This morning, before dawn, our dog woke me. She needed to use the yard. I stepped out with her into strong wind. Even the light from the streetlights seemed to be blowing around. A blustery rain was moving in. Wispy clouds raced light-gray and ragged overhead, below a darker blanket of overcast. Whenever I’m outside, I watch the sky. It’s something I learned from my maternal grandparents, who in the 1920s built a small farm between a big swamp and a big lake. The biggest lake: Lake Superior. My sister and her husband own the farm now—we call it Heaven. It sounds tongue-in-cheek, I know, but we mean it. There’s something spiritual, mystical, about the farm. In September, I quite unexpectedly got to spend two weeks there, two weeks in Heaven. This morning, as I watched the clouds sweep past over my head, my mind quite naturally began to wonder what the weather was like over in Heaven. I’m already longing for my next trip there.
While I’m talking about a feeling that’s peculiarly strong at the farm, the entire region has a feeling different from anywhere else I’ve lived. The farm is in Michigan—not just Michigan, but the U.P., short for the Upper Peninsula. If you’re from there, as I am, you know there’s a difference. There’s something paradoxically, intangibly soothing—again, I’d call it spiritual—about that rugged stretch of land along the shore of Lake Superior. It has everything to do with the terrain and with Nature. Mother Nature is dominant—from the weather (temperate in summer, ass-kicking in winter), to the critters who show up just outside the door. You can get lost there, will forget, for long blessed moments, all the troubles of the world.
I took the picture at the top of this post during that two-week trip to the U.P. That’s my sister, Doreen, standing in the distance. We’re at Sunday Lake, where we used to swim when we were children. It was the close of the two weeks, and I would be driving home the next day. We spent the day chilling—decided to pick up cheeseburgers from the family restaurant in town and eat them at the lake. The lake’s name, spiritually connected as it is, felt apt. Walking around the empty park, taking pictures, the place felt like a cathedral. When I glanced around to find out where Doreen had wandered to—we’re great wanderers—I saw her across the park. She was so perfectly solitary along the shore, I trained my camera on her to capture the moment. I expected she was feeling what I was feeling. Blessed and amazed.
Walking around the park, we were amazed that we were even there. Our parents lived their whole lives in the U.P. They took over the farm from Mom’s mother and lived there for forty years. After Dad died, Mom stayed alone at the farm for a few years but finally decided she couldn’t manage it anymore. None of us kids was in a position to take the place, so she decided to sell and relocate to Minnesota with me. Reality and practicality won out.
Preparing to sell was a long and numbing process. There were out-buildings to take down, some of them dangerously leaning. Our brother did that work over two summers. I wrote about the grief of it in an essay in Her Voice, a publication of our local newspaper. (It’s available to read here: “Razing the Barn,” page 10.) When Mom finally sold, and we emptied the house and locked the door for the last time, it came with a stoic acceptance. I drove my mother away to Minnesota that same day, after the closing.
Though we later met my siblings in the U.P. for annual family trips, until the pandemic put an end to it, Mom and I never went out to see the farm again, never traveled the road that bears her family’s name. Not having the place that had fed us spiritually throughout our lives was painful. The loss was hard even logistically. My siblings and I lived in far-flung places, and there was no central gathering place anymore. We no longer celebrated holidays together—an important part of our lives had gone.
Seven years after Mom sold the farm, everything changed. Mom had passed on by then, and my sibs and I were older and starting to make plans for the last years of our own lives. Doreen and her husband Chris were looking for a place closer to home, intending to do some farming in retirement. They were days away from making an offer on land in Wisconsin, when the farm—our farm, that mystical, spiritual place—went on the market back home. The realization that they could buy it—they could buy our farm—was like a thunderclap. Of course they’d buy it back. They made an offer, it was accepted the next day, and sighs of joy and relief spread like wildfire through our whole family. Two months later, we were moving their belongings in.
Doreen and I are at Sunday Lake in this photo because of a complicated interplay of time and luck and circumstance that allowed her and Chris to buy back the family homestead. I like to think Providence had a hand in it. They were expressly looking for a house and land where all of us could come together again. Instead, things came wildly and inexplicably together so that they were able to buy back the very place that had fed the family literally, and spiritually, for almost a century.
Once we were able to gather at the farm again, we came to understand more than ever how spiritually nurturing the place is, how deep our connection is to it. For seven years, we’d missed the night sky, the sunsets and sunrises, the deer that came to feed in the orchard. We missed the rock fences, the spruce and pine trees that stand sentinel around the house, and the funny red squirrels that scold from the highest branches, reminding us that this is their place and we’d best mind our manners. Most of all, we missed the strong sense we have that our parents and grandparents are still there, in every nook of the house, in every thicket and grove.
* * *
I was feeling mixed emotions, that day at Sunday Lake, and it involved an irony. I spent those two weeks in Heaven because my husband Bruce spent ten days in hell, and he’d elected to do it on his own and not get me pulled into hell with him.
He often stays home when I go to the farm.
It works for us. I don’t have to worry about him getting antsy, and he gets to enjoy some solitude and cave time. But on my recent trip, four days after I’d left, he woke up sick one night and called me at 4:00 A.M. He had fever, a piercing headache, and a gastric system in revolt. By late morning he was at the clinic, and by 1:00, he texted it was Covid. Because of our caretaking of Mom through the first years of the pandemic, we had done everything we could to avoid the virus and not inadvertently pass it to her. We lived like hermits and got every version of the vaccine when it became available. Over the many years since, we had managed to avoid infection. But now the virus was in our house.
Bruce said he was sicker than he had ever been. I couldn’t calm my thoughts. Should I go home? Would a good wife go home? “Stay there,” he said. “Another week. You don’t want this.” He was facing ten days of isolation and toughing it out. I do the food shopping at our house, and fortunately, I’d restocked everything before I left. He wouldn’t starve. Assuming he didn’t get worse, I’d stay where I was. But there was a question, of course: had he infected me before I left? There was a strong possibility. The farm became an isolation ward. It had to, until we knew I wasn’t infected.
We’re science minded in our family. We keep masks and Covid tests around, just in case. I did a Covid test and waited. Fifteen minutes can be very long. Though I had no symptoms, I held my breath. The test was negative. I did three tests in all, each spaced two nervous days apart. All negative. I had escaped, this time. Bruce and I continued to count the days until it would be safe for me to go home. He never lost his sense of humor. He texted, early on, “Covid is pretty eff’n bad, but a husband with Covid is worse.”
How sweet and succinct that last paragraph is. I might have Covid. I tested. I was clear. But that’s not the reality of what I felt. The period of isolation was long and fraught. It’s never easy to wait. But we put the time to good use. During the long days between my Covid tests, we unpacked boxes of books and DVDs that hadn’t been gotten to yet, hung pictures and artwork, removed a lot of brush, and did a lot of mowing. While we were working, Nature stepped up her magic, as if she knew the people in the house needed distraction. That we needed reminding of her power to move and shape.
Our grandmother Hilda, who built the farm alongside our grandfather, seemed to understand that power, implicitly. She wouldn’t have phrased it this way, but she felt that the farm was a living organism—the land, the people, and the critters living together, caring for one another in some mystical way. She loved the wildlife, the coyotes, especially. She would tell a story occasionally from the Second World War.
Everyone had the worry of someone serving overseas. During that time, a pack of coyotes started coming to the house every evening. For as long as the war lasted, they tumbled and chased each other in the driveway beneath the windows. She thought that they knew they were needed—that they sensed the worry in the house and the upset in the world and were providing hope and distraction.
On the evening of the day after Bruce was diagnosed—the day I otherwise would have driven home—there was a spectacular display of the Northern Lights.
As you can see in this photo, the sky to the north over Lake Superior lit up with wavering bands of green and pinkish-purple. Time stops when you’re in the presence of the lights. I wish the camera had captured the way the bands rippled and changed shape. As I stood watching, I understood that my being there to see them was a gift. I kept thinking, “If not for Covid, I’d have missed this.” I hadn’t imagined anything good, anything so reverent, could come from it.
A couple days after my third negative test, while we were waiting for Bruce to pass out of the window of contagion, a family of five geese showed up. They appeared suddenly that morning, foraging in the fields and along the driveway. They were headed by a vigilant fellow who always stood with his neck craned. We called him The Guard Goose. He kept us in his sights, even watching the house windows, though he clearly thought we weren’t a huge worry. He didn’t mind when Doreen and I came out and got into her car, started it up, and headed to town. I had an appointment to get the new Covid shot. I’d be driving home soon, into the Covid zone, and I was going to go armed.
It soon became apparent, as well as a running joke, that it was a wild day for wildlife.
As we were driving back up the road to the farm, after I’d gotten the shot, a very small red squirrel raced across the road in front of the car. We were within eyeshot of the house, so the little fellow might have been one of those who scold from the sentinel trees. Doreen exclaimed, “That’s the third time in the last few weeks he’s run in front of me!” He had done it to me, too, when I was driving. It was like the little daredevil waited in the weeds along the side of the road until he heard a car approaching, and then made his run.
Doreen slowed so as not to hit him, and we continued up the road, laughing over his antics. How strange the little guy was. We were still laughing as we neared the driveway—and then a flash of wings suddenly filled the windshield! Strong, broad wings, beating fiercely. It was a sandhill crane, all wings and neck and long legs. The bird must have been standing in the ditch to the left of the car and flown up in alarm as we approached. The span of its wings literally obscured the windshield as it lifted clear of the car and flew to join a second crane in the field north of the house.
Doreen and I were speechless. So close. The bird owed its life and well-being to the red squirrel. If not for the squirrel having slowed us down, we would have hit it. Doreen turned the car into the driveway slowly, slowly, so as not to startle the cranes. The driveway is long, and I picked up my phone and snapped photos as we rolled down it. None of the images is of a quality to share with you. The birds were too far away. Doreen stopped the car at the house, and I was reaching for the handle on my door, my eyes still on the cranes, when she suddenly whispered, “Donna—look!” I turned, and she pointed down the little slope toward the garage entrance.
The geese who had been in the field that morning were now pecking in the grass and gravel in front of the garage door. Geese to the left, cranes to the right. “Magic,” we both whispered. We didn’t mean a magician’s sleight of hand. We meant Nature, the spiritual heft and mystery of her. We left the car where it was, walked around to the back door, and spent the rest of the day hanging at the windows. Between the geese and cranes, which had no problem with each other and later foraged together, we were entranced.
The cranes eventually left, but as twilight fell, the geese were huddled together in the field not far from the house. At first light the next morning, they were still there, now ethereal and mysterious in an eerie autumn mist. I could feel my grandmother’s spirit smiling and nodding behind my shoulder as I stood at the window, watching them.
Years ago, when our parents were at the farm, and the phone had been blown out, yet again, by lightning, I talked to the man from the phone company as he was replacing the box. He told me the house sits on a vein of iron that runs just below the surface all the way into northern Wisconsin. He said all the houses built on that vein are lightning rods, and he said he’d be back, to replace the box again. I’ve wondered ever since. Is the magnetic draw of the farm related to that vein of iron? Does the spiritual quality we feel there emanate out of the ground? Are there mystical portals, and does our simple, beautiful farm sit on one?
The geese seemed to sense how special the place is.
They stayed for days and days, feeding in the orchard, getting into occasional tussles over a fallen apple.
Here’s a photo of them, taking a grooming break along the perimeter of the pond. When I finally got into my car to drive home, my period of isolation ended, they were still there. I know the rest of the story from Doreen. The geese left only when hunters spent a Sunday shooting guns somewhere up the road. The Guard Goose did his job, gathering the group into the pond and waiting. When cover of night came, they flew off. The geese are part of our family now, and we expect they’ll be back.
I was given two weeks in Heaven, at the place I love most in the world, a little farm between a big swamp and a big lake. They were hours that, if not for Covid—if not for my husband telling me to stay—I wouldn’t have had. It was a time of worry and uncertainty, a time of seclusion and contemplation. The days were a complicated, unexpected gift. But the best gifts are that way. You don’t expect them. You’d never return them.