As far as airport remodels go, Detroit Wayne County did a great job. A far cry from the Detroit airport of my youth, with its dingy Northwest gates and beleaguered, maroon polyester uniforms, this one’s shiny as hell. All silver and white, chrome and gray, the lines are so spare, it’s almost Northern European, except the place is huge, so it’s actually more like the inside of a Chrysler. Plush and spacious.
They even advertise well. Up under the chrome arches and flanking the tops of the floor-to-ceiling windows, digital displays serenely account the arts and culture available from this hub – from the Henry Ford Museum downtown to fan dancing classes in Shanghai.
I have a lot of time between flights, so I’m standing on the moving walkways, turning around and looking backwards, watching the same scenery shrink behind me, gate after gate, sign after sign, Gates A1 to A55, underground electric hallway to concourses B & C, this way to the Express Tram. Please watch your step as you exit the moving walk.
I’m tired. I woke up early to catch the flight that put me here. One more moving walkway to the Starbucks.
The Road Suddenly Slippery
I get a latte but do not feel any relief when the caffeine hits my system.
I have one more 45-minute flight from Detroit to Grand Rapids, Michigan. From Grand Rapids, I’ll drive another 90 minutes or so north to Cadillac, where I grew up, and then a little further still, westward, to Tressa’s visitation at the Christian Reformed Church on Lucas Road. “Not the Reformed Church on Lucas Road,” my mother jokes, a quarter mile away and a different thing altogether, both of them a stone’s throw from the dairy farm where my stepdad grew up.
Now I’m standing parallel on the moving walkways that go past the shops, looking directly out, watching the scenery change from one shop to another, as if a moving shot from a car in a movie. The cinematography’s good: The nail and massage place shines—‘ be relax’ – all lowercase in soft blue LEDs. It’s two weeks before Christmas. Sparkly lights and glittery tinsel decorate the storefronts. Everything is silver and fine and clean.
I charge my phone. I don’t remember exactly how to drive from Grand Rapid to Cadillac anymore, and I’m fretting in turns about safety, entertainment, and cell phone service, because I do remember that the trip up 131 is preternaturally flat. Few cities, and not even that many farms, flank its expanse, so the wide freeway just goes and goes, until about thirty minutes out, when it turns to hills, yoking along the softest, most sympathetic curves, ascending into the Hinterlands, until a slow turn unfurls a positively Nordic, coniferous-filled valley, sparkling with downy soft snow, the road always suddenly slippery, for no reason I ever knew.
Going Home to Michigan is Like . .
I guess the economy’s been dying since before I was born, but I didn’t know.
When I was growing up, Michigan was famous for: the auto industry, the auto worker unions, the labor unions in general, the labor movement, the two-day weekend, the public schools. Diego Rivera’s Industry mural, Detroit Motor City, the Detroit sound, Motown Sound, the sound that made the Jackson 5, Detroit R&B, the Roostertail, Stevie Wonder, Iggie Pop, and Madonna, just to name a few. The Piston’s Bad Boys, the University of Michigan’s Fab Five, the Mackinaw Bridge, Mackinaw Island, the Grand Hotel, the peanut-shaped pool where Esther Williams swam, the iron mines, Pfizer, Dow Chemical, Gibson Guitars, I’ve got a girl in Kalama-zoo zoo zoo zoo.
Michigan was a blue state, a blue-collar state, an evergreen state. The Great Lakes State. My brother and I did joint custody between where my mother lived in the Northwestern part of the lower peninsula to the Detroit / Ann Arbor area where my father lived, tracing a diagonal across the mitten, from pine trees to starry machines.
Like our family, Michigan wasn’t perfect or unified, and it was usually covered in several feet of snow. But it had a heartbeat.
Let’s take the city of Cadillac. When I was growing up, all of the schools experienced unprecedented overcrowding. They had to build a new middle school to accommodate the growth, so by my sophomore year, the 9th graders were in the former middle school, which they renamed Junior High.
Not ten years later, they recombined, closing two of the seven elementary schools, including mine, laying off some teachers and offering others early retirement. Sometimes I go back to my elementary. I drive up the maple-lined streets where I used to walk everyday, look into the room that held my kindergarten class, and there’s nothing in there.
My mom used to complain that Wal-Mart and K-Mart drove all the business to the north end, away from the downtown. Now K-Mart’s gone, Wal-Mart’s turned into a ‘Supercenter,’ and its biggest rival is Meijer, a Michigan family-owned, super store chain, which by all accounts is a marginally better employer but does little to improve local or state-wide economic culture.
Michigan’s peninsular nature doesn’t help matters much. Surrounded by water on three sides, nobody goes through Michigan, only to Michigan if there’s some specific reason to be in Michigan, and, for the past fifteen years especially, there have been fewer and fewer reasons.
Even the oft-mocked ad campaign – Pure Michigan – failed to drive many tourists into the state, or even adequately depict the pristine, Nordic lake towns. Or how the sun at the 45th parallel blanches the beach grass to straw on Lake Michigan’s winding glacial coast. Pure Michigan.
Instead the campaign promoted golf courses and expensive resorts, most of which frankly lack the sophisticated aesthetics of their slightly more southern competitors. Look beyond the resort towns to find a dismal, decidedly unglamorous white, rural poverty, the Michigan Militia, rampant neo-Nazism, and Tea Party “activists,” though these receive far less media attention than Detroit’s bankruptcy problem, the water in Flint, or the state’s Middle Eastern population, which became unfortunately famous after September 11th.
Apart from my mom and stepdad, most of my relatives have either died or moved on. I’ve never gone home for a wedding but I attend a funeral every few years, including my father’s funeral.
Sometimes it feels like the whole state is disappearing, store by store, school by school, and person by person. Those who don’t leave fester in the void.
Going home to Michigan is like walking toward a vanishing point.
My rental car has all the jacks! I pay way more than I can afford on insurance because going over 45 amidst Michigan’s huge trucks and SUVs honestly scares the shit out of me. I’m delighted, however, that I still know how to handle a car in snow.
I play my music loud in the cherry-red Chevy – some flimsy four-door thing, made by the new Detroit for the new Michigan. I go 77 the whole way, wishing I still smoked cigarettes.
I arrive an hour after night fall, it’s dark, country dark, and all the travel has generated a kind of forward momentum in me that has to go somewhere, so, after greeting my step-aunt Margie, I basically immediately and joyfully come out to her son, my step-cousin Erik, who I haven’t seen in 15 years, as a queer, tantric, city-dwelling, bike-riding environmentalist yogi, over sugar cookies and decaf coffee in the kitchen at the fundamentalist church.
The only non-dessert food is ham sandwiches, which I don’t eat, I explain to Eric, because I’m a vegetarian.
“Weren’t you in New York City?”
“I’m living in DC now,” I answer. He asks what I do, so I tell him “Umm, I write about energy efficiency and renewable energy.” It doesn’t click. “You know, climate change stuff.” His eyes narrow.
Erik lives a couple towns over. Like his father, he hunts and sends his kids to Christian school. Like his father, he’s really easygoing in a sort of soft, masculine way, which totally eggs me on.
“Well, I wasn’t planning on coming home for Christmas this year. The travel’s so expensive. And I don’t really care about the holiday anyway.” I go on to say that I celebrate the solstice, that the birth of Christ – “the light” – is really a metaphor for the return of the sun, which the Christians well knew when they co-opted the pagan holiday.
Like the impassive northerners around him, Erik registers his utter confusion very slowly, and I just keep on going.
“All Judeo-Christian traditions are basically just variations on celebrations honoring transitions in the natural world. Think about Easter! Re-birth in the spring!” I raise my cookie in the air.
Erik’s face tightens. “Cool,” says his wife Stephanie, who has joined the conversation, and who I’m meeting for the first time. “That’s really interesting.” She touches his shoulder.
My mom rides with me to the restaurant after – I’m still a little jittery behind the wheel – and I recount the story. She futzes with the heater. “Corinne why on earth did you say all that to him?
“I don’t know. I was feeling kind of sociopathic or something. But he totally took it well.”
Nets of colorful holiday lights twinkle on the trees that decorate our little lake, the focal point of and place from where the town emanates, and around which the city lights scatter, houses both poor and prosperous peppering the undulating hills. Further down sit the staid, brick downtown municipal and office buildings, now sparsely populated. Further north, uptown, the fast food places and factories grease the cold sky in streaks. One other solitary car treks around the lake over the soft pack of snow.
When I get to my mother’s house, I will walk up her back porch and look straight up in the sky, breathe the cold into my lungs and see stars, layers of stars, which deepen the longer you look.
My step-father Gary is sick. His mother just died “Of the same pneumonia that will probably kill me!” – he exclaims. He shuffles around the house in his pajamas, stumbling over the tumor-ridden, almost-dead dog. Morning light streams into the yellow kitchen. When he goes back to bed, we hear him roll over and moan. He doesn’t bother to close the door.
My mom and I perform our usual routine where we are the exact same person for 24 hours and then want to kill each other. We pick up groceries, go thrift store shopping, and she takes me to the little boutiques downtown. I but a new winter hat; she gets a sweater. I consider buying a tourist t-shirt with snowmobile pictograms for my girlfriend. We decide it’s the right day to get a Christmas tree.
We call ahead to the cut-your-own tree farm and then drive 20 miles or so outside of town, first on the highway and then down numbered county roads. A smiling, rotund woman greets us, and we hand her some cash. We follow the snowy two-track past their house, between two hills, and then up the side of the eastern one, to the left, out to the blue spruces.
I feel like a dog, playing in the cold snow in the warm sunlight, throwing myself into banks. I yell “Merry X-mas Merry X-mas,” no one around to hear or care. We find the right tree. We’ve got gloves, a saw, heavy-duty pruning shears, which my mother calls “loppers.” We take turns sawing and holding the tree steady until it’s ready to come down. My mom kicks it over with one blow. I trim branches off the base with the loppers, and we pick it up on either end and slide it into the back of her hatchback. Northern women know how to do shit.
It’s not until we’re driving away that I begin to feel sad. We’re taking a different country road that’ll spit us out who knows – my mother knows – where, watching the short day turn to purple shadows, sliced through by the tall conifers, planted perfectly, even, and apart by Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” Civilian Conservation Core under the New Deal, to re-vegetate Michigan’s forests after the lumber boom. The car emanates tree smell – spruce pitch and spruce needles, pungent and astringent and alive. I just killed something. This is its dying smell.
Rain, snow, sleet
That night over dinner, Gary, still sick, tells us about the years he worked farming Christmas trees. Michigan boasts one of the largest Christmas tree economies in the country, after the Pacific Northwest and North Carolina.
“It’s not just trees,” my mother adds. There’s a whole industry of pine wreaths, cones, boughs, and other decorative stuff.
Gary hadn’t been back long from Vietnam, and was still seething.
“I was still seasonally employed then, picking up jobs where I could. Christmas tree season was a chance to make some real money. It was hard-earned money, I’ll tell you that. It was incredibly hard physical work and you did it from the crack of dawn, out in the Christmas tree patches and farms, and we didn’t stop until it was too dark to do it anymore.
“The thing about Christmas tree harvest season, it’s in the transition from fall into winter, so the weather is inclement, and we never stopped. Rain, snow, sleet, you just never stopped. There’s just a window, basically it starts in October and lasts through early December. If you harvest too soon, they lose all their needles before Christmas.
“Usually we were out in the unwanted agricultural land – it’s very hilly, you can’t farm it for anything else. That was one of the benefits of the job, we got into incredibly beautiful back country places.
“Most mornings I went out into the trees and got pretty stoned first thing. I was on a crew of four or five guys. Each crew had a loader who was up on the truck, one guy who was pulling trees through the bailer, and then you had a couple of guys who were hauling the trees out of the patch, and the trees were heavy, loaded down with snow or sleet or rain.”
They wore heavy rain gear, thick gloves, and plastic around the tops of their boots, sometimes throwing off their coats to keep cool. When they finished after nightfall, they were fully exercised, exhausted.
Out at the Fundamentalist Church
The funeral’s the next day, out at the fundamentalist church. When we walk in, I’m shocked first by how many people are there, and then by how much they all look alike. Dutch and sandy-haired with yellow complexions, soft, red mouths, and twinkly blue eyes, their demeanors are pleasant, the funeral air relaxed.
My stepfather delivers a slow, epic eulogy, commemorating not just his mother, but the whole generation. Tressa grew up down the road from where we’re sitting now, the youngest of nine siblings, six of whom survived into adulthood, and three of whom married the siblings of another family, who lived another ways down the road, meaning that Gary had double aunts and uncles, double first cousins.
Gary’s siblings, and first cousins who may as well be siblings, and second cousins who may as well be first, blink and smile in the pews around my mother and me, a swarm of near-identical and very friendly Christians.
After the eulogy, all the siblings and cousins and their sons and daughters and even some of their sons and daughters go onstage to play guitar and sing a hymn. They’re a musical family. Their voices are beautiful and soft, alto and contralto, tenor and bass. Watching them, I understand for the first time what it means to come from a tribe, what it feels like to have a home, and a homestead. They are all so unhurried, so kind.
I also understand for the first time my mother’s pain. I understand, perhaps more deeply, my own pain. We do not have this. Ruptured by addiction, mental illness, and un-excavated memory, our family has never been whole.
We drive a little ways to the cemetery. The air is frigid, the sky a cornflower blue. The young, strange-eyed, awkward-footed minister offers a final sermon. Passionately, he describes Christ rising from the tomb, not as a ghost, but a flesh and blood human. He urges the congregants not to fall to grief, because Tressa, too, will rise in the kingdom of heaven, rise back into the body of the young woman she once was, healthy and vigorous. She will no longer suffer illness or age.
He trembles on, recounting in one way and then another, Christians’ ascent from death back into body, a strange tale of time-travel resurrection, first hewing macabre, then sexual, until finally his tone edges into a throaty desperation for the flesh reinvigorated.
I realize I am shaking my head vehemently, that it’s been shaking for some time. I walk away from the funeral canopy and heaters, down the line of cars. It’s fucking cold.
The rural cemetery extends out into a rolling pasture, the slopes broken only by twisted trees and grain silos. I lean back against a car, wrap my hood around my head, and show my face to the sun.
Off in the distance, a line of wind turbines. Their cool geometry, their blades churning the only sign of the new world we’re in. I’m leaving tomorrow. I don’t want to go. The last words of an old Jean Valentine poem begin to crystallize in the cold.
“Something bad is happening.
No one says anything.
One by one
they get up and walk away.
They promised not to know.
Generation to generation,
bone to bone.”
Corinne A. Schneider writes anti-love poems, femme anecdotes, and other ephemera in the House of Sex, Death, and Taxes. Her work is recently featured or forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Horse Less Press, and So to Speak. She has her MFA in creative writing from Hunter College in New York City. Corinne grew up in Michigan.