Monday, July 16, 2012
Growth and Decay in Michigan’s Memory Lane
This summer, I packed my four kids into my Corolla and headed for the highway going south from Boston towards Michigan, where I was born and spent my first 28 years. Returning home was a very moving experience, both uplifting and disturbing.
Our first stop was Oak Tree Road in Iselin, New Jersey, where we bought cheap Indian trinkets and feasted on chickpeas, yogurt and fried bread. My daughter Iman and I knocked on the door of the tiny apartment where she was born at home in Piscataway eleven years ago and a kind Pakistani lady and her daughter let us come inside for a moment to look at the place. As we left, I burst into tears thinking of the years of our lives that seem to have vanished without a trace.
Not a lot had changed, but there was no one to visit, no familiar faces; just the ever-tender painful memories of a difficult yet sincere interracial marriage that ended in great loss nine years ago.
I told my children I would take them to the mosque if they wanted because we’d probably run into some of their relatives there, but they said no because they couldn’t even remember them. After learning that their favorite ice cream and candy store no longer existed, we agreed that there was no further reason to stop in New Jersey ever again.
When we arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan the next day, I showed my children the Georgetown neighborhood where I grew up. While the cement structures I used to climb on as a toddler were still there, the shopping center where there used to be a Krogers, a drug store, a Hallmark gift shop, and a Chinese restaurant was all boarded up. The bank where I opened my first savings account as a child was empty and abandoned. I was not expecting Ann Arbor to look like Detroit! But the most remarkable change was the trees. When I was a kid I used to be able to see my best friend’s house from my porch. But now the pine trees are so huge that you cannot see across the street. While it is indisputably marvelous to see nature towering over one’s old home, it does create a troubling sense of the sheer irrelevance of America’s or perhaps humanity’s continued existence. Ann Arbor’s downtown still seemed to be thriving, and many of my old haunts like Orchid Lane, the Michigan Theater, and Jerusalem Garden were still there. I was startled to discover that there were two halal restaurants, one Indian and one Arab, located at the main intersection of State and Liberty Streets!
Then we took a trip to Detroit, where we stayed at the Duck and Roll Inn, a lovely three bedroom guest house with a duck farm in the backyard on the East Side on a street with many abandoned homes. The weather was scorching hot from a prolonged drought. As we visited in the garden with old friends from my old Wayne State University days, a brush fire across the street turned into a fifteen foot tall bonfire, and we watched lazily as the Detroit Fire Department eventually came and doused it with water. I felt a deep sense of time moving much more slowly than it does in Boston. It was a great relief to feel myself becoming myself again. It was so wonderful to be back among friends, who were practically competing for us to stay with them, even people I hadn’t seen in over 25 years.
Probably the most harrowing but important part of our journey was our visit to the Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit, where my first baby was buried 14 years ago. The Muslim section of the graveyard was almost entirely grown over. Thankfully, we found about four letters of my son’s name still visible beneath the brown, crispy grass. I knew the grave would need some cleanup but I was not expecting this level of neglect. My children and I ripped out grass for two hours, uncovering the stone. We poured the last of our drinking water over the gravestone and used twigs to clean out the mud from my son’s name and the dates of his short life. We worked until we were sick from heat exhaustion and completely filthy from the cemetery dirt. We planted a few wildflower seeds around his grave and prayed for rain, which actually did fall a couple days later. Oddly enough, I did not cry, but felt a deep sense of peace and satisfaction at having rescued my son’s grave from being overtaken by time. He is the only member of my family thus far to be buried in America, and the fact that his bones lay there in that terrible neighborhood with its burnt out buildings and vast expanses of desolation that was once a booming industry, provides me with a sense of permanency that does not exist on any other level in my life.
My family has all moved away from Michigan. All that remains are memories. It was incredibly healing to return to Ann Arbor to attend my high school reunion and to hug every single person that looked even vaguely familiar. For one weekend, I felt normal again. I went back to a time in the past when I knew who I was, and so did everybody else.
People in the Midwest are so polite and nice. All you have to do is look at them and they smile at you. My children wished we could stay there forever among friends, feeding the ducks in the pond, but I have no job there.
Back in Boston, for the past two days, I have experimented with trying to make eye contact and smile at people on the street without much success. They look right through me like I’m not there. Here in Boston, the weather is much milder and the health insurance is free, but people just make you feel so alone. Unless they perceive you as belonging to their socio-economic-political-racial status, they only talk to you if they are scolding you for something like if your bag accidentally brushed against them. When I lived in Michigan, I used to greet everybody and they were happy to greet me. These nine years I have lived in Boston, I have been deeply miserable. My summer vacation has taught me that it’s not my fault. I’m just a Michigan girl that somehow got lost like a leaf blowing in the wind.