In A Loved Place: Paradise Lost, Bonnie Smith is growing up in Michigan?s Upper Peninsula in the 1930s. She moves from town to town as her musician father struggles to put food on the family table. With each move, she looks for a best friend who will connect her to that place. The story covers the time from 1932 to 1960, during which she realizes people with money are the favored in life?s competitions. In her quest for wealth, she sets her sights on Alfeo Strong, the richest boy in town and her brother?s best friend. When Alfeo?s sister dies in a car accident, Bonnie both likes and fears the attention of his heartbroken mother as she gives Bonnie the dead girl?s clothes and speaks to her like her lost daughter. Who will she be marrying, she asks herself? Alfeo or Alfeo?s mother?
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They said she was born at home, not a fancy place, in an area called Trowbridge Park, in a two-story log cabin. It was winter. As an adult, she listened to stories of things that happened, or wondered at the few pictures hanging on walls, or lying in drawers, or in albums, whose pages had no arrangement of time or place.
From hushed conversations between her parents — as well as from those aunts and uncles who still attended family funerals — she glimpsed small peeks into her family's past, what they were like before her birth. Some things she remembered. The time during the Great Depression, was always a source of curiosity for her, and she pieced memories together in her mind as best she could.
Bonnie's mama, Helen, was young — barely twenty — when she gave birth. A grainy picture showed her with Baby Bonnie, Mama looking a little scared and the baby clutching at Mama's engagement necklace, an amber stone embedded in silver filigree on a thin silver chain. "This kid likes pretty things," her daddy was believed to have said. Bonnie's daddy was ten years older than Mama. Their engagement photo, always displayed on their bedroom dresser, showed a sweet-faced girl with dark wavy hair, cut short in a 1920's flapper style, her eyes glancing to the right, as if she were looking at something odd. The man had sleeked back black hair, a trim mustache, and kind eyes, that some called bedroom eyes. People found him "Clark Gable" handsome.
One of her dad's sisters, Aunt Lillian, had said, "Before he met Mama, he was engaged to a girl who broke things off. That girl broke his heart."
Will, that was her daddy's name, was a musician. Another picture showed him in a banjo band taken during the twenties, wearing a straw boater and a stripped jacket. Everyone in the band was dressed the same. They were seated in one row, on a stage, before a closed curtain, holding their instruments neck up on their laps, all facing forward and unsmiling. Maybe it was taken in a dance hall. Maybe it was on a stage before a silent picture show. No one seemed to know.
Aunt Lillian said, "Your mother looked a lot like the girl who had broken Daddy's heart. He was crazy about her, bought her a ring and everything."
Her mom, Helen, was seventeen when she attended a dance where Will was playing in the band. He had spotted Mama on the dance floor, and he stepped down from the bandstand to ask her to dance. That was in the summer of 1930. Mama always said Daddy was a terrible dancer.
"He just shuffles back and forth in a sort of one-step," Mama had once complained to Aunt Lillian.
In any case, they were married just six months later, before a priest, in February, at 5:00 o'clock in the morning. It was a quiet affair, almost an elopement. There was no Mass, because there was no money, though the banns had been read unbeknownst to Helen's parents. Will's brother, Francis, and another of his sisters, Tilly, were witnesses.
Helen's mother, Grandmother Hilda Johnson, was opposed to the union because Will was a Catholic, and she was a staunch Swedish Methodist. She carried on and on when the two were courting. She offered Helen a fur coat and a car not to marry Will, but to no avail. Helen was supposed to go to nursing school. She had the nurse's watch and everything. She had to wait a year; she was only seventeen, having skipped a grade because she was so smart.
The quick, secret ceremony took place anyway, and when Grandma Johnson found out, Helen was cut off. That was that. She had converted to Catholicism to marry Daddy, promising to raise any offspring in the faith. The conversion didn't take however, as she failed attend church for years and years, returning only when one of her sons committed suicide.
On the morning of Helen's wedding it began to snow in blinding wet flakes. Mama often said she thought about calling off the wedding because she wasn't sure the wedding party could get to the cathedral for the ceremony.
Seemed it was always snowing in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Sometimes the snow was so deep that Daddy had to pull a sled to the store to get groceries. All that white. So heavy. Blowing about, like the world was in a snow globe, being shaken up by some unseen hand. The sky blanketed the ground with smothering flakes. No one minded the snow. It was a way of life. Even the old people could be seen outside their doors, shoveling a path, and calling out to one another, "Another big one, eh?"
Well, of course, everyone made it to the church, and the vows were spoken in record time, in the early morning dark, in the downtown cathedral.
Helen and Will lived for a time, at first, with Will's Ma and Pa in Marquette. His mom, Marie, was French Canadian and spoke mostly English, but sometimes French. No one knew Grandpa Smith's origin. Uncle Francis said he was adopted by a family in Michigan by the name of Smith. Adoption records were closed at that time, so his true family background remained a mystery. Grandma Marie met Grandpa Ollie at a dance, too. She was playing the piano with a band at a local bar. That's where he first saw her. He went everywhere she was playing, and finally got up the courage to ask her to meet him in a park on a Sunday afternoon for ice cream. It was all so romantic.
Summers in the Upper Peninsula were short. People spent most of their times outside in gardens, or picking wild berries, or trapping rabbits for stew. Beer drinking went on year-round. A lot of beer drinking. Daddy's father, Grandpa Smith, drank his beer from a white grandfather mug. Children liked to climb onto his lap, knowing they would be rewarded with a sip of the fizzy stuff. One picture of Grandpa Smith, in a sepia tinted wedding portrait, revealed that he was quite handsome as a young man. His wife, Marie, looked beautiful and soft by his side.
One picture of Mama showed her with a slightly crooked jaw. Aunt Tilly said Mama was a lot of fun. She loved to dance and followed Will to the bars wherever he had a gig. Tilly said one night there was a fight over Mama outside a bar, between two men who were drunkenly arguing over who would get to dance with her. One of the guys threw a punch, missing his opponent and popping Mama instead.
Her jaw was wired shut for six of the nine months she was pregnant with Bonnie, the first grandchild born into the Smith clan. It was an easy birth. Bonnie was just a few ounces shy of seven pounds. She was born in the upstairs bedroom at 3:33 AM on a February morning. Will sent a neighbor for the midwife a little after midnight when Mama's contractions had started at regular intervals. Bonnie cried right away, even before her bottom was spanked.
After the birth of their grandchild, Helen and her parents reconciled. Another picture shows Bonnie being held by her mother's father, Grandpa Johnson. The baby is wearing a tight satin bonnet. Grandma Johnson believed this would correct a noticeable protruding of Bonnie's left ear. It failed to correct the outcropping, even though Bonnie wore the bonnet for two years, night and day. Her grandmother finally conceded defeat saying, "This child must never wear her hair pulled back."
Bonnie's mama had a lot of girlfriends with babies of their own. They walked together, pushing their black baby prams along the main street during the summer. Mama told her later that every time they strolled past the J, C. Penny store, Bonnie would cry non-stop. The girls thought that was funny. As a grown woman, Bonnie still enters the Penny store with some trepidation and a general feeling of uncertainty, then she laughs for being such a ninny. It's nothing, she thinks to herself.
When Bonnie was about three years old, her parents moved from Marquette to Houghton, Michigan for a brief time because of her daddy's job on a cruise boat that went around the five Great Lakes. The girls stayed in the upper apartment of a brick building while Daddy was away, playing trumpet with the ship's dance band.
Bonnie's memory of that time is hazy, but she recalls the Apple Lady, who lived in the downstairs apartment. Maybe it was a grocery store. She wore an apron with two pockets stitched on that looked like red apples with green leaves attached. She kept candy in one pocket, and sometimes gave Bonnie a piece. Bonnie would reach up and hug the Apple Lady's skirt, grabbing at the pocket to receive her reward.
Bonnie also recalls the steep hills, steeper than those in Marquette. She and Mama didn't go outside a lot in Houghton, even though there was no snow. The cruise boats only ran in the summer. In a family photo album, there is a picture of the boat Daddy was on, clipped from an old yellowed newspaper. It was called The South American.
The stay in Houghton only lasted one summer. Soon they were back in Marquette, in a shack house, in a place called the Picqua location. That's where her daddy worked then. People said he was lucky to have a job at the Piqua Woodworking Plant, as so many men were out of work. The house was small and squareish, with no front porch, or steps. The front door was never used, because of the long drop. The usable entrance was through a back-screen door that led directly into the tiny kitchen. The kitchen floor was packed black dirt. There was no bathroom. Bonnie had to pee in a bucket and Mama and Daddy peed in a little house in the back.
An old picture shows another person with them now. Annie. Someone they called Bonnie's sister. Annie is about two years old in this picture, pretty and shy, her head tilted to one side, blonde curls all over her head. She is standing beside Bonnie. They are holding hands. Bonnie, at almost four, is a lot taller. Annie is wearing some sort of diaper, hanging loosely from beneath her skirt. The dresses are nondescript and ill-fitting.
The sisters shared a bedroom with no windows. Bonnie always remembered a dream — a nightmare really — where she saw a team of horses pulling some sort of wheel-less wagon, making horrible clanking noises, coming toward her, and she couldn't scream or stop them. There was smoke coming from the horses' nostrils. She was terrified. No one came to rescue her from the huge beasts. From that time on her fear of animals grew.
There are no pictures of the shack, but Bonnie remembers that in this house there were bed bugs. In the mornings, she and Annie cried, their small bodies covered with ugly red bites. Mama cried too. "Please, Will, you've got to do something."
Daddy got busy, securing each window with tape — maybe there was only one, maybe two — and the unused front door, and the back door with the torn screen off the small kitchen. He held up two canisters, one in each hand, and yelled, "Everyone out!" Bonnie, her mother, and Annie stood in front of the house in the scraggly front yard, holding hands as Daddy called out, "Deadly poison canisters," and released the gas. He wore a blue checkered bandana over his face and his eyes were barely visible. Mama, Bonnie, and Annie screamed as he leaped from the stairless front door, pulling it tight as he jumped. "Oh, Will, I was so scared" said Mama.
Daddy can do anything, Bonnie thought at that time. She adored him. He could get rid of bugs. She despised bugs, especially spiders. She liked to trap the daddy-long-leg spiders and pull off their legs, one at a time, so they couldn't move, then she would squish their remaining round, brownish bodies.
They spent the next few days with Grandma and Grandpa Smith. When the bedbugs had been vanquished and the poison gas had blown out the one window, they returned to the Piqua house. Mama was gone for several days after that, and Daddy became the cook. Bonnie loved his tomato soup and hamburger concoction that he dumped over saltine crackers in a cereal bowl. "Why can't Mama make that?" she had asked. Daddy said it was his special recipe, and that's all he knew how to make.
Mama returned with a new baby called August William, Augie for short. August was Daddy's middle name. Bonnie said his name over and over in a sing-song way. "August William Smith, August William Smith." She liked to sing. She sang her sister's name in the same manner, "Annie Marie Smith, Annie Marie Smith," and her own name, "Bonnie Grace Smith, Bonnie Grace Smith." These names were imprinted on her heart.
When Bonnie was five, she overheard Mama and Daddy talking about sending her to kindergarten. What is kindergarten? she wondered.
"We live too far from the school for her to walk, so we'll have to keep her home this year," Mama said.
She sat on her mother's lap at times, being read to from picture books. Once, while looking with Mama at a picture of a brightly colored fairy tale house set in a wood, the page seemed to swim before her eyes, and she started to read the words written there. After that she read words everywhere, especially on signs and cereal boxes.
Annie got sick and she was taken to the Pest House where kids had to go who had catchy, dangerous diseases. "Scarlet Fever," the county nurse said. A man came and tacked a quarantine sign on the front door with no steps, so no one would come into the house. No one ever came anyway.
Daddy took the family to visit Annie at the Pest House, but they could only see her from a distance while sitting in their car. A lady in a tall wooden rocking chair was on the porch, holding Annie. Bonnie could tell it was Annie because her small blond head was visible above the swaddling blanket. When Annie saw Daddy's car she waved, and the lady in the rocking chair waved along with her.
There was no grass around the Pest House, only sand. Mama and Daddy waved back and called her name from the car window of Daddy's Model T Ford. One time it was raining so hard — with thunder and lightning — that Bonnie became frightened and cried because she thought the car was going to sink into the muddy ground. There was no calming her, and she was always terrified of thunderstorms after that.
Now Bonnie was six years old, and the law said she had to attend school for the first grade. The family moved to another place in Marquette, this one with an upstairs apartment like the one in Houghton. There was a front balcony on that house, painted white with a wooden railing. It had a real flushing toilet. It was close to the Catholic Cathedral School, so Bonnie could walk there and back.
Her family went to the Holy Name Cathedral Church every Sunday and Holy day for Mass. Not Mama, though; Daddy told everyone to always pray for Mama because the conversion hadn't taken.
The church was cold and gloomy, even with the tall stained-glass windows and endless center aisle. Bonnie was curious about the goings on about her and spent a good deal of the time turning around on the hard pews to look at the people who were filtering into their seats, bending on one knee first, before getting into the pew. She wondered why they had to do this. Daddy did it, too. He had Bonnie practice at home, but she wasn't ever sure which knee to start with.
The women all wore hats or black lacy veils on their heads. Bonnie wore a hat, too, a bonnet of straw that had a thin elastic attached to the sides that looped under her chin. The elastic hurt, but the hat had to stay on. One time, as she was looking back at the people coming in, a nun, or sister, as they were called — raised her arm and pointed with her finger toward the altar. The black habit and piercing eyes terrified Bonnie, causing her to feel guilt for the first time. She quickly looked ahead and remained unmoving for the next hour. The nun sat right in the pew behind them. Bonnie felt embarrassed and humiliated, and hoped her daddy hadn't noticed. The church-going never became a welcome excursion, but the trip had to be made every Sunday or bad things would happen.
School was confusing, too. Everyone had their own books — not with words, just individual letters. 'C' pictured with a cat, 'T' with a toy top; 'A' with some sort of mark over it. They were made to say "cuh-ah-tuh." Never "cat." She did her best with this new language and managed to get a passing grade on her report card. Her mama told her it was the language of phonics, and that it would disappear when she passed into second grade.
"Is that like the language they say in church? Will that vanish, too?"
"No, Bonnie, that's called Latin," she said. That will never change. It's a dead language, but it's not buried," she answered with a little smile.
"Why don't you come to church with us, Mama?" Bonnie finally got up the courage to ask her mother that day. So many questions had been jumbling in her mind. Other mothers went to church. Why not her own? Would bad things happen to her mother? Why didn't the conversion take?
Excerpted from "A Loved Place"
Copyright © 2017 Jean Bell.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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