I write often of my life in the mountains. But it wasn’t just the Rockies that claimed my heart nor started me on a path of endless wandering through the woods. My love, my sense of self and adventure wasn’t born in just rock and snow. My love affair with the mountains first began on an island.
Marquette Island is a small, densely wooded island in Michigan’s Lake Huron and is where I first discovered the wilds–the wilds of a body of water so powerful and dominating, the wilds of a cedar forest and its swamps, and the wilds of my own self. This island not only shaped and influenced me–and how I wish I could declare that my life is smoothly polished like the pieces of ‘sea glass’ we found among the rocks on the shoreline but I’m really not that refined–but is the driving force for my entire family. One cabin, one testament to a lineage of the Neal family–of summer adventures, of the loss of fathers, daughters, and marriages, of falling in love, of building a house and reconciling that dream after death, and of firmly rooting oneself among the flux and shift of the water.
The history of the island, as in the history of my family relationship to this island, isn’t as easily read as the navigational charts for the Great Lakes. It typically requires a piece of paper and pen to diagram the relationships, losses, and reunions. The place still bears its original nickname, despite all the marriages, deaths, and births since its first inception, as Neal’s Landing. I think the name is an accurate description of the place–it’s a place where me and family have all landed. And sometimes collided.
My place on this island is owed entirely to my grandmother, my namesake. I go by Maggie, and my grandmother, Margaret, is mostly referred to as M. M is quite a woman and oh yes, she will have her own blog entry entirely, and it is her legacy that has allowed for all of us to stay connected with Marquette Island and the Les Cheneaux island chain. Married to her second husband, Donald Neal, together they purchased an old cabin and boathouse on Marquette Island, on the Middle Entrance channel of the island in the early 1960s. When M and Donald married, they not only joined their lives together but also took their children and formed a family. My grandmother had my young mother, Debbie, and Donald Neal was recently widowed and had three daughters and two sons, the sons from his previous marriage. Now, in this combined family there were two daughters named Debbie and two daughters only fifteen days apart. My mother was called Little Deb since she was the second youngest, and my Aunt Deb was nicknamed Big Deb. I don’t really think my Aunt Deb was fond of her title, its implications didn’t imply birth order but size. My mother was only fifteen days older then her stepsister Darcy and they became the best of friends until my beautiful, talented and kind Aunt Darcy passed away in April of 2000 to breast cancer. My Aunt Dru rounds out the lineup as the fourth sister. The sister’s half brothers, Chuck and Rick, complete the second generation for my grandmother and Donald Neal.
The Neal’s lived in Pontiac, Michigan and when my grandmother and Donald discovered Cedarville, the tiny city on the mainland, and the Les Cheneaux area, they knew it was a place where they’d retire. My mother and her sisters spent their summers on the island and together, the foursome constructed the wood bridge across the muddy swamp behind the cottage to Peck’s Bay. Neal’s Landing played host to many summer parties-events that lasted many days and all the guests were assigned roles duties for the duration. My mother was either the weather girl or sailing master. Aunt Dru was usually the nature guide–she’s always been our favorite science teacher and quite possibly the best person to lead you on a walk in the woods. Everyone, family members and friends, were assigned a job. And if you failed in your job performance, your infractions were logged in the “On Report” file and then you, the accused, had to appear at the Kangaroo Court to be judged by the Honorable Donald Neal, who wore a blond curly wig said to be my grandmother’s.
For my mother and her family, Neal’s Landing, during the 1960s not only represented summer vacation, parties, and boat rides but also served as a respite for the tumultuousness of Detroit. My grandmother and Donald Neal offered their children and their friends a place of solace during those summers when Detroit was defined by riots, protests and police violence. Nighttime skits replaced demonstrations and allowed the adults in the mix to have a bit of fun before returning south to their jobs and their broken city.
Marquette Island can only be reached by private boat. There are no roads on this island. Instead of garages, there are boathouses. Buoys replace streetlights. And it wasn’t until the late 1990s Neal’s Landing received telephone service. There are a few cottages scattered across the island and they’re mostly at the north end of the island chain, protected from the fury of Lake Huron. The islands are nestled closely against the mainland, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
I never met Donald Neal, he died of a heart attack in 1978 and I didn’t enter this world until 1982, but there’s one story in particular that my mom tells me that I absolutely relish. With no phone service at the cabin, the only way for Donald Neal to contact his family when he reached Cedarville on a Friday night after driving north from the Detroit area, was to drive to the end of Meridian Road, one of the few roads that faced south to our cabin and flash his headlights. This was the system he and my mother used to signal his arrival and then she’d get into the boat, and motor to the mainland to pick him up.
The cabin is still filled with photographs of my would-be grandfather, black and white images showing his handsome and kind face. His sailing flags decorate the upstairs living room and his retirement present , a weather gage, hangs on the reverse board and batten walls. Scrapbook albums of M’s and Donald’s life on the island still sit on the coffee table in the cabin, including his retirement from General Motors album showing a graceful, petite M and a sleek Donald drinking a glass of milk at the cocktail reception. Before his death, he and my grandmother were rebuilding the cabin and winterizing the place to live for the entire year, not just summers spent at Neal’s Landing. Donald Neal didn’t live to see his design come to completion, but it took several years of my aunts and uncles to finish the construction.
While the loss of the Neal family patriarch changed the family dynamics on the island, the island continues to play host to the lives of my family. My mother and father married on the island in the fall of 1980. From their wedding pictures, it looked bitter cold and may have snowed. My parents divorced when I was in 7th grade, so I spent much of my teenage summers on the island with my grandmother, a good distraction and relief to my parents. My grandmother married her fourth husband, Philip Pittman on the dock, both dressed in kilts and my grandmother’s bouquet was an empty milk jug containing thistle.
It was this island where I learned to swim and judge the Lake Huron currents to determine the water temperature, to coat my body in Peck’s Bay muck as my mother and her sisters did, the northern Michigan version of a European mud bath; where I stayed up late to look at slides of my Aunt Deb’s recent trip to Greece or to see her new paintings (I descend from an immensely talented, intelligent and creative line of women. A lack of strong female role models has never, luckily, been an issue in my life); where my cousins and I would be led, in the darkness, to the water’s edge for late night snipe hunting–one of my father’s best and favorite adventures for us kids; where my brother and I nearly set the island completely ablaze when our little campfire in the grasses of Peck’s Bay got a wee bit out of control and we furiously stomped it out with our boots, threw wet sand on the flames and rushed back to get help from our parents. Since I was a little baby up until I moved to Montana, much of my life was connected and threaded to the island.
The island is also my writing inspiration. The place is full of emotionally fraught stories from me–from experiencing my first sexual experience and painfully quick rejection all in one August week with a boy named Justin from Missouri, to sneaking into the liquor cabinet with my cousin Sarah when were in middle school and then she throwing up all over the little ‘kids’ cabin and us having to clean it up without her parents discovering our infractions, taking the Whaler to the mainland to see the 4th of July parade from my Uncle Chuck’s front lawn, to saying goodbye to my dying Aunt Darcy and not really knowing how to do that or what words to say to her and instead, my eighteen year old self opted to go home and watch television instead of linger with her, ignore her swollen face from the last-ditch effort drugs and tell her that she was the best thing that happened to our family, especially to my mother, and that we all wouldn’t know how to gone on without her, her perfect smile, her pure heart.
It’s been ten years since she died and all of us miss her so much. One of the many gifts my Aunt Darcy gave the women of my family is the Marquette Island necklace. Shaped by her own hands in gold, the island is hung on a gold chain is always worn around my neck.
I once wrote a story and tried to pass it off as fiction in the Whitefish Review. And while some of it is made up and it’s written in second person narration, it’s the story of my relationship to the island when I was 22 years old. I wrote about how I failed the island in recent years, how I hadn’t visited the island and replaced it with a life suffering (seriously, I’ve made some bad decisions in my life and one was to attend college in Indiana. No where near the water or the mountains.) from my disconnect. The story tries to tell of how one fell deeply and madly for a place, not a person. And, I think, at the time I wrote the story, I felt my relationship was stronger to the physical presence of the place then with my relationships with my family. I failed to think about how much my life spent on the water, learning from my grandmother, my subsequent grandfather’s, many aunts, uncles and cousins is what truly shaped me.
Sometimes, it is easier to fall in love with a place, especially if those places are either Montana or Marquette Island then to engage in a romantic tryst. The natural beauty of the west and of the Upper Peninsula are obvious attractants. The mountains speak stories and the waves of the Great Lakes roll with tales and legends. Neal’s Landing gave me a place to start my first story, my own story and now I carry it west to the mountains.