In the Shadow of the Bear: A Michigan Memoir

In the Shadow of the Bear: A Michigan Memoir

by Jim McGavran


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870139819
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 11/05/2010
Pages: 153
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jim McGavran teaches English literature at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the editor of two collections of essays on romanticism and children's literature.

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By Jim McGavran

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2010 Jim McGavran
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-981-9

Chapter One


Five miles north of Empire, after the turnoff from M-22 to M-109, I slowed and began looking for the two-track to The Ritz. I knew where it ought to be, but there was no break in the emerald wall of trees. Confused, disappointed, I rounded a curve out of the forest into an open meadow. I looked right, down a long grassy field that sloped towards Little Glen Lake, and then, through a row of small pines, I saw it.

I had pictured a roofless, windowless ruin, lost to fire or neglect—or worse, bright and fresh and irredeemably tawdry, a Holiday Inn Express risen like a huge tin-and-glass mushroom in its place. But The Ritz was there. With more eagerness than prudence I pulled off M-109 and parked on the shoulder. My wife Deje waited in the car while I strode down the hill into a scene that my brain immediately video-recorded in slow motion. As I got closer, I saw that the old cottage was not only still standing, but much improved: the siding was aluminum now, the drafty front sleeping porch had been glassed in, and propane tanks by the chimney meant there was heat.

Suddenly the back door opened. I couldn't move; in fact I could hardly breathe—paralyzed, caught between fear and the surge of a wild, impossible hope. A blond woman in white shorts and halter-top stepped out with strange, rapid grace like a dancer, a bird, a spirit. She looked around in all directions, but seemed not to see me. Then, as quickly as she had appeared, she vanished around the corner of the house.

For a moment I felt pure terror. I remembered my father telling me of a dream in which his older brother came to him and said he would take him to their mother, who was in the next room. Dad knew even as he dreamed it that it was a death-dream. Both his mother and his brother had been dead for decades—my pretty, vivacious grandmother that I never knew taken by a heart attack just about the time of my conception, and my uncle in 1961, well before his time. Dad believed that he would have died had he let his brother "take him to Mother," so he did the sensible thing and woke up. I wasn't dreaming the cottage that afternoon. And I had never believed in ghosts, though I know my parents did. But for that moment I actually thought the door of The Ritz would open again and my parents would come out to greet me, their smiling young faces tanned golden from days spent on the beaches, and ask their now-aging firstborn child in for a manhattan before dinner. Make that two manhattans; Mom always said you can't fly with one wing.

Earlier that same sultry afternoon in July 2001, we had followed M-72 west from Traverse City across the southern edge of the Leelanau Peninsula and on into Empire, while roads opened in my brain that I had kept closed over half a lifetime. At first I couldn't react; I could only observe the old white clapboard houses huddled close to the sidewalks, the big trees shielding them from the heat as they would from winter storms, the dooryards exuberant with daylilies, delphiniums, and hostas. As I drove on down Front Street, Deering's Market and the Friendly Tavern appeared on the left—just where they belonged, I caught myself thinking—still sharing the same low cinder-block building, but with a seventies-style façade of bricks and shingles that was new to me but easily a quarter century old. By now I was hearing voices in my head—scratchy and faint at first, like a faraway AM radio broadcast playing in the dusty dashboard of a '52 Ford. Was that my mother I heard arguing with Deering's butcher about the price, or the freshness, of the hamburger? Whose was that beery laughter that seemed to rise from inside the tavern, punctuated by the tap-slide-and-clunk rhythms of a fifty-year-old shuffleboard game? Had my father just delivered one of his witty asides?

My hands started to shake on the steering wheel, and I said something—I have no idea what—to Deje as I guided the rental car to the end of the street, turned first to the right and then to the left, and found the beach road just where it was in my brain, where like Deering's and the Friendly it had been waiting for me. In tears now, I drove down the narrow old road towards the water; but I laughed out loud when I saw the huge, ragged cube of concrete still squatting in the middle of the parking lot. Defying gravity and scraping our knees, my brother Fred, my sister Molly, and I used to climb all over this apparently unmovable remnant of the pre-World War I glory days of the Empire Lumber Company.

Next came the wide beach itself, and beyond it, the lake we had swum in so often—the "big lake," we always called it; we only said "Lake Michigan" when we were talking to friends at home who had never seen it. Deje and I got out of the car and walked onto the sand. The magnificent views had not changed: look left, and you see the Empire Bluffs rising steeply out of the lake; look right, past Southbar and Northbar lakes, and the great Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, equally steep, glow peach gold through the summer haze. But the picnic tables were not where I remembered them. Worse, I couldn't locate the small dune overlooking the water where my father stood when he played his accordion for us on those long-ago August evenings. But I recognized the rainbow colors of the small stones glistening by the shore—black, gray, blue, ochre, pink, red, even green—like the ones we stubbed our toes on when we ran on the beach as kids. Stooping to grasp a red one, I saw it was heart-shaped and, like many of the others, etched with strange lines—a cursive I still wish I could read, quirkier than Cyrillic, as exotic as Arabic. I handed it to Deje because in the past we used to share these geological love tokens with each other.

Lost between time zones, emotionally jetlagged, I needed Deje's help to know what to do next. We decided to drive north out of Empire to the Sleeping Bear climbing face, so I could show her the view of Little Glen from the top. But we didn't make it to the dunes parking lot that day; the reopened road in my brain stopped just a few hundred yards short when I found The Ritz—and my parents' ghosts. Because I did find them, I was sure of it: they were in there; I had cornered them. Caught off-guard by the spirit's warning, they knew it would kill me to see them, so they stayed put, that's all. They wanted to come out to me, I could feel it—I can still feel it.

Somehow I managed to realize I couldn't hang around the cottage any longer. I had started back up the hill, through the tall grass towards the car, where Deje was waiting, when a butterfly flew up to my eye level, hovered there a moment, and then fluttered away. From its bright orange and black wings I immediately knew it to be a Monarch, both ephemeral and hardy, a migrant across borders and waters. It flickers in my brain still—an image not only of my parents' spirits, but of my own, and of those of all of us brave enough—or foolish—to seek to reopen our lost cerebral pathways, to soar free of our everyday entrapment in commerce and custom, to find the places that connect us to our lives, our selves.

The Monarchs don't make it back to Michigan from their winter home in Yucatán; it's their descendants, perhaps their great-grandchildren, that "return" to Leelanau with the warm weather. Still I envy them: when they're ready to migrate, they just flap those outrageous sun-dazzle wings and go. For my family, getting ready to leave for Glen Lake in the old days replicated on the domestic level the original triumph of divine order moving over the face of the deep as chronicled in Genesis 1. My mother, the primary force against chaos in this case, kept a list of what we took to The Ritz each year so that she and Dad could collect everything—the thermoses, the sweaters, the blankets stowed in the attic—and he could start packing the car the night before we left. There were additions and deletions every year, and Dad's creative packing skills—and no doubt his patience—were strained simply to find room for everything Mom said we needed. How could I know then that a generation later, history would repeat itself when Deje and I packed our station wagon to head to North Carolina's Outer Banks with our kids each summer?

Statuesque and strong at 5' 10", my mother strode purposefully through my early world, easily role-shifting, almost shape-shifting, from involved PTA parent, to aproned supercook, to diligent evening seamstress, to perspiring summer gardener, to white-gloved church lady, to bejeweled life of the party. The daughter of one of Mom's best friends remembers her even in old age as "stately," "a lady who always looked regal," but with "a good sense of humor" too. Centered and secure in her marriage, wrapped in the love we all shared, she lived her life fully, grandly, and joyously nearly all the time. "Nearly" because sometimes demons beset her—in the form of worries and fears whose source I have never determined. Like Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, she would sometimes complain that her "nerves" were bothering her. These "nerves," which my father did not joke about, though he was at least as clever as Mr. Bennet, could bring sudden volleys of criticism directed at whatever or whoever caught her attention—excepting Dad, that is. Without warning she might burst out angrily at her eggbeater, her vacuum cleaner, the venetian blinds—which she hated because they were hard to dust—or us. If we were inside reading or playing cards, she would say she was tired of seeing us laze about—we were too weak; we wouldn't grow up right—and make us go outside "to get some fresh air and exercise"; but later she might come out and order us back into the house because we were "making too much noise" or "going wild." If we protested, she would reply with expressions that we came to know well, and that meant all such complaints were futile: "None of that truck!" she would say loudly, or the briefer but sharper "No back talk!"—or, even more succinctly, "Pipe down!" Later, in our teen and college years, she would not scruple to enlist the Bard's help, melodramatically quoting Lear's lament that an ungrateful child is "sharper than a serpent's tooth."

As I said, Dad was never the target of Mom's sudden angers. Undemonstrative, often shy in strange company, but with a heart full of love for her and for us, Dad witnessed her outbursts, but never criticized her about them; he knew, I think now, that she didn't really mean them and regretted them when they occurred. But maybe he should have said something. Perhaps Mom needed him to respond more strongly to her car packing or other demands—even to complain. Perhaps my father, who wrote Mom brilliant love letters the summer before they were married, retreated too much into himself at times. In all the early years with them, the whole time I was growing up, I never once heard them fight. In fact, I must have already been sixteen or seventeen when I heard a friend's parents get into a spat one evening while I was over at his house. Hearing their raised voices terrified me; I honestly thought they were about to get divorced, and I began to feel sorry for my friend and wonder if they would have to move. Now that nearly all their generation are gone, I can only wonder how Mom and Dad managed the apparent serenity. I know, because Mom often reminded us, that the minister who married them had counseled them, in the far simpler manner of seventy-plus years ago, never to go to sleep angry or with anything important left unsaid between them.

"Nerves" or not, Mom expressed strong, even unreasonable opinions on many subjects. "Dope fiend" was one of her kinder names for Judy Garland, the talented but troubled star who played Dorothy Gale in the Hollywood version of The Wizard of Oz. Mom "wanted no truck" with some of Garland's methods of flying beyond the rainbow; but regardless of the Judy Judgment, she loved the Oz stories. As a girl growing up on the East Side of Columbus, Ohio, in the teens and twenties of the last century, she had avidly read the entire series of L. Frank Baum's Oz books. A generation later, Fred, Molly, and I reread the old, broken-spined copies she had carefully saved for us. And we knew the movie almost by heart: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." "I'm melting, melting—what a world!" "Why Dor'thy, you've killed her!" "Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home!" So every August at vacation time, while Dad backed the heavily laden car down the driveway very slowly, so the bumper would not hit the street, Mom channeled Judy long enough to lead us in a rousing chorus of "We're Off to See the Wizard." We loved this ritual of departure and sang as loud as we could from the back seat, but we always got confused about the "If-ever-a-Wiz-there-was" section and just repeated the "We're off" part in an increasingly cacophonous canon until Mom had had enough and told us to pipe down. Of course our destination was not the Emerald City, but a tight little coldwater cottage hidden deep in Leelanau's green forests. And once we got to The Ritz, she never got mad at us the way she sometimes did at home. She was different there.

I will need all the help I can get—the Scarecrow's brain, the Tin Woodman's heart, the Cowardly Lion's courage, and a bit of wizardry as well—to continue this story of my parents, our long-ago vacations, our everyday lives in Columbus that framed the annual getaways, and my long-delayed return to Leelanau after my parents' deaths. Like Dorothy Gale—like all of us—I need to feel I belong somewhere in the world. With a click of her red-shod heels, Dorothy found that place back home in Kansas with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. I found it within myself by losing and then reconnecting with Leelanau, a place that has shaped both my past and present life far more than I could ever have realized had I not returned there when I did.

It was a simpler world my siblings and I grew up in. Things we accepted and even enjoyed in 1949, when we first went to Little Glen, seem today almost as primitive as Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond. The Ritz had indoor plumbing, but there was no hot water except what Mom boiled on top of the electric stove in the tiny kitchen. Apart from the stove, the big fireplace in the living room gave the only heat. There most assuredly was no television. And Mexican migrant workers, not mechanical shaker-harvesters, picked cherries in the Leelanau orchards while we vacationed. One day when we were in Empire grocery shopping, we saw three small men with black hair and skin the color of Dad's new Lucky Strikes before he smoked them. They were standing at the side of the road, looking at a dusty old truck that had a flat tire. Fred, Molly, and I had never seen people like that before, golden tobacco-leaf people, and we must have been staring at them. When one of the men looked right into my face with hard black eyes, I was suddenly afraid. Then Mom was pulling us towards our car and whispering: "Those men are Mexicans. They come here each year to pick the cherries. Don't look at them." She herded us into the car and Dad drove off. My white middle-class parents shared many of the ethnic and religious prejudices of those days, and it's possible that Mom's actions were based on contempt for the Mexicans. But she may have felt a sympathy with their flat tire and their poverty that she couldn't express; like many of her generation, she had studied French but not Spanish. Besides, she was always telling us how impolite it is to stare at anyone.

At home in Columbus, things were different too—not as primitive as The Ritz, but quaint. No Mexicans were around, but the milkman came twice a week. It cost three cents to buy a purple Jefferson stamp to mail a letter. Mr. Finch, our mailman, with his kindly old eyes, brought us bills, Christmas cards, and letters from my aunts and grandparents, but never an L. L. Bean catalog or a request to renew our Sierra Club membership and receive a tiny polar bear toy as a thank-you gift. There was not a stereo, but a monophonic radio-phonograph in the living room, where we played 78 rpm recordings of Broadway shows, hillbilly—oops, country-and-western—music, and opera arias. And if one of us got sick, Dr. Matthews not only made house calls, he came right up to our bedroom to look down our throats and make us say "Aaah!"


Excerpted from IN THE SHADOW OF THE BEAR by Jim McGavran Copyright © 2010 by Jim McGavran. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part One. The Way Back....................1
Part Two. Shadowing Mom....................29
Part Three. Shadows of Dad....................69
Part Four. Concerts, Crossings, Kinship, Love....................103
Part Five. Homecoming....................137

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