Like millions of other Americans, I hit the road this 4th of July weekend in search of…and found this tranquil cove along the Au Sable River in northern Michigan. When I was a boy, my grandfather would take me to this secluded locale on summer vacations. I can still feel his presence during my re-visits.
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.