Cleaning out a part of the basement I found a box full of photographs from the mid to late 90’s. Some of the pictures I never even looked at. The year 1997 was one of the best years of my life. That’s when my first child was born.
It’s the things we do on a whim that create the best memories. A few months ago it was warm enough to walk around in shorts, swim and rent a canoe. This canoe trip was not planned but ended up being one of my best memories of the trip I took with my boys.
Yesterday I visited my dad, aunt and uncle at grandmas house in Jackson. My grandmother passed away three years ago but I’ve always called that house “grandma’s house” and that’s what it will always be no matter who lives there or the fact that she’s gone now. When I say it in front of family they don’t think twice about it either so I believe they see it as her house still too. When I do visit, my mind is always flooded with memories of the past which is not surprising because I tend to do that in any place where I have some memories. I can sit anywhere in the house and picture it so many years ago being a home full of people when the place was so alive almost like a small city. There were uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters at times distant relatives and even friends that were considered family. The home has six bedrooms and at one time they were each occupied with people. Those were great times.
Before going to visit I called my dad and told him my brother and I were going to grandmas to visit and asked if he would come over too. I also told him I wanted a picture of grandma to copy and take back home. When we arrived my aunt already had the pictures out in the dining room and there were a lot of them too . A huge plastic bin and canvas bag full of albums, sleeves of photos were sitting on the floor near the table. As I started to look at them I thought it could easily take two days to look at each one but we all just kept going. There were photos I’d never seen and even newspaper clippings in some. My grandma was great at saving memories like that and she even kept report cards of her kids when they graduated some grades and high school. When I would look at an image I didn’t recognize my dad or aunt would tell me the story of that image and telling me about the person. We started at 1:00 and ended after 10:00. It was great to be there with family talking and that’s something I will do more of I promised myself.
My father told me a story about my grandmother that I had not heard. She grew up in Mexico, I knew that, but at a very young age her mother passed away so she went to live with a family member. At the young age of 14 she married and started her own family doing whatever she could to take care of the kids. I guess back then it wasn’t uncommon for girls to marry at a young age in Mexico. Life was hard for her as she did what she could to feed her kids even walking each day to the mill to have corn ground into flour. Her kids were her priority and that never changed. She raised her kids but really she never stopped raising kids up until she left us. My grandma was like a mother to everyone and over the years each new generation would spend time with her eating her great cooking and being treated like they are her own child. She was great at that.
When she got sick it I didn’t want to face it. To me she was grandma and would always be there over the years never getting any older, just doing the same thing and telling me stories. I miss her cooking, kind eyes and warm heart. Recently I’ve been thinking more about her and I wish she were here right now. She would listen to me talk, offer advice and with her kind eyes I would feel like everything was going to be alright. I can picture us sitting at the kitchen table talking and can almost hear hear her say “hijo don’t worry.” I still remember her voice.
Yesterday I took a walk along the trails of the Ann Arbor Matthaei Botanical Gardens. There was a time when I would visit the trails at least once every two weeks taking along my camera and exploring. I’ve always felt drawn to the outdoors and the gardens have been a favorite place of mine over the years.
My first visit was around 1995 when I first married and wanted to share experiences with the outdoors with my wife like camping, fishing and nature trails. As a kid I camped for a few days each summer and enjoyed it so as I always try to do I wanted her to enjoy it too. I always expect people to enjoy the things not as I did when I was a kid. While I don’t remember how I found out about the botanical gardens I do remember we used to drive around sometimes looking for yard sales or on my quest to find a better fishing spot/nature trail. On our first visit we stuck to the outskirts of the trails picking a spot under a thicket of Redbud trees forming a canopy and perfect spot to sit and talk for a bi ; secluded enough and peaceful . We brought along a wicker basket we got at a yard sale complete with little red and white checked napkins and containers which we filled with treats like cheese, sausage, sweets and something to drink though I don’t remember what. Placing the blanket on the ground we sat for a while enjoying nature, our goodies and chatting. That memory has always come to mind over the years when I visit the gardens and one of the stories I’ve told the kids over and over again. It always made me smile to think about it. On that first visit we didn’t venture into the trails very far but eventually we would come back explore more.
When we came back we walked along the trails following the colored arrows for a while then we took a few turns off the trail we were on, I always do that even now thinking I might find something I hadn’t seen before. There are blue, yellow and I believe orange trails to follow each marked periodically with a post and arrow indicating what trail you are on. These days they have maps in some areas to show you the layout and where you are on the map making it easier to find you way around or out. The trails cross over each other in some spots so you can take the yellow trail then turn on the blue trail depending on where you want to go. I actually used one of those yesterday to find a spot I like. We ended up at the far end of the blue trail that opens up to a large pond and trail that follows around it. The trees were in full bloom and it seemed like the woods didn’t have an end making you feel like you are miles into a forest. You could see into the woods at some areas but for the most part it was dense and impassible. By the time we reached the pond I believe we were somewhat lost not really having a good idea how to get to the exit/entrance where our car was parked. Eventually we would make it back to a wooden bridge on the yellow trail where we stopped for a while and sat. Sitting on the bridge I pulled out a cassette tape recorder to record the sounds of the running water, sounds of nature and a few words we spoke. I don’t know why I did that but it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Years later I found that tape and listened to it on the same little recorder. Our voices sounded so young like a couple of kids which I guess we were. I think I still have that tape tucked away in a box somewhere but I’m not sure if I recorded over it with something else during out “techno music” years. Walking towards the exit it was dark and we ended up going the wrong way until we came to a small fence on the side of the road leading back to the parking area. Instead of trying to find the way out we jumped the fence and walked back to the car which seemed to take forever. By this time the gate was closed and locked but luckily there was enough of a gap between the poles and entrance sign that I was able to drive between them in our little car. It felt safe to finally be in the car.
Eventually the trips would come less because of work and things that take more time and effort in life. Still at times I found myself going alone to explore the trails looking for new places and thinking back on our adventures. Then kids came and I when they were old enough I was happy to introduce them to the gardens hoping they would enjoy it as much I as have. We would walk the same trails and like I always do I’d tell them about how their mother and I walked this same trail or sat in that same bench. I’m always doing that and I know my kids think, “dad we heard that one already.” Thinking back over the years and telling them about it has always made me happy though. I guess they listen just because I’m dad and well that’s what a dad does.
An evasive species of insects invaded our area years ago and attacked trees like the Ash tree which is a common tree here. As a result the gardens started to take on a different look and I would visit then leave feeling sad at the way things were changing. I still had the memories of how it looked years ago but now so many of the large trees were dead, cut down or leaning against the few healthy threes remaining. I was also afraid to take my kids there as often because I would always picture a large limb falling on one of them. Because of this I stopped visiting for a long time.
A couple years ago I started to visit the gardens again on regular basis, though not as often as I used to, and was happy to see efforts being made at planting new trees and protecting the area. When I visited yesterday I looked like I’d remembered it years ago with healthy tree’s, thick vegetation and an abundance of wild life. I even saw a fox running in a field. Trees take years to grow large so I know it’s not like the forest just came to life in a matter of a few years so these large trees were there the whole time but I just saw the dead trees and lost focus on what was alive. My trip yesterday was really one of the best trips I’d taken there in years. I stopped along the way at the wooden bridge my wife and I sat on and remembered the way we got lost, held hands while walking out because she was a little nervous and I admit I was too. I found myself at the far and of the trail sitting on the bench looking over the pond. The far end of the blue trail is a quiet place and rarely do you see another person that deep into the walk. It’s my favorite place to sit.
As I always do I thought about my life and the years gone by. There were moments of sadness but I smiled too. I’m lucky to have had the time there with my family and I also know that while things are changing I can still spend time there with my kids. I am looking forward to another visit to the botanical gardens with them. Who knows what new memories I might build there over the coming years.
Hit repeat on that old school jam.
There are movies and songs that I like and consider my favorites just like everyone else. My taste in movies and music is partially built on the memories attached to them but that’s probably not much different from other people either. Watching a movie or listening to a song always takes my mind to events of my childhood or even recent years where I find myself thinking about events in my life during that time. I’ve noticed that the songs I like most are attached to good memories but that’s not surprising, who want’s to listen to a song that makes them think of a bad time? Sometimes though I even like to listen to a song that’s attached to a bad time if only to be happy about the good times.
My favorite genre of music is old school R&B like Earth Wind and Fire, Gap Band, Stevie Wonder and some others. The songs appeal to me because they remind me of a happy time as a kid in the 70’s. My mother at the time had a boyfriend that I saw as a father figure and someone I looked up to. To me he was a provider, strong and decent. It wasn’t until later I realized that he was a womanizer, mean to my mom though never hit her and wasn’t such a great provider.
We had a record player in the apartment we lived in with R&B albums stacked in milk crates set on their side to form sort of a table for the speakers on top. Bo, my mothers boyfriend, would play the records and smoke weed while doing them old time dance moves. My mom would laugh loudly and I would look on wishing I could dance like that too. Perhaps the picture of what I described would not be appealing to some but it was to me. I was young and saw nothing wrong what what was going on. Bo would take me sledding around the woods over logs and grass pulling me with a rope while I sat in a long sled. It must have been hard to pull the sled like that around the woods but he would do it without stopping even. To me Bo was a great guy.
Eventually Bo left, like all my moms boyfriends, but over the years I would get less and less attached to them. I think it was around 1985 the last time I cried when one left. After that it didn’t matter much. Interestingly it’s R&B prior to this that I like. Anything newer than that I just don’t relate to or care for much.
My iPod playlist has music from my selection but also has music from my wife. Her taste is very different from mine but I do listen to her selection of songs sometimes just so I can find out of there’s something I might like and I have. During a recent trip north with the girls I gave one of her songs a try called “Living Proof” by Gregory Alan Isakov. I remember we were driving down a country road on our way to Empire. The girls were sleeping and I was thinking about our destination, of course thinking about my childhood memories of the place, and how much fun we would have there. When I listen to the song now I think of that day up north and it makes me smile.
Last year I took my boys on a vacation up north making a stop in Mears which was to be the second stop in my list of destinations. The dune ride has not changed since I was a kid. Even the color of the vehicles is the same. In a few days I will take the girls on the same, or similar, trip and this will be one of the stops. The story as told by the driver is this unfortunate man was skydiving when his parachute failed to open. I swear 30 years ago this same prop was used.
The “up north” as it’s been called by me since I was a kid has become an important if not necessary trip for me to be taken each year. If I don’t see it in the books or if it’s just not talked about I feel like I need to make it happen. There’s something about taking my kids to places I visited as a kid that makes me think I am sharing something with them about my life, almost a lesson. Perhaps it’s more about wanting to make them love the places as much as I did as a kid.
After many years in between visits the trend started up again with my wife who I think was not my wife at the time, or perhaps she was but I don’t remember, yet someone I wanted to share this experience with. Our first visit was to Ludington where we stayed in a bed and breakfast for a couple days followed by a drive north to Petoskey then Charlevoix. While I had a path in mind I remember we drove around a bit looking, well I was looking, for something that reminded me of my childhood. I didn’t say that but it was totally self serving in that aspect. No matter though I was happy to be there, with her, in a place I loved as a child. Why I think people will enjoy things as much as I did or do and why it’s so important to me I don’t know.
Last year I took this venture to a new level by not only going to some of the places I went as a kid but even a step further in really trying to hunt down a particular spot in the Sutton’s Bay area that was only a very distant memory. No real pictures to remind me, no street name but just the pictures in my mind. The problem with that is I think I paint a different picture in my mind than what is real at times especially with old memories where the lines of reality and dream cross over a little. Either way I was determined to find this spot even if it took half the day driving.
The spot I am referring to was a place for migrant workers to stay during the harvest season of cherries. Lodging was rough with no electricity, no running water and the floors of the structure were concrete and/or dirt. There was however a well pump outside and outhouse across the street. My father would take us up north to visit the sand dunes but not before he took us to visit his friends who were migrant workers staying in places like this, we made several of these trips in different spots along Sutton’s Bay. The deal was we would stay for a few days or longer with them wherever they were before going to a hotel for the “real vacation.” Accommodations were always similar. I came to refer to them as “the outhouses” because of their basic outhouse/barn like designs, don’t get me started on the beds. As a child I thought my dad was doing this to teach us a life lesson on how some people get by with less even working very hard for basic necessities. Years later I would find out that was not the reason for the visit. Actually it was because lodging was free if we worked thus saving him money so the “lessons” were only made up in my mind. That’s alright because I grew up remembering the lessons and believing in them as valuable.
Not having a real idea of the location I did know it was right on the water and there was only one road that followed the shore all the way up to the top so my plan was to stick to that road looking closely for any signs that reminded me of something. After driving for a while I felt as thought I was on a silly hunt that would end in wasted time driving, my poor kids in tow having no idea what the point was. Even if I did find that exact spot would it even look the same after close to thirty years? Eventually I decided to turn around and continue to our planned destination which was the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Taking a turn down some road I believed would lead back and out of Sutton’s Bay there were these cherry trees that looked like something I remembered. I felt as though it was a spot I’d seen before but then again don’t all cherry tree fields kind of look the same? Not only that do cherry trees even live over thirty years? I stopped for a moment and snapped a picture anyway because there was something about the way the field dipped that I thought I remembered. A few miles later there was a house on my right with an old truck out front and a pole barn painted red and green. The color of the pole barn was something I always remembered so I knew right away I’d somehow found the spot. Directly across the street from this was a masonry block home, more like a garage, with sort of a walkout basement. Stopping to take photographs I couldn’t believe my luck at finding this spot however the masonry building was gone or at least the top level was gone.
I got out of my truck and saw the bottom half was still intact. Looking over the side I could see the room and doorway where we stayed all those years ago. My mind flooded with memories of the few days we stayed in this spot. The swimming, goat killed for dinner, people all over the place and the bed spring sticking in my back at night. At the time I wanted nothing more than to get out of there and head to the sand dunes for a real vacation, staying in a hotel with running water. Now the place was empty with weeds overgrown on what was left of the building and small tool shed. I imagined we were the last to bring life to the area all those years ago, absurd to think, but I liked that idea. To me it was like my childhood memories were imprinted on the remains of the building, earth and surrounding water. I’d told the kids the story of this place a while ago and being there I went on enthusiastically about how “this is the place I told you guys about” but quickly I realized they were really not that interested.
Sitting there staring at the shell of the building trying to bring back memories of that time I wondered if it was a memory that I should have left alone. Things were different. The house was gone except the bottom portion and colors were not as vivid as I remembered. I wanted my kids to appreciate this place and understand the significance but in the end I was a little sad to be there as though I’d uncovered something that should have been left alone It was like a reunion with an old friend that you really don’t have anything to say to. My youngest son Andrew called from the back seat in an impatient tone, “Dad are we going to go get one of those Pasties you talked about in the U.P.?” That was my cue to make some new memories with my kids.
Little Yellow Building
There’s a little yellow building in Ypsilanti that has become my favorite place to eat with excellent food, one of those little “mom and pop” places that you would probably not visit without a recommendation. It’s not just my favorite place but at least two of my kids call it their favorite too. The building is quite old and has been a restaurant for years though it operated under a different name when I was a kid living in Ypsilanti. Actually for a while it was owned by a family I knew but I only visited a couple times never really getting into the food much just more of a visit for us to tease our friend working there. We all grew up and I took a course that pulled me away from things, friends, those places and so no.
Forward many years later, perhaps 25, and a friend mentioned this little restaurant in Ypsilanti that serves really good Chinese food but that’s small and really not fancy inside. His description was something like, “it’s so small you would easily drive past were it not painted bright yellow.” Indeed this building is merely a speck squeezed in between larger red brick and stone businesses so without that yellow paint you really wouldn’t even notice it.The sign out front is faded and parking down a tight alley is limited giving it even more of a mysterious look. After talking about the history of the restaurant and telling my friend I knew the place but had not been there in years I decided to give it a try and to take my family or at least any one of them that would go with me.
The first visit didn’t leave a good impression really and in fact I know at least some of us didn’t care for it at all. I knew next time I saw my friend Dean I would ask him what his comparison is because honestly the food was nothing special. Telling him about it he asked me what I got and I told him the typical American Chinese food you get anywhere, sweet and sour deep fried stuff. That was the problem he said, “they do really really good traditional food but not so much the American variety.” So I decided to try again but this time he would go too so as to show me the way and I am glad I did, wow really good. So I could go on and on about the place but that’s not really why I decided to write this blog.
After that second visit I knew I would be a regular and would try to get my family to go too which didn’t go as planned but my boys love the place and we go there often, just last night actually. The more we went the more we looked forward to it and it became kind of our thing to do. Go to Hidden Dragon, hit up the food co-op for goodies and then the park for a walk. This is one of the things we do together and I always look forward to it picturing they will one day do the same even at the same places while telling their kids how dad always took them here. Who knows if that will happen but I like to think it will. Whatever the future holds I know I will have these memories forever and will continue to do my best making more memories with those I love and for that I consider myself a lucky man.