person, a trait I can certainly understand and respect. Still, I find myself drawn to the cemetery, seeking out something I can't really identify. It's a quick walk.
Before I know it, I'm standing in front of the church. One Saturday morning during my fifteenth summer, I spent several hours here talking about the nature of faith over Confession with the young and energetic local priest, Father Michael Bell. I had just fallen hard for a young woman named Teresa, and I went to him seeking a fresh start, suddenly looking at my world with new eyes. Though I later went on to abandon the Church, Father Mike's eloquence and insight helped shape my spirituality in profound ways.
Father Mike died several years ago in a car wreck, and when I had first received the news, I remember being genuinely heartbroken. I wander over to the cemetery as I reflect on this, and as I arrive I suddenly find myself saddened again. I remember that Father Mike was buried in Saginaw--no chance of visiting his grave. I look down at my feet and let out a sigh. I swallow. No matter. I pause at the gate, and then step resolutely onto the grounds.
As I wander between the rows, I think to myself how nice it could be to have my body interred here. I've never been much for the idea of embalming and burial--I'd prefer to be cremated--but still, the idea of having a headstone and maybe a portion of my ashes here is somehow appealing. I walk back and forth between the headstones, noting all the familiar family names--Strozeski, Andrewski, Goretski, Horetski, Antoszewski. There are a lot of "Skis" where I come from; make of that what one will. I find myself marveling at the number of old military vets buried here. The flags stand out among the graves like daisies, each noting a headstone bearing the name, rank, and service branch of the deceased. A hardy lot, too, these ones. Only two combat fatalities, and both dating back to World War One. I suppose I should find that reassuring.
I don't know exactly why, but as I find my own mortality very much staring me in the face, I feel as though perhaps the answers I seek lie in the company of the dead. I'm reminded of the story about a Buddhist abbot, once asked by a Westerner if his spiritual knowledge allowed him to communicate with the dead. "The dead," responded the monk, "are easy. My difficulties are with the living." After many years of thought, I think I've come to finally understand that statement. The dead, I find, speak with one voice, and that voice is the same as the one I hear whispering in the grass out at Gallup Park. More than anything here, I find peace--comfort even. I grow increasingly reflective as I walk from headstone to headstone, noting the names and dates.
Some, I observe, are the names of people I know. Many are not. Still others are for those who are yet living. All the same, I find myself shocked to see a few names I did not expect. Among them, Melissa Breuss, a girl a few years my senior whom I remember clearly from grade school. I give a start when I notice her name among all the others, and I walk up to it, stunned. The small grave marker provided her says she died in 2000.
I ask myself. How did I miss that
I'd have been home on summer break, just following my freshman year of college. There's no way I shouldn't have known. But then, perhaps I was simply too busy out partying to remember. I didn't much care for Missy Breuss in life, but now in death I wonder sadly about the circumstances which cut short her days. My generation in this town,
I observe, has suffered a casualty.
It may yet suffer another
, comes the response.
I look up, biting my lip. The voice again.
The morbidity of this thought pattern aside, I can't deny the truth it speaks. I sigh again. Death, I say to myself, is as universal as Suffering. It's a part of life. I can't predict it, I remind myself, and all I can do is hope for the best and pray that when the time comes, I can meet it as best as my own sense of honor sees fit. Nothing more, nothing less. Strangely, I'm both surprised and comforted by this answer. I also realize the answer is not my own. It's been over two hours I've spent in this cemetery, and now the day is growing late. I haven't succeeded in finding my grandfather, but whatever else I was looking for when I came here, I am now content that I have found it. I turn to leave.
Walking back into town, I pass the street leading down to the local public beach. I hang a right, wandering down the well-shaded residential lane, but when I come to the turn I need to make, I keep going. Bird Creek Park is nice, but there are better views, I tell myself; ones where I can be more assured of getting the privacy I need. In light of this decision, I continue following my current street until it curves into a subdivision of well-manicured waterfront cabins. I've always enjoyed this neighborhood, even in spite of the condos and the large, ugly mansion someone erected there several years ago.
After a few more minutes of walking, I come at last to my final destination: a narrow public easement nestled between two sets of retirement condominiums. Once little more than a drainage, the entire easement has since become overrun with lush cattail clusters, which stretch for a good number of yards into the bay. Lake Huron's water levels have lowered in recent years, and thus what were once barren stretches of exposed lakebed have become beautiful wetland jetties. This particular easement also lies at the most northeastern edge of the harbor, thus providing a unique view of Port Austin in the fading afternoon light.
Coming to the end of the drive, I hop up onto the steel abutment at the shore's edge. I walk out slowly, one foot over the other, like a gymnast. It's almost five in the afternoon, and the sun is perhaps two hours from setting. The daylight is fading from blue-white to a bleached-out golden haze, and as I look out over the water, I smile. I've dreamt of returning here, to my home, ever since we got our orders, all in hopes of seeing the sky just this way.
There's much beauty to be felt in this world, but even to this day I think that there is no beauty in the world quite the same as this. Port Austin may be a speck of a small town; it can often be a very quiet, very lonely place. But for all its quirks, all its inconveniences, it's still very lovely. For what it's worth, I'm glad that I have been able to spend so much of my life here. Life goes on quietly on these shores, regardless of wherever else the long road takes me.
The wind is picking up again; a warm breeze coming from the southeast. Overhead, the gulls soar and call to each other, roosting along the shoreline in neat rows or skimming over the water in search of fish. The waves are coming in quietly, and as I look to the west Port Austin is sparkling in the harbor. A thousand sunlit gems dance across the emerald green of Lake Huron. I stand up a bit straighter. I don't know when, or even if, I'll be coming back. But for now, I'm at peace with myself.This,
I think. Right here. This is what I want to remember. Hang the rest.
Thirteen years old, twenty-three, or somewhere in between, for a second it all runs together. I stand for a moment as all potential selves simultaneously. I exist outside the field of Time, and on this fading afternoon I dwell, however briefly, in nirvana
I am at rest.