The lovely weather of recent weeks allows me to keep windows and doors open, so that not only light, but also air, nature sounds, and fragrances waft into my ‘new’ Lawrenceville apartment.
This morning, the departure of a small plane, –purring like the aircraft of my Michigan childhood –, thrust me right back into the silken grass of our smoothly rounded ditch in front of our little red brick house. It was newly built by my parents, in the tiny town of Lathrup, well outside Detroit. Hardly anyone drove down ‘California Drive’ except neighbors, guests, and the bakery truck.
There was nothing in Lathrup, not even a post office — we were officially ‘Birmingham.’ If we needed food, my father would have to drive us to ‘the store’, in the NEXT town. ‘Store’ meant grocer. He stood behind a weathered counter, near a worn butcher’s block. A huge wheel of real cheddar, which we called ‘store cheese’, rested under glass to the right of the cash register. Which was shiny black and now we’d say, ‘had all the bells and whistles,’ especially bells. I’d give him my Mother’s list, and he’d have to go all over the tiny store and up and down a rickety ladder, to bring provisions to us. When my father moved us here, his German mother wept: “You are moving to the wilderness.”
By no means was Lathrup wilderness. But we did have woods nearby, a side yard (which turned into a skating rink in winter, thanks to my father), and a ‘vacant lot’ which became a Victory Garden during the war. (WWII) As I wrote in an early poem, “one year the fathers, gardens overrun, waged cucumber war.”
There wasn’t much privacy in our childhood. One of the few places where I wasn’t pursued by the grown-ups, — not even the kindly ones–, was that silky ditch. In summer, I’d lie back into its welcoming contours, and watch blue skies hatch clouds. I pretended that God had a cloud pipe, puffed them into existence. Then I would seriously study, trying to find out what creatures were billowing into existence overhead.
Planes were so rare then, although we were not far, as the crow flies, from Willow Run (where Lindbergh was running wartime plane production – so we’d’ve been prime Hitler targets, had he been able to turn out sufficient transatlantic planes). Any time one of these little miracles (I remember especially biplanes) would come into view, I could not take my eyes nor my ears away from that phenomenon.
There were bees then. One of the key memories of lying in the ditch was hearing bees, yes, busy, in all that short white clover. It was ceaseless, seemed deafening.
My sister liked to be out in, even to run away into, the deep woods. I preferred the vacant lot with its myriad of wildflowers. The colors of summer in Michigan were white Queen Anne’s lace, spiky blue chicory, and the glare and blare of gold/orange brown-eyed Susans. The dark centers of the ‘lace’ looked far more like insects to me than the only true flower of that weed. It never did any good to bring the ‘lace’ inside for bouquets to set in Mother’s antique pewter — the little white parts shriveled, as though shocked, into something a little thicker than dust, tumbling all over the maple tables.
The chicory always seemed to be struggling. Towering above me in the ditch, it seemed faded, as though just giving up in summer’s heat, always closing early. Later I would learn that Indians could tell time by the opening and closing of chicory’s washed-out blue stiff blooms, even on cloudy days.
Our mother didn’t like to cook, really, and especially turned her back on gardening. A few spring iris grew spikily behind the house, but turned hideous as soon as each bloom twirled shut. A few raucous marigolds, and sometimes multicolored portulaca, made up the flowers of the yard. Everything in the side yard, especially the minuscule ‘Chinese lanterns’, was far more fascinating to me.
As August appeared, the wild weeds put forth a parched yet spicy fragrance. That, along with almost deafening crickets of the Fourth of July, and locusts not long thereafter, meant summer was already rolling to a close.
We knew nothing of wilderness in those days. My sister and I had never heard of preserves, where she in Illinois and I in New Jersey, spend key nature hours in all seasons. Nobody gave us a bird book, let alone binoculars. When we try to remember, we ‘see’ jays, robins everywhere (the Michigan state bird), hefty crows in and around our yards. Mallards swam in cemetery ponds. Gulls called loud and clear as we would reach first the ferry, then the BRIDGE, to the Upper Peninsula, our absolute favorite place to be. Never was there a gull anywhere but Northern Michigan. And, once, above the Tahquamenon River, an eagle coursed above us on the root-beer-hued waters.
There must have been butterflies. If so, they ‘were all monarchs’. No fireflies in Michigan. Each summer, we’d poke holes in Mason jar lids, fill the jars with grass, catch fireflies in Ohio and bring them back home in the back seat of one of the Pontiacs, whose hood ornaments my father resembled. As an adult, here in Princeton, someone revealed, re lightning bugs, “Carolyn, only one sex lights.”
We’d keep summer Crayolas in the refrigerator, so they would not melt when we used them on the screened-in back porch. Totally lacking needlework skill, I nevertheless had crocheted long strands which my father attached on the outside of the screens. I planted blue morning glory (his nickname for me) seeds, and they exuberantly twined all the way to the top of the screens. We colored all summer in a blue haze. As I would write in a much later poem, there were, of course, houseflies, “bumping, disgruntled, against the tall porch screens.”
Re-experiencing “ditch days” now, in the 21st Century, my clearest memory –beyond the small planes, the huge clouds– is the sound of all those bees, singing as they worked the clover.