The woman in this photo, with her fishing pole and her funny cap, is my maternal grandmother, Hilda. The picture was taken on a family picnic when my mother, Rauha, and her closest siblings were young adults. They had to walk a distance to get to that lake, over rough terrain with no path. Notice that my grandmother is wearing a dress, to a picnic, and even an apron. But don’t be deceived. This simple-looking woman from backwoods Michigan was more complicated than the image suggests, and she knew herself to be capable of changing the world—yes, I said changing the world. She would have called herself traditional, but her “traditional” life was the garden my more liberal life naturally grew in. To twist familiar scripture a bit: Hilda begat Rauha, begat Donna.
Like we all do, I suppose, I think back to the house I grew up in. Life seemed more intense there, closer to the elements. The photo above was taken at that house, a boxy gray two-story built by one of the mining companies that once flourished in our Upper Michigan town. I was in high school when I took the photo—the mines were mostly closed. That’s my sister Diane standing in the yard with a neighbor’s dog. We were enjoying the heaps of snow that had sprung up overnight. My parents sold the house when Diane was ten. As young as she was, she remembers the gray house, especially the front porch. That porch, with its single couch and windows on every side, is strong in my memory, too. I left for college from that house nearly fifty years ago. But I long sometimes to go back to it, to walk again through that comforting front door and look out those sheltering windows.
Go ahead and roll your eyes now, because if you read what follows, you might think I’ve slipped off some cognitive cliff. Slipped would be an apt word—it’s January in the Midwest, cold and gray. A night of freezing rain during our last snowstorm left every surface treacherous: parking lots, driveways and sidewalks, lonely side streets. I find myself hunkering down. My eyes turn to the light of the TV screen as if they need a false sun, until my eyelids drop under their own weight. In this winter malaise, I dream about mountaintops. The strangest things happen there—encounters and “glimpses of” that will shape a person. I have two stories from mountaintops. They’re probably similar to stories you’ve told, a bit odd, a bit puzzling, but part of your bedrock.
On a winter night in 1988, I crossed a quiet street in Northampton, Massachusetts, just as a white cat stepped into the cone of light beneath a streetlight. It hesitated, then hurried across and disappeared into the dark. At the sight of it, my heart felt a shock, then sadness, and I was thrust back to the year I was twelve when I’d had a white cat I had betrayed. So many years later, I still felt guilt. On that cold street in Northampton, I didn’t know that I was not done with white cats—there would be another, a blue-eyed second chance, named Phoebe.
My father’s father has been on my mind. Like all my immediate forebears, my grandpa Gust was an immigrant. He emigrated from Finland in 1907 and never spoke more than broken English. My interactions with him were mostly via translation by my parents and grandmother. I took this photo of grandpa Gust when I was in high school. He had been widowed for years by then. He’s sitting in his place at his table, a round, spool-legged table wedged between the wooden cabinet of the radio and the stairs to the second floor—between, on the remaining sides, a hutch and the window sill with its sharp-smelling pots of geraniums. We had to crowd together around my grandfather’s table, but as often as we did, the man himself remained mysterious to me.