December 2, 2013 by northerncardinalreview
“What set the whole town into a frenzy was when McDonald’s settled in,” Chris tells me as we make our way along M-53, the main road leading from Metro Detroit to Marlette, population 2,000. The street is lined with twinkle lit trees, and Jack O’Lanterns adorn most Victorian porch steps. Leaves of orange, red, and faded brown clog sidewalk sewer drains. “They thought it might have the Wal-Mart effect.”
It’s this very McDonald’s where his grandmother, Ethel, would cash in her annual Christmas gift certificates. Those milkshakes were no doubt a lasting reminder of her youth—and a rebellion against the elderly care facility where she spent her final years.
Ethel was indeed a rebel. Even now, observing the black and white photographs displayed inside the church, the one picture that holds my attention is of Ethel and a few friends, all in flapper haircuts and leaning on an old Ford pickup, heavy on the attitude. One even had the nerve to wear trousers. They look like they’re about to run off and join Bonnie and Clyde.
“Can you imagine,” Pastor Dan says, “A nineteen year old woman in 1930, hitching a ride to go to college? That woman had guts.”
I can imagine. Growing up in a small town has that effect on independence. I left as soon as I could drive. I knew with a small town like mine, like Ethel’s, you either get out or you commit for life. Ethel got out, but just long enough to earn a teaching certificate at Michigan State Normal College—now known as Eastern Michigan University—and head right back to educate the local kids.
“It was a one-room schoolhouse with ten kids, grades two to ten,” Ethel told me three weeks before her death. She was still alert as a disco ball at that point, eager to share memories with any visitor who stopped by. “I stayed with a family by the school during the week and every weekend I’d go back home to help on the farm.”
Chris never knew the family farm personally, since Ethel and her husband Donald, who inherited and worked it for many years, sold the land before their grandson was born. But he remembers well the many visits to the house in town where the grandparents moved in their prime years. It was only upon Donald’s passing that Ethel eventually entered a group care facility, with the provision that she had her own “apartment” within the complex. It was a small room, sure, but it reminded me in many ways of a college dorm room with everything I would want—a coffee maker, a private bath, a desk.
Every summer, at the house, the grandparents had the kids over for a solo week to ensure they each had devoted attention. “She took us with her to church, quilting circle, visiting neighbors, and Huntoon’s,” Lynne, the oldest daughter says. “She showed us how to build a life around the people and the places that you love.”
“And always shared her famous chocolate chip cookies with Huntoon’s,” Pastor Dan says, eyeing Ted Huntoon. In the absence of Vince, Chris’s younger brother who often has business in Japan, Ted accepted the invitation to even out the pallbearers. When the grandparents left the farm and headed into town, Donald needed something to occupy his time and he found a second home in Huntoon’s Lumber, still in existence down the north side of town, though now with the corporate “Do It Best” logo sharing the sign. Even after Donald’s death, Ethel would regularly take in a batch of homemade cookies to the men there.
“They always made sure the house was in good repair,” Chris tells me, noting how his grandmother never had to worry about eaves troughs or plumbing, raking leaves or patching paint. “That’s just how they did it.”
Maybe that’s why Marlette is known as “The Heart of the Thumb” in Michigan. I’m beginning to think Ethel was the heart of Marlette. The city itself was founded in the late 1850s and Ethel was born into it 1911, spending at least one day a week of her life in the Marlette First United Methodist Church. “If you realize,” Pastor Dan says, “that our church is about 107 years old and Ethel was nearly 100, you recognize that she has been here almost as long as the church.”
I wonder what it’s like to be a part of something. I see around me family members known and unknown, generations coming together to celebrate the life of someone so dear to them, and I wonder if this is what it feels like to lose a grandma. Each of my parents’ parents passed on long ago, but I have never lost a grandma or grandpa. In place of those terms of endearment, I always opted to say grandparent or ‘my mother’s father’ or ‘my father’s mother.’ I didn’t know either set of that generation enough.
“That’s Grandpa,” Gayle says, as we watch the men shuffle the casket into the ground, burying Ethel beside her husband. The service is over. The visitors have all come and gone back for lunch, leaving just half of Chris’s siblings to stand alongside their father—Ethel’s son—as she is lowered into place. The others don’t want to watch this last step.
The wind has softened, but the leaves still skip past our feet, catching warm hues on polished black leather shoes. We’re on the side of a grassy hill, under a mature tree. The air smells of harvest time as tractors rumble in the neighboring field. Chris leans in a bit to see the dusty covered cement housing his grandfather’s casket. I lean into my husband’s body. From here, I see what it’s like. I wonder who might stand alongside our graves. I want to ask if Chris would reconsider cremation. I’m claustrophobic. He doesn’t like the idea of being burned. I don’t like the idea of dying.
“Oh, look,” Gayle says, nudging us to another family tombstone: “Margaret Shier, 1867-1899.”
“She was young,” I say, but Gayle is eager to share with a devious smile. Gayle, the youngest sibling and an elderly care worker who spent at least a decade working in a funeral parlor, is our insider into all things death.
“Yeah, she killed herself,” she whispers. “Apparently she was heartsick over this guy who was married—and wanted for murder. She drowned herself in a cow’s trough.”
“Because he was married or because he was wanted for murder?”
“Because he was married. She didn’t know about the murder thing.”
“Ah, of course.”
Before we head out after lunch, I take time to evaluate the photographs and sampling of quilts inside the church. Pastor Dan says, “She made more than 180 quilt tops,” for the Sunshine Circle church fundraisers. There’s another photo of Ethel wrapped in a fashionable jacket and close cut bob, leaning against a motorcycle. It’s this same independent woman who couldn’t wait for a midwife and instead delivered her child all on her own as her husband went for help.
“She caught Donald counting cards once,” Pastor Dan says, “and refused to ever play gin with him again.”
“You never see them apart,” Aunt Kathryn says, noting the many photos with Ethel and Donald side by side: reading, watching TV, horse playing. “They were always like that. Where one was, the other wasn’t far.”
I think of the quilts and the many homes touched by Ethel’s handiwork. I think of the kids she had, that in turn had their own offspring, and how an entire generation has now ceased in this family. It’s now Chris’s parents leading the way. I wonder if they feel it. The responsibility. The ownership. The ticking clock we’re given. Lynne, proud of her grandmother’s legacy, has taken up the making of famous chocolate chip cookies. She is a few months shy of having her third child, what would be Ethel’s twelfth great-grandkid.
My own anxiety about mortality lingers with me days after the funeral. I’ve kicked and screamed after losing someone, certain I can will them back to life if I cry hard enough. I have yet to accept that I won’t be able to fight back from the other side. I’ve been conditioned to believe I can fight and win what I want. Death pisses me off, especially since I won’t be able to argue it. When I am done, I’m done. This enrages me.
Chris and I like to imagine we’ll live forever, yet sometimes I wonder what happens after us. I wonder who will stand alongside our graves or scatter our ashes in the wind, and remember fondly, perhaps, our own rebellious ways.
Lori A. May writes across the genres, road-trips half the year, and drinks copious amounts of coffee. She is the author of five books, including Square Feet (Accents, 2014) and The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Continuum, 2011). Her reviews and essays have appeared in publications such as The Iowa Review, Passages North, Phoebe, Brevity, and elsewhere. Canadian by birth and disposition, she now lives in Metro Detroit, Michigan. Visit her at http://www.loriamay.com