In October of 1976 my husband (at that time), and my six month old son drove eight hours to the town of Marenisco in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We had been there in the late summer with another couple looking for a place to rent. We were going to live where it was less populated, less expensive, grow something, maybe raise something, treat our illness according to herbal lore, hike with our babies on our backs and enjoy the beauty and solitude. My parents followed us on that slow-moving trek along US-2, carrying the belongings we could not fit in our truck. We had 5 dogs with us too. I stood on the cold linoleum floor surrounded by boxes, hearing the hum of the old refrigerator and smelling fuel oil from the stove that would be our heat. So quiet outside. No street lights. The town had 500 people and 12 bars. If you wanted clothes and a good restaurant you had to go 26 miles “up the line” to Ironwood which had a JC Penney and Town and Country restaurant. In November of that year my husband burnt his hands terribly trying to light the fuel stove. According to what we had learned grated potato was good for burns. We ended up calling an ambulance. The landlord fixed the stove, and I took note of what I had to live on. Pork, oatmeal, dried beans and soup.It was the end of the month and things were tight. No dog food and all those dogs to feed. I cooked oatmeal and pork for them. I ate the beans and soup and nursed my baby. This was such a different environment–harsh, in control. The freezer should have been stocked. I should have had warmer socks. I was only 19 and came from parents who sheltered me. I did not think the temperature could drop to 52 below. I did not know how to change the flat tires on the truck. I did not know enough to be in this setting. There was no one to call. I never saw so much snow. The landlord’s wife invited me to Thanksgiving dinner with her family as my husband was still in the hospital. I ate, produced abundant milk for my son, and she gave me plates of food when she dropped me off at my house. Thank God for angels. “The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” played continually on the radio. I scrubbed the linoleum with hot water and ammonia. The husband’s hands healed, I learned to make pasties, use a pressure cooker, made trips everyday to the laundromat to wash diapers. We got to know the people. One woman talked of how she had to change her bed sheets everyday because of all the sex going on between her and her husband. She made me blush. Come to find out, it wasn’t just her husband in that bed. Another woman sat everyday in the same bar with curlers in her hair. As far as I knew they never came out of her hair unless she took them out right before bed to make herself attractive for her husband. The two smaller than average kids down the street made our house their refuge when the alcoholic parents started yelling at one another. One night someone hung four dogs from trees and in the morning there were their lifeless bodies swaying back and forth. It was horrible and there was never any explanation. A mentally challenged couple just had their 4th or 5th child and without the mother’s consent, the doctor sterilized her so she could not bring anymore children into the world that she could not care for properly. Most of the woman were strong, big-boned, ruddy complexions. They were born and raised in this area and knew how to split wood, hunt, fish, gut something. They made sure there was wild meat in their freezers. They fueled themselves with venison, biscuits and coffee. One woman looked like the girl in Saturday Night Fever who wanted to “make it” with John Travolta. Could have been twins. She sat in the bar with perfect make-up, nice clothes, and always bedroom slippers on her feet. She would visit, have some beers and then go home and clean her house.
There was a mix of Indians and Norwegians And some looked just strange–that inbred look. Some were downright poor: Bad teeth, no hot water, no electricity. Some women didn’t shave. Most just looked older than their years. Sometimes we would drive to the dump and look at the bears. Everything got celebrated in the bars and I had my first taste of Yukon Jack and Peppermint Schnapps. A big taste–knocking back shot glasses like it was water and thought I was going to die the next day. I was so plastered I wet my pants and dropped my baby face first in the snow. Baptist women came to lay hands on me when I could hardly walk because of tendonitis, bursitis, and cellulitis in my knee. Because of washing those floors. The knee wasn’t healing and the drugs were only taking away the pain, but after they left, the swelling went down and I walked normally. I grew up. I toughened a bit. I was more prepared for the next winter. But that next summer we headed back to where there were friends and family. Found a place with some acreage and a fireplace in the house.
Today I yearn for that solitude, that harshness. I am tired of hearing traffic, national guards practicing their shots, lawn mowers, leaf blowers. I am sick of having a neighbor next to me. Maybe I will go back one day. When my hair is long and gray and I wear it in a braid. A new chapter in my life will unfold.