Time on Saddle: 3.15 hours
Temp: Sunny with a cool breeze, 78*
The first thing you’ll see when entering Manistee is a giant graveyard. In my childhood visits to Manistee, this was the tradition: go to the graveyard, clean and decorate the tombstones and spend some time with great-grandma and grandpa. Now, of course, there are several more people to visit. On the day we arrived in Manistee, the quiet northern costal town where my grandparents grew up, and where their parents now rest in the sunny cemetery, Mt Caramel Cemetery bustled with elderly couples tidying tombstones, taking walks and even another cyclist couple on cruisers passed through. In Manistee, like many small towns, families are tight knit, the community is close. People don’t tend to leave and even the dead rest peacefully where they once lived peacefully, buried overlooking the high school they attended, on top of the hill they sled down as children.
My grandma made arrangements for Ivan and me to stay at her niece’s fruit orchard. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and wasn’t sure how to get there, so my grandma’s instructions were to “go in to town, and find the antique store across from the theater. Sharon works there part time, so she’ll probably be there.”
We followed my grandma’s barebones instructions and didn’t find Sharon at the antique store, but her sister was there and gave us directions to the farm (yes, it is really that small of a town).
Sharon’s orchard is just north of the Indian Casino. The Casino is a relatively new addition to Manistee, and all the residents are eager to share their opinion on it. For Sharon, it debilitated half her farm, since land from neighboring farms was acquired for the Casino and she no longer could afford the expensive equipment she had once shared with her neighbor farmers. With the Casino came some economy - a big-box grocery store which unequivocally put the several tiny mom and pop places out of business, a new gas station which competes with the original, little one down the street, and a newly erected row of pawn shops, cash lending outfits and liquor stores, which added to the languid desperation that comes with a parking lot full of elderly people shuffling towards the grand Casino entrance, pulling behind them their oxygen tanks.
I hadn’t seen Sharon in years, but when we rolled in to her driveway, she hugged us tightly and took us inside to feed us homemade soup. We talked about our trip, her grandson who is a professional ballet dancer in Boston and who looks identical to Ivan, discussed the Casino and her farm. I told her that I remembered, as a child, coming every summer to her farm and picking cherries, and watching cartoons with Paul (her brother), while Gloria, her mother, would chain smoke cigarettes and gossip with my mom.
That night, Sharon’s kids came over and we sat on lawn chairs, talked, and watched the dusk fall gray over the fields. Just before the sun was completely set, a bald eagle flew right over our heads, close enough to see his pointed wingtips and parted yellow beak.
We planned to camp down in the orchard, but after being warned about deer ticks, set up camp in Sharon’s manicured yard, where all night deer passed by, hissing loudly at us, stomping their hooves, curious and concerned that a strange new human couple had taken up camp in their fields.
In the morning, Sharon made us a hearty breakfast. Ivan and I sipped french press coffee from matching china cup-and-saucer sets, while I worked up the nerve to ask an embarrassing question:
Who, actually, is Sharon to me?
My aunt, great aunt? My second cousin?
Since I only saw my Michigan relatives once a year or so, I have always been a bit confused about this branch of my family tree - which is essentially my maternal grandmother’s entire lineage.
I learned that there was a remarriage somewhere along the line which muddied the lines of who was “blood related" to whom, and which led to years of retelling a half-story, scandalizing it even more when told with a raised eyebrow and secretive hush. Even as a child, I could sense that a part of the story was being left out. I learned that my great-grandfather’s first wife died and he remarried - simple as that. Of course, it's never "as simple as that," but there is no need to get lost in silly details of who, then, was actually “blood” related to whom. In 2015, this type of blended family is not only common but the emerging norm. In 1930, it was scandalous.
Knowing your family’s history provides a sense of wholeness, rootedness, a sense of understanding and connection.
Sharon and I reminisced about her mother Gloria, who was loud, pragmatic and dramatic, and prone to raucous fits of laughter and lots of swearing.
Sharon took us around the house, showed us photos of her late husband, and her antique doll collection, which she hand-sews clothing for before reselling at her antique booth.
“Some I just can’t part with,” she said, fingering the lace on the apron of a tiny doll, whose eyes used to go in two different directions, but that Sharon fixed and now just couldn’t bear to see her go to someone else who didn’t know this poor little porcelain doll’s whole, sad, lazy-eyed story.
She knew it was silly, she said, getting to attached to the dolls. But she put love and care into their restoration. Plus, when she was a girl, she always wanted dolls like these.
“I guess that’s what we do as adults,” Sharon said, putting down the fragile, 100 year old, tiny doll. “We fill in the missing pieces of our childhood.”
And so was my time in Manistee, filling in some missing pieces of my childhood.… uncovering the truth of my family’s past, of my past, in the small town where all my family’s names are etched in granite, lined in rows, there to tell their stories to whomever will sit and listen.
Photos from Manistee & Manistee Beaches: