Our last vacation before the Pandemic was to two neighboring seaside towns on Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, whose last syllables rhyme with the word “gnaw.” Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City are separated by the waters of Lake Huron on which sits a 5-mile long bumpy suspension bridge. One place refuses to leave its past, and even thrives on its preservation, while the other with its less pricey chain hotels and streets needing repairs, can’t wait to escape it. Like my husband and I, these places embody a disquiet due to their forced proximity.
I planned a trip to these unlikely geographical partners in mid-May, around the time of our wedding anniversary, the trip itself following 19 years of navigating choppy waters of raising four kids, cultural divides of immigrant and first generation, starkly different life experiences, opposing parenting styles, and a host of unacknowledged sacrifices and misunderstandings that I suspect most marriages endure or crumble under. Despite the name sharing, it was the details that set us as apart as a couple too.
Since this was the first big road trip with our kids that included outdoor activities, I was a bit nervous. The last time we even did anything remotely similar was during our belated honeymoon, without the complications created by the presence of young children.
Along the trip, changes to the scenery were beholden to nature’s preordained patterns, much like the stages of life. The sun glided along, creating tiny gleaming mirrors on the water. And as the light slowly dimmed and darkness descended, the moon gained magnificence. Meanwhile, the sounds of the waves never withered and their swishing floated in with the warm breeze and mixed with whatever tune was on FM radio. All the arguments in the car eventually succumbed to this cyclicality and we finally began to listen in unison.
We reached Lake Huron as the sun was setting. The trees hugged Lake Michigan in an S curve, the lake’s edge in the distance an unblemished arc of a circle, the white, smooth thin barks of the birches, blending with the thick, rough, raised grey-brown of the Maples. It was a full moon close to the horizon and it appeared gigantic. The Algonquin-speaking tribes that once inhabited this region named this full moon, the Strawberry Moon. Its light started to appear more distinct as the silence grew in the car, the fading blues and muted purples and oranges of the dusk sky reflected on ripples, seemingly precisely timed to welcome us as we approached the Mackinac Bridge. Like the mirages on desert roads of my childhood cities, the scene seemed fake, a harmonized illusion.
The night at our Mackinaw City hotel lived up to its reputation. It began with an argument over mosquitoes – or some kind of flying insects that closely resembled the tiny blood suckers. Their presence was inescapable in these coastal parts of Michigan. As we headed to the small downtown area of Mackinaw City, almost everything was closed. The lack of people and dimness of the street lamps cast a pall upon the scene. We were all very hungry and the prospect of going to bed on an empty stomach made the kids groan. At the end of the street, a neon light flashed OPEN on a fast food joint. We parked and rushed in, only to be greeted by thousands of the flying creatures buzzing around the small space’s humid air that, to top it all, reeked of oil frying. We brought back the food to our car and ate in silence, all except my husband. He stood outside the restaurant staring into the parking lot as he smoked a cigarette. The red neon lights flashed upon his face, making his eyes look like warning lights.
The next morning, we gladly headed to catch the ferry to Mackinac Island.
Our hotel was right off the ferry terminal, across the street from the pier and the ferry’s docking station. Boarding off, we could see horse drawn carriages and old world style lamps lining the street alongside buildings with Victorian facades. The brochure wasn’t wrong when it stated that time on Mackinac Island could feel suspended. An automobile ban spanning more than a 100 years assisted this feeling. And if it wasn’t for the throngs of tourists dressed for the summer in shorts and flip flops, it really did feel like stepping into the past, a past.
The past can loom large for those of us who’ve been ejected from a place too soon, maybe as children, as I was. Or perhaps, forcefully expelled like many of the native Odawa and Ojibwe tribes of the Island by the Indian Removal Act. Their absence still haunts this reconstructed past.
On the very last day of our trip, as we sat down for an early lunch by a window that overlooked a quaint street. In the window’s view of Lake Huron at the end of the restaurant’s long hallway, I could see its waves shift easily from sapphire blue, drunken with sunlight one moment, to matte blue-black and laden with despondency. The constant clop of horseshoes and bells outside the window skewed time. Since the journey to get to this Island itself was a magical one, complete with the last full moon of spring, I felt suspended in some strange zone for a few days. But it was an unlikely encounter on this final day that had me rethinking my relationship to a home and family far away in time and place, far from this restaurant with its Southern vibe and murals of dancing pink ponies and cane and wicker chairs.
Our waitress was a petite woman with a gentle manner. She was young, in her late teens or early twenties at most, and her strawberry blond bob and freckles reminded me of a college friend. All said, it was an uneventful but good meal aided by this calm waitress. As she fetched the bill and I became preoccupied with helping my kids tidy up, I heard a voice at the adjacent table say, “Excuse me!”
I whipped my head around, for one moment wondering if we’d been too loud.
“How was your service?” the man asked.
“Oh, it was wonderful!” I replied, overt in my delight in case it might be our waitress’s boss.
“That was my daughter. It was her first day here.” Instantly, I saw his daughter’s eyes in his own. His eyes glistened like the waves of water in the view behind us. I was convinced that his eyes were filled with love for someone who was pulling away or had left. I knew that look. Then, the man revealed that this restaurant was where he met his wife a long, long time ago. Was it this love, perhaps long gone, that was also responsible for the sadness he bore on his face?
He did not call the waitress our daughter, but my daughter. I decided it might be rude to ask after the waitress’s mother, but I scanned the table. His wife wasn’t there among the women: their faces failed to register the nostalgia for the first meeting of life-long companions with whom you have children. I wanted to wait and thank our waitress, but I started tearing up. I uttered a quick goodbye and waited outside while my husband paid the bill.
“Why are you crying?” my children asked. Overcome, I gathered them all into a tight hug. The father’s love for his wife and their daughter was written all over his gentle face. As was his grief, of someone gone. As I explained my thinking to the kids, my oldest daughter stood listening quietly, without once interjecting with an opposing view as she was prone to do these days.
This encounter left me wondering about the series of good byes that would begin with my oldest daughter’s graduation from high school. It also made me think of my mother’s prolonged fight with cancer at my grandfather’s home with the garden a summer long ago, and about my own mortality, and all the lessons I could impart my kids like all mothers do, that my mother could not because she died at the end of that summer. I thought of my husband and I, companions since our college days. I thought of the waitress’s father, again and again. I wanted to tell the father in the restaurant that loved ones always remained with us.
The last day on the Island was truly a perfect one. I hadn’t ridden a bike since the lakeshore path of my days in college. I was surprised I could still ride. I nervously got on the seat of the rented bike and lifting the right pedal as I always did, I placed my foot unsteadily on it. Soon I was off, speeding past my husband and my kids on the smooth road hugging another lake, their faces shrinking before disappearing around a cliff’s edge.
BIO: Zahida Hafeez’s non-fiction work has appeared in several American and international newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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Credit: Main photo of Mackinac Island