The trees here are Nordic trees—pines and birch, less hardwood, no lush undergrowth. We drive north towards the Mackinac Bridge—the third longest suspension bridge in the world—and the azure blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac, towards the sandy shores of Lake Superior and silent horizons fading into sky. I tell my husband people are nicer in the Midwest and he snorts. His loyalty to New England and his home state of Vermont remains watertight. But it’s true, I say, people are different here, they call you “honey” or “doll” and seem to genuinely care for you.
In Mackinaw City we stop at the Cunningham Restaurant for pancakes and eggs. The lady who takes our order, a middle-aged woman with a heavy tan and frosty eyelids, calls me “dear,” and I look over at my husband who is fiddling with his phone. “Hey, did you hear that,” I whisper after she’s left. He looks up at me, what? “I need to take your picture,” he says. “You look so lovely.”
|photo by Lee Frelich|
There is something distinctly different about the way people here, specifically the northern part of the middle of the country, treat each other, as there is something specific and distinct to every region. But because I live in Vermont I naturally contrast Minnesota to the green mountain state. “Cold,” is the word I think of first when I recall New Englanders. Though, amusingly enough, Vermonters think of themselves as friendlier than New Yorkers or “flatlanders” (people who do not live in their state). Vermonters see themselves as living a slower life, but then maybe they’ve never been to the Midwest. If you want to live a slow life stop by Roscommon, I giggle to myself, or come to the Side Lake area where my family lives. Of course, I admit, I live in Burlington, Vermont’s largest metropolis, and not a small New England town. But even when I pass through the small towns of Vermont it isn’t like passing though the Northern Midwest where people will speak to you like they’ve known you forever.
I don’t necessarily want to go around chatting it up with everyone, even in the town where my siblings, cousins, and I went to school and I do know a good percentage of its 4500 residents from working at my grandfather’s and then my father’s pharmacy downtown, I mostly try to remain anonymous. Working behind the counter where I “run the till,” otherwise known as the cashier, I hope most customers will mistake me for one of my four blond sisters, though usually at least one of my sisters is also working with me and our father or our aunt. Why, I wonder do I prefer to listen to them and not tell them what it is I’m doing (the natural question to ask)? I like to hear what they’re doing, but I worry they won’t understand why someone would be tirelessly writing day after day, making a living working odd jobs at the age of 30 and frankly, I wonder this myself most of the time, so where would that conversation go—therapy session?
Back on the road through the UP, my husband wakes me from a nap to go swimming in Lake Superior. I’m leery of the water’s cold temperature but the sand is golden and plentiful and the lake is a spectacular Blue Grotto that rolls right into the spotless cerulean horizon. I lie in the sand while my husband wades in and dives under, waiting to hear the verdict on the water’s temperature. When he gives me the OK, I go down and step in the water—it’s chilly but tolerable. The waves lap against my shins as I wade in. At waist deep I plunge under; the cool water feels cleansing and I sense summer is only just beginning for me now, at the end of July.
We’ll make it to my parents’ by nine that night; our final road a small meandering driveway through the woods. We’ll sit glossy eyed on the sofa trying to unravel from the two days of driving. It will take me nearly a week to adjust and to return to my work, which looms in the back of my mind like an angry child longing for attention. The guilt becomes unbearable and so here I sit, again, writing it away. What a strange compulsion this has become. It happened in Roscommon, I think, the trees and the people changed. The longing for home, a place they say we only understand after we’ve left, grew up out of the craggy land, the pointed pines and cone shaped spruce, the bogs along the highway and the chilly sapphire waters of lake after lake after lake.