In the summer of 2005, I was 58 and living in Seattle, when I decided to take a trip back to Michigan. I grew up in a small rural suburb called Fenton, near Flint, Michigan in the industrialized but still relatively country-ish part of the lower peninsula. Yea, THAT Flint, Michigan - home of Michael Moore, Roger and Me, and poisoned water fame. I left home to go to Michigan State in 1964 when I was 18, and I never looked back. It didn't occur to me to say goodbye. I didn't hate Michigan. It was simply a purgatorial stop on the way to what's next, so leaving was the only thing I knew how to do.
That summer, an old family friend from Michigan had died, and I went back for the funeral. I added some extra time to the backside of the trip so I could go on a personal journey, to revisit bits and pieces of the Michigan of my youth. One last time, I wanted to see a few of the small-town locations that were close to me in those early days. Thomas Wolfe was right when he said "You can't go home again,” because the truth of it is "home" probably never actually existed, except in those fleeting personal historical moments. But you can go back and reflect on some of those locations for what they were - a framework and a fence line around the experience of growing up and the kind of moments that build character. Like the now deserted burnt grass and dirt corner lot which, in 1957, was the home field for the Fenton, Michigan little League Yankees baseball team. At full strength, there were maybe 15 of us, and nobody was much over a foot tall. Mom and dad went to all the games -we won 18 straight in 57. In the “What’s Happening” section of the Fenton Independent, the town’s bi-weekly newspaper, it was said the Yankee’s right-handed pitcher that year simply could not be hit. Bottom of the ninth, bases-loaded, two-out, three balls, two strikes. That’s a character builder right there. Now, there’s nothing but an empty dirt lot next to the deserted old brick and mortor high school, and at best, no one remembers anything about the field - save one - the pitcher. Locations like this were cherished memories for me, and of course, they're a part of who I am now.
On this journey back to Michigan, I visited a number of places, but none more important than the emotional 3-hour journey north to visit the real headwaters of what I was to become - a trout fishing stream called the North Branch of the Ausable River, near the smallest possible of towns called Lovells - which was at that time, more or less, nothing but a hesitation at a fork in a small country road - a rural route in the historic and rolling backwoods of Northern Michigan. There were 5 rental log cabins on the river in Lovells, and for many years, my parents and I vacationed there for two weeks in the summer. Dad and I went there to fish and then fish some more. Mom loved the idea of getting out of the house and the southern Michigan housewife routines. Those vacations in northern Michigan were just about the only major time we spent time together doing family kinds of things.
The north branch was a slow-moving, glistening, jewel size stream that cut through the center of the second and third-growth timber. You could skip a rock across the North Branch, the home of the brown trout, and brook trout of my young dreams. Those small trout were both metaphorical and mysterious symbols of freedom and adventure to me, and they remain so to this day. Many fisherman have such a piece of water in their memory as well. If you've been a fisherman pretty much your whole life, you know it's true. Waters such as these are impossible to explain and larger than life. As an unseen background, they flow uninterrupted throughout our entire lives.
My father gave me two gifts I can't repay. The first was the gift of always getting back up, no matter how much it hurt and how long it took. The second was trout fishing. Fishing was pretty much my father’s only escape from the routines of small business pressure and hard work, and in those first 18 years, by inheritance, it was also my only escape from the early horrors of being too young to know anything, and old enough to believe I knew everything.
The North Branch was where my dad taught me how to fish, and where I could actually join him on outings doing things I never even knew existed - things like the morning ritual of walking quietly through green sweet-smelling and cool damp knee-high wild grass meadows, backlit and golden at sunrise, over an unbeaten path to a small hidden log jam and hidden trout at a distant downstream bend in the river. As we walked, a small herd of deer nervously held fast at the morning tree line and swallows were swift to the mayflies near the river’s edge. This was a world unique to me, unlike anything I’d ever seen. The North Branch was where, for me, the mysteries of life became, at least momentarily, more ponderable maybe because there was time for me to think about them and room for them to drift quietly past me on the river. I could see them more clearly from a distance floating toward me on the water. On the river, I think I learned how to see them in a better context, which, for the rest of my life, helped me understand part of the process of recognizing and dealing with the challenges yet to come.
There was a small country store at the crossroads in Lovells, the rental log cabins, and nothing else. In 2005, the cabin mom and dad always rented from Bud still sat on the riverbank. The store still sold “drumstick” ice cream cones, baseball cards, and cream soda, and amazingly, Bud was still alive. As I approached the cabins, he stood with his walker in the doorway to his house/office, straining to see me get out of the rental car. As I stepped forward, he called out, “Bob, is that you Bob?” My father, Robert Charles Hodges had died 28 years earlier in 1977. He and Bud were friends. The comment stopped me mid-step.
I said: “Bud, it’s Walter, Bob’s son.” He nodded a sudden understanding and smiled. I walked up to him. He let out a breath he might have been holding since I was a kid, shook his head in disbelief, balanced himself with one hand on the walker, shook my hand, gave me a huge two-armed hug and said: “God Walt, I would have sworn it was your dad. You walk just like him. Where the hell have you been? The browns are hitting. Did you bring your fishing rod?”
We talked for a while about old times on the river, when the days seemed longer, the trout bigger and life more simple, though, in hindsight, of course, it really wasn't. He remembered that huge brown trout I landed and the family dinners we had together. We headed down the small two-track dirt road through the woods to the red-stained log cabin on the riverbank. The smell of back-lit dust, late afternoon sun, slow moving water, and wet grass was still in the air. The cabin still had the same small porch, with the same mid-day dragonflies bouncing off the screen, and all the ghosts going in and out. At first, I couldn’t walk inside. I guess it was too much. Sometimes where you came from can be mysteriously unsettling. Bud sensed I was having a little trouble. “I have something for you” he said. He disappeared into the cabin and brought out what appeared to be a small framed piece of art. Maybe six inches square, with a black velvet background and a cheap wood frame. Some small wooden twigs and dried ferns had been glued to the velvet along with ten small freshwater clamshells. It looked shabby to me as if made by a dyslexic child. It was nothing of note and certainly not something I’d want to keep. I stared at it, not knowing what it was or what to say, but then he handed it to me. “Here, your mother made this.” My mother was Ruth Laverne Hodges. She died in 91.
As is the case in all parent/child relationships, the further into the woods you go, the further into the woods you get, and too often, after a while, there’s nothing left but woods. My father never understood how to share himself with mom or me. He didn't know how to act. His personality was not so much an intentionally dominating male force, as it was simply the only option available. He wasn’t a loud, arrogant, or bad guy at all. Far from it. Raised up and out of the Great Depression, he did the best he could, but he didn’t know how to give himself up or share the inner working of his life with anyone. His was the only real voice in the family, and being naturally soft-spoken, mom let her opinions be overpowered. She never got a chance to really grow. I believe without a doubt my father loved both mom and me, but I don't remember him ever looking either of us in the eyes and saying so. He was so insular, he often seemed folded over onto himself like a Salvador Dali watch, and truth be told, I think I learned too much about how to behave as a man from him. It took many years for me to learn how to share with someone or anyone.
My mom grew up in Flint, with an invalid mother who died too young. Mom learned quickly the only way a woman really accomplished anything was by being taken care of by her men. She never learned how to evolve outward and into herself. Instead, she willingly put herself in the shadow of my dad. Always quiet and subdued, she deferred to him.
Those summers at the cabin, every day, dad and I would leave in the early morning to fish. Mom would stay behind and sit in the cabin. Alone. Hour after hour she would wait for dad and me to come back. Outside the cabin by the quiet of the river, "those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" drifted by imperceptibly, carried along by robins singing in the trees, dragonflies on the wing, and a languid humid breeze from the south. For years she waited. Dad and I had some great times and some cherished memories of trout fishing the North Branch, but you know, in many ways, I’m not sure we really ever came back for her. I had no idea what she did in those hours and those years spent waiting for the men she loved, and because I was so self-involved, I never much cared to think about it. But in a sense, she also may have come to some kind of inner peace, and maybe she did feel a sense of self and purpose. For women, maybe this was just life as life was sometimes lived back then. I don’t know - I never asked. But when we finally returned from each fishing trip out, we’d often find her cutting up vegetables, smiling, happy to see us, and wondering if we had any luck. And you know, I smile just a little now, because I wonder if possibly she was simply waiting for us to catch up to her, and in that regard, the truth would be….. we never did. We never caught up to her.
Bud said “I think your mom always had a fantasy she might like to be an artist. She talked to me about it a little over the years. She would sit for hours at the table in the cabin and make these little objects. She had nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Pasting little things like sticks, leaves, ferns, and freshwater river shells together on black velvet to make a little piece of art. Probably little pieces of herself. This one here she did the first year you went away to college in 64. She gave it to me, and I put it up on the wall of the cabin. Figured that’s where it belonged. It’s been there for almost 40 years now. It fell off the wall a number of times and most of the pieces of it busted off over the years, but I just couldn’t see throwing it away. I felt sort of like it was her, still there in the cabin. I liked your mom. I liked her a lot. Couldn’t throw it away. You should take this with you now Walter. A little piece of your mom. I think she’d like that.”
I tried to speak. Couldn’t do it. I just stood there in the sun staring at my shoes, tears in my eyes, half full, half empty. I never knew she made these pieces. I had no clue. I stared at the art in silence - as silent as I’ve ever been. Bud didn't say a word. I held the frame as though it were a baby hummingbird, still alive after having fallen from its nest. I put one hand over my mouth, to silence having nothing to say. I turned and looked over at the river and the willow trees on the far downstream bank in the late afternoon sun. A small trout came up from under the trees and took a mayfly maybe a foot from the edge of a willow limb dragging lazily on the water surface. This was the very spot where, decades earlier, I caught my first trout, and the place where a fish rising to the surface meant my soul would rise as well. And it did. This day it rose to meet my mother still waiting for me.
At home in Mexico, I’ve put mom’s art on the wall in my office. One of my most precious possessions. I look at it every time I sit down. I’ve also pinned to the frame a small black and white photo of a beautiful young woman in late fall or early winter. Most likely somewhere near Flint, Michigan. On the back of the photo in faded pencil, it says 1937, which puts her right at 22. Franklin D Roosevelt had a New Deal, Benny Goodman was the King Of Swing, and Amelia Earheart disappeared. My mom looks great - self-confident, hat at a jaunty angle, slight smile, stylish, alive, and full of potential. I look in her eyes, and I see what she was meant to be. I look in her eyes, and I can see all the way to me. To quote Bob Dylan, she remains “Forever Young”.
I never really knew her, and I would give anything to be able to now. I bet she was something. I believe she was far more than she appeared in those years I was with her. I think she desperately wanted to let me in, but she didn’t know how, and to be fair, at that time of my life, I didn’t care. I had not learned how to share. On this same trip to Michigan, old family friends told me she had a hell of a sense of humor, she laughed out loud when men told jokes that got a little racy, and she loved to drink Manhattans. They said she was always kind, and she kind of thought she could have been an artist. To the end, they said she was the most gentle of beings. Her birthday is today. She would have been 105.
I learned some time ago, if you choose, you can forgive anyone else in the blink of an eye, but one of life’s biggest challenges is to learn how to forgive yourself. I know for a fact it can be done, but it’s not easy. I look back now, and I do believe dad and I never caught up with her. Over and over we were in such a hurry to catch one more trout, we never saw the simplicity she had embraced in simply letting life come and having the grace to accept what is in hand - she was far ahead of us in that regard. Most likely, in little ways that are never obvious, even to me, I’m still chasing after her. Still trying to learn from her. I believe I owe her…everything. Happy birthday, mom.