For several years running my sister Lindsay and I have planned photoshoots together. It started partly as a way for us to get away from the rest of the family for a few hours, but also as a creative assignment. We both enjoyed taking photos.
In the years since, she has outgrown me as a photographer. When we go on these shoots, my lack of grace with that tool becomes more and more evident beside hers. While my shots are over-exposed, flat, or over-saturated, hers are crisp, studied, precisely lit.
This summer, as we headed off on a new assignment, I brought my camera but I made a suggestion – that this time, we each use our own medium. What she would capture in images, I would do in words. The subject this time would be Adrian, Michigan. We would go to the town where I went to high school and where she attended grade school on up, and visit a few places that had meaning for us.
“Bohn Pool!” my sister chimed in.
“Frosty Boy!” I said.
“Does that place even still exist?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to find out.”
There was only one place to begin this particular shoot: 1100 West Maumee.
Before I turned fourteen, I’d lived all over the country. From L.A. to Alabama. From an Air Force base outside Sacramento to Altus, Oklahoma. When I moved with my family for the last time, we left Puyallup, Washington, for Adrian. I was used to moving, but that move was the hardest. I had to leave my BFF and start high school in a new place. For the first time, I would not be moving to a community filled with other transplants. No more classes filled with other military brats. Almost everyone at Adrian High School had lived in Adrian their entire lives. They were high-fiving each other in the maternity ward. They’d chosen the prom queen back in kindergarten and, for that matter, the quarterback of the football team, the valedictorian and which girls would get pregnant before junior year. There was one slot left for me: The Outsider. I did my best to fill it.
I hung out with a few other misfits and some transplants like me. It didn’t help matters that through a prior arrangement with my mother’s high school exchange student, I was sent packing during the fall of my sophomore year to spend it in Bonn, Germany. I came back feeling like even more of an outsider.
Somehow during my junior year, I caught the interest of a boy who played ice hockey. We dated briefly, then broke up. When I regretted it, it was too late, so I tried to get his attention the only way I knew how. I started playing hockey. Soon after that he quit playing, but I had found a place where I belonged. I loved being on skates. I found a special status with the group of hockey players (all guys) who took me in, loaned me old skates, showed me how to get the laces super tight, looked the other way in the locker room and even protected me on the ice.
In addition to the ice rink, there was one other place in that town that felt like home –1100 West Maumee. Our house. When we lived in Washington, my father had been newly recruited to work for Northwest Airlines. Airlines are notorious for paying their first year recruits next to nothing. I think he made 18k. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. I have three sisters. Throughout those lean years, we were all aware that the fat ones were on the way.
Once my father passed the two-year mark, everything changed. The house my parents chose in Adrian sat on the curve of one of the main streets that intersects that small town. In winter, when the maple tree out front loses its leaves and the Christmas lights illuminate all the windows, you can see it from a half mile away. It’s a giant old colonial with two-foot-thick columns out front, a circular drive and a front porch where we kept two old wooden rocking chairs. Somewhere there’s a picture from my wedding, a rare moment in which my grandmothers sat down together in those chairs.
Inside the foyer a giant staircase split and each side led to a different wing of the house. There was a maid’s room in the back that became my sister Rebecca’s room. There was a clawfoot tub in one of the bathrooms. (I’d never seen a clawfoot tub.) We had a room we called The Library and a dining room with French doors that led to a brick patio. And three yards! One of the yards was really a corner lot that for reasons I can’t recall remained part and parcel of the property. You could only get to it by descending these narrow stone steps. We called it The Park.
Best of all, for the first time in my life, I had my own room. Actually, my sister Robin and I had an entire WING to ourselves. My room was, I kid you not, the size of my current apartment. It had a walk-in closet. Because we planned to have an exchange student, my room was furnished with two beds and two dressers and in the middle, a large table for doing homework.
This description sounds all very fine and romantic, but like a good layer of paint, what it’s covering is a hell of a lot of work. When my parents bought the house, it was a disaster. The entire downstairs was covered in a layer of aging red carpet which was saturated with pet dander, pee-stains and cigarette burns. Though I remember spending my first year of high school struggling to fit in, I have far more vivid memories of that house: that disgusting carpeting and the floor beneath it, which I scraped until all the gunk was off and then sanded with an electric sander; the walls we removed the plaster from; the layers and layers of wallpaper we stripped.
For a short time my grandparents came to visit and we took on the monumental task of removing the entire bannister from that split staircase, every spindle. Then we took them out back and stripped them down to the oak while inside we continued to peel up the red carpet from every step until finally, we put it all back together again and it was magnificent.
The pride we felt in that house, we earned in sweat.
The day after this year’s 4th of July festivities, Lindsay and I borrowed my parents’ car and drove into town. We made the turns we’d made thousands of times before, down roads whose names we’d started to forget. We turned down Williams Street and although we looked out the windows as we drove, at the houses of people who had been our neighbors, we weren’t really seeing them. Our vision was transfixed, inwardly, on the house at the end of the block.
At the base of the circular drive, a handful of cars were parked out in the street. A few more cars were parked up behind the house. A man stood in the driveway, pulling up weeds in a flowerbed beside where the old brick patio had stood.
The beginning of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca, came to mind. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me.”
On the surface it looked familiar, but we no longer had access. I felt suddenly indignant: who were these people living in our house?
In 2005, when the last child was pushed out of the nest, my parents walked around that big empty house, peered into four empty children’s rooms, and decided it was time to sell. They built their first retirement home on a lake about a 15-minute drive away, and never looked back. Truly, I don’t think they ever drive down that street.
My sister and I sat in the car staring up at the house. We hadn’t planned on that moment. We hadn’t thought that far. Not that we really forgot that it was no longer our house… or did we?
“We should leave,” I said.
We looked up the drive and watched the man pulling weeds.
One of us said, “Or we could ask him?”
We turned off the engine and walked slowly up the drive. The drive that was no longer ours. “Good morning!” we called out.
The man was kind. He said of course we could take pictures. Did we want to see inside?
“We don’t have much time,” we said.
He told us of Other People who’d come through the house in the years since we’d left. (What Other People? I wondered.) He asked us if we knew about the crawl space in the basement that was rumored to have been a hiding place on the underground railroad. (Of course we knew about it; I’d crawled into that space myself to see how it would feel.)
He told us that he still had problems getting grass to grow on the place where there had once been a swimming pool (it had been filled long before we moved in). He asked if we knew that he almost backed out of buying the house because, when they met to sign the papers, my mother was sobbing.
“Please say hello to them for us,” he said. We nodded and walked off to take pictures. I took a few shots, trying to capture something… the way my bedroom looked from the ground? The feeling of being a misfit for so many years? My adolescence? A piece of our family history… All of the sudden, as I looked at it from behind the lens, it looked one-dimensional. Flat. It was just a building. And now someone else slept in that bedroom, sat in that library, took prom photos at the base of the stairs.
We walked over to the park and then into the backyard, way behind the house, to where a set of swings still stood. I sat down in one and looked up at the aging wood. I looked at the intersection of where chain met wood and felt pride. My father had built these swings. I have a photo of my 21-year-old self, newly married, swinging alongside my husband. And there are so many nights I remember coming back here to swing, imagining what it would feel like if I could swing right off into the stars.
We thanked the new owner for letting us walk around and we drove on to the next location, Twin Ponds. When we were growing up the ponds linked a few empty lots in a neighborhood and provided a shortcut to the pool and rink. Back then those lots were overgrown and the ponds had an air of mystery. Now, we hardly recognized them. They’d been given a name, printed on a sign beside a covered picnic area. Many of the trees and brush had been cut down. A new bridge linked the ponds and paved concrete pathways surrounded the perimeter. A goose hissed at us. It was a turf war I had no desire to fight.
We continued on to the pool where my sister spent her summers, swimming, and beside it, I was lured like by magnet to the skating rink. The college in town built a fancy new indoor rink some time ago, so there was no need to keep this one up. The boards are no longer standing. It’s just one vast concrete slab. You might not even know that there’d ever been a rink there at all if it weren’t for one lone stadium light, looming high over the slab.
“Take my picture?” I asked my sister. “But don’t get me smiling. That’s not how I feel.”
We drove downtown to the Frosty Boy. An older woman and a younger woman were hosing down the outdoor seating, getting ready to open. We said hello. Then we drove on through the near-deserted downtown.
People talk about how bad-off Detroit is, but the effects of the post-Ford era spread like a virus, infecting communities throughout Michigan. Though the Frosty Boy is still open and a new ice rink has replaced the old, Adrian is not the town it was when we were growing up. It feels like a cancer victim that’s tired of fighting to stay alive.
As we made the last turn to head back to my parents’ new house, we passed a storefront my sister recognized. “Chaloner’s!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe this is still here!” While she got out and tried to capture another piece of her childhood, I snapped a photo of the building across the street. Above the door was a sign that read, “Jesus Saves.” On the plywood covering the windows, someone had drawn a dove and written the year, 2029. Beside it, in a rougher hand, was a set of drawings: a futuristic-looking car alongside the text, “SOLAR ROOF VAN,” and an illustrated checklist: electric blanket, raincoat, pants, backpack. It felt like some kind of apocalyptic message.
As we left town, I couldn’t help but wonder what Adrian will look like in ten, twenty years. Will someone save it, as so many are trying to save Detroit? What will happen to our house when that family’s kids grow up and they, too, move away? Who will love this place? Or will everyone, like we did, get in their cars and drive away?
Later that day, the phrase about how you can’t go back echoed in my head. “It’s not that you can’t,” I thought to myself, “it’s that maybe you shouldn’t.” Maybe the memories should be left in time, not stirred up and confused with the present. And yet isn’t it me who is always complaining that I move around too much to keep my memories alive? It’s almost like I have to decide: do I want to remember or not?
Although the novel, Rebecca, is perhaps not a good metaphor, since Manderley burns down in the end (among other reasons), I have the book open beside me and it seems appropriate to quote from it again: “When I thought of Manderley in my waking hours, I would not be bitter…I should remember the rose garden in summer, and the birds that sang at dawn. Tea under the chestnut tree, and the murmur of the sea coming up to us from the lawns below. I would think of the blown lilac, and the Happy Valley. These things were permanent, they could not be dissolved.”
This summer my parents have been preparing to sell the house they built on the lake. They have been clearing it out, selling off the furniture, sending us kids home with their unwanted stuff whenever we visit. Before I left, my mother presented me with a rolled up scroll of old wallpaper. I didn’t recognize it.
The wallpaper had been used to line my dresser drawers and on it I had written three differently dated entries, tidbits about my high school life. I didn’t sounds like a misfit. I listed boyfriends and friends and made jokes about having to stop writing because it was killing me to write with my hand in a drawer. Something in the writing of that young girl resonated with my grown-up self. Though mostly forgotten and blurred by time, still there are little traces of her in me. For a moment I felt closer to her than I have in a long time.
NOTE All photos in this blog post were taken by Lindsay Ritchie. View them here in a more photo-friendly format, along with a few more photos not featured in this post.