On this day in 1955 I am almost ten. My family doesn’t have much money, so our one affordable annual vacation is to visit my grandmother in Michigan. This year the Interstate Highway System is not yet born and the rambling three-hour drive to her house feels interminable. Our car is a 1952 baby blue Cadillac sedan that my parents bought from our neighbor—it was a deal attractive enough to overcome their embarrassment for owning such an expensive car. Unburdened by such qualms, my brother Barry and I love it. Six years from now I will learn to drive in this splendid car.
Our Cadillac glides down Sheridan Road and Lakeshore Drive, through downtown Chicago, past the Field Museum and then, my favorite, the Museum of Science and Industry. As we drive through the South Side where my father was born, we pass near my aunt and uncle’s house. It’s in a row of distinctive Chicago-style brick bungalows on Euclid Avenue where we always have Thanksgiving dinner. Years later, Michelle Obama will publish her memoir revealing she grew up on Euclid Avenue in a matching brick bungalow.
As we drive through Gary, Indiana, the disagreeably familiar stench of the steel mills attacks our nostrils, as it does every year. It takes fifteen minutes to drive through it, and I cannot hold my breath that long. Years later, the steel mills, built on sand dunes and including the largest steel mill in the country, will gradually close. Gary will become a town of abandoned buildings. That will take care of the bad smell and we will speed through on the future interstate.
On this day, as we enter Michigan, I welcome the familiar road signs for the Red Arrow Highway, knowing we are now close to Sawyer. I enjoy a shiver of excitement when we finally turn up Grandma’s gracefully curved gravel driveway and I see her fairy-tale cottage emerge through the trees. We always enter through the back door into a utility room with a concrete floor, her wringer washing machine in the corner and stone steps leading down to a dank and creepy cellar, lined with rows of Mason jars filled with culinary delights, all put up by my grandma. I love all the fruits and jams and even some of the vegetables. We walk up two steps into Grandma’s domain – her kitchen. It smells of freshly baked bread and berry pies and my mouth is already anticipating dinner.
We are welcomed into the warm embrace of my father’s mother. My grandfather died just a year ago, but my grandma will remain in her cottage for twenty years more. I was a little bit scared of my gruff grandpa and his bristly mustache. He had been a soldier and I overheard my folks say that he was more comfortable at war than at home. He was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and his Springfield rifle will become a prized family heirloom. I enjoy the things that he crafted for us grandchildren like the swing hung with love from a high branch of a majestic pine tree. He made wooden step stools for my brother and me. One of the stools will remain in my parents’ house for decades, until my young daughters will stand on it as I once did, to reach the faucets at the bathroom sink.
The two-bedroom cottage is filled with the sound of the radio, tantalizing aromas, the clutter of three generations, and the steady ticking of the mantel clock. Grandma is full of vitality. I think she will live forever and she almost does. She will die just one month shy of her one-hundredth birthday.
After a flurry of settling-in activity, my father and I take a walk down the two-lane country road into town. Years later, on one final and surreal walk, we will trudge over raw dirt bulldozed in readiness for the interstate highway that will bifurcate the neighborhood. The cars speeding by will forever block our strolls from Grandma’s house to the center of town. On this day, we walk first to the post office to retrieve Grandma’s mail, then to the drugstore. We sit at the soda fountain and order ice cream cones. Black cherry ice cream will remain my favorite flavor for the rest of my life.
I cannot imagine Grandma will ever sell her home, but she will. I do not know I will bring my baby daughter here for my final visit. My brothers and I will talk wistfully about buying it, unable to afford the 1975 purchase price of $12,000. The new owner will be derelict and our fairy-tale cottage will gradually deteriorate into a broken-down old shack. One time I will trespass through the now overgrown woods to take a peek. Boarded windows, peeled paint, and gaping holes render it unrecognizable. Sawyer will gentrify around it, the town of my grandparents’ modest country lifestyle transformed into an upscale playground for wealthy Chicagoans.
On this day in 1955, we will make plans to spend tomorrow at Warren Dunes State Park, a magnificent beach surrounded by sand dunes. We’ll climb the tallest one, Old Baldy, struggling to reach the top, each step forward followed by a half step back in the hot sand. Triumphant at the summit, I will look out past the parking lot, beyond the waves lapping at the sandy beach into the vast blueness of Lake Michigan, innocent of what lies ahead—who will live, who will die, who will love, who will suffer. I will slowly run down Old Baldy, gathering speed until my momentum grabs hold of me and I fall and fall and roll and roll until I am still, the sun shining brightly through my closed eyelids, the sand warming my back as I lie basking in the sounds of a day at the beach.