Bill was born two blocks from where we now live; he grew up less than a mile from there. When we got married (he was 26), he simply moved across the driveway into the little house we rented from Bill’s parents. Four years later we moved to the house we built less than a mile away while we were still teaching high school English. We have lived in that house ever since, here in the vast farm country of Indiana, the center of the even more vast heartland prairie of America.
I have come to love this flat country where you can see the sun rise and set across fields of soybeans and corn, and measure the days of summer by how tall the cornstalks and how thick the beans. It is home to memories made ever since I first came at seventeen as a freshman at Anderson College—now a fine University.
But sometimes I get a longing for Michigan where I was born and grew up and where my pastor parents lived until they moved to Indiana to help us with our tiny children so I could travel and sing with Bill on week-ends. I am a March-born Pisces, and I am drawn to water like a fish; it is near water where I can best breath.
So sometimes, as much as I love Indiana, I just need to get my Michigan fix. Bill is quick to sign on, and we go north to the places that shaped me: the tiny village of Burlington, the cereal city of Battle Creek, and the gateway to the real north-country, Clare. Last week was such a week.
As we drove, I told the stories once again about how before I was born my parents’ families lost their farms in Missouri during the dust bowl year of 1932, about how they took my tiny sister and moved to the industrial north, to Battle Creek, Michigan. I told him once more about how they got work in factories like United Steel and Wire, Union Steam Pump, and, eventually, Post Cereals.
We drove past the house with the field stone porch were my grandparents lived and where I went as a little girl to pick black raspberries in the woods, gather the eggs from the chicken coop, and watch my grandmother make apple butter in her huge copper cooker on the wood cookstove. We found the farm house built in the late 1800s just down the road where we lived for a while before my parents took a struggling group of less than thirty people and began a ten-year journey of building a strong congregation. We found the “parsonage” where I grew up, at first a rat-infested, run-down two-story house that my carpenter father and design artist mother transformed into a livable, welcoming place where teen-agers, church families, and visiting clergy could be enfolded into the warmth of our family.
Bill and I went by the church where my parents pastored and the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. I showed him the roaring St. Joe river that flows behind the church, the river where the youth group speared carp and fished for bass and bluegills, and the square white building across from the church that was then a small market run by an Italian family named Ricotta where Daddy stopped many times to pick up bread and milk on his way home.
We found the little clapboard building that was the library where I read or checked out every Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery in print. There were book shelves on all four walls and wooden benches facing them, a desk for the librarian, a few wooden chairs for grown-ups, and a pot-bellied wood stove in the middle of the room for heat in the winter. I remember having to choose which side of my body to fry and which to freeze, depending on which way I sat on the benches.
As we drove down M-60, I named families that were our friends, most of whom went to the church. We passed the land that was once the Michigan State African-American camp ground where our family went every night of the camp to hear some of the greatest preachers and singers in our movement and beyond.
We drove on to Battle Creek and visited the church that my parent led that congregation to build on North Avenue when I was still in college and where Bill and I came to visit when we were first married. We talked about the nights Bill picked me up at midnight when I got off work from Kellogg’s where I worked summers to help pay for college. It was on one of those nights that Bill gave me an engagement ring.
We checked into the Bavarian Inn in the darling German-Bavarian town of Frankenmuth to spend some time with my sister’s daughter Melody and her husband Greg who pastor in the near-by town of Millington. What a sweet time we had with them remembering my sister, sharing stories, and then attending worship with them on Sunday!
All the while, I was breathing air fragrant with cedars, pine and the smell of fresh water lakes and streams. The white paper birch and poplar leaves were quivering in the breeze, and stray gulls from the Great Lakes glided sporadically overhead. We sat on the long porch of Melody’s and Greg’s log house and caught the flashes of bluebirds and gold finches against the dark green of the trees. A deer or two nibbled leaves in the edge of the woods behind their yard, and a great blue heron could be spotted now and then rising from some lake in the distance.
The next time I have a longing for the state that’s “in my bones,” or maybe for the fresh water in my veins, my sweet husband and I will go on up to the north country above Clare and on to the big lakes and the dunes. But for now, I’m okay in Indiana.
Michigan isn’t just a state;
It’s a state of mind.
The fragrance of pine and the nutty smell of birches,
Their bark peeling into sheer ruffled sheets of grey paper.
Michigan is a liquid place of creeks and rivers,
Lakes and streams and springs bursting out
In the most unlikely places.
It’s sand – between your toes,
In your tennis shoes, on the linoleum.
It’s piles of sand in the yard,
Under the swing, along the road.
It’s dunes of sand, beaches of sand,
Get-lost-winding-trails of sand.
Michigan is fried potatoes and onions
Cooked on a Coleman stove along the highway.
It’s Vernor’s Coolers at Dairy Queen,
Fudge from Murdick’s and pasties
From a roadside stand on the Keewenaw Peninsula.
Michigan is something fragile –
Fragile as an Indian Peace Pipe,
A pink Ladyslipper or the delicate
Color of Northern Lights in the silent sky.
Michigan is tough –
Tough as the steel on a Detroit assembly line,
Tough as the year-round residents
On Beaver Island,
Tough as the survivors of the Missouri Dust Bowl
Or the lean years in the Kentucky mountains,
Who lost it all and built it back
With worn-out tools at Ford or Post or Kellogg.
Michigan is the music over the lake at Interlochen.
It is art on the gallery sidewalks of Petoskey.
It’s a Dutch dance in wooden shoes
Among the fields of tulips.
It’s a Frankenmuth Christmas that lasts
All year long, and the mist
Rolling in while your head is turned
To hide the bridge.
It’s black dirt, golden wheat,
And ten shades of purple lilacs.
Michigan is an attitude.
It’s helping a neighbor without being asked,
Fishing ‘til the catfish bite,
And waiting ‘til the cows come home,
If you have to, to see a kid “turn out.”
And once she does, Michigan is a big mitten
To warm her hands
And welcome her home.