It wasn’t exactly a meadow out there beyond the sliding door of my mother’s parents’ den but a large backyard, a double lot with plenty of space for children to play tag or catch, yet if you could excise the subdivision in imagination or at least blot the view of adjacent houses, you could picture an austere and endless meadow.
The erasure of the postwar subdivision on winter nights allowed one to picture the vestigial presence of the horse-drawn agrarian past that hadn’t existed since Ford’s quadricycle ride in 1898 began a process of industrialization that culminated in Eisenhower’s interstate system. I-94 ribboned the snowy meadow just beyond the concrete retaining wall that did not retain the sound of the four cylinder and six cylinder engines from the Ford, Chevrolet, and Chrysler cars that sped along that deadly, unholy route save for when the winter weather came and cut down on the traffic and muted the noise of the extant traffic to a whisper that could have easily been mistaken for the snow falling through the branches.
I’m more interested in the sliding glass door in my memory than my maternal grandfather, William Hugh O’Neill, who sat before the door with the television perpetually running, who served with Merrill’s Marauders in the China, Burma, and India Theater. One gets to the point rather quickly where people can’t be known, where it’s midnight and memory affords you the luxury of forgetting, or at least remembering selectively what was good about us. The point where there are no ideas but in place, and the love of place is a repudiation of its people.
To love any city or any once-meadow is maudlin. I’m incapable of loving what I’ve inherited but haven’t earned. This is everything. Which is why I am so heartened by the transitory powers of the frames of sliding doors, the confusing but perfect mechanisms for locking down a house or cottage with what both clarifies and obfuscates a view.
When the sightline to the yard or lake is redacted by night’s ink, the imagination awakens. The old man’s cathode ray tube blue television light flickers like the wings of a bright jungle bird in the pane of glass behind him.
* * * * *
The house was a provisional space in the summertime. My grandmother, Gwenolyn Morrissey-O’Neill, would leave for the Dearborn Inn in the late morning to swim. She rarely actually swam. Grandma Gwen smoked and looked at the water, the bathers in all their grotesque grace. She played bridge with friends beneath a Canadian maple tree. Gwen had a gift for imprecation. She once told me her children were sired by the devil. My father said he officially knew he was part of the family the day she called him a jackass. She instructed me more than once to never get into a pissing contest with a skunk. She was strong, tough, and tender, and she had a sense of social justice that was rare for a white suburban woman of her generation. I love that she hyphenated her name; bucking those patronymic conventions was incredibly subversive when she got married during the Eisenhower 1950s. She seemed ancient to me when she took me to the Dearborn Inn as a child, but she was only twenty years older than I am now.
Her death happened in March, but it felt like a cumulation of Augusts. Emphysema leading to congestive heart failure. She doesn’t visit me in dreams near my birthday anymore. One summer morning before we left for the pool I took a lit cigarette from the pedestal ashtray in her kitchen and inhaled it; the smoke tasted to me like sand, or what I imagined sand would taste like.
Like an emphysemic lung, the house inhaled summer through its screen doors and window screens wadded up with paper napkins. What constitutes a summer beyond the thick months passing June to August? Hymenopterans wallowing in pollen, carbon burning off the macadam and asphalt, birds smacking their reflections in clear windowpanes, white moths arcing through thick air like poorly-struck golf balls, smoke.
My parents got married in that big backyard one June day in the late 1970s. My mother’s parents hired a catering company to supply a pop-up bar and a tent with folding tables. Everybody drank, which was unremarkable, but my dad’s dad came off the wagon that night after a long bout with sobriety. He never managed to catch back up to that slow-rolling horse-drawn coach, and he was exiled to his native Tulsa, Oklahoma, a few years later as a result, but he had a fine time celebrating the nuptials.
My paternal grandfather, my grandpa John, my namesake, was a quiet drunk; the only ones to notice him drinking were those who remembered he shouldn’t have been drinking. I hardly knew him at all. I certainly knew him less than the grandfather who owned the house where the wedding took place, who owned the dog Eric and watched television in the midnight of half-sleep. When I was born, Grandpa John bought me a small stuffed bear from the gift shop on the ground floor of Henry Ford Hospital. John Calvin Freeman Senior was thrilled that my parents named me John Calvin Freeman III, and I’m glad that he found joy in this patronymical progression. Periodically my mother reminds me how happy my name made him when I complain about its ponderousness.
During the wedding reception, one of my mother’s brothers walked through the sliding glass door, shattering the pane and slicing his forehead open. When he went to the hospital to get stitched up, he was too drunk for anesthesia, so they just sewed the stitches in his forehead and sent him back to the party. He plied himself with more beer without missing a beat. I think the fact that they had cleaned the pane of glass before the wedding had more to do with the mishap than my uncle’s drunkenness. My uncle waded into the glass like a dumb bird blinded by what was clear.
My paternal grandfather, John Calvin Freeman Senior, stood back near the bar beneath the strings of lights and drank whiskey while listening to the far-off whoosh of traffic.
* * * * *
Winter. I’m in Norton Shores, MI, with my wife, Sarah Pazur (When we got married and she kept her maiden name, an iron worker friend of hers from childhood took to calling me “Big John Pazur,” which I suppose was supposed to emasculate me but simply made Sarah and me laugh. We were also once quizzed by an American customs officer at the Detroit-Windsor border about how we could be married without sharing a last name. Some days I don’t think our attitudes toward gender have progressed all that much since the lay of Ike). We’re sharing a bottle of Stags’ Leap Merlot. A gas fire sputters beneath the hearth, throwing little shadows of flame against the living room walls and against the sliding glass door that looks out at the inland sea. This house rests atop a parabolic sand dune. Lake Michigan banks sheets of ice against the ruined stairs that lead down to the erstwhile beach. Ice the color of dingy gulls spits up all over itself like a slack, atavistic maw.
I’m reading the Anna Livia Plurabelle episode in Finnegan’s Wake and cataloguing references to Michigan bodies of water: An Sable, the Au Sable River that as a portmanteau echoes Anna Liffey and Anna Livia Plurabelle to evoke a river an ocean and a continent away; Joyce’s version of Erie in its eutrophic period reads, Bring about it to be brought about and it will be, loke, our lake lemanted, that great layck, the city of Is is issuant (atlanst!), urban and orbal, through seep froms umder unber great wasseres of Erie. “Wasseres,” like “wassail,” a celebratory beverage or song, the bubbling algae of an industry’s wake.
I have a theory about how Joyce knew the names of these Michigan lakes and tributaries that involves Hemingway’s map of the Edenic bays and trout streams of his youth that he kept pinned above his writing desk in Paris in the 1920s when he was working through the Nick Adams stories. Riverrun… the Wake begins and in its beginning carries the virtues of its ending, a recursive, impossible book, a strange loop, riverrun, a portmanteau that functions both as noun and verb.
My father has just died at 70. I have just turned 41. I joke with people that I’m halfway to 82. I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality. My grandfather died at 60. My father took good care of himself and got 10 more years than his father. I live more like my grandfather than him.
I start to worry about the gas fire. Have I opened the flue? Am I breathing in carbon monoxide? I lie on my back and look up into the blackened chimney. The flue is open; the lightheadedness is from drinking. I walk over to the door and remove the wooden pole from the runner, sliding it open to the snow to hear the susurrations of the winter wind off Lake Michigan. Dense lake effect snow, difficult to see through. Joni Mitchell’s record Blue plays on Sarah’s computer. I’m wondering about the accumulation of details in such a scene. She tells me to close the door, but I stand there for an extra beat or two, listening to the warble of that iconic voice disappear into the white. When snow blankets the world, it deadens our noise and lets us retreat into ourselves. February is a bad time to be mourning.
The other week I saw a video of George Plimpton interviewing Donald Barthelme. Barthelme said that he always forbade his students from writing about the weather. It made me think of the two-dimensional world of E. A. Abbott’s Flatland, where no precipitation could fall from above, where geometry was transmuted into allegory. Looking out at the whiteout world beyond this dune, I understand the value in Barthelme’s and Abbott’s approach. The weather can be monotonous as grief. I close the door and jam the wooden pole back in the runner behind the doorframe. Part of me wants to be a line or a subnivean snow flea impaling nothing in a two-dimensional world. But the hypothetical is just as implausible as what happens. These constraints we place on the imagination are as oneiric as the dead who visit us in dreams.
Winter hangovers are more merciful than summer ones. The next morning we stand astride skis in a jack pine forest. We fall down. We leverage our poles to right ourselves. We gaze into a mess of boles putrefying in a muskeg and wonder if we can know the lake from its weather, its weather from the rimed riparian, ourselves from the thorny exigencies of the stories we inherit.
Even on days it doesn’t snow, it comes in off the lake, lake effect, dust that falls for hours, isolating us in the clamor of our thoughts. For the bluffs of these dunes are colder than the surface of the water, and the snow is quieter than anything I think, its sheer ascent enacts a convection as uncanny as our names.
* * * * *
The dog Eric watches birds in the backyard on a summer afternoon. We are fifteen minutes west of Detroit. My mother’s father sits in the armchair watching Tigers baseball on the TV. It’s 1987. Frank Tanana is pitching. The crafty lefthander grew up in Detroit throwing 90+ mph smoke, but by the time he returned to our hometown he’d cultivated an assortment of change-ups, curveballs, and screw balls that he could locate with pinpoint accuracy to keep hitters off-balance. Tanana is rain falling through the leaves of a paper birch and petrichor through a screen door. My grandfather watching Tanana while I watch the dog Eric watch birds is rain falling through the leaves of a paper birch and petrichor through a screen door. Woven aluminum and rain, an impending rain delay fifteen minutes east into the future. The west is the future if we follow the path of the sun, but the east is the future of the storms of this peninsula. I have tarped the field of this remembrance. The elders who loved me enough to keep me safe from weather stand below their porticoes in a perpetual rain delay. Tanana throws softly against a dugout wall to keep his arm loose in case the game resumes.
My father told the story of watching Long Day’s Journey Into Night in this den before he and my mother were married. My grandmother had gone upstairs to bed, and my grandfather, though he slept in the armchair in the den, followed after her to check the doorknobs on the upstairs bedroom doors, some ritual or superstition he performed each night while the rest of the house went quiet. My mother’s father’s name was William Hugh O’Neill, named after Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, who fought against the Tudors in Ireland during the Nine Years’ War. I have to think Eugene O’Neill had the very same figure in mind when he named his father James Tyrone in the thinly fictionalized play. The Baseball Encyclopedia, a big hardcover book with every statistic in the game up to 1984 printed in its pages, sat on the magazine stand next to his chair, though I don’t think my grandfather ever read it.
Rain skulks through the I-94 corridor and wafts through the aluminum screen as it heads toward the ballpark to postpone Tanana’s start. Postponement, punishment for bombast, tacit admission that we have no agency in planning. What does it mean to excise the weather from what we have written? Only in a weatherless narrative do we exert any real control. The snow accumulates substance. The rain erodes what we have built upon, the open-aired pastime bares our habits to the contingencies of fate. My grandfather takes a Welch’s popsicle from the freezer in the kitchen and watches as the 34-year-old deceives another hitter with a parabolic curveball that no one sane could hit.
* * * * *
Last time I was in Norton Shores, my father was still alive. He was 69 and I was a day past 40 wandering a rain-slicked pier on Lake Michigan named for the French Jesuit priest Pere Marquette, my eyes red with weather and the previous night’s wine. A murder of crows bleated in the sand. The wind muffled the details of their plaints. Black-jacketed, officious, they could’ve been celebrants in a corvid rite for all I knew. The tennis-shoe-white spinnaker on the horizon didn’t seem to move, taut with cross-hatching winds, the boat stuck inside a late-autumn convection.
A pier’s no place for perseverant lovers to promenade, its wayfinding enhanced by horns and beacons as if to tell us, indisputably, that geography is impervious to mission and no legend can convert the combers into knots, no keel unknot them. It’s a place you come to alone, if you come at all.
Here’s an allegory, then: Our man on the peninsula staggers the last third of the rabble in the cold, blind spray while the paper birches shed yellow leaves in a northeast gale. It’s no place for a peripatetic drunk, but who isn’t fooled into thinking these peninsulas will last, who has the courage to see the little animal of the self as liminal?
Joliet, Marquette’s friend and colleague, variegated and blue-black with bruises, ventured out in a birch bark canoe on this lake to joyfully ply his paddles in 1673; his diary was destroyed (thick book, sallow pages scalloping in river water) leaving only Marquette’s bloodless, fastidious account of forging a new path down the Meskousing. Thus we left the waters flowing to the Quebog, 4 or 500 leagues from here to float on those that would thenceforward take us to strange lands. Before embarking theron, we began all together a new devotion to the blessed Virgin Immaculate, Marquette wrote as they entered the mouth of the Mississippi.
Out of fear, they didn’t go all the way to the Gulf. The Menominee forebodings about river monsters, Fire People, and Spaniards didn’t come true though; instead, Marquette died of dysentery off the coast of Ludington on his way back to the Jesuit mission at Sault Ste. Marie. He was 37, old enough to know that what little we learn from our travels can’t be reasonably applied at home, that only in pelts and palaver can someone be converted. That once the missionaries leave, their strange words decohere like vision in sandspit. That what we call grace is only safety owed to happenstance, a fluke.
You might think this is the price of hubris, but who isn’t befuddled by the grandiosity of humble intent? Who isn’t fooled into thinking these waters can be charted, that our riparian friendships can be real, that posterity can be capsuled in a name? Who doesn’t feel the living name outlive us; who is ordained to bless these swollen shores?
A rainbow arced over the harbor. Crumbling wooden stairs dangled precariously above the breakwater at the foot of the bluff. Last year’s woven straw from a bird’s nest, the remnant of a home, tumbled down the beach. Marram grass thinned on a nape of dune, and my skull only felt like a parabola of sand as listless crows combed through the day after the day of the anniversary of my birth.
* * * * *
Everyone knew why my mother’s father didn’t sleep through the night, though no one talked about it. They all knew why the banality of pat reruns comforted him. I think I know why he gazed into that television set as the Tigers or golf tournaments or episodes of Matlock played. I imagine my parents’ wedding in that backyard, the storm clouds gathering in the humid June air passing over the festivities without opening into deluge. The rain held off, as we like to say in the Midwest.
My mother tells the story about the time her father fell asleep with a cigarette in his left hand and accidentally set the couch on fire. When he woke up and saw the cushions in flame he opened the sliding door and dispassionately tossed the whole couch on the patio before going back to sleep.
My mother claims he read Gravity’s Rainbow during a string of insomniac, TV-watching nights and says he was fascinated by the supersonic V-2 rockets featured in the book, how they arrived like derechos, only offering audible warning after their destruction was done.
When my mother was a girl, the shed behind the house was blown away by straight-line winds, one of those bottle-green Midwestern storms that develop in the summer. The concrete slab upon which the shed stood bore a rust parallelogram outline and the misshapen handprints of fallen birch and maple leaves long after it was gone.
Cal Freeman is the author of the books Poolside at the Dearborn Inn (R&R Press, 2022) and Fight Songs (Eyewear, 2017). His writing has appeared in many journals including Oxford American, Commonweal, The Journal, New Orleans Review, and Posit. He currently serves as music editor for the museum of americana.