This is Part Ten of my book, Face, A Memoir. In this excerpt, I remember my grandmother's cottage, and go off to kindergarten just a few months after the accident. (Continued from Part Nine.)
July 21, 1961 - Surgeon’s notes: Surgery to assess extent of injury and healing to date. Patient’s cheek and eye are stabilized enough to send her home. Additional surgery to be scheduled for the fall.
My grandmother’s cottage on Lake Michigan was a cozy place, with a screened-in porch that connected to the living room. Once, a bat flew down the chimney and into the porch, and lighted upon the back of a wicker chair. What an inexplicable thing, for a bat to wing its way down a brick chimney and fly through the cottage. Amid our excited squeals, my grandmother ushered all of us into the main room in the cottage and shut the glass doors as my grandpa put on leather gloves and went out to the porch. We pressed our faces against the glass and watched. I held my breath as he gently pried the tiny creature from the back of the chair. It resisted, opening and flapping its wings even as Grandpa closed his leathered hands around it. I could feel my heart beating hard as I watched him walk to the side door and release the bat to the darkened sky. I was awestruck. It was the most tender thing I ever witnessed.
The summer after the accident we spent a lot of time at the cottage, playing with my cousins. It was out past my grandparents’ small house in Glenside, on the west side of Muskegon. Before the lake began to rise in the late 1960s and early ’70s, there was a small boathouse and sailboat tethered at the bottom of the stairs to the beach.
A large plate-glass window stretched across the front of the cottage. The expansive view took in all the majesty of Lake Michigan, from its glittery thundering waves in springtime to the cloud-covered buildup of icebergs along the shore in winter. The main room was furnished in wicker and bamboo furniture with brightly colored cushions. The whole interior was paneled in pine. On one side of the room a large wooden cupboard held dozens of multi-colored Fiestaware: plates, bowls and cups, salt and pepper shakers, pitchers. The various colors made meals at the cottage seem like a perpetual celebration. There was a dining room table near the kitchen, a tiny space that looked onto a sun porch where we often had breakfast. There were big shutters over the sun porch’s screens, and it took the strength of an adult to pull the chains to open them. The chill morning breezes would flood the porch, along with the sun. Oatmeal never tasted so good.
There were three bedrooms, two off the main room and one off the kitchen. My grandma and grandpa always slept in the front bedroom, which was connected to the other by a tiny bath, also paneled in pine. My grandfather died at the cottage when I was eight. Fell asleep next to my grandmother and never woke up.
Every year in the early spring, probably April or May, my grandparents, parents and uncles “opened” the cottage for the summer. They took down the heavy wooden storm shutters that covered all the windows and aired everything out. It would have been imprudent to try to spend a winter there. Snowstorms were too severe, especially at the lake, where cold blasts froze the shoreline into icebergs that often stretched half a mile out.
In the fall, just before the first snows, the family would spend a day or two shuttering it up once again. There was a huge piece of plywood that was nailed over the front entry, and on it was painted, “Stay Out. Poison Gas.”
“This is Marcia,” Miss Black says.
I am standing next to her chair and all the children are sitting on the floor in front of us. She has her arm around me, and I feel safe.
“Her face looks like this because she was in a bad car accident.”
I look out at their faces. It is my first day of kindergarten, not quite three months after the accident. I don’t understand why this is necessary, but I will come to love Miss Black for thinking to do this.
I am vaguely aware of my mom standing off to the side.
Earlier that morning we had walked the several blocks from my house to Nelson Elementary School. I remember feeling anxious, but also excited. There were a lot of kids on the playground when we arrived, and I wanted to play, but I stood close to Mom, watching. Miss Black and the other kindergarten teacher came out and lined us up at the classroom door before we were allowed to enter.
The classroom seemed huge. There were tables with paints and clay, and a playhouse area with pint-sized kitchen appliances, including a stove and sink and cupboards. I played in the playhouse, pretending to make dinner like my mom. One of my favorite activities was “reading circle,” when we would sit on the big rug and Miss Black would read storybooks.
For snacks we had graham crackers with chocolate frosting, and at naptime we each had our own colorful mat to lie on until it was time to go home at noon. No one ever asked about my face or teased me that school year. I felt like a normal kid.
Automobile factories and wood pulping mills fueled the economy of my hometown – and all of Western Michigan – in the mid-twentieth century. When the wind blew from the north, the stench from the paper mill on the southern edge of Muskegon Lake wafted over all of downtown. My mom’s best friend, Norma, lived with her family in the suburb of North Muskegon on the north side of the lake. Muskegon Heights, which was primarily African-American, was just east and south of downtown. Two of the three Meier Cleaners plants my dad operated were in Muskegon Heights, and when I was old enough to work for him, it was there I learned about prejudice and – from my dad – tolerance. On the southwest, as the city population expanded, the suburb of Norton Shores grew. My parents would build a house there when I was in junior high.
Routine, it’s said, breeds boredom, but it also establishes place and time and provides a stability that can be comforting when all else around you is in turmoil. We walked to St. Joe’s for Mass every Sunday and saw all the Meier clan. My dad continued to go to work early every morning. Supper was always on the table at six, just after Dad walked through the door. We sat down together, and Dad said the blessing: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost… Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive …
We ate the same meal every night: meat, potatoes and canned vegetables. Sometimes we would have a Jell-O salad with celery or mandarin oranges. I hated that Jell-O salad. Something about the combination of a soft, wiggly substance with the crunchy celery repulsed me. After dinner, we always had dessert, usually homemade pie or cake with ice cream. If there was no pie or cake, we made do with cookies. My father loved dessert. Even years later, when it was only my mom and dad at home, they still shared dessert every night – a comforting routine, one of the many daily constructs we create to ignore the passage of time.
In Michigan, the seasons are distinct, glaringly so. Winter punishes with its icy blasts of wind and snow. Drifts grow and wither with each passing storm, moving from one side of the road to the other, or building to piles on the beaches and parks. Spring was walking to church on Easter morning wearing a pale yellow or pink Easter dress and matching straw hat, my gloved hand thrust between my dad’s strong, boxy fingers. Tulips and daffodils greeted us from the neighbors’ gardens as we walked to church. Summer was swimming in Lake Michigan with my dad and siblings at dusk, the lake water still warm from the day, then running up the stairs to have s’mores by the fireside as mosquitoes buzzed our ears. Fall, well, fall is my favorite time of year. The leaves changing color on the maples, oaks and elms; the acrid smell of leaf piles smoldering in the street after a day of raking. The sweet bite of the apples we bought from the vendor who drove the streets hawking fruit from the back of his truck.
We had a milkman who placed fresh bottles of milk at the front door every two or three days. And the “egg man” – a local farmer – brought fresh eggs to the house every week. There was a farmer’s market on the outskirts of town every Saturday where in summer we bought cherries, blueberries and raspberries, tomatoes, peaches and plums. In fall, we bought apples and pears, and in winter, butternut and acorn squashes filled the stalls. In the summer months, my mother would often buy a bushel of one fruit or another and then spend the next several days canning.
All of these things happened predictably – year after year – creating a sense of serenity and comfort in the certainty of sameness. And every few months I went into the hospital for more surgery.
(To be continued...)