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Outdoors North

Spending time with mom a delight

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

As she climbed up into the passenger seat of my Jeep, her relative frailty was obvious, but not unexpected. My mother was now 87 years old, and it had been about a decade since I had seen her last.

When she and my dad divorced in the early 1970s, she moved north across Lake Superior, taking my brother and two sisters with her to Canada. I was 13 then and I stayed with my dad in Michigan.

My mom still lives in Ontario today, hence our infrequent visits. We’ve also had disagreements over the years that have helped keep us apart, but this visit wasn’t plagued by those concerns.

A day or two earlier, we had taken a walk down the county road and up the short bluff to “the wishing place.” On that trip, we walked with her arm or hand in mine.

She measured each step she took carefully, hesitant to move too quickly.

After she recently grasped an icy stair rail and slipped down a flight of stairs on her side, she was afraid understandably of falling again.

With my help and encouragement, she climbed the bluff to see the beautiful view of the silvery lake stretching out wide in front of us. Never one to approach too close to the edge of anything, she stayed far back from the rock ledge.

She leaned against a massive pine tree and admired the setting. She agreed the climb had been well worth the view.

We made our way back down the blacktopped county road with the wind at our backs and the sunshine warming our faces. We stopped occasionally to allow traffic to pass as we stood safely off the road.

I spent a lot of our time during the week listening to her attempts to recall places and faces and scenes that played out decades ago in her past. Most of the people and incidents I never knew.

I did know most of the places.

We shared remembrances of some of the downtown’s vacant, dilapidated or torn down stores that had once kept our little mining city vibrant and bustling for a small community.

She had once worked at the J.C. Penney store, a three-story structure where I used to have to go on grueling clothes-shopping outings with her as a young boy. I remember wanting blue jeans. She insisted on burgundy corduroys.

The store has since been demolished.

She had also worked as a “tray girl” for a time at the Morgan Heights Sanatorium where she befriended a young girl who had no visitors. She also sewed bra linings at the H.W. Gossard Co., a factory that once employed more than 500 women.

The company closed its doors in 1976.

As we headed out for a ride today, we were moving east and then south to the little town where she spent a good deal of her time growing up.

She hadn’t been there in a generation.

We passed the old farm where we still have active family ties.

The closer we got to the little village of fewer that 400 residents, the more shocked she became.

Along the roadside, she stared up at piles of waste rock from the idled open pit mine piled higher than many local bluffs. She later said she would have taken pictures of the massive hills, but she had been too shocked to remember to do so.

She said the mine tailings and build-out of the mining complex had encroached on places fondly set in her memory.

She told me she used to go down by the creek that runs back behind the houses in the springtime and there would be wondrous trailing arbutus growing there. She said there were also blooms on blue violets the size of Kennedy dollars.

She recalled a clearing in the woods where the people of the town buried their pets.

A makeshift trail through the tall grass beyond the back gate and metal fencing led the way to this childhood wonderland for her.

Just before we reached the row of houses where she used to live, she pointed to a small clearing off to the righthand side of the road, which had been a baseball field when I was growing up.

She told me that when she was a little girl, the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross in that field. She recalled walking to the post office, just down the road from the house where she lived with a foster family.

She remembered how she would walk the railroad tracks to meet grandpa walking home from the mine. Later, when he had eventually gone blind, she said that as a young boy, I would sit on his lap and feed him dry Cheerios.

My mom was surprised to see the town’s gas station, Methodist church and grocery store all shut down and slowly falling apart.

This is one of those things most everyone seems to encounter as time passes and changes continue. A lot of the things we thought were so big now appear small or things we loved have been razed or otherwise lost to time.

So many people are gone too. All this can be very sad and discouraging, but those emotions are often countered by the jewels or sometimes pockets of jewels from those days that remain.

As we left the village and kept moving past the falls and alongside the creek, mom mentioned how she had always hated a particular sharp curve in the road.

She pointed out the church not far from where the creek crossed under the highway where she had been confirmed as a young girl.

Interspersed among short stories about people who had lost their lives in drowning accidents or those she had known and who they had dated and whether she liked them or not, she talked about the connections we shared with nature.

She told me one thing I had never known. She said she used to walk down to the lake about three blocks away from the house I grew up in, even in the rain, to sit and look at the lake and think.

That was something I never recalled her doing, but it was an activity I am certainly familiar with myself. She reminded me of how I would bring home leopard frogs and painted turtles for short stays in an old boiler my younger brother and I had often kept nightcrawlers in.

We would place a sliding window screen over the top of the boiler to keep our aquatic friends from jumping or climbing out. My mom also made repeated mention of the fact that we had also kept garter snakes in the cool confines of the basement, initially without her knowledge.

On another afternoon’s ride, this time through the woods north of town, we stopped and walked out to a scenic overlook where the serpentine movement of the river below was gorgeous to see, especially on such a wonderful day with the sun shining brightly and shimmering off the water.

My mom also spent a lot of time throughout her visit watching birds at our feeding station at home. She took pictures of the mourning doves, which are not seen much in her part of the world.

I was able to point out her first-ever red-bellied woodpecker.

She seemed to enjoy particularly watching the blue jays. We saw a flock of a dozen or so evening grosbeaks at the feeders one morning.

For me, this closed a tremendously large circle that stretched over more than 50 years. When I was a kid, first interested in trying to attract birds to our backyard, I was inspired to do so by a flock of about 60 evening grosbeaks that had landed in a maple tree whose branches overhung our yard.

I had never seen these birds before and their interesting sounds and striking, yellow, white and black plumage of the males made a big impression on me.

I reminded my mom how we had made bird feeders in our kitchen by cutting a rectangular hole in the side of a milk carton, filling the lower half of the carton with seed and sticking a pencil through the carton for a perch.

I also remember my pride and awe I when we bought our first small, wooden hopper feeder, with plates of sliding glass. We hung this feeder, as well as a mesh onion bag filled with butcher’s suet, from the clothes pole closest to our kitchen window.

Mom recalled me and my friends helping her by hauling away pulled weeds from our garden and delivering starts of various plants from her extensive gardens to neighbors.

It was good medicine for me to reconnect with my mom about all these things.

The connections we share to the earth, the woods, the waters, the birds and the animals and the world around us have helped me become the man I am today.

I will be forever grateful for the best thing my parents ever did for me, which was taking me out in the woods from the earliest of ages to just be out there.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 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.

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