Sunday, May 25, 2014

Michigan Charm

I have at least a couple of friends out there who will think these two words are mutually exclusive. My own husband will say the same thing, perhaps, and that’s where he grew up. And I’ll have to say – because of all this bias, it took me several years (since 2010) to realize that yeah, there is so a Michigan charm, and a big, deep, profound one at that.

I still remember having dinner in Greensboro, NC with my friend M. She is from Ohio and she would die if she ever found out that I mentioned her name in a blog about Michigan. But she was telling me about the Ohio people, their charm and depth: blue collar, hard working, family oriented, solid, simple values. No muss, no fuss, just real American blood. Years later, I see this in Michigan (sorry, M.!).

I am not sure what it is, really – could be the rolling hills, the majestic oaks, the farms intertwined with city homes in Kalamazoo, the British charm of South Haven, on the shores of Lake Michigan, the dedicated, strong, unaltered Christian faith of people I know there, the huge rivers, the dewy meadows littered with red barns like birthday cakes with happy sprinkles. Not sure what it is, but there is a slow, quiet, laisez faire about Michigan that I can’t quite capture in words.

This fallen tree in Big Rapids, MI is testimony of how old these hills are. It was almost as thick as the house behind it. 

Farmland somewhere between Grand and Big Rapids, MI
Maybe it’s the fact that when I visit, my mother in law takes us to her favorite, 30 year old diners. She knows the story of every waitress and of every owner. They are all nice, quiet people, making a living as a waitress, for many, many years. Putting their kids through school and funding their husband’s businesses with their tip money. They have an empty, dead end gaze, but a twinkle of hope that they are doing the right thing in the world. A sense of purpose that eludes some of American folk everywhere else.

When I was a kid, dreaming about making it in America, I, too, dreamed, that I would have a waiting job in a diner, just a small cash flow, that would allow me to have a small place of my own, that I can call “home”. Not much. No luxury. I wanted to work my bones off, to see that cash at the end of the day. To get to meet those people now, in Michigan, it’s close to my heart, in so many ways. And that’s just the difference: everywhere else, kids in college wait tables. But in Michigan, at least in diners and restaurants with a story (like Clementine’s in South Heaven), people make careers out of this job. That’s a rarity and a lost piece of Americana, in a way … And they’re proud of it: they know every customer’s story, and they are willing to share their own, too, over waiting for the bill to be paid and the tip to come. You know, for “an up North” state, there is a friendliness about Michigan people that I cannot explain. They are, especially, in smaller towns, patient and know so many stories – if only you’d have the time to listen.

Maybe it’s the fact that not every other town in America has a 24 hour, 7 day a week family owned doughnut shop, like Kalamazoo has that makes it special. Maybe it’s the fact that every family restaurant has a coat hanger for winter clothes that speaks about the promise of tough winters, when people tumble in from the cold blizzards for a warm fireplace and a hot pot of soup that makes it cozy to me. 

The sign on the marquee for Sweetwater's Donut Mill, in Kalamazoo, MI against a typically gray Michigan sky.  A family owned, 24/7 donut shop that makes ginormous donuts - so large that they are enough to scare a sumo wrestler. And I am not kidding.

 Maybe it’s the fact that in every shopping center there is a corner bakery with homemade, crooked, cheesily decorated cakes, which look like a five year old would have made them – but delicious nonetheless. 

Chocolate cake at Rykse's, a 27 year old family owned restaurant and bakery, decorated with lilac blooms, for the spring

Food in Michigan is rich and scrumptious. I feel like I gain 100 pounds every time I visit. I guess something has to keep them warm on those long winters, and it’s the layers of fat they need for survival!

Maybe it's the charm of all its small, little towns, all loaded with history and stories untold - like Paw Paw, Gobles, Plainwell and Rockford, just to name a few on the South Western end. You know  the layout all too well:  one Main Street, the "main drag", that has all the important "joints" strung together, the grocery store, ice cream shop, beauty parlor, town library, funeral home, city pub and the rest of the town lies about, clustered around it, like a beehive.You've walked for 20 minutes, you've seen it all. But it all clusters such drama and ages of lives ...

The old mill turned restaurant in the city of Rockford, MI

Maybe it’s the Michigan pride, in cars, technology in general, pride in coming back from the ashes and making it big once again, like Detroit still hopes to, one day … that makes its charm. Maybe it’s all of these things, or maybe I am off the wall nuts. Not sure.

But Michigan speaks to me. There is a warm, welcome feeling when I go visit. Not enough to call it home (not after seeing Lake Michigan completely frozen over two winters in a row), but enough to call it a place in my heart. 

The Muskegon River, in Big Rapids, MI - awesome and rapid, as the name portrays it, lined by large oak trees and willows. 

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