The Return

Cole and I returned home to Montana Monday afternoon to a landscape bitten by snow, strong winds and single digit temperatures. Raw is how I felt when I left the airport and ran to the car.

Raw is also how my soul feels after a week spent with my family.

Cole, my mother and grandmother on the boat ride to the Island

My nerves were running on high prior to boarding the plane to Michigan, but perhaps the glass of wine (or two) I drank in the Sky Club at Detroit Metro quelled them. I know Cole felt nervous too about meeting my family but I think the gin and tonics failed to provide any relief. As usual, my mom and grandmother were waiting for us at the airport and as usual, my mom was sobbing. She was so happy to see me and to finally meet Cole. I tried very hard to not join in her tears, knowing that Cole might not know what to do with two women bawling their eyes out in the airport. Once my mom finally released me from her embrace, she immediately wrapped herself around Cole.

With the exception of Cole’s presence, our trip home to Michigan was like most of my past visits. There are a lot of people to see, food to cook, general fussing about, wine with lunch at Chandler’s,  family bickering sessions led by yours truly, and a knitting project, captained by my mother.

Cole endured so much in one week. He met most of my family, including my aunts, uncles and cousins, some whom I haven’t seen in a decade. He helped one of my stepbrothers (I have four of them) drag in his 11 point buck from the woods and assisted, for the first time, in gutting. He made three dinners that thoroughly impressed my mother and grandmother, who are now begging for his recipes for pasta sauce and pork stew with polenta. Little children, all under the ages of six, crawled up and down his lap, begged to be thrown in the air and chased around the living room and Cole agreed to all of their requests. He spent an entire day in the back seat of my mother’s Blazer as I played tour guide to all of the houses where I once lived as a child. He even went shoe shopping with three generations of women. This man deserves a medal and certainly a special place in the cosmos. My mixed family awarded Cole the highest honor by allowing him to carve the turkeys for our Thanksgiving family dinner which my mother hosted a week earlier so my family could celebrate with Cole and me.

My mother and me looking out at Peck's Bay

While Cole will most certainly spend this week recovering from the overload of family, friends and large, loud social gatherings (not really his interest), I too will spend some time processing the experience. As I said earlier, I’m feeling a bit raw. Exposed.

I have spent most of my life trying to assert my independence and parade my differences. I felt different, I wanted to be different and I wanted everyone to know it. I also wanted to live my life on my own and put a little distance between myself and my parents. So while many of my high school classmates attended state colleges in Michigan, I tried to head west to Montana. My parents said no, but they did agree to DePauw, a small private school located eight hours away in Indiana. I knew I’d move west eventually; it never occurred to me that my parents might object or be sadden by the distance. What mattered most to me was to live a life of adventure, a life that was different from many of my friends who moved to suburbs and took respectable jobs. I wanted to be the lone wolf of my friends and family, out roaming in the mountains, the one who disappeared for a while in the woods.

It’s been my expectation, ridiculous in nature, that I was the only one who could change, who could move at a whim, who could proudly boast that I hadn’t seen my family or my hometown in years and that my family would just stay the same. I could endure heartbreaks and setbacks, but the lives of my parents would remain constant. I also thought no matter the distance I placed between myself and my mother that her adoration and love for me would continue to thrive. While that’s very much true I also didn’t expect my mother to fall in love, add more children to her family and then become a grandmother to her stepson’s families.

Looking back at Middle Entrance from the boat

I’m just two years shy of turning 30 but deep within me, or entirely on my surface when I travel east to the brutal wave-shaped shores of the Great Lakes, I am very much a selfish child who wants nothing but her mother’s undivided attention, despite my criticisms and unreasonable expectations. So on the trip home with Cole, I wanted desperately to prove to my family that once again I did something better and greater. It’s like I have to constantly separate myself from my Midwest family. “Look,” I wanted to shout (and probably did so with my body language and quick remarks), “I’m better because I have a college degree, I don’t live within a five mile radius of my parents and I don’t have children. Admire me, praise me and think of me as Someone Better Than You.”

It’s deplorable and embarrassing and it was all on show for Cole.

Underneath it all, I feel like in some ways I’ve been replaced. While it’s not true in my mother’s enourmous heart, I can’t help but feel like home is not home. Yes, I’ve chosen to carve out a life for myself in the mountains and claim Whitefish as home and I’m so grateful for it. But when your parents remarry, move out of your childhood home, switch towns and move into a house with four other children, the feeling of home is less rooted. Also, my dad and his wife recently left the woods of northern Michigan for an apartment in the suburbs of Albuquerque, New Mexico. What? My dad has lived his entire life with woods and dirt roads as his property boundaries and spent his days running his Brittany Spaniels through the forest and now he’s in a major city in the desert?

Feeling so raw and bitten and it is entirely childish, because I’ve come to expect certain things in the lives of my parents and when they change so dramatically it’s difficult to find purchase. Instead of acting like an adult and feeling happy for my parents, I find fault in their decisions, find a loose thread and tug on it until it unravels and I storm out of the house and go on my long pout walks. I’ve at least progressed a bit in my life–my temper tantrums as a kid typically resulted in one of my mother’s dishes hurled at a wall– now I’ve realized that taking a walk, sometimes stamping in the dirt and kicking something hard does a lot more good on my soul and my mother’s plates.

What is even more selfish in my own nature is that, if asked by my mother, I wouldn’t move back to northern Michigan. Yes, I dearly and deeply love the expansive and powerful Great Lakes. I love how my mom’s house disappears into the hardwood forest and I most certainly love the Island with a fierceness known only to my mother and grandmother. But one can only wander so far on an island until becoming swallowed by the water. I need a little bit more room to roam, to stomp along a trail deep into the wilderness, allowing all my anger, melancholy and happiness find root among the rocks. So as I whine about the loss of home, I also won’t reconnect with that home other than the yearly trips east.

I think, as I’ve grown up a  bit, I’ve learned that my parents too suffered a loss of dreams and that like me or anyone else, they try to reassemble those dreams, guard their children from those devastations and start anew. On our driving tour of my childhood homes I realized this a bit more as I thought of what those physical places meant for my parents. Each place, to me, represented family, loss, reconciliation and finally, a new chance at love. Who can possibly deny their parents this?

One late evening after my mother and I launched into a teary discussion (and I lectured, as per usual. I’m really just a professor disguised as a ski bum) about our family dynamics, Cole, curled around me in bed, said: “I need you to be less pessimistic about love.”

While I do believe in love, I’m not always so sure of it. Hell, even in high school I wrote editorials in our school newspaper debunking the hoopla centered around Valentine’s Day and all of its lovey-dovey mush. There’s a bit of a scar on my heart and I tend to fall back on my well-worn argument that everyone in my family’s been divorced and remarried so I don’t have many role models in the marriage department.  But I’m realizing it’s not my parent’s fault if I can’t make love work in my life. I can place a lot of blame on the black garbage sack of baggage I tend to carry on my back, its remnants dripping down the backs of my calves, but when you break someone’s heart and then in turn, your own, excuses are futile and immature.

So, while Cole rests up a bit from his week in Michigan, I’m going to try to go a bit easier on my mother–she’s got enough to deal with right now and doesn’t need me telling her what to do (although, it was quite interesting to observe the constant bickering and bantering between my mother and grandmother, so perhaps this is an inherited trait? Oops. There I go again, excuses.) and I’m going to surrender myself to the changes that happens in a family, whether it meets my stamp of approval or not. I chose my path and so can my family.

And honestly, with Cole around, it’s not too difficult to discard my pessimism.

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3 thoughts on “The Return

  1. Anne

    I think, like Cole, that I’ve had a few g&t’s in that Sky Club before.

    After I started at DePauw, whenever I would come home, the area just seemed more depressing to me. It seemed to get worse after I went back to Vandy. I used the people I saw at Kroger as a symbol of this. I would think, every time I would go there – continuing through to today -, that the people would keep getting trashier and trashier.

    You’ve just helped me realize that I’m the person who’s been changing the most. Yes, I do think that the economic situation of my area has changed – but I’ve changed more. And I’m sure part of that is that I don’t want to be tied down to here anymore. When I was living in Kansas, I loved coming back here for a weekend – mostly because we have trees and hills. But living here is something different, and I dreaded that I had to come back here.

    My parents are trying to convince me to look into IUPUI for the next degree I’m considering. But I really need to get the hell out of Indiana – and not just because I don’t think that IUPUI will be a good enough program for me (see, there I go, being an elitist again).

    It’s good to know I’m not the only person struggling with her relationship with where she’s from. I would also say that being where you are now is much more life-affirming than another other place you could be, which needs to be embraced.

    And, yeah, I might have written all of this to have a bit more time to myself before dealing with the bustle of my family. . .

    1. I’m happy to know I’m not the only elitist in hiding. While at times I’m so proud of my accomplishments and what I’ve done in my life but then I wonder if I’m merely a snob. Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with us writers and readers??

      What’s your next degree?? I’m so happy for you and your continuing quest for higher education. I’m kinda thinking about grad school…so we’ll see. I’d say look elsewhere. It’s an incredible world out there–even in our good ol USA. You know Indiana. It’s been your home. Go to school elsewhere and have another adventure. If it’s totally awful you can always return. That’s my little mantra.

      I’m really happy we’ve begun our conversations again. Man, we should have done this at DePauw! Perhaps I wouldn’t have been such a drunk idiot.

      Happy Thanksgiving–the bustle of family requires a lot. I hope you have gin on hand.

      1. Anne

        Oh, I’m going to be drinking whiskey tonight.

        I’m looking at a MA in public humanities/public history/museum studies, depending on the program. I visited Brown a couple of weeks ago, which is something I need to write about in my own blog. I really, really liked Providence – it’s about the right size for a city for me, but also an hour or so from Boston (which, as I saw on an ad on the train, is only 5 hours from Iceland, which is someplace I really want to go). And it’s also near the ocean, which is very new for me – but I did get excited the few times I saw Narragansett Bay on my visit. But, of course, I have to get in, so that’s why I’m looking at other places. There just aren’t that many at good schools in places where I’d want to live, however. I’d rather not live in South Carolina or inner city Philadelphia, for example.

        Are you thinking about doing an MFA if you go back, or something else?

        I feel like my family is somewhere between your’s and Cole’s. My parents both have Master’s, and mom did some doctoral work. And they’ve been married for almost 40 years now. But mom was the only one of her siblings to go to college, so when I’m with my aunts and uncles, as I was today, I do feel a bit left out. I’ve been in some situations where I don’t want to mention that I want to go to Brown (because I don’t want to seem like a snob), but with them, well, they’ve probably never heard of it before. Plus, I’m not out to my family, so that’s a huge part of my life that they don’t know about, which makes small talk awkward. They’re good people, and a lot of them have jobs that are so physically strenuous that I’d have to give up before the first day was out. I also think religion is a bit of a division between myself and the rest of the family. It’s something I take seriously (thus, my M.Div.), but I’m also pretty open-minded. Most of the rest don’t take it seriously (except for catching a televangelist from time to time) except for my aunt and uncle closest to here, who I think are becoming fairly conservative as they become more involved in their church. So that’s another large part of my life where there’s quite a gulf between me and the rest of the family. But, they still love me, and that’s all that matters.

        I’m really glad we’ve reconnected too, even if it means I really want to go back to Montana sometime. . .

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