Outdoors North

Paternal recollections frame forest venture

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“You feel there’s no way to go on and life is just a sad, sad song, but love is bigger than us all, the end is not the end at all.” — Willie Nelson/Buddy Cannon

The ground at this place is littered with golden frail catkins, fallen from the white birch trees, blown here by the wind. In front of me stands a tall oak, a mighty, many years old.

I’m sitting down in front of another. I can’t see the top, especially with the wind blowing, its branches are pushing too high into the sky. Oddly, underneath these oaks all around me, I’m at the intersection of two roads named Spruce and Hickory.

We buried my dad here 10 years ago.

Coincidentally, my brother nicknamed my dad “Old Hickory” and when I was growing up, we lived in an old mining company house, just off Spruce Street. To find my dad laid to rest at this intersection is fitting.

The sun is shining, but the clouds are moving in fast, with a drop or two of rain in the air. It seems like there will be a lot more soon.

I don’t like coming here much, even with the beautiful flowers all around, colored bright red, orange, yellow, pink, lavender and purple, blue and white.

The stones here are pink and gray marble, speckled with chips of black and white granite. All of them are cold, even in the heat of the day.

With figurines and cruciform stand slender pinewood flag posts that pierce the dark soil lying beneath the fresh, green grass.

Emblems emblazoned with stars and symbols from the wars and the killing sit below the stars and stripes here — the steep price of freedom. The flags are still blowing with the wind, Decoration Day come and gone.

I wouldn’t think I’d ever have much in common with the great Harry Houdini, but like the amazing Mr. Weisz, I’ve never heard a word that I could understand from beyond the grave.

If I ever was sent a message, I missed it or couldn’t decipher it.

In the 1920s, after Houdini’s beloved mother died, the great escape artist had sought the help of psychics and spiritual mediums in hopes of contacting her in the afterlife. Houdini never heard from his dearly departed.

Instead, he spent a great deal of time investigating and exposing most psychics as fakes he called “vultures who prey on the bereaved.” He wrote a book about his undertaking. At one point, he toured the country offering $10,000 to anyone who could exhibit supernatural phenomena he couldn’t replicate.

Since his death on Halloween in a Detroit hospital in 1926, Houdini’s wife, Bess tried to contact him for a decade on the anniversary of his death, without success. At that point, she quit trying.

Houdini had developed a code he said he would use if communication from beyond the curtain of life and death was possible.

Even in dreams, my dad — who worked for 30 years as a mailman — has never delivered much to me since his death in the way of any substantive messages. Apparently, there are limits, after all, to the ability of the mail to get through.

The loss of my dad’s presence has been staggering.

I think about the fun times we had fishing and taking rides in the woods, sharing a Friday dinner out together on payday or times we built things together like a wood shed, tool barn and horseshoe courts in my backyard at my lake house.

He lived through the Great Depression as a kid. I think that’s where he learned to eat things like bread and milk in a bowl like cereal, toast with ketchup and pork and beans and butter sandwiches.

He also served in the U.S. Navy in the Philippines during World War II, heading off to military service before graduating high school. I’m lucky he came back.

I also remember when we’d argue over social concerns and sometimes, politics. There were also his chauvinist tendencies and prejudices that were borne of a different age. Like all of us, he was human and flawed.

Shopping in a grocery store recently, a guy called out to me, “Hey, are you Pepin? I recognize you from the newspaper.”

He told me he lived on Oak Street in town and was on my dad’s old mail route. I wonder what kind of trees grow there?

He said my dad always had a joke or a funny story to tell. The man told me that he and his father — who pronounced our last name in proper French like chef Jacques Pepin — looked forward to seeing my dad each day he delivered their mail.

I have a great black-and-white picture of my dad in his mailman’s uniform. It was taken by a local man who owned a photo studio back in the 1970s. That certainly is one of my favorite pictures.

Sitting here now, where the grackles and robins pace across the grass, guarding the graves, I hear a voice inside me say, “It’s alright.”

Beyond a long green garden hose, curled up on a water spigot, there’s a new young oak tree growing next to a stone chipped in a natural style, looking much like a real boulder you could see in nature.

A song sparrow I can’t see sings pretty over the tombstones. Cedar hedge and hearts and numbers — dates and years and months.

Names, names, names, names. Never coming back.

A Teddy bear with wings, Mother Mary and the praying Christ. Hanging baskets and a garbage can, nearby a cyclone fence. Fresh dirt piled up in the corner of the property, not far from the potter’s field.

Inside these black wrought iron gates, family trees have fallen across the ground. Sad souls stand in sorrow. If I put my ear to the earth, I’d hear nothing.

The rain is starting with a few more drops now. I guess it’s time to go. Like I said, I don’t much like coming here. This place is hollow and forlorn.

A catkin just tumbled across the keys of my laptop, with the help of the wind. Some guy in a truck with a Minnesota Vikings license plate holder just drove by me and waved.

An older lady in a white hat, pink top and shorts, seemingly out for an afternoon walk, said hello as she passed by with an understanding half-smile.

I realize as I get up to leave, I guess I’m still mad, all these years later, that my dad has gone and left me here. My folks divorced when I was 13 and I was the only one of us four kids old enough to decide to stay with my dad.

Driving out the gate, I feel kind of shaky inside. I have a feeling I won’t be back for a long time.

As I round the bend on the road to the lake, a red fox stands at an intersection to greet me. I pull the car over and he walks slowly into the tall grass.

In the trees, warblers are singing their songs. They come down close enough for me to see who they are. A vulture circles over me low in the sky, cars keep passing by along the old road.

Life and living continues. My dad was born the year Houdini died.

I was hoping I could somehow honor my dad with some sort of remembrance of his passing today. I’m not sure I’ve done that, but I’ve tried.

In the end, the more I think about it, I guess the best way to do that is to just live, and relive and to never, ever forget.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.