When I was a child, I remember a trip to my grandmother’s house, just 25 miles away, as being an adventure to heaven. I never got bored in the car. The landscape speeding by my window was fodder for many fantasies. Once, in twilight, a farmhouse in flames by the side of the road prompted me to start screaming, Stop, Dad!, but alas, he would not. We were, after all, on the new highway that made the trip so much faster. From Detroit to west Michigan in under three hours. But there was no room for stopping.
Since then, my favorite form of travel is on the road. I love it when Jim and I have the time to take a drive. Preparation for a trip thrills me. I love to pack the snacks and provisions we will need. Because of the traffic situation here in New Jersey, we haven’t done many road trips unless they are out-of-state.
Last week I drove to Michigan by myself for the first time. The longest trip I had taken alone was to Pittsburgh a few years ago, and that took about seven hours. The trip to Michigan is supposed to be ten hours via Mapquest or my GPS, but since I have to stop frequently, I was sure it would take much longer.
The night before my trip, I didn’t sleep at all. A generous estimate for time sleeping would be four hours. I got up at three, wide awake, like a kid at Christmas. I was ready to leave by 4:30. Jim was concerned, but I felt confident that I would be okay. The first thing I did was stop at the local Wawa to get gas (the last time before I would have to start pumping it myself), money and some coffee. I changed my mind about getting out of the car when I saw the bevy of young men in there; not a good time for granny to get out and start using the ATM. Sorry about the profiling.
So I got on the Turnpike and started driving. In twenty miles, I came to the first rest stop and got the first of many cups of Starbucks coffee. As it turned out, I stopped at every rest area. I don’t remember if it was Coco Chanel or Erma Bombeck who said ‘never pass up a chance to use the ladies room’, but that is some advice I have taken faithfully.
Twice I stopped to nap; no longer able to keep my eyes opened, there was no alternative. Twenty minutes and I was wide awake. It ended up taking me fourteen hours to get there. I stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken to get dinner for everyone because it was my sister, Liz’s birthday and I wanted to have something for everyone to eat, plus I was starving.
Driving up to my family’s farm is always thrilling for me. Approaching the corner of the property, I came upon my beloved farmstead, where Jim and I lived for four years while he was in college. We had our two children, my sister with special needs, Sarah, and Jim’s nephew Aaron. The house was a jerry built, rambling affair, with many lopsided additions. We added to the mess of architecture by converting the garage into a great family room, and building a geodesic dome to the kitchen. It was a fun and cozy place to live and have a family and those were by far the happiest years of my life. Sadly, the house no longer stands there on the corner of Bull Run and Crowfoot. Several of the barns have also gone by the wayside. I shed a few tears every time I pass by.
The next driveway belongs to my sister Liz. She and her husband, Jim, made it possible for my mother to live on the farm after my father died. Jim is literally at the beck and call of my mother, making the repairs on her rental properties, maintaining the grounds of the farm and up keep of her home, keeping acres and acres of grass cut, snow plowed, tractors fixed, while working a full-time job. I am forever beholden to him for his selfless and gentle care of my mom and sister. He has unplugged more disgusting toilets, remodeled bathrooms, and done the jobs that only someone who really loves is able to do.
Finally, my mother’s driveway comes into view. It is a long, serpentine drive, passing to the left the pond my father dug in 1971, and the park like grounds that are Jim’s pride and joy. Along the drive are a string of light posts that he installed to make safe passage for Sarah when she used to return from her group activities after dark. Unfortunately, she is no longer able to go out much due to her deteriorated health. But the lights continue to illuminate the drive at night. When I returned home last week, the sun was just beginning to go down. I would get to see the lighted drive before long.
As you pass the pond, the road gradually divides. The left fork is the path to the house, which is hidden from view due to the trees there, also planted by my father. Each time I come upon the house and garage, my breath is taken away. I love the house and its setting. The plans my parents used for the house were called ‘The Vermont Sugar House’. It is loaded with architectural findings, stained glass windows, both custom and found, and wonderful antique furniture.
My mother’s house is the most comfortable place I have ever been in. The sitting areas are packed with overstuffed couches and chairs. She never prohibited us from eating or drinking in her living room, and then was criticized for having a messy house. I just spent a week there and have to say that my house never looked so good after having nonstop company. She is so generous with food! No wonder her kids all struggle with weight. Meal time was anytime! The first thing she does when you enter her house is offer you a cup of coffee. We drank so much coffee while I was there!
The second day I was there, Sarah and I went to St. Joseph’s Hospital for her chemotherapy infusion. I love spending time with my sister. She and I are the two oldest girls. We have history. Plus, she lived with me for four years after I had my family. We have many shared memories. We also are prone to laughing hysterically at embarrassments remembered. No one is immune! We sat together and had to stifle laughter while in the solemn place, but the nurses said they were happy we could laugh and encouraged it.
Sarah is incapable of a negative thought. She cannot gossip or say a bad thing about anyone. I feel driven to spend as much time as I can with her. It is among the few eternal things I am able to do on earth. Being with her is simply uplifting. The small things I can do for my family compared to what Jim and Liz have done don’t add up to much, but they are what being part of a family means to me.
For my birthday, which I was not too thrilled about, Liz got me a book light, which is an absolute necessity in my mother’s dark, barn board paneled house, and a set of rub- on tattoos, which came about because I confided that I was going to start getting tattoos! I put a spider on my left chest and it is still there after daily showers. You remove them with alcohol and baby oil. If I can reach the back of my neck…..
My mom and I split one piece of carrot cake over a three day period. In the past, I could have eaten an entire carrot cake in one day. We also went to two antique markets. I found a mandolin at one of them. Just what we need, another stringed instrument.
On Thursday Jim left New Jersey with the dogs and drove for 14 hours to join me at my mom’s. He was in pretty good shape when he got there! Friday morning, we left for Saugatuck to meet with the house inspector, and so that I could see the house for the first time. I wasn’t nervous about it. After all, I had seen the listing pictures, and Jim and our realtor, Kristi, had only positive things to say about it.
As we approached Grand Rapids, I noticed the terrain changing. It was definitely more rolling, and there is more sand everywhere. There are less deciduous trees and more pines. At about Grand Rapids, we start going south. I was becoming more and more excited. Our house is about five miles south of the village of Saugatuck. I felt like I was on the edge of my seat.
We came to the exit to our neighborhood, and I had an immediate emotional response. Jim said the same thing happened to him, who is not prone to fantasy. We were home. The area is a wonderful blend of culture and rural life. Next to a working farm is a converted school house that is now an art gallery. Craft studios, galleries, and a restaurant that was there when I was a child are within a bike ride from our house.
I went with Liz as many times as I could to pick up her daughter from school. While we were sitting there waiting, I noticed all of the cars whose rear-ends were covered with dirt. ‘What’s that all about?’ I asked. ‘They must drive down a dirt road.’ she said. Well! Our road is dirt! It goes on for miles unpaved. When you come to our driveway, it is sandwiched between two other driveways; our property is the at the back of a parcel that has road frontage. We have none! Just the driveway.
The driveway is a quarter mile long. We know the first item on our must have list is a snow blower attachment for the tractor. It is literally rolling. You can’t go too fast, that is for sure. Also, it is lined closely with trees. We scrapped along with the RV. Suddenly, there is a small clearing which widens and then reveals the house.
It is a modest house, newer than anything I have ever lived in, so we won’t have to do too much. I felt surprisingly unemotional about the house. It was smaller than I thought, and that made me a little nervous. However, that is what carpenters are for, is it not? I walked through it over and over. I have never had a response that was so unemotional about a house I was going to live in! I began to get frightened. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. I was just neutral. I wondered it I wasn’t finally grown up?
The grounds and setting are gorgeous. The house is on five acres, but about a fifth of it is a deep ravine, probably an old thread of the Kalamazoo River, that has a tiny stream running through it. We will have to have some kind of staircase built to access it. Also, we have to make sure our sheep fencing is sturdy. If one of those girls fell down that cliff, they would be spending the rest of their life down there.
My reaction to the house bothered me all the way back to New Jersey. Did my nonreaction mean I didn’t like it? Did it matter? Of course, I had a lot of time to think about it; the drive home took almost 14 hours again, the last two in the dark on the Turnpike, not fun on a Saturday night.
The next day, I called my wise girlfriend, Joy, who has been a spiritual mentor to me for the past 25 years. She thought my response to the house was that of a highly spiritual person. (yippee! ) She said I was an onlooker. An onlooker doesn’t pass judgment. She felt that the neutrality I was sensing meant that the house was unfettered with any residue of the past. It had happy residents. She said that I would take care of its lack of character by putting my own into it.
I thought about what she said. That night, I had a dream in which I was able to picture Jim and I living there. The place was filled with our books, art and mementos. I would bring things to it that had belonged to both of my children and my parents and grandparents. It would be a family home, even if my children never live there. I could see my family eating in the small dining area, comfortably, laughing and sharing stories. The table looks out onto the ravine, which in the winter when the leaves are gone, can be breathtaking, I was told.
This entire move has been a process of trust in a powerful universe. From the first TV commercial encouraging us to move to Michigan that we discovered may have only appeared on our TV, since no one else ever saw one, to the quick sale of our house, we are certain we are on the right path.