I was fortunate enough to have grown up mostly in a house on Moccasin Lake which everyone called “Camp.” My family spent only summers at Camp before we moved out there year round in 1968. We spent the winters next to the big lake, Lake Superior, in The Apartment, at 212 East Superior Street, Munising, Michigan. It was a solid old building that my Mom and Dad rented from my Dad’s Uncle Dick. The second story was a large three-bedroom living space. Underneath it was a paint and wallpaper store. I can still hear the sound of the paint mixer vibrating through the living room floor.
My Dad, along with my Mom, ran the business with help from my older sister. Dad was also a construction contractor, before eventually getting into the building supply business.The basement was something out of The Phantom of the Opera . You descended from The Apartment via a concrete staircase. (I don’t know why one of us kids wasn’t killed on those steep, narrow, treacherous steps, but no one ever was.) Then you left by a side door, walked through a large garage area, and turned right to descend another, darker, more narrow, more treacherous flight of concrete stairs. The basement was cavernous and had catacombs . . . okay, it had dark corners and wasn’t lit well. But when you’re five years old, they seem like catacombs, catacombs with threatening, ghostly, predatory things waiting to jump out at you and do really scary stuff. And, we heated with coal which meant the furnace had to be stoked regularly in the cold Upper Peninsula winters.
After school, that was my brother, Spencer’s chore. When it got dark and if I was feeling charitable, usually after I had negotiated some future favor from him in exchange, I would accompany Spence down there as a kind of sentry. How a thirty-pound sprite like me was going to protect Spence from hordes of attacking hobgoblins, I don’t know. I guess it was a kid thing.
My chore, even at that early age was doing the dishes. You see, it was my sister’s job to do the dishes. But she complained so much to Mom about it that Mom said that if she could teach me how to wash dishes, she wouldn’t have to do it anymore. (Thanks, Mom.) So, at five years old she had me standing on a step stool that my Uncle Lionel had designed for me and Spence to use at the bathroom sink to brush our teeth. When we weren’t brushing our teeth, Spence was tooling me around the neighborhood in a specially made – by our Uncle Lionel, of course – wheelbarrow that had two front wheels so that it wouldn’t tip over.
My Mother was the oldest of six siblings. The others moved away from Munising. Both Mom and Lionel, for better or worse, chose to stay. They remained close all of their lives.
Lionel was a mechanical wizard. He could fix anything, conceive of anything, or construct anything you needed, or didn’t need. My favorite invention of his was a remote-controlled airplane! When he buzzed that thing around Kaden’s Field next to The Apartment, every kid in the neighborhood showed up to gawk at it in wonder.
When the long, dark winter would begin to depart in March, Spence and I and some of our friends would start saving our Popsicle sticks to use as boats for the boat races. As the snow began to melt, rivulets would start pouring down Maple Street which had a nice steep grade. These rivulets were rivers if your boats were Popsicle sticks. We would race after them all the way to Onota Street, making muddy messes of ourselves, splashing through the sandy run-off.
As the days warmed, we became restless in anticipation of moving out to Camp.
Summer at Moccasin Lake was pure bliss. Mom would make Kool-Aid and peanut butter sandwiches and we’d head down to the beach at ten in the morning and stay down there, except for the essential bathroom breaks, until it was time for Mom to start dinner. Spending summers on a lake made it imperative at a time when kids usually didn’t learn to swim as toddlers, that we learn to swim immediately upon leaving the womb . . . or as soon as possible thereafter. Spence and I were both accomplished swimmers by the time we were four years old. Often our downstate cousins would come to visit. Mom had a hard and fast rule, really a law, that no one – absolutely no one – put their toe into the water until she or another adult was down there. A few times a cousin challenged that law and would be summarily banned from swimming for the whole day. That usually insured future compliance.
We always had a swimming raft anchored about sixty feet from shore. It was a rite of passage when you were able to swim to it, first with a lifejacket and then without one.
Spence and I were water bugs, lingering at the beach as long as we could and getting tanned as brown as berries by the 4th of July. We adored the lake. We couldn’t get enough of it.
My Uncle Lionel and Aunt Al visited often, since Alice’s parents had a cabin on Lost Lake which was only about five miles north of us. Uncle Lionel was an avid sportsman. He was a hunter and an expert surf fisherman, negotiating the slippery sandstone outcroppings below Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, casting into Lake Superior’s formidable waves for lake trout and white fish. So gifted was he at this that Field & Stream Magazine featured him in an article on surf fishing in the early 1960s. He taught Spence and me to fish on Moccasin Lake. We literally learned from the best. He’d bring his fishing tackle and bundle us into our lifejackets, then load us up into the rowboat. I would lean on the bow of the boat and watch the water whiz by as Uncle Lionel’s strong arms propelled us across the lake where the beaver dams made for great fishing. I didn’t have much of a knack for fishing, probably because I lacked even a morsel of patience, and could not sit still for more than 23 seconds at a time. Spence, who was a year and a half older than me, and was by nature, much more mellow, was happily pulling little perch and smallmouth bass off his line one after the other. I watched as long as I could stand it, and then started bawling. My sobs were echoing across the still and limpid waters when Uncle Lionel told me that of course, I wasn’t catching any fish because I needed bait on my hook. He asked me to hang on to his fishing pole while he put a fresh worm on my hook. Soon after I took his pole, I felt a tug, tug, tug. “Reel it in,” my Uncle said, excitedly. I did. It was the first fish I ever caught. Of course, afterwards, when we were walking up the stairs to the house, Spence told me I hadn’t really caught a fish. “Uncle Lionel had a fish on his pole when he handed it to you.” But I already knew that.
Mom amended her swimming rule only once that I can remember. She buckled Spence and me into our life preservers and climbed up the hill to the house, so she could join my Dad who was visiting with my Aunt Al and Uncle Lionel, and keep an eye on us from the porch. Spence and I were tooling around in the water having a great old time, and with parental discretion at bay, we took advantage of our freedom. We were out of sight on the far side of the raft for a little too long I guess, because when I swam around the raft towards shore, there was my Uncle Lionel, up to his knees in water ready to dive in and swim out to us. I saw him heave a sigh of relief when he saw me and grin when Spence bobbed around the other side of the raft. Shaking his head and smiling wryly, he hauled himself out of the lake. He hadn’t even stopped to take his shoes off.
Summers rolled on like this rhythmically. Days on the beach followed one after the other. Despite the notoriously hot and humid weather that lay down across the Upper Peninsula like a heated blanket, Moccasin Lake was always clement. A south wind had to cross the lake before it got to Camp and by then the water had cooled it right down.
When it rained, Mom built a fire in the fireplace and we’d play Farm Lotto or Old Maid or get the old player piano going, singing along with the piano rolls. My feet barely reached the pedals, but making the player piano burst with music was my very favorite rainy day activity.
After those idyllic summer months, towards the end of August, the sunny winds would start to blow the quaking aspens’ drying leaves, making them sound like tiny castanets. An almost imperceptible chill tinged the air as the sun started moving lower in the sky to the south. Autumn was on its way as we started packing up Camp to move back to The Apartment.
In the fall of 1964, I was going to kindergarten and Spence was entering the first grade. Uncle Lionel was working for my Dad, doing construction. It usually required him to return equipment to the garage below the apartment, and after he did that he never failed to come upstairs to have a cup of coffee with Mom and spend a little time with Spence and me, before heading home to his own family. He always kicked his dirty work boots off at the door before coming into the kitchen. And without fail, he would end up wrestling with us on the living room rug.
If we got too noisy he would captivate our attention with a story. I always got to sit on his lap. (It was one of the few times that I could sit still for more than 23 seconds.) Looking out the window at a flight of geese soaring over Lake Superior, he would talk about how forming a V-shape made it easier for them to fly, and that the honking was like talking, sharing directions with each other. I watched as the lead goose dropped towards the rear of the formation, and another goose took its place. Uncle Lionel told us that taking turns being first, was how they shared the burden of the trip so none of them would ever get too tired. I’d rest my head against his chest and listen to the rumbling vibration of his words through his shirt. I would play with his collar, rubbing the soft, warm flannel between my thumb and finger. I was a bird in a nest, safe, warm and secure.
I never wanted him to go home. One time, I even hid his boot behind my bedroom door. “That little shit,” I heard him chuckle to my Mom. “One minute you want to spank her and the next minute you want to hug her.” I finally gave it back to him when he threatened to never come to see me again if I didn’t.
When he left, I’d run to the front window of The Apartment and watch him appear on the sidewalk below. He’d look up and wave, then either get in his truck or head to the bar across the street.
My Mom had dressed us in school clothes but kept us out of school. That wasn’t a good sign. There’d been a constant stream of bad signs at The Apartment. And now Spence and I walked on either side of her down the steep concrete steps and through the door where we were whipped with a blast of cold, September air. The mid-autumn sun, hanging low on the horizon was hard and glaring. Heading east on Superior Street, I noticed that Mom was gripping my hand tighter than usual, as we passed Moody’s Grocery Store. Spence and I bought penny candy there -- but not today. Today we were walking to The Funeral Home. As we entered the building a thick overpowering scent of flowers greeted us. Mom was accosted by people who were just waistlines and coat pockets to me. They were expressing their sadness to her for her loss. And in the confusion, I was let loose from her grip. I wandered away from the throng of sympathizers, aware suddenly and inexplicably why we were there. I knew. All the snippets of hushed conversations that I’d strained to overhear for the past two days came together and formed an immutable, irreversible reality: Uncle Lionel was dead. He had shot himself in the head. I’d heard the phone ring in the night, and I heard my Mom cry out for my Dad.
When I woke the next morning, it was to a much colder sun. My world had shifted on its axis.
I’d never seen my Mom cry before and now she was crying a lot. It was clear to me that she was barely managing to hold her emotions together. She seemed ashamed of that, so I stayed away from her all day. I hid in my bedroom which was just off the kitchen, and I pressed my ear to the door. What could have happened? No matter what it was, I innately knew that nothing was ever going to be quite the same.
And then when Uncle Lionel didn’t stop by that night, I began to put it together in my five-year-old mind. But my five-year-old mind couldn’t make its way around the irreversible loss of my Uncle. It just couldn’t. So, I threw the thought away, like an old candy wrapper, and played with my Barbie dolls.
Now, as I made my way through the crowd of people towering over me, feeling safely invisible, I passed through the vestibule and into a room lined with flowers. There I recognized my Aunt Alice standing in front of an open casket, her shoulders heaving. She was crying . . . very hard. And in the casket was my Uncle Lionel -- or at least, a reasonable facsimile of my Uncle Lionel -- lying absolutely still. He was dressed in a suit, of all things. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him in a suit. But there he was in a dark blue flannel suit. How strange that seemed.
Something else was strange, too. There was no hole in his head. If he shot himself, where was the hole?
I was inching up towards the casket, craning my neck to see for myself, when my Aunt Al saw me.
“Honey, are you okay?” She asked between sobs. I looked up at her face. It remains the saddest portrait of unremitting grief that I have ever seen and is seared into my memory to this day. She’d pushed her cat-eye glasses up over her forehead and tears streamed down her cheeks. Each time she so much as glanced at Uncle Lionel, she would wince, as if looking at her dead husband actually physically hurt. She clutched a handkerchief in her right hand and a glove in her left. Then she looked at me as if she suddenly understood why I had crept close to the casket. “You want to touch him, don’t you? You can touch him.”
Truth was, I didn’t want to touch him. He was dead. He really wasn’t there anymore. What was there was hardly real and certainly not the warm and welcoming uncle I had seen just days before. I wanted to run away and I glanced over my shoulder hoping to see my mother or Spence. But I didn’t want to hurt Aunt Al’s feelings either. I just wanted to see the hole.
Aunt Al dropped her glove on the floor and took my hand, leading me to the very edge of the casket. I had to stand on my tippy toes so I could reach his coat sleeve. She moved my hand gently across the soft wool flannel fabric, then she dropped my hand and started to sob again, even more anguished than before.
I felt the fabric of my Uncle’s suit coat under my fingertips. It was a bit unyielding and rough, not like the soft, well-worn flannel of his work shirts. And it was cold to the touch. I looked at the still features on his face, dropped my hand from his sleeve, and started to back away, thinking, "So, this is what dead is." From then on, loss and love would be inextricably linked within me. And wool flannel would remind me of both.