- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
With disarming charm and dazzling insight, Terry Gamble offers a rich, compassionate portrait of individuals connected by blood but separated by experience, perception, and destiny.
In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.
Summers began with our little group clustered, my father presiding on the platform, the tinny train-coming smell that electrified the air. Weeks before school let out, the steamer trunks had been brought up, followed by the ritual of packing. In June, we boarded the Super Chief, pulling out of Pasadena, my mother and father, my sister and I, Louisa our nurse, my grandmother and her parakeet, her chauffeur, her cook, and two maids who had parakeets of their own. My grandmother, Bada, who was my father's mother, visited with us in the club car and viewed the dresses our mother had bought—appliquéd beanstalks meandering up one side, Jack at the hem, the Giant at our shoulders. Bada smiled and patted our heads and gave us sour candies. Then Louisa pulled us away to the dome car, where we watched the rocks and sand and cactuses of Arizona glide by.
Like Louisa, the porters were Negroes. They called my father "sir," and he called them "sir" back, but I knew it wasn't the same. My father was a tall man with a proud nose and a bearing bred from Choate and Princeton and World War II. He seemed to stand taller than anyone in the Chicago train station. I shook off Louisa's hand, my Mary Janes clacking upon the tiles as I ran through a vast cavern rife with cigars and diesel until I found my father's hand and grasped it. Can't you keep hold of her? my mother hissed at Louisa when they caught up to us. My father laid his long fingers on my shoulder as if he was going to embrace me. Instead, he prodded me toward my mother.
From that time on, I was put on a leash. They strapped me into a sort of vest I could not undo, and Louisa grasped that leather rope as if her life depended on it. After I grew up, my mother told me it was only one summer I traveled to Michigan at the end of a leash, but if my memory serves me, I traveled like that for years.
Now it is blackness below -- acres of woodland, lake, and river. The inside of the plane is barely lit, and even though the seats are full, no one talks above the engines. It is late, and everyone just wants to get there. Except for me. I want the plane to turn around. I press my forehead to the glass until I vibrate, becoming one with the engines, scanning the landscape for that one place where gravity takes me as if nothing else exists. Finally, I make out a band of lights on a smudge of land, the dots of moored boats in a harbor. Below on that island huddle forty or so summerhouses. Some of them are silent with sleep. Others have people sitting on porches, drinking their nightcaps. In more than one, someone is playing bridge or charades. Someone is dancing. Someone is making love.
But not in our house. In our house, my brother-in-law has nodded off beneath his book, and my sister, if she's awake, is knitting. Upstairs, in the front room—the good room facing the lake -- my mother, too, is sleeping, as she has slept for months, her eyes not quite closed, unable to move, her snore penetrating the board-thin walls.
I am not returning because of my mother. It is my sister who calls me back. We are descending now, the runway traced by a pale, blue glow. The plane lurches, stops. The passengers rise, their heads ducked beneath the low ceiling. I grab my bag, waiting my turn to push out the door into the humid sweetness of the Michigan air.
Except for the bars, Harbor Town is dark. It is late, and even the ice-cream store has been mopped up, the chairs stacked on tables. It's been eleven years, but I know that in the daylight, colored awnings will flank the streets, shading boxes of petunias and impatiens -- red, white, and violet. From every lamppost, American flags imply that the Fourth of July, already one month gone, is just around the corner. The airport van has dropped me off. Standing beside my luggage on the pier, I fix my eyes on the humpbacked island less than a half mile offshore. It looks the same. It always looks the same. For a moment, dread gives way to the anticipation that I felt as a child after a four-day train ride when we first saw the lake, the ferry, heard the gulls, smelled the rotted essence of fish.
I ring the old brass bell that has hung for over a century. From across the harbor, the rhythm of a chugging propeller grows louder until I make out the gleaming teak lake boat of my childhood. The driver is young. He wears a guard's uniform and a change maker on his belt, but he doesn't charge for the ride. After he docks and loads my bags, I sit in the cockpit, crossing the channel that, like the river Styx, divides one world from another. The faint strands of U2 coming from the driver's radio seem jarring, and I don't know the driver's name, but I give him mine, whisper it like a password, a name that passes unnoticed in New York ...Good Family