Across the Bridge

UP3

Northern Michigan, U.S.A. – June 1982

We scan the treetops for the first signs of the Mackinac Bridge. Billy, Pebby, and I ride with Grandma in her fancy custom van. Grandpa, my mother, Grant, Jessica, and the dogs follow behind in Grandpa’s gray work van. We drive north on I-75, passing billboards that announce famous northern Michigan attractions. Mystery Spot. Call of the Wild. Sea Shell City. We’ve never been to any of these places. We know better than to ask. Grandma told us that they are tourist traps. These billboards have been here for as long as I can remember. The blood red Sea Shell City signs have faded to dusty pink. Man Killing Giant Clam! Free Admission! I used to want to go to these places, because if the signs say that they are exciting, then they must be. Now I know that Grandma is probably right.

Billy and I chant, Sea Shell City. If you say it quickly, it comes out as Sea Shell Shitty. We always do this when we drive up to Mackinaw City. We pretend that it’s an accident. My father always thought that it was funny.

That’s enough, Grandma says.

A long white building appears on the side of the highway.

Billy turns to me. Sea Shell Shitty. His expression is blank.

Sea Shell Shitty, I grit my teeth to keep from laughing. He always wins this contest.

I said that’s enough, you guys. Don’t make me pull over and paddle you.

I see the bridge! Pebby points to the metal posts that appear over the pine forest. I saw it first!

The Mackinaw Bridge is the second-longest suspension bridge in the world, Billy says.

I scowl. I know. You tell us that every time we come up here.

The highway curves and the bridge disappears. I hold my breath until it reappears. Usually, we only go as far as Mackinaw City, but this time we’re going across. My grandparents are taking us on this trip because we need to get away from Auburn and everything that’s happened.

We’re silent as we drive across the bridge. I look down at the hard gray water and then over at Mackinac Island. My father doesn’t know that we’re going to the U.P. For a couple of weeks, we will be safe. When we reach the other side, the knot in my chest doesn’t go away. We’re not far away enough yet.

The CB radio crackles. Grandpa’s voice breaks through. Break one-nine for the Gypsy Lady.

Grandma turns down her country music and picks up the receiver, Ten-four, Silver Dollar. This is Gypsy Lady. Grandpa’s handle is Silver Dollar, because he always wins when he gambles. Grandma’s is Gypsy Lady, because her great-grandmother was a gypsy.

Grant wants to stop at Castle Rock.

Ten-four, Silver Dollar. Over and Out.
She veers the car towards the exit ramp.

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Castle Rock looms over the parking lot. It’s just a tall, crumbling hunk of limestone. It’s the only tourist trap that we’ve ever visited, because it only costs twenty-five cents to climb to the top. Billy, Pebby, and I race to the top. I win, but I feel nothing inside. We stare at the view of Lake Huron in silence.

The last time we were here, Pebby was a baby. My father dangled her over the safety fence. He snickered while she kicked and squirmed. I squeezed my eyes shut. I kept seeing Pebby slip out of his hands, her crushed little body on the ground far below. It’s not funny, Bill, my mother said. But he didn’t stop until he felt like it.

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Before he went crazy, he thought that it was funny to do things that you’re not supposed to do, things that scare people. We always knew that he was joking. Then he heard nothing but the voices. He stopped trying to make us laugh.

Grandma appears a few minutes later, leading Grant by the hand. This is his first time here, so we hang around for a few minutes. We teach him the names of the lakes and Mackinac Island. Before we pile back into the vans, Grandma snaps our photo in front of the giant statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe.

In less than an hour, we arrive at Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The campground is almost empty, because of the cold weather. My grandparents back the vans up against the thick woods. We are completely hidden from the other campers. Bigfoot and Cruncher bound off into the woods.

Grandma hollers, Stay around here, you guys!

The dogs stop, look over at their shoulders at us, and then start nosing through the underbrush.

After we set up camp, Grandpa says that he wants to take us to a special restaurant in the Soo, which is the what local people call Sault Ste. Marie.

The restaurant is called the Antlers. From our table we can look out the windows, across the river, at Canada. Grandpa gives me a quarter for the jukebox. I pick out a country song by Kenny Rogers and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, which is about a shipwreck that happened around here a few years ago.

Every imaginable kind of animal is stuffed and hanging from the walls. Grant squeals and points at each one. That’s a bear! That’s a beaver! That’s a rainbow trout like the one Grandpa caught, but bigger! Look! That fish has fur on it! His orange Kool Aid mustache reaches almost to his eyes. He is Billy with the volume turned up.

My mother smiles as she says, Shh, honey, other people are trying to eat.

What’s that one? he whispers.

Grandpa’s eyes twinkle as he tells Grant about the rare jackalope. Half jack rabbit, half antelope. I think I saw one near the cottage a couple of years ago, but I’m not sure.

Grant’s big brown eyes widen. Really, Grandpa?

We order kiddie cocktails and hamburgers. The restaurant gets louder as we finish our meal. Grandpa says that we can have another kiddie cocktail. Grandma warns us that we better not be bouncing off the walls all night. The cigarette smoke thickens. A sign on the wall says, No minors after 9PM. Billy, Pebby, and I tell knock-knock jokes for Grandpa until Jessica gets fussy and we have to leave.

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The next day, we explore the park. I take Jessica from my mother as we walk to the lookout point at Tahquamenon Falls. Grandma walks behind us, filming with her Super 8 movie camera.

Stand up straight, she says to me. There’s nothing to see on the ground.

I once found twenty dollars that way, my mother says. Ever since then I’ve been thankful that I’m shy. She smiles at me.

I scowl, shift Jessica from one hip to the other, and then walk up the path. I don’t need her help.

Grandma snorts. You’re not doing her any favors by telling her that.

It’s hard for her. She’s thirteen years old and still looks like a little girl. The other girls in her class are already developed. High school starts in just a couple of months. She’s always tried so hard to fit in, and she’s so sensitive.

Grandma snorts again. Well, she’ll have to toughen up or she’ll never get anywhere in this world.

I hurry up the path so I don’t have to hear them talk about me anymore. I look down at the new bloomer shorts that my mother sewed for the eighth grade class trip to Cedar Point. They’re white terry cloth and have elastic at the bottom of the legs, around my upper thighs. My mother says that they’re modeled after the bloomers that women used to wear under their long dresses as underwear, but much shorter. She says that they make me look less skinny and that they’re in style. For once, the Clique didn’t seem to notice what I was wearing. They even asked me to play spin the bottle with them in the back of the bus on the way home. I only spun once, and it landed on Kyle. He grabbed my face and slobbered all over my mouth until I pushed him away. I felt like I was going to throw up. I got up and went to sit by Shelly before the others could notice the tears in my eyes and call me a baby. There was no place to wash my face, so I smelled his spit all the way home.

No one in Michigan wears bloomer shorts, no matter what ‘Teen Magazine says. My stomach flutters as I think about high school. What if nobody likes me there, too? I squeeze Jessica tightly. She lays her head on my shoulder. I bury my nose in her downy blonde curls. My little bug.

The root beer colored water shimmers in the sunlight. Look at the pretty water, I whisper in Jessica’s ear. I stare at it until it becomes a river of gold. My head tingles and the rest of the world falls away.

A woman next to me says, It looks so dirty.

Billy’s voice breaks through my daydream. Tannin gives it that color. Tannin comes from tree roots. He stares at her, blinking rapidly.

The woman makes a face at him and walks away. What an odd kid, she says to the man with her.

I close my eyes. My father is schizophrenic. Psychotic. He says that God gave him the permission to kill anyone, even us. I won’t let him kill us.

My mother walks up to me. Everything is going to be okay. She strokes my hair, and then takes Jessica from me. The imprint of her little body is still pressed into my sweatshirt. I wrap my arms around myself to keep the cool air from eating up the warmth.

Nothing is ever going to be okay and I’m not surprised.

**This is an excerpt from my memoir, Wish I Were Here. Except for the family photo, these were all taken sometime in the late 1990’s. The family photo was taken in the summer of 1973 at Castle Rock, during the visit I mention in this memoir. Was it taken before or after he dangled her over the fence? It’s possible that my mother took the photo as a way to get him to stop.**

55 thoughts on “Across the Bridge

  1. Excellent excerpt. The professor appreciates your sharing it! Wish you were Here can reflect a place and/or time. The places change; but the time is not to be revisited. The photos and story was enjoyed!

    • Thanks a lot for reading all of that. Some things from the distant past are crystal clear, but some things from the recent past are dust. Memory is like that. 😉

  2. Children know intuitively when they are in danger, but have very little resources or experience in how to mitigate the problem. Mental health issues can create havoc within a family structure. You had an remarkable understanding of your situation, given your age. Your insight and courage give new meaning to resilience. We have come a long way treating mental illnesses over the years, but there is more to be done. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • The words “schizophrenic” and “psychotic” were totally new to me, and to my mother and grandparents. I’m the oldest of the 5 kids, so I knew a lot about the situation that the others didn’t. For the longest time we had no idea what was wrong with my father. He was always weird and paranoid, but we thought it was his personality. Mental illness was not talked about at all back then, so we didn’t consider it. I’m really glad to see that this has changed, and this is one of the reasons why I’m writing this memoir.

      • You have a unique perspective – and the ability to communicate that perspective honestly without pretense. It is a story of courage, resolve, dignity and compassion. The statistic are clear – we all our touched in some way by mental illness. This is a dialogue that everyone should be a part of…

    • Woah, that’s a rather dark poem, but it gets right to the point. 😉 I hated my father for a while, right after he completely lost it, but when i became an adult realized that he was sick and it was totally out of his control. He never stopped loving us. So many kids have parents who are selfish and deliberately cruel. I now consider my childhood as colorful and character-building, even though it was definitely not healthy.

        • Oh, I’m sure they turned out just fine. 🙂 I followed the advice, but it was advice that came from my own head. Didn’t want to risk passing on something that is in the DNA. I probably missed out on a lot, but I have no regrets.

  3. Ha! I was just there, and your trip read straight from the annals of theclocktower. Grandparents, vans, cb radios and good ‘ol Paul Bunyan & Babe, even the falls. I wouldn’t be surprised if we passed each other within arms reach back in ’82. 🙂

    • I’m jealous that you were just there. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been further north than Indian River. I’m sure you’ve visited the Cross in the Woods and Nun Doll Museum, too. 😉

      • I’m sure I did back in ’82 or at some other point on my travels to Ottawa or where ever. Sadly If you read in my about page, I’m in recovery and there wasn’t much adventuring or exploring this summer. Just a LOT of riding shot gun and watching the scenery go by. I try to make it a point to reply to all my comments, soooo see ya in about twenty seconds… 🙂

  4. When I read this, I got that sick feeling I had then. What a awful time for you. You have a way of expressing what you were going through.

  5. Just so beautiful, I love to read your stories. Did you ever get to stop into any of those other road side attractions? I always wonder if some of them really are hidden gems.
    Wishing you a wonderful week, and thank you so much for your thoughtful comment on my blog last week, it really meant a lot.

    • Thank you very much for reading all of that. My brother Billy and I did go into Sea Shell City as adults. We almost got kicked out because we were laughing so hard. I think it’s the most obnoxious tourist trap I’ve ever visited. The man killer clam had a light bulb screwed into it. I think Call of the Wild is now closed, but Mystery Spot prevails. Haven’t made it there yet.

      Hope you’re starting to recover from your loss. It’s always heartbreaking when our animal friends leave us.

  6. You are very talented writer and strong person. Great reading. Thank you. I was wondering, was writing and revisiting these childhood feelings therapeutic and cathartic by itself or did you deal with all of this in your adulthood in some other ways first, like therapy, and then came the writig about it?

    • Traveling has been both therapy and an addiction – a way to hide the pain. This is the point of my memoir – you can’t run from the ghosts of the past. Writing the memoir has been very cathartic and I’d say that I’ve managed to finally let go of a lot of things. Thanks so much for reading these posts. –Julie

  7. Thanks for your answer. I also think the more people read about your pain the more it sort of becomes dispersed and diluted and diminishes much faster. When you know that quite a lot of people have become familiar with your story then It’s not one heavy block of unspoken, untold burden weighing you down anymore. Am I right? Same as simple confiding in a good friend helps with a minor problem in veryday life.

  8. It was cool to be able to listen to Gordon while reading. I knew a girl once, back while age 8*10, 11, 12. A beautiful kind hearted girl, new to the school and town, always was teased as an outsider by many or some. The only thing to take away from her youth, was a scar on her chin, an accident from when Rhonda was younger. But I can remember dancing with her (and she danced far better than many) as many other boys would not, mind you I think back then I got to dance with all the girls, as it was mum who came across the road to teach us all how to dance. Handmade clothes, remember them well, here.

      • Ah, yes. May not of identified who he was in younger days, but his music has and does fill the airways here on occasions. When I think about it, it seemed to happen a lot with any new kid to town, and I can only ask the question why? Twin sisters and friends at the time, Alanah and Amanda moved to town when their father was involved in building two towering concrete grain silos. As their family were always moving every 7 to 8 months, they learned to assert themselves quickly in a new school and put a halt to such occurrences. Yes a small town offers few places to hide.

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