Return to Huron County

After high school, my family stopped going to the cottages in Port Austin.

I returned in Summer 2002, with my college boyfriend, but our relationship was in its death throws. We spent most of our time at the Bella Vista Inn in Caseville, and he preferred watching TV over exploring the lakeshore. It still clocks in as my worse vacation ever. We broke up a few weeks later.

I went back with my mom in Summer 2011 to visit Ray for the weekend. His wife had passed after a long battle with cancer several weeks earlier. While it was sad, it was also great to see Ray smile and reminisce about the old times. We waded out 1,000 feet into the lake, only up to our shoulders, and talked. As someone who is used to the ocean, it felt surreal to be so far out in the water, yet so good to be back home among familiar faces.

After the crazy spring of 2017, my husband and I, weary from navigating the rough waters, needed an escape. I suggested Port Austin because it was calming without much hustle and bustle. After spending over 10 years together, it was time to introduce him to a part of the world that was integral to my childhood.

We flew into Detroit and rented a car. I didn’t need a map after all these years, the route was still etched in my heart. The little towns leading to Port Austin were exactly as they were in my memory.

The IGA Foodliner of Bad Axe is long gone, but Walmart was in its place. We stopped here for supplies. Just like when I was a child, my heart beat fast as we saw the big billboard sign for Port Austin. A quick glance around downtown and I sighed with relief: time had left it alone. We drove to Ray’s lakeside cottage in Caseville – the first stop on our trip. My husband and I stayed in the same cottage I had always stayed in, while Ray stayed in the other one on the property.

The cottage was not untouched by the years: the 1940’s refrigerator was replaced with something from the 1990’s; the kitchen table was a rectangle bench, no longer the old round table; some furniture was moved to a different place; the walls were insulated. The memories were so thick there, I kept thinking my grandmother, despite dying 14 years previous, would appear around the corner. I found myself expecting that she’d be there getting dinner ready or making tea and we’d pick up conversation as if she never left. I was disappointed every time we walked back in to the cottage to see she wasn’t there. Every. Single. Time.

The lakeshore has changed with the rising water: there is significantly less beach than 20 years ago. Outside of that, everything else had remained as it was in my memory and that was comforting.

Just like when I was a kid, we always took a day to explore Frankenmuth, a cute small town with a southern German flair a little over an hour away. We took the backroads, naturally, and I was astounded by all the wind turbines. They were never there before. Frankenmuth, on the other hand, was the same, yet wasn’t nearly as exciting to me at 35 as it was at 12. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful time, ate loads of good German food, walked to Bronner’s from downtown, and left with our hearts full and happy.

We left Ray’s cottage after much hugging and clean up and moved onto our next location: my aunt’s cottage in Broken Rocks. I had been coming here since the late 1980’s and wasn’t ready for all the upgrades they did. The place was even more wonderful than I remember.

My aunt was at her main home in Detroit, so we had the place to ourselves. We played a lot of cards and spent out evenings in Port Austin: ice cream, walking the breakwater, getting cheese and crackers for our card night at the grocery store, eating at the new place, Pak’s Backyard (a must-do if you’re in the area!), and we even caught a show at the Port Austin Community Playhouse. It was everything I loved and remembered about being a part of the local theater community.

The easy going small town lakeshore life was everything we needed. We left to catch our plane in Detroit during a rainstorm. I was sad to be leaving too.

We don’t have any plans to go back at this time – we often toy with the idea of doing an artistic retreat: my husband and his paints, me and my words. Port Austin is at the top of our list for places to make this happen. Summer 2019?

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Sunset on Lake Huron from Oak Beach Park, Summer 2017; Caseville, MI

 

 

Madge

Magdalena Sapphire Victoria Josephina.

She had the personality to carry such a huge name, but was down to earth enough to be simply Madge. Like Ruth, this friendship was suppose to fizzle out, but the Lord had other plans. Madge had a Type A personality that made most Type A’s take a step back. I am meek and mild when standing next to Madge. She would mistake my quiet demeanor for weakness. I’d spend the next 20 years proving her wrong.

We were partners at a summer job. It went great, as long as Madge called the shots. The moment I stepped up to the plate, she’d have to one-up me or add to it somehow. Despite this, I let her run the show. I knew she had my back when Madge helped me get an infestation of ants out of my bunkhouse bed in the middle of the night. And then, I was transferred to another position because she complained about my personality to management.

It turned out we attended the same university. We only hung out once, as she shunned college life outside of class.

After college, she lived near-by and we’d bond over our young professional lives. Madge moved to Europe; myself and another friend met up with her for a European adventure. This was one of the worst trips I’d ever taken: Madge’s domineering ways made me feel like an insolent child and I eventually gave up trying; things went much smoother when I kept my mouth shut. I’ve never done another trip with her and I probably will not ever again.

Simonne, you’re probably thinking, Madge sounds like a real drag, why did you stay friends with her? The Lord kept us together for a reason.

Madge moved back to the USA and landed near DC. A familiar face on the east coast, she was beginning to mellow out and as our adult life took off, we began to lean on each other for support. Those personality defects that were opposite of our own? They were what was needed in our own lives.

The phone rang once and when I answered, the voice on the other end said, “You will not believe how much sex I have had in the past 24 hours.” This could only be Madge. While I wasn’t a shining example of sexual purity, Madge slept around. A lot. We had a long conversation when she got a STD from a married man. While we both had common sense, Madge tended to fall down rabbit holes I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole.

I do have a lot of Type B personality traits, sometimes I don’t speak up when I should and my fear of rocking the boat has put me at a disadvantage at times. No worries, I have Madge, who is more than willing to call me out on my avoidance.

We fill the voids the other one has.

Madge called me once when her husband was admitted to a psychiatric ward, completely in tears and not coping well. I drove up that weekend to comfort her and be there. She had a conflict with a friend at work, who suddenly stopped speaking to her, and we talked it through: chances are, Madge’s aggressive behavior pushed her away. I called her when things got rocky in my marriage: and when she stayed with us for a weekend, Madge confirmed it wasn’t in my imagination and I needed to say/do something about it right this very minute. She takes the time to ask me the hard questions and doesn’t let me get away with, “Oh, it’s fine.” She loves hard and her brutal honesty is needed in my life.

Madge’s house was my hurricane evacuation plan, and she was very upset we chose to stay. The constant text and phone calls of “Your life is in danger, get your butts and your cats’ butts up here” were a par for the course. Even though she comes across tough as nails, Madge cares a lot and will do anything to help someone else.

She had a rough year of changes and I made her a quilt for her birthday. She loved it.

I got a card from her not long ago, thanking me for our friendship over the years. Despite our stark differences, when we get together, we have great conversations and it’s always a good time. I know our friendship has limitations, and that’s okay. We help each other be the best person we can possibly be.

I’ll keep her calm and she can kick my butt out of complacency.

The Church on a Vent

“We should go to church on Sunday,” Ruth said to me while strolling through our old college town.

We had attended a small Southern Baptist church a short walk from campus. Even Pastor Gabe was still preaching.

When we arrived, our jaws dropped. It was a large modern church. When did that happen?! It was beautifully done. It wasn’t fancy, but it was inviting with sleek lines and neutral colors on its modern architecture.

“Holy cow!” I exclaimed.
Ruth smiled. “This warms my heart, the church is still doing well.”

One by one, they filed in: everyone was over the age of 65 and white. A few kids sprinted through the sanctuary. This Sunday was a small crowd, with about 25% of the seats taken.

An elderly lady introduced herself. She didn’t remember us, but managed to inquire about our marriage status and said something about the “young colored girl” that sometimes attends. Ah, to be in a yankee Baptist church again.

An old man walked in: Pastor Gabe! I couldn’t get over his gray hair and how much he had aged.

The service was just as I remembered: pastor’s wife at the piano and a young woman sang the old hymns. It warmed my heart. It had been a long, long time.

Looking around there were no families, no young people (except for the worship leader), no one our age, no one my husband’s age. Even more striking, there were no college students.

None.

I remember the days our crew would fill up 2 pews.

Ruth sighed heavily.

Maybe this church wasn’t as healthy as it looked from the parking lot. This was confirmed by the building fund, as they were short on the mortgage budget. Why would they built this huge building without the money? Typical American church. Build it, they will come. Debt is a normal part of ministry! A church isn’t a church without a building! We can’t do the Lord’s work without Sunday School classrooms and a 12 channel soundboard!

This is why I left. This is why I attend a church plant without a building who worries more about getting meals to people in poverty. We don’t track demographics. We don’t have a children’s program, the kids can be the hands and feet of Jesus too, alongside their parents and the brothers and sisters in Christ. Being part of the body means an almost sober homeless guy will shout Amen at the end of every song, babies will cry during the sermon, and you’ll sit next to people you don’t know. You’ll sweat in the summer and freeze in the winter. The American church with their underused air conditioned sanctuaries, dress codes, whitewashed Jesus, and fake smiles does not work for me.

I like my church how I like my coffee: strong, sweet, and made from quality ground beans – beans ground on site, not by an industrial grinder in a factory. None of this instant or Keurig business. I want the real deal or I’ll go without.

The sermon was the equivalent of serving stale cereal without milk. I didn’t even crack my Bible. Gabe cited passages and then glossed over them with uninspired words.

This church was on a ventilator. A ventilator – or a vent as we call it – is a machine that breathes for you. It keeps people alive until they are able to breathe on their own or the plug is pulled. The problem with a vent is it can be difficult to come off it. The body gets used to the machine doing all the work, and like a child who doesn’t want to pick up their toys, it can be a sluggish ordeal to return to normal breathing. The longer the vent is used, the harder it is.

This church was not breathing on its own, and not because the congregation was elderly. No local mission work, very limited community involvement (the customary detachment in a sterile and controlled environment), no bible studies, no other groups using the church other days of the week. Youth groups were gone. No meals served. No presence on campus. A flyer from a Baptist association was in the bulletin. Corporate had arrived, as another drug pushed into this church’s veins, hoping to cure what ailed them.

Ruth and I left sad, both agreeing we wouldn’t attend this church if we still lived in town.

I don’t see it changing without radical actions. This church is stuck in a hospital bed on life support, unable to do the work of Jesus in the world.

Pray for a revival, that this church will once again be a lighthouse for the community, the college, and we can all celebrate it at the Feast of the Lamb someday.

Ruth

I met Ruth when I accidentally showed up at the wrong college ministry freshman year (I ended up staying). We looked alike, too, which sometimes caused people to mistake us for sisters. We always found this hilarious.

In college we hung out a bit – the occasional coffee or swimming at the indoor pool in the university recreation center. We’d tread water in the deep end and chat.

Ruth was my polar opposite back then: in my days of too many boys and too much alcohol, she was on the straight and narrow. She would have been aghast that I would ever entertain the thought of getting drunk or was not a virgin – so I just left out those parts of my life.

Nonetheless, we found common ground, and the many memories of this college Bible group have Ruth in them and we stayed close. One night, she was discussing how after graduation she was going to live with her brother for several months who was living in Europe. I was jealous of her upcoming adventure, not to mention I had a slight crush on her gorgeous older brother. And that’s when she said it:

“You should come for a visit!” Oh my goodness, that was too good to pass up!

The three of us spent a week traveling around England with no particular plan, just wherever the trains happened to take us that morning. I loved it!

This trip cemented our status as lifelong friends, in what was supposed to be a friendship that faded away with college life. Ruth became one of my closest confidants in my adult life. The days of editing my life for her ears had long since passed. She knew everything. In time we had grown up: I cleaned up my act and Ruth realized the world was not as black and white as she thought it to be.

We kept each other in the loop about our various romantic escapades, struggles, and joys – as singles and as wives. We also shared the hardship of infertility. Our stories were night and day different, but both of our homes remained silent without children.

A few years ago, we decided to restart our adventures by meeting halfway between our homes, as we live quite a distance apart. Our adventures have spanned a near-death experience in West Virginian mountains and backpacking cities. We try to meet up at least once a year and do something fun: it’s usually outdoors, involves a glass of wine, a tourist stop, and deep conversations.

A friend like Ruth is one of those rare gems – I think of her more as a sister. Her intelligence, character, and love of God have not only inspired me but buoyed me through some really hard times, as well as contributed to the good times. I know I can call her at any time to tell her anything, and she will always be gentle and listen. She doesn’t judge, yet she’ll call a spade a spade when it needs to be said. I am so grateful for her honesty and her 24 karat persona.

I’m excited to see where the Lord is going to lead Ruth. She made the decision to leave her abusive marriage after many failed attempts to fix it. Now that she is free from that burden, I know she will blossom, like the tree by the water in Jeremiah 17:7-8.

….and I can’t wait for our next adventure!

 

Michigan Musings: Lake Huron Adventures of the Past

Nearly every summer in the 90’s was spent on the shores of Lake Huron.

They were all adventures.

My dad’s sister had a cottage on the lake in Port Austin in Broken Rocks – it was more of a house than cottage. I spent my days with my cousins, climbing on the giant boulders that jutted out from the land into the vast lake.  My one cousin and I would dig for clay at The Cove and then we fired the pots we made in that night’s beach campfire. I hunted crayfish in the shoals and attempted to net hundreds of fish that ultimately got away.

Swimming was by far my favorite. My feet adjusted quickly to Huron’s unfriendly rocky bottom and choppy waters. I couldn’t wait to get in the water.

My first brush with death happened in the lake when I was 9: the small sailboat my dad and I were on capsized when the wind changed directions and my dad wasn’t quick enough with the sail: I got trapped under the boat momentarily. My dad was freaked out, but I thought this was a great adventure. We had life jackets on, Dad was here, what could have possibly gone wrong? Ah, to view the world as a child.

I learned how to ride horses at the local riding stable. It was western trail riding on old nags, but that didn’t register to me. This was another adventure, quite different from my normal life. The trail leader said I was a natural on horseback and I began taking English riding lessons back home. The only problem was barnstorming: the horses knew the trail and once they realized they were heading back to the barn, where food was, they took off like they were wild mustangs. I had one horse take off into a gallop on me – mind you, I’m not wearing a helmet – and grabbed fist fulls of mane to stay on! I made it back okay, but ever since that time, I’ve been spooked with speed on horses.

We usually stopped for dinner at one of the restaurants in the small downtown – Chuck and Jane’s was our top spot. Evenings were spent eating ice cream and walking along the breakwater at the marina.  I loved the gift shops – Finan’s and the Dime Store – they had everything a preteen girl would want. I especially loved the cedar boxes – I have 2 of them with a horse on it – and Port Austin, MI was stamped in the lower right corner of the lid. My grandma couldn’t come downtown without stopping for bread and other delicious items from Murphy’s Bakery. For a special treat, we’d drive to Grindstone City’s General Store: they had the best ice cream in this hemisphere. This is not a hyperbole, this is fact.

Once I was a teenager, we began to stay at Ray’s (my mom’s cousin) quintessential cottage a few miles down the road in Caseville – its musty cottage smell is forever etched in my memory. The beach there had a sandy bottom, a welcomed relief from my aunt’s beach. This cottage is special to me because 2 things happened here that still ring true in my adult life: I officially became a Christian and began mapping out my family tree. I still walk daily with the Lord and am now writing down 20 years of genealogical research into a book.

As the years went on, it became me, my sister, mother, and grandmother in Port Austin trips. We’d stop at the IGA (a grocery store) in Bad Axe and get all the supplies we’d need for the week. Shopping with my mother and grandmother, this was a 2 hour excursion, which I always dreaded.  I wanted to get up to the cottage as soon as possible and see my lake! The foodstuff could wait.

Ray was there with his wife when we arrived. There were 2 cottages on the property – they would stay in one, we’d stay in the other. Ray was old enough to be my grandfather. My sister and I went fishing with him on his boat and caught so many lake perch our live wells were filled to the gills! Ray’s navigational systems weren’t working, so we had to stay within sight of land – but Ray started chasing schools of perch, as fishermen tend to do, and the next thing we know, we’re surrounded by water. It was I who got us safely back to shore after I found Sebewaing’s lone water tower in the distance.

There was no TV here. This was long before the internet was ubiquitous (I would go a whole week without checking my email!). I truly unhooked from the world I knew, the craziness of my household. And I loved every minute of it.

Watching the storms roll in on the lake was better than TV. I collected zebra mussel shells as if they were conch shells. The waterslide in Caseville proved I could get over my fear of heights. My 82 year old grandmother beat me in mini golf at Sandy Dunes. I would run the fitness trail at Port Crescent State Park, usually with my Dad when he showed up for a couple of days. Countless walks on the beach, watching the sunset, campfires every night – I never got bored and planned to move here alone after college.

These summers moulded my heart to love the beach life, which is part of the reason I live in the coastal Carolinas. Like so many others, I can sum up my childhood summers in 2 words: Port Austin.

If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Michigan Musings: Port Austin

The morning ride to Port Austin always started before dawn in the western suburbs of Detroit when I was a kid.

My younger sister and I would pile into the car with my dad; my mom would drive up at a more respectable time with my grandparents. I was always enchanted by the sunrise. This time of day was foreign to me and it only added to the adventure. We’d barrel through the city’s interstates before taking the exit for M53, or as my ancestors called it, Van Dyke; this artery would take us to our final destination. As the road retreated back into suburban Detroit, the further we drove, the more country it became. The next thing I know, I’m surrounded by fields, microscopic one stop light towns, and signs reminding us to share the road with Amish buggies.

2 hours later, we’d come upon the largest city in the thumb – Bad Axe. Van Dyke turns here, so you have to follow the signs, otherwise you’ll be lost among an endless cornfield heading in the wrong direction, as we did one year. We’d stop here for food, now that our bodies were fully awake, as was the sun. As one who hated breakfast food, my dad managed to get me hooked on McDonald’s breakfast burritos on one of these trips.

A half hour and more fields later, we’d arrive at our destination: Port Austin, Michigan. Population: 800. Van Dyke ended at a T stop for the simple fact that Lake Huron and the city marina were directly across from this main intersection. You could see the lighthouse, which warned ships of the shallow waters since the 1800’s. We always turned left.  My heartbeat would quicken the moment I saw the lake.

I rolled into this town for the first time in summer of 1989. I had never seen the ocean, but to me, this was the ocean. This was amazing. I belonged here.