All this happened some time ago.
It is late August, 1964, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It feels like fall in this small town in the Upper Peninsula.
My family and I are walking down the street, heading toward a restaurant. To the left of us is Saint Mary’s River, which runs from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. On the other side of the river is Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
I look at my mother. She stares across the river yearningly, as if her life is on the other side. She is only 27 years old. My father looks at my mother. His brow is creased. My sister, Andrea, is between them. She has a hold of each of their hands and plays at jumping, though, at 7, she is far too big for them to swing.
“What’s everyone going to eat?” my father asks.
“I’m getting a hamburger,” my brother, Gary, says,
“I’m getting a cheeseburger,” I say.
“You always get a cheeseburger,” my father says.
I smile. “I know,” I say. “I like cheeseburgers.”
“Let him get a cheeseburger,” my mother says. “People should be able to get what they want.”
“What do you want?” my father asks.
“You know what I want,” my mother says.
That morning we had driven the 300 miles from our home in the lower part of the Lower Peninsula. We had stopped at Mackinac Island, taking the short ferry ride from Mackinaw City. I remember thinking, then, as I do now (even though I know the story) that something was about to happen.
We walked along the main street of the island, weaving in and around the crowds of tourists. We stopped and stared through the windows of fudge shops, watched as big liquid chocolate and maple confection swirled in big vats of stainless steel containers. The smell of fudge wafted out of the shops, an aroma so heady and sweet that it filled the streets like invisible smoke. In another shop, we all stood there, watching a confectioner slice through a cooled pan of fudge with a cleaver.
Hours earlier we stood on the grounds of Fort Mackinac. Pretending to be prisoners, we voluntarily stuck our heads and arms through the wooden torture contraptions, our bodies hunched over and trapped. My mother stood there the longest, and when my father wanted to remove her, she refused, and sternly told him to leave her alone. Not until Gary began to cry did she agree to be released.
If this happens to be the most honest story I could tell, I should talk more about the past and how it converges on us, slips around the edges, and, sometimes deepening with family connections and causes, titillates in the way something probable always does. Brutal honesty should include the way my father looked, a year after my mother vanished, like a ghost but not. And how shortly thereafter, he became silent.
I went looking for her, when I was 18, the summer before I was to start college.
In the hotel in St. Ignace, I spread the postcards on the bed. The pictures of Mackinaw Island showed scenes of people on bicycles, and horse-drawn carriages carrying families down the main road in front of the water. The sun shined in the postcards. The sky was blue. One showed an aerial view of Mackinac Bridge, the suspension bridge that spanned the Lower Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula. Also, upon the bed, I had my birth certificate. I remember looking at the birth certificate, and my mother’s signature, and thinking, my mother wrote that.
I rented a bike, rode it along the shore, and up into the interior of the island, past the fort and on up to the Grand Hotel. There a woman sat on a bench on the porch of the hotel. She had on a long, dark green skirt, pleated down the front. Her long-sleeve, button-down sweater fit her snugly. She sat with one leg crossed over the other, a magazine on her lap. A breeze ruffled through some pages, raising a few, and she snapped them down with the back of her hand. I remember thinking that all I had to do was walk up the steps and introduce myself and say, “So this is where you’ve been all these years.”
All these years ago now, I remember feeling woozy. I remember holding onto one of the pillars, and it feeling tacky, as if it had just been painted. A momentary panic befell me. Then the woman got up, and I saw that it wasn’t my mother, couldn’t have been my mother. It was never her.
But I believed, then, had to believe, that I was gaining on her.
Robert Wallace’s essay “The Grapes of Wrath,” previously published in the Durham News, is being podcast by Drunken Odyssey. You can reach Robert at email@example.com