Washington Island | Thoughts From Places

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So, this was poorly planned. I was driving up the little eastern branch of Wisconsin to hopefully meet my parents somewhere on Washington Island (5 miles wide, 6 miles long) and my phone was about to die. And I mean, this island isn’t that big, but driving around, hoping I would bump into my parents at some point, was less than ideal. Because literally, I did not know where I was staying that night – my parents hadn’t thought to give me the address of the house they were renting and I hadn’t thought to ask. This was a random weekend trip in May. Unplanned. I’d told myself that I was doing this because I’m spontaneous and I like going places and I hadn’t spent quality time with my parents in awhile, but really, I was running away.

Washington Island is where some of my most visceral childhood memories live. Not many people are lucky to have such a strong connection to their familial roots, but this tiny little island is where my great-great-grandparents decided they would build a life for themselves when they left Denmark for the promises of the United States. The house they built was still standing back when I was a kid. It was a sturdy white house, with stairs so steep you felt like you were falling backwards as you climbed them. There was a fireplace, wood floors and one of those really old-timey stoves that burned blocks of wood. You could hear the waves at night. My brother and I would rub our palms across this soft patch of moss growing on a rock we always passed on our way to our beach where my mom collected pretty, twisted bits of driftwood. At night we had bonfires and roasted marshmallows and scratched at mosquito bites. I think my favorite part, the best part, was the long, winding driveway through the forest. The gravel popped beneath the wheels and wayward branches slid gently along the car. The driveway was shadowy and wild. It felt very Mary Lennox finding the secret garden. Over the crest of the last hill, you’d leave the woods behind and the house and the cleared land around it would lay open in front of you.

The driveway’s gone now and so is the house. And other people have bonfires on the beach.

These days, unless it’s for a funeral, I don’t come back to the island very often. But there I was, nervous and unsure, easing my car into the line for the island ferry. Buying the tickets and squeezing the car onto the ferry was something my father always did. We kids stayed in the backseat, me reading a Goosebumps book and my brother investigating the travel box Mom always put together for us. It’s weird to find yourself on the other side, being the adult who takes care of logistics. But right then, my last little ounce of good luck got cashed, because my dad was suddenly walking towards me and my car. I’d gotten in line right behind them. That’s the kind of fantastic, fortuitous timing the universe hasn’t deemed me worthy of since.

For once, it all worked out. And then we were on the ferry, then on the island itself. We drove past the one school, then the one grocery store. Because I do only come to this place sporadically, I always feel like I’m checking in with both the physical space (there’s a new coffee shop! a new bookstore! the used video place is gone!) and with myself (the college senior going to my grandmother’s funeral, the high schooler tooling around the island with my best friend, the little kid petting the goats that live on and off the roof of the island bookstore). Memories compete with my real-time view. It’s strange.

The place my parents had rented was picturesque: surrounded by fields rather than neighbors. My dad was there to do his turkey hunting thing (this is the Wisconsin dad modus operandi), and my mom was there to relax and be away from it all. Me? I brought a stack of books, as always. I read a lovely Sarah Dessen novel (Lock & Key), Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (mind-blowing), then I moved briskly on to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. (I like to keep my reading choices in a strange crack-the-whip kind of motion.)

Tonally, Watchmen felt very much at odds with my surroundings (dark, industrial panels against my sunny, country backdrop). Maybe I should have been reading Walden or something. But in some ways, Watchmen was weirdly appropriate. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff going on there about the superhero narrative (see: deconstruction of) as well as what level of power&faith we give to the government and other cultural symbols – all very interesting. But disregarding all of those thematic buckets, what stood out most to me were the discussions about time.

“There is no future. There is no past. …Time is simultaneous.”

This character talked at length about the infinite circularity of the universe and time, but I would argue that it depends on what distance you’re standing from. There is an end, but there isn’t an end. The stars above are there, because they’re shining for you, but they’re also gone – just “old photographs.” I think the trick to it all is being able to hold both ideas in your mind at once: endings that don’t end.

I was thinking about all this when my dad and I decided to walk down the once-driveway to where the family homestead used to be. (Trespassing? Technically. I like to think we had some kind of ancient, ancestral right to walk there, though.) The people who’d bought the place had carved a new driveway through the woods, but old paths through the forest take time to disappear.

When I crested the hill, it was a sad shock to see the sturdy white house gone, a completely different house in its place. (I realized I’m biased, but this new house has far less character to it.) The decrepit barn was gone too. (This was where my dad stored his dirt bike and where I could hear bats chittering and chirping in the rafters.) The “snake pit” was still there – originally a pig pen when my great-great-grandparents first lived here, but so named the snake pit once the pigs left and the tall grass grew. Dad showed me a square outline of bricks in the ground. When he was a kid, this is where the outhouse stood – it was demolished before I ever stepped foot on the island. His version of this place, the one he held in his memory, was different from mine. That was something to think about. I’d always assumed ours were the same.

I didn’t find the mossy rock when we walked to the beach. And the waterline was far off in the distance across a muddy bog. It used to touch my toes in tiny rushes of wave. Dad said it looked something like this when my grandmother was a girl, but worse. She used to walk to a neighboring island, because the water was so low. I can’t ask her what that was like, but it was nice to imagine her tromping through the mud, taking what adventurous advantage she could over such a paltry shore. Did she think it was strange for the water to be so close when she walked this beach holding my hand? Same place, different place.

My dad seemed surprised and relieved that I remembered so much of what once stood on that once-familial patch of island land. My brother doesn’t have childhood memories of the Island at all – he was too young at the time to pin them down, so I try to remember for the both of us. That was why it took me so long to go back there. I didn’t want to lose the clarity of memory that I had, because then it would mean my little childhood place really was gone. Some things you can’t unsee, after all. But it wasn’t like that – it isn’t like that. I still see my version most clearly, and I like that there’s more than just mine, and there will be more to come.

But I’ll let myself imagine that there are some constants in all of this, the things that don’t change, though change is inevitable. Like the air, the freshest air you can imagine. All pine and lake. The kind of air that makes you feel as though you can live forever.

And it’s always been a great place to see the stars.

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