The RV parked for six weeks in northern lower peninsula of Michigan was not normal for our home on wheels. August 8th, the day we drove to our 6-wk home was out of the ordinary as well, beginning with a flat RV tire 30 miles north of the Mackinac Bridge. That event, which could have been much worse, set the ball rolling. Or should I say, set the tire rolling and turned our 6-week stay into an opportunity to attend to many things that needed attending to. Tire life was running out, the RV was covered in 6000 miles of dirt, certain things needed replacing or repaired, and not the least of which, our hair was getting long and unruly.
Consequently, our first week at the lake did not include kayak paddling, fishing, or photography; instead, it was to do the following:
Replace all four RV tires
Dental checkup and cleaning
Put mom under hospice care
Replace truck bed cover
Replace all four truck tires
Install new shocks on the truck
Wash and wax the RV
If you enjoy water and wilderness, there is much to do in Michigan’s north country. We were camped smack in the middle of the ‘Tip of the Mitt’, meaning Lake Michigan was as close to us to the west as Lake Huron was to the east, and the straits of Mackinac to the north. We were camped at the headwaters of the Ausable River surrounded by forested land where the deer and elk roam and where one can walk for miles. And there are way too many lakes to discover, all accessible within a day’s time. Adding to the north woods experience was having the RV parked next to a lake where Vivian could roll the inflatable kayak to the boat launch any time she wanted. (Enjoy this slide show of some images from our short time exploring the area).
Despite crossing each item off the list during the first week, we still had little time for exploring and enjoying Michigan’s north country during the remaining 5 weeks. Instead, we spent most of our time in Gaylord, my hometown located 10 miles north of the lake. Daily drives to The Brook where mom lived made Gaylord the focal point of our time in northern Michigan.
I spent the first 23 years of my life in Gaylord where I was born. Gaylord, according to my niece who is the City Manager has a current population of 3200, give or take. The charming town is known as “The Alpine” town where Tyrolean architecture dominates its main street. I’ve always been proud of Gaylord – it is an attractive place, a place to come back to or never leave. I left Gaylord 40 years ago but come back to visit many times. This time, our visit was different. This time, I couldn’t get the memories out of my head, like a TBS movie that keeps playing over and over.
Everything made me think of mom. I-75 bisects Michigan from Sault St Marie to Detroit and somewhere along the way, crosses Gaylord’s main street. Standing tall and new next to Exit 282 is a Tru by Hilton that sticks out like a sore thumb with its modern architecture so opposite of Gaylord’s Swiss motif. Each time I visit Gaylord, fewer memories are supported by iconic buildings as one by one they are replaced with something new. Where the Hilton now stands was for decades the Chalet Motor Lodge and Restaurant, a one-floor building with a suite above the lobby, A-framed by the typical Swiss Chalet sloping roof. Mom worked the reservation desk at the Chalet for years and she often allowed me to hang out there while she worked. I could watch color TV in the lobby, go swimming in the indoor pool, buy a Tab from the coke machine. None of these treats were available to me at home. Watching mom work in her spiffy blue uniform behind the desk where she greeted people from far-away places made me feel lucky and rich.
Vivian and I walked Gaylord’s Main Street where businesses from the past have long ago been replaced. Historic plaques on buildings helped remind me of some of those businesses and many memories of time spent downtown. We passed a community art gallery where Bill’s Party Store once stood. It’s where I stole a 12-pack of beer on a dare. My friends and I got caught drinking that beer on a school bus and when mom found out, she marched me down to Bill’s, made me apologize and pay for the beer. I never stole anything again in my life.
Across the street from Bill’s is the Fifth Third Bank which was once the Gaylord State Savings Bank. It’s where mom helped me get my first loan so I could establish credit at the age of 18 with $500 to buy a new stereo. On the next block over is the Otsego County Building where the county library was in the basement. I can remember mom taking me there to get my library card for the first time, a rite of passage that opened the world to me. I knew that if I checked out a book or two, she would be obliged to take me back in two weeks to return them.
As a sidenote, here are a few more tidbits of information about Gaylord & surrounding area.
Of all the memories I have of mom while growing up in Gaylord, the one that stands out the most involves St Mary’s Catholic Church. The church building itself is memorable, still standing as a reminder of the Sunday morning services my family and I attended for so many years.
Even more memorable were the nuns that ran the St Mary’s School, especially Sister Michaela, who still gives me nightmares. I spent the first four years of school at St Mary’s Elementary. By the time I entered fourth grade, I think my mom had soured on the Catholic Church somewhat. Not the religion, just the church itself. My mom has always been religious on the spiritual side of it, but never guided by the social constraints imposed by the church. This was poignantly clear to me from the story she told me of her visit to a faith healer. Heartbroken and devastated from losing her first baby and barely surviving childbirth herself, mom took an aunt’s recommendation to visit an old Polish farmer and his wife, spiritual healers from the old world. After many prayers, he placed his hand on her stomach and told her she would have babies. This after having been told by doctors she would never have children.
One day, mom received a phone call from Mrs. Bozwiak, the secretary at St Mary’s Elementary. That day was the last Friday of the month, or what we schoolgirls called “free day”. It meant I could wear my own dress and not the standard gray blue uniform. Mom had bought me a colorful dress with bright yellow and red designs to wear on Easter Sunday. I was so proud of that dress as I knew my dad would see me wear it shortly after leaving the hospital where he’d been recovering from his first heart attack. When Mrs Bozwiak told mom that Sister Michalea removed me from class and wanted mom to take me home and change my free-day dress to a more suitable one (i.e., longer so the legs above the knees were not showing), mom went ballistic on the nun. Everybody knows everybody’s business in Gaylord and for sure, that old nun knew my dad was in the hospital. That’s what did it for mom. After that, Sister Michaela never bothered me again. And after I finished that fourth year, mom put me in Gaylord’s public school. Common decency 1 – orthodoxy 0.
During the first 3 weeks of our 6-week visit most of my time was spent at The Brook and Vivian was with me much of that time. Things were happening way too fast and conversations with attendants and nurses were getting more desperate as we watched mom’s independence dwindle down to nothing. She and dad traveled in an RV up to the day he passed away 30 years ago and even after that, she continued the RV lifestyle on her own until settling in Florida for the winters. Vivian always said mom was the trailblazer for us to get into RV life. Although mom told stories of strangers helping her with the RV while traveling, watching her now relying on strangers to do the simplest things like getting dressed and using the bathroom was more than I could bear.
Fortunately, sadness was interrupted often by our time spent with family and friends, happy hour with our campground neighbor, and by the healing powers of long walks in the woods. Having my brother and both my sisters around me was comforting, we were all in this together. During our final week on Big Bradford Lake, family matters were pretty much tied up and everyone was back to their normal routine. My two sisters had moved on. With the little time we had left, Vivian and I tried to make the most of our solitary time left in the north woods. It may be a long time before we get back here, but we will be back for sure. But for now, we have other places to see and things to do, we have our RV life to live. That’s what mom would do.