A late summer’s drive through the tractless forest of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula led me to renew acquaintances with Lake Superior, following our separation of decades. On a remote beach, the smallest of waves lapped ashore, and the cobalt blue inland sea reached the horizon to the east and north. As ghosts from behind an attic door, wisps of memories slipped out. My thoughts returned to a train trip with my mother on the legendary Canadian Pacific Railway, and a boy staring in wonder into the inky black night, the great cliffs of the Canadian Shield brooding over Superior’s dark waters. And of breakfasts in the dining car with white linen on the table and a waiter with a Quebec accent, the train wheels clattering over the rails, a small lake appearing suddenly out of the primeval forest, a ghostly mist rising off the dark brown water as gaunt pines watched. As quickly as they had surfaced, the boyhood memories disappeared back into the cobalt blue Superior, leaving the man to contemplate the years gone by and feel the spirit of renewal.
The air conditioner’s steady whirring was the only sound in the room. “And why do you think,” my therapist said in the modulated tone she used for this kind of question, “that you have such strong memories of your 6th grade teacher, Mr. Mason, after all this time?”
A silver sliver of light had found a path between the drawn curtains and fell across the carpet. I started to say something about Mr. Mason being my first male teacher, but no, that seemed too pat. I let my thoughts go where they might and a memory appeared in my mind, as if on a movie screen. This sometimes happened when I talked with Dr. Monticello, but then I am a movie fan, so no surprise. The scene took a minute to come into focus. My therapist shifted in her leather chair, waiting for me to proceed. Her eyes were a little more intent than usual, as she leaned forward slightly. I noticed she was wearing blue eye shadow. Maybe a new perfume, also.
“There was an evening back then, “ I began. “I was sitting in my bedroom with the door half closed, reading. I heard my father coming down the stairs from his study. My mother called us for dinner.”
“Excuse me, you were in sixth grade at this time?”
“Yes, I was eleven.”
As my story began to unfold to me—and to my therapist—it drew me back in time, to my childhood home in the suburb of Naperville, just west of Chicago, More than 40 years fell away, as if in a dissolve shot in a film, as I vividly recalled one eventful day.
In my memory, the reds and oranges and golds had taken over the woods at the end of our street. But that fall day, what we used to call Indian summer had stopped by for a brief visit, bringing a reminder of late summer warmth before winter’s chill set in.
I had walked home from school at the usual time and spent the next couple of hours in my room immersed in a biography of Patrick Henry, the orator who had touched the American Revolution with fire. I had memorized his most famous lines, and would sometimes close the door so I could recite them dramatically without being the target of derision. “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles 1st his Cromwell, and George 3rd….may profit by their example!” That afternoon, I could not concentrate on the book, being too keyed up about a television show coming up that evening in which I was to have a starring role—I hoped.
I had spent the previous weekend at the library, reading up on the election campaign for Illinois’ governor. I was developing a keen interest in politics, which made me feel kind of strange because none of my friends was similarly inclined. A good kind of strange, though.
I admired the young Democratic governor, who was running for re-election. He had a Kennedyesque image. He, or more likely his ad men, had hit on the idea of a television call-in show where he would field questions from viewers. It was my plan to phone in a question and my hope to have it read on TV. It was the closest I could get to talking with a political leader then, but in the future, who knew?
My mother called, “Dinner is now being served…in the main dining hall.” This was a favorite saying of hers, as if perhaps she were a lady in a Scottish castle. I heard my father getting up from the desk in his study and then coming downstairs. When I got to the dinner table, my little brother was already there. The family collie had followed her nose to a place across the room. “Just for tonight, we will have the television on,” my mother said, and smiled at me. She was setting aside one of her strictest rules—no watching TV at dinner.
My mother had made steak pie, which I knew was one of her favorite recipes. The tenderloin, pastry, and gravy made a deliciously rich combination, to be washed down with iced tea flavored with lemon and honey. I noticed this change from our usual basic fare. The dinner passed in silence, as usual, with the exception of my mother’s question to each of us about our day in school. My father focused his attention on the dinner before him, occasionally glancing up at the television set, which emitted a low hum in the corner.
When the program with the Governor came on, I went over and turned up the volume. He was seated at a table across from the news reporter, his posture being a concession to his having lost a leg in the war—at Guadalcanal, I had read. The call-in numbers showed at the bottom of the screen. I jotted them down, went to our phone, and dialed the first number. A woman’s voice answered and advised I would be placed on hold, but asked me not to hang up. When she came back on the line, I gave her my name and city, and then read my question to her as distinctly as I could. She said my question would be placed in a queue. I thought the British expression odd, but I thanked her and returned to the dinner table.
The reporter read questions from the stack of cards that had been handed to him, and the governor answered each in turn. The hands on the clock on our dining room wall seemed to be moving too quickly. I was beginning to think my question would go unanswered. My mother was just starting to clear the dishes, when the reporter said, “Governor, now we have a question for you from Naperville.” My heart picked up its pace, and we all turned to the television.
“Jeff Wolinski asks you,” the reporter began, garbling my last name of Wallace.
The garbled name had no sooner left his lips than my father started laughing. The governor was answering, but I could not hear what he was saying, as my father loudly continued, “Wolinski, what kind of name is that? Wolinski, does he think we’re Polish, maybe?”
In a flash of anger and desperation, I turned to my father and asked, “Can you please be quiet. I want to hear what he says.”
My father’s face flushed crimson. “Don’t you EVER talk to me in that tone. I am your father and you will not talk to me like that. Do you read me?”
I looked to my mother, but her eyes were cast down. Tears welled up in my eyes, tears of anger and humiliation. I wanted very badly to throw my glass of iced tea in my father’s face and the thought scared me.
“Now, you go to your damn room, mister,” my father said. “And I mean now!”
I trudged off to my bedroom, my stomach in a knot. I had not heard a word of my question or the Governor’s answer. I closed the door behind me softly, but pretended I was slamming it with all my might. I choked on my tears.
On the nightstand, the biography of Patrick Henry remained open. Outside, the last streaks of red were fading in the western sky. I turned on the light, picked up the book, and started reading. In a moment, I was back in the Virginia Assembly in 1775.
When I finished my story, the memory dissolved and I was back in my therapist’s office. My stomach was still knotted. My therapist’s expression showed her concern. After pushing the box of Kleenex across the table that separated us, she said, “I’m very impressed that you were able to tell me that story.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
She unfolded her hands. “I’m afraid that our time is up now, Take a couple minutes to collect your thoughts, if you like. We can go into this more next time.”
When I was leaving, she said, “I’ll see you next week.” She gave my hand a squeeze, which she had not done before.
Copyright 2015 by Tom Schultz. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.
My Grandmother MacEwen I knew late in her life, when she was hobbled by arthritis and worn from decades as a coal miner’s wife. “Son, I’m getting aw’fy gimpy in my old age,” she would tell me in her Scottish burr. She lived three times zones west of us and so her visits were a rare gift. My uncle drove across the empty expanse of the Canadian prairie in his British-made car, with my grandmother, as I imagined, a stoic passenger. Uncle Tam made the trek across three provinces and five states in three days, which was a marvel to me when I became old enough to drive. “We always make Winnipeg by sundown,” he assured me. Eight hundred miles separated their home in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies from that urban outpost sprouting in the Manitoba wheat fields.
My grandmother’s appearance spoke of a life far removed from that of my more prosperous relatives in Detroit. Lizzie, as my uncle called her, wore her iron gray hair pulled back in a bun, although a few disobedient strands escaped the control of her hair pins. Her face was deeply wrinkled, with her upper lip pulled up as if she had a stroke years ago. Usually, a rumpled, charcoal gray dress hung loosely about her, and varicose veins showed plainly beneath her nylons. Her slippers were a concession to the bunions on her feet.
Grandma MacEwen could be abrasive: critical, even spiteful toward my uncle and my mother. But, to her grandson she was the most honestly emotional person in the family. While our home was so often silent and bleak, in her rare stays Grandma brought with her recognition and affection for me. I often puzzled, as I grew older, over these two sides to her character.
Revealing a slice of family history one day, my mother told me of Grandma MacEwen’s youth, growing up in the Scottish town of Dunfermline at the turn of the 20th century. Her father was a miner, taking the tram car down into the coal dungeons, working hunched over from can’t see to can’t see. At the local grade school, bright-eyed young Lizzie was a top student, held in high regard by her teachers. “Aye, the wee lass shows promise.”
To my grandmother’s misfortune, childhood was not a luxury that a coal miner’s family could afford. The day Lizzie finished sixth grade, her father told her that school was a waste of time for girls. My grandmother, then 11 years-old, would start her job in the textile factory near Pittencrief.
Now, as I think about that long ago conversation with my mother, I picture diminutive Lizzie dwarfed by the power looms. The gauzy lint hangs in the air. Her lunch has to be gobbled while she is standing. Her fingers are sore, always. Perhaps she is not nimble enough, and the straw boss whacks her with his switch. “You’ll no be loafin’ around this job like a store dug!”
Tending her machines, she often thinks of her days in school, being called on, writing on the blackboard, then basking in her teacher’s praise. She recalls her father’s blunt words that took her schooldays away–the back of his hard hand across her face when she protested. She brushes the floating lint from her face. The resentment, the cold impotent rage, she buries deep inside.
As a teenager, she graduates from the factory to marry a coal miner. Young Mike is an adventurous lad, and they try their luck across the water in Canada. They settle in a coal mining town on the banks of the Saskatchewan River, surrounded by the wilderness. He works hard in the mine, earning a promotion to pit boss; she bears three children and two survive. There is enough money for groceries, but sometimes not enough coal to heat the cramped wooden house, so the eggs freeze in the cupboard. Christmas gifts for the children are out of the question, except for a few oranges in their stockings. She watches her son stricken with a mysterious spinal ailment, which leaves him partly crippled because there is no money for fancy, big-city doctors. She wonders if her husband will come home safely from the mines. He always does, but two of her cousins are not so lucky.
This childhood, this life, this fate, might wear many people out. It did grind down many people into despair. My grandmother, however, kept a spark alive. She was the one who picked up her family from western Canada during the Depression and moved them to Scotland so her husband could find work. Later, she brought them back to Canada when the coal industry revived, though on the return voyage she kept a wary lookout for Nazi U-boats lurking in the north Atlantic.
And in her old age, amidst the bitterness that infected her, but did not consume her, she found within herself a well of affection to bequeath to a grandson. In return, she especially appreciated hearing how well he was doing in school.
When I awakened, my eyes met the pre-dawn silver-gray clinging to the woods outside the window, and the tangy scent of pine wafting through the screen. The white frame cottage rested in a small clearing. Somewhere through the trees, maybe a half-mile, and then down the steep, sandy Rollways, the Au Sable River lapped ashore, bleached logs from bygone lumbering days bobbing in the cove. This swift trout stream, uncoiling through the upper part of Michigan’s mitten, pooled to a broad, cobalt blue lake where Cooke Dam blocked its course to Lake Huron. Never warm, the river chilled to icy overnight. By afternoon, it would still be brisk when we clambered down the hill for a swim, now chased, now led, by my sister’s collie.
Yet, it was still too early, not to mention too cold, to consider getting up. Pulling the scratchy, old blanket up further, I dozed off. Not for long, because my grandfather, in his flannel nightshirt, was stirring about the living room, as the first rays of sunlight peeked through the pines. “We’ll have this old fire going in two shakes, Tommy,” he said, while lighting the propane heater. Warmth flooded the room, subduing the morning chill. Safer I have never felt.
While the cottage grew toasty, it was my grandmother, Gladys’, turn to make an appearance. The hare to my grandfather’s tortoise, she bustled purposefully into her domain, the kitchen. This was around a corner from my bed, but a clatter and clanging of steel pans announced her activity.
Even at this early hour, her white hair was neatly brushed and she wore a green print dress. Certain proprieties must be maintained, even on vacation.
It did not take long. “Anne, Tommy, come and get your breakfast—before your grandfather eats it all.”
My sister and I scrambled into our seats. Bill Leiter, the cottage’s owner, had fashioned the furniture from local pines. While we buttered the cinnamon-topped coffeecake, my grandfather was slicing the thick cantaloupe he had spotted at a farmer’s roadside stand.
“Grandpa, are we going swimming in the Au Sable today?” Anne asked.
“Can’t today, Anne. Bill and I have to catch supper. There will be plenty of time for swimming another day.”
Carving the melon with what looked like a scimitar, he seemed to remember something weighty. “You know, kids, I never learned to swim until I was thirty,” he began. Anne and I exchanged smiles; we knew a rustic tale would follow. My grandfather was a realtor by trade, but his specialty was raconteur.
“Nope, never had the chance. Why, I was that old before I knew what a vacation was. It was year-round work on the farm, always more chores to do. Time off? We never heard of it.”
He scooped the seeds and pulp from the cantaloupe. After slicing the halves into quarters, he placed them at my grandmother’s place, then before Anne and me.
“Would have liked a couple weeks up North, but who would’ve milked the darn cows. Who would’ve hitched up the team at 2 a.m. to take the fruit and vegetables to Eastern Market? No sir, no vacations on the farm.”
We had heard this many times, but I never tired of my grandfather’s yarns. As a magic carpet, they conveyed me to a strange world, when barnyards and fields sprawled across Dearborn. Imagine: horse carts on Michigan Avenue!
“Otto, you big goose,” my grandmother called from the kitchen. “To hear you tell it, the men did all the work on the farm. What did we girls do, play with dolls all day? I should say not. You think cleaning and cooking and baking for everyone was fun and games?”
Anne and I looked at my grandfather. He appeared amused, not chastened. Wagging a finger, my grandmother added, “Don’t you kids believe it; we girls kneaded dough ‘til our fingers ached.”
With her territory staked out, she placed the steaming bowls of oatmeal before us, as if it were the most important thing in the world. Just at that moment, of course, it was.
The green Armstrong plaid once had been a fearsome sight along Scotland’s southern border, as it was the tartan worn by rustlers and ruffians. Reluctantly adopting a more settled life, later generations of Armstrong men descended into the coal mine dungeons near Edinburgh to eke out a precarious living for their families. The course of my family history began when my grandfather glimpsed brighter days in Canada’s West. His sense of adventure may have been inspired by his cousin’s letters back to the old country from the Canadian frontier, filled with yarns spun from scouting a passage for the Canadian Pacific Railway through the forbidding barrier of the Rockies.
Tam Armstrong secured passage for his family on a ship out of Glasgow, bound across the wine dark sea for Nova Scotia. Along with various Stuarts, McEwens, and Smiths, they traversed the Atlantic, the convoy dodging U-boats during the First World War. Upon arrival in Halifax, they took a train across the verdant, settled farmlands of eastern Canada to Toronto. From there, the CPR tracks reached to the north shore of Lake Superior, left that great inland sea behind, and struck out through the tractless pine forests and muskeg of Ontario’s wilderness. Finally, the train took the Armstrongs over the vast prairie, golden with wheat waving in the summer winds, to a coal-mining town on the eastern slope of the Rockies.
My mother often reminisced to me about her home town of Nordegg, an outpost of human activity encircled by the dark silence of the forests. Overthe years, I heard a hundred stories, andremainfirmly convinced that a few at least were true. Cougars sometimes strayed into Nordegg’s streets, and family legend held that one cat chased Uncle Andrew into his house. The Stoney Indians often showed up in town, and later disappeared back into the wilderness after having beguiled the white man in the Indian barter.
Yet, this mining town’s frontier brashness often yielded to Old Country courtesies. Nordegg was no rough-and-tumble mining camp, my mother insisted. A golf course, albeit with sand “greens,” followed the Saskatchewan River, grey with silt from melting glaciers at its headwaters. My mother’s Uncle Jock soloed on trumpet, when he was not anchoring the Nordegg brass ensemble. Proudly, my mother recalled the Literary Club, where miners discussed novels and plays, naturally with a Scottish burr. As her anecdotes sparkled, I imagined that the cultural life provided a welcome tonic for the deadening drudgery of mining coal.
But not all her memories spoke of the promise of spring. One October day, the mine’s whistle had screamed. Terrified wives and mothers ran to discover what they really did not want to know. Twenty-six families mourned. Nordegg wore black. Uncle Jock, a pit boss whose warnings on hazardous conditions went unheeded, was among those who did not come up from underground. The newspaper articles about the disaster mentioned that Jock himself had lost a brother to a mine cave-in.
Beneath an autumn sky the color of lead, the funeral procession descended the hill along main street, black flatbed trucks each bearing six flower-draped coffins to the special cemetery plot. The entire town turned out, many trudging behind the trucks, while others mutely watched from the sidewalk, men and women with bared heads bowed, their faces ashen.
Sometime after the empty trucks returned to the mine, and the sidewalk witnesses retreated to the privacy of their homes, to the privacy of their sorrow and despair, the mine workers’ union built a monument at the cemetery. The simple stone sentinel bore the names of those lost. Thirty years later, on a family vacation, I had watched my mother weep at the gravesite. “Jimmy McLaughlin, he was only eighteen,” was all she said.
The Nordegg mine, no longer profitable, closed after the Second War. The town soon followed, and cougars met no people in Nordegg streets. My grandparents, hoping to start anew, moved to nearby Edmonton. Neither my grandfather nor his descendants ever went into a coal mine again.
As dusk neared, we turned north to cross the Alberta border, with the blue Rockies ranged like a distant parapet to the west. After we passed Calgary, the aurora borealis shimmered against a sky turned indigo, and thousands of stars spread a soft glow across the prairie.
The sky was cloudless but for a few feathery jet contrails, as I drove west of St. Ignace on US 2 in the gathering dusk. There is a long stretch where the road hugs the Lake Michigan coast, and the whitecaps chase each other to shore for miles and miles. After stopping at a roadside park, I watched as the sun sank into the dark blue waters, leaving only a pink glow at the horizon to recall its passing.
(July, 2012–Tom Schultz)