October 22, 2023

The Hardwood Walking Stick

All through my 30s onward, I’ve walked woods from the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains, along with the mountains, hills and valleys of Michigan - with a treasured hardwood walking stick I had discovered as it leaned against a tree. Its grasp was a perfect fit for my hands, the wood smooth and free of bark. What a find?

When resting, my stick leaned easily against a tree - my water bottle hung safely from a little nub near the top. I would lay out a special wool blanket - which was gifted to me from a priest-friend in the early 1980s. He was a peace-activist and purchased the blanket from a market crafter in Guatemala during one of his excursions. I loved that blanket - it traveled everywhere with me along with the walking stick.

The stick came into my hands when I found it leaning against a tree in an "Indian Cemetery" in a small town along Lake Superior's shores. What brought me to that place was what kept my Upper Peninsula grandmother and I close. We shared a nonfiction book, Lady Unafraid, passing it back and forth, reading it over and over. Upon her death, the book was given to me. The author wrote about this area from the 1800s during a time that Bishop "Father" Baraga* was traveling the region, visiting this Indian village on his route. She wrote about being a teacher to the Indian children , her experiences, concerns, travails, the beautiful views of valleys, the bay -- grandma and I adored the story. One year, mom and I visited this town and stopped at the cemetery to breathe in the essence of the entire area - to see what the author saw.

We slowly walked through the cemetery observing the care taken for the deceased with relics of their lives carefully laid around the burial plots: stones, pictures, work utensils. I was awed by the hush as we respectfully acknowledged each of the deceased. 

Large trees lined the perimeter but leaning against a hardwood tree within the grounds -- was the walking stick of my dreams. I had no clue the significance of this stick, only that the feel was so soft and sturdy, and it seemed to a random stick.

As I held the stick, a snake slithered from below one of the funeral huts making my mother scream and run from the area. I should have listened to her scream. 

On the 10-hour drive home, I was sick for the entire trip. 

Over the years, I matured and developed an understanding of Native Americans and their practices of honoring their dead. 

I felt the pull of my walking stick wanting to be returned to its home but kept forgetting to bring the stick with me to the UP - but do acknowledge that the connection between the stick and me had grown strong as my memories of adventures were entwined with it.

 Our family visited the cemetery years later … the tribal chief followed us down the dirt road to outside the entrance gate where he stood, patiently, watching us as we quietly walked around and even allowed for pictures. Asking some locals about his presence I was informed that the cemetery was being ransacked and tributes to family were being knocked down. The chief was protecting his people.

My heart ached with shame and guilt as I realized that I was ONE of those people who participated in this activity, too. 

Finally, and with the firm intention to return the hardwood walking stick "home" — our family, including cousins and an uncle, took the long trip along Lake Superior to the Indian Cemetery to humbly and with tears in my eyes, return it to the tree. 

Uncharacteristically, the chief did not follow us on this visit. I wandered around the grounds searching in my memory for the hut of the snake and large hardwood tree from where I took the stick. Change was evident in the cemetery - disarray, stones leading to the burial places were missing -- my heart broken, I found the tree where I took the stick in the early 1980s and, saying a silent prayer with an honest apology for my actions, and asked to be forgiven. I thanked the walking stick and spirits for letting me use it on my adventures and believe it carried these memories within its wood.

I placed this beautiful hardwood walking stick against the tree, where it seemed to stand tall and proud - it was home again.

(Please forgive my writing “Indian Cemetery” rather than Native American or Indigenous People Cemetery. I wanted to give the proper name, at times, but the cemetery was the “Indian Cemetery”.)

*Father Baraga (1797 to 1868) was consecrated to bishop in 1853 and was the first bishop in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. He was a missionary with the Catholic Church in northern Michigan along the shores of Lake Superior working with Ojibwe natives. Baraga was also known as the “Snowshoe Priest”.

June 27, 2023

Let me explain "who" I am

 If you were to ask who I am, I’d say that I’m an essayist focusing on life in Michigan, shared in this blog, but also a recorder of family stories shared through the years.

I came to love storytelling by listening to our family elders share their adventures in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along with grand stories of life on the coast of *Lake Superior. Hilarious and colorful descriptions of the unique characters they met brought laughter - which just encouraged them to talk more. Cookies and milk, a seat on semi-comfortable couches, or splayed out on the hardwood floor were some of my favorite memories. 

I was enriched with the hours spent with my gentle maternal grandfather, affectionately named The Birdman of Small Acres Lane, by the local papers. We sat in his yard twiddling our thumbs, as he quietly shared his stories surrounded by flocks of birds brought in with bird houses and plenty of meal. 

Comic strip by Kim E. Perez

Writing down memories, stories, and experiences happens mainly in coffee shops and bookstores, although during the pandemic, my porch was my desk. Anyone who knows me, understands that I am always on the lookout for cozy places to piece together these essays. 

My ultimate joy is being outdoors, preferably in the woods, as whether I’m happy, down, troubled, stressed or contemplating a situation, a clarifying visit in nature is like a cool breeze on a hot day. A found bench provides a sitting post in which to bathe in the green and listen to nature, feels so much like I am participating in a Forest Bathing experience. I am then good to go.

I hope you find a glimmer of something positive if you are reading these blogs. Everything written is true -- at least that's what the family sailors and storytellers told me.

*Gichi-Gami (Great Sea) is the name the Ojibwe people called Lake Superior. The name Gitche Gumee was popularized through Gordon Lightfoot’s song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and through the poem, The Song of Hiawatha, written by H.W. Longfellow.


April 3, 2023

Lost on a trail lightly traveled

A gentle, peaceful and beautiful walk in the woods turned into a living nightmare. 

Our daughter, camera in hand and optimistic in her ability to capture unique photos as dusk would soon fall, creating interesting patterns on the water and water fowl. 

"You can go ahead" she instructed us. "I'll catch up after."

Walking leisurely up the river bank, slippery with wet fall leaves, to the trail, we agreed "we'll meet you at the bridge". 

The trail was familiar and particularly picturesque during the waning autumn days. The blue sky especially brilliant this late afternoon. Knowing our daughter's penchant for photography, I knew she would be happily settling down, alone at last, focusing on the environment and wild life. We knew these woods and felt safe leaving, plus would be a mere 10-minute walk from her.

At the bridge, my husband and I watched the birds and searched the water for possible fish swimming through. The antics of the Cardinals and Blue Jay were especially entertaining. Then, waited, waited, and waited more -- she didn't show. We walked a little down the trail, casually watching for her -- she wasn't in our sight.

My emotions were catching up to our reality as I went back in time, many years ago at this very park, where a young lady was on a run and never showed up at home. Her body was found, brutally murdered, not far from our location. 

Deep breathing so the panic would not overwhelm us my husband and I retraced our steps.

Arriving at her previous position we scanned the quickly flowing water. Descending to the river's edge, sliding down, I felt a rise in fear that my daughter may have fallen off the bank into the cold and fast river. 

Few visitors passed on the trail but as they did, we asked if they saw her — a blonde girl with a large camera wearing a yellow skort, explaining that we were to meet our daughter at the bridge, which is a familiar feature to these woods, but she never showed up. 

“Oh yes, but I don’t think she was wearing a skirt”, said one.

“Was she with a young boy”, asked another, explaining that he saw a boy running down the trail.

“I think I saw a blonde over at the Huron Pond but I don’t know if she was wearing a skirt. But she did have a camera”, reported another.

It was getting darker as my husband took off to check the car, perhaps she was waiting for us there. I was further fearful as she didn't respond to messages or phone calls. Find my Friends showed the phone being stationary and in the woods. Another call to her -- her voicemail recording caused my heart to beat into my ears and my breath shallow with emotion. 

I again remembered the death of the murdered girl, meeting and talking with her mother, and how the mom's life changed forever. I don't know how people stay intact after losing a child. My daughter's voice on the recording comforted me, though. She's tough and wise in nature.

Text messages -- please call and call us as soon as you get this message -- no response.

I flagged down a couple bikers to ask if they saw our daughter, please to keep their eyes open for her. The older man seemed concerned enough that he and his son took off on their bikes to look along the river bank. “She’ll show up" he shouted comfortingly. 

The darkness was increasing and we did not bring flashlights.

Breathing heavily, I stumbled down the trail as my phone rang ... an unknown number. I had given my cell to so many people on the trail, just in case, so answered with hope.

It was our daughter, demanding in a meek voice, "where are you"? She used a fisherman’s cell to let us know she was at the Huron Pond and was safe. She'd been looking for us going the opposite way on the many trails, also frantically looking. Her cell? Left in the car. My husband, who met me part way down the trail, and I hurried to the pond embracing our also frightened daughter. 

We learned from that too close for comfort experience to:

  • always carry a flashlight, a whistle and a cell phone;
  • pack a snack and water;
  • trust that most of the people using trails are good people--don't hesitate to ask for help.

Have you ever lost someone in a store, park or in the neighborhood?

What feelings emerged when you found him or her?

The Hardwood Walking Stick

All through my 30s onward, I’ve walked woods from the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains, along with the mountains, hills and valleys of Michig...