Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Echos of the Past

"Cathy," I say hesitantly, staring at the old Aztec blanket behind her. "It's haunted, I've seen it, something's not right up there."
"I know" she says, "I feel it too, it's no good in there. That's why I didn't buy the place when your parents put it up for sale."
My eyes open wide, mouth hangs and I blurt without thought:
"So you know the man, the man upstairs!? The man that I saw? He was wearing some kind of uniform, holding a lead pipe, something like that. It was so scary!"
"I know" she says again, this time with an icy calm. "You and I, we see these things, we're the same. You were meant to come here today."
Jon forces an uncomfortable smile. I can see on his face that he finds this all completely nuts. Abbey casually hunches in a weathered, peach colored chair, thumbing her rubber Obama bracelet with an entertained look.
Harbor Springs for me was the promise of childhood dreams and magic. Barefoot days and fence walking, wild, curly, snarly, uncombed beach hair, peeling shoulders and nightly ice cream cones. Laying idle on the hot white sand, hearing the waves of lake Michigan rhythmically lap until you fall asleep in the sun. Chasing my brother's friends in the surf, collecting the elusive Petoskey stone. Lunch time on the docks, our feet hang over as we look into the depths below. Large sail boats glide by, big Hatteras yachts and rich blond kids in dingys. Gurney's Harbor Bottle Shop, the best sandwiches in the state. Right on Main street, their homemade bread smells so delicious, we each take one sandwich and a Sarsaparilla Root Beer down to the municipal beach.

The place was summerland, a mythical, surreal little worm hole in the space-time continuum. When I was very young we stayed in a condominium on a golf course, at a resort. Soft, velvety grass as far as the eye could see when you looked out the front door, and a steep, tree enveloped hill out the back door. A frog pond, the forests, the fireflies. Stories of the original native Americans who settled this patch of land. Each night as I tried to sleep, I knew I heard their tribal drum beats out in the dark distance.

Eventually my parents bought a lovely vacation home, perched atop the tall bluff overlooking town. It was a modest, turn-of-the-century vernacular farmhouse, originally part of a logging community. Built around 1890, the Michigan basement was more of a cellar with its low ceiling and walls paved with ancient dirt and stone. It held secrets, perhaps even bad ones, but I was so in love, that it never mattered to me. Outside there was a large white porch where we sat in wicker chairs. I couldn't keep myself from climbing our wooden fence everyday, balancing my way back and forth, back and forth across the top. At the far end, you could just make out Little Traverse Bay, beyond the great pine trees. This bay, a shelter from the occasionally battering sea of Lake Michigan. Tucked in below the bluff was the town of Harbor Springs, like a Rockwell painting, where the ships come in.

About ten years ago, my parents sold the place for something on a quiet lake in the woods, an hour south. My heart broken, but what could I do? With the sale went my carefree youth and my escape. No more beach weekends and winter ski trips and breathtakingly beautiful, crisp fall days.

With the sale also went my secrets. The man upstairs who silently played tricks on me as a kid. The time he suddenly materialized himself at the top of the stairs, and when he wouldn't stop turning the VCR in my bedroom on and off. My door would slam, sounds from a baseball game would play from some phantom radio in the middle of the still night. The worst, the only time, I woke, startled from my sleep with a pillow over my face. I raised my arm to push it off, but something, some one, was holding it there for quite some time. I panicked.

All these secrets, it would seem, that they were some sort of childhood fantasy, a girl who saw one too many late night horror films. But I assure you, these incidences seemed real, all too real. So real in fact, that even as a level headed adult, (yes, I am level headed) I still regard them as having happened.

"Take a right here!" I shouted to Jon. He pulled onto my memory lane. The houses still all looked the same for the most part. One had been torn down though, and another built up. It was the old neighborhood, my old street, the house. My eyes welled up, seeing her stand there, just as she always has, 110+ years later. The current owner hasn't trimmed the bushes that surround the house. They are huge and wild and cover my walking fence. There is no point to sitting on that porch now, why would you, you can't see out. I tell Jon that we should go down to the small real estate office in town, where the current owner happens to work. I hatch the plan that we should offer to buy the house if he ever decides to sell. Jon is momentarily intrigued. We picture cozy winters there, teaching Noah how to snow ski, and weeks spent beach side. And after that we picture the cost of the heating bill and the taxes and mowing the great side yard, not to mention the front yard and the plowing of monumental amounts of snow in the drive.

"Turn at the corner, we'll go up to the......... oh my gosh!" I scream. The little, tiny house, the lilliputian abode nestled next door to my former home, it was for sale! Old as time, tilted but cozy, painted in the most cheerful hues of yellow, orange and white. My heart swelled, my head raced, "Jon! What if we could live here?! It's just the right size."

My father lives an unorthodox life. He's floated and bobbed around the map. Chicago, Detroit, New York, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and now Harbor Springs. He landed here with my now, ex-stepmother and brother. It was a summer haven from the city life of Chicago. For many reasons, he has ended up staying on, hopping little flights out, down to Detroit and on to China. It sounds exhausting.

We were visiting my Dad last year, Noah withshovel and pail in tow. I rushed in his front door and up the enormous flight of stairs that lead up to the second floor. He was living post-divorce in an 1880's Masonic Temple building. "Dad! Oh my gosh, Dad! I've found it!" I leap around, my mind spinning. I say we need to call for a showing. Romantic visions of our tiny house, I will write and paint, little vases with wildflowers on the window pane.

My Dad knows Abbey, who lives down the street from the tiny house. She, Abbey, knows the current owner Cathy, who is desperate to sell before fall, when she will move back out east. Abbey is called over by my father, and in turn she excitedly calls Cathy- who welcomes us with open arms and tells us to come NOW!

I am filled with rarely felt enthusiasm, weightless joy and excitement, we head back up the bluff.

Cathy is an eccentric. I feel right at home. She is small and somewhere between midlife and the beginning of her golden years. She has a rich history, was a professor at Bennington College in Vermont, restored old homes on the east coast, is a self published author. Cathy, just like me, came to Harbor Springs as a child for summer vacation. Just like me also, the magic lured her back. She has been writing and publishing scholarly history books here for years. Most of them about the local Odawa Indian tribe, the original gatekeepers of this land.

She welcomes us in. And as we step across the small cement porch, wind chimes blow. I know I'm on the right path, wind chimes are my sign, they've always been, before I was even me. We walked into a surprisingly light and open room. It's decorated oddly, in Miami Florida colors, circa 1984. Cathy chuckles as she sees me eyeing the place. "I don't love it. The place came furnished this way. It used to be a rental, I don't love it, but hey." She says.

She tells us that the house was built around 1850, that the front room was originally a small butcher shop. My heart sinks. "Oh Cathy" I say, a frown on my face. "I'm a vegetarian, how could I live in a former butcher shop?" I feel defeated and sad, but Cathy just grins and says "I used to feel the same way as you, I'm a vegetarian too. It's ok."

We look around and to our feet. The dark, oiled planks that make up the floor, are studded with square pegs. Cathy had striped down one hundred and fifty years of flooring to find this glorious, original floor. What stories it tells.

The front room is heated by a cast iron stove in the corner. I am consumed by images of life here. Of Noah running shoeless, of leaving the rat race behind. Organic farming perhaps? We see a brightly lit side bedroom, with those same amazing floors. A fairly modern kitchen follows and a bath and back room with french doors. But the most magical place is up the narrow, creaking stairs. Up the incline and around the corner, we come to the most glorious, little spot. The sunlight bursts into a triangular room, it's painted bright white, the back wall is floor to ceiling built in bookcases. Volumes take up every space. There is a desk and a lap top, a picture window. Oh the books one could write here. Beyond this is a small bedroom, just as white and weightless. A breeze that calls me, comes through the window, past the lace curtain.

It was October, my favorite month of the entire year. I couldn't tell you more if it were the gorgeous harvest colors or the crunchy leaves or the chill in the air, or the fact that Halloween has always scared the crap out of me, in a ghoulish fun sort of way. But I love the month........

Four in the afternoon, on a fall day. The sun was lowering in the sky, golden and warm, like a Crosby, Stills and Nash song. Noah was playing with his wooden trains, and I was back home in our kitchen, staring at the cupboard and wonder what I should make for dinner. The phone rang, a loud, intrusive tone. Nothing new, it always rings, all day long, I pick it up.

"Hello, is this Lauren?"
"Yes it is," I say, wondering who this vaguely familiar voice is on the other end of the line.
"This is Cathy", she says.
Cathy, Cathy.....I think, I panic a bit...who the hell is Cathy I wonder.
"Cathy from Harbor Springs, I own the little house you looked at, we met a few months ago..."
"Oh! Hello Cathy." I say. Completely relived that I'm off the hook, and more than slightly surprised to hear her voice.
"How are you doing Cathy? Has the house sold? It was just so lovely, I really wish that....."
"That's why I'm calling." she interrupts.
"No, it hasn't sold, and there's a big problem. I'm leaving soon, at the end of the month. I can't hold out any longer, I need to move before the cold. The house is going to go over into foreclosure, to the bank. And once that happens, I know somebody will tear it down. I was meant to meet you. You were meant to come to my home. This was meant to be, you're the one destine to save the Odawa Indian's council tree. It's in the stars! Please help them!"
A rare, momentary patch of speechlessness comes over me.
And then it builds, a fire inside. I must, I must! I must save the ancient council tree!
After Cathy shows us the upstairs, she stops, and lets us take in the white, ethereal brightness of the bedroom. And for some reason, we each have a smile on our face. Cathy's eyes light up, then she lowers her brow and begins to motion us towards the stairs. "Now" she says, "I want to show you the best part of this place." "This is special" she grins.

We made our way, down the stairs and through the ancient living room. Past the tiny kitchen and into the backroom. Cathy grabbed the french doors and with the twist of knobs, introduced us to the best part of the house. The backyard is an oasis, secluded and mostly wild. She tamed a few areas here and there; the small, bubbling fish pond, a bramble patch of berries. A pebbled area for lounging on chairs and a large plaster head of a mythical character, watching over us.

“Here” she said, exhaling forcefully, as if this introduction had just been aching to come out. We are pointed to a very large, very old, oak tree. Cathy walks over to it with a concentrated stare. She puts her hand on the trunk, so huge it’s diameter, it would take four or five of us to go round.
“This tree” she says, looking me square in the eyes.
“This tree, right here, is the original, Odawa Indian tribe's council tree. It has been here for centuries. This is a sacred place, this is where the Odawa people worshiped and prayed and gathered. This is their tree. So much history and magic is right here where we're standing."

I looked at Jon, wide-eyed. My heart began pounding, what an amazing secret to know! Jon smiled, but Cathy looked stoic and concerned. “Look” she said, resting her other hand on the trunk. “You can feel the energy of this tree, you can feel the spirit and the history. It’s alive, it has life running through it.”

I have never really been a skeptic. There is so much that we don’t know about the universe and life. Be open and you will learn. If something is proven incorrect, I’m fine with that, but odd quarks of the cosmos and trees with energy, I’m not so opposed to exploring.

What I did half expect to feel, as I reached my arms out wide to this huge monolithic flora, was bark. Just still bark, like any old tree. But unlike any old tree, I instantly felt the fainest buzz, just like Cathy said, it seemed to be energy! The current kind of grew and I swear after twenty seconds of hugging this old tree, I know it must be quite more than alive.

“Cathy, this is amazing” I said. “I belive you.”
Jon hugged the great tree also, he looked amused and claimed to feel the tree’s spirit too...I suppose you need to ask him........

Looking up, into the great boughs, the tree swayed in the late August wind. Cathy said, you see how the tree doesn’t touch the roof, even though the house is right up against it? Jon piped in “Don’t you have to trim the tree? Does it damage the house, the roof?”
“No.” said Cathy, it’s been here with the house, together for over a hundred and fifty years, and never has it hurt the house. It just knows. They live harmoniusly.”
I looked up again and just couldn’t believe it, such a massive tree, snuggled up close to this house, save for a few precise inches between the two. It has never over taken it’s friend.

“How do you know, how do you really know that this is the council tree?”
”Look there” said Cathy. “Do you see where the branches begin to separate from the trunk? It looks like a table. The odawas trimmed and pruned this tree for a long time, so that it was shaped this way for ceremonies, to hold their ceramonial objects. “

I was in such an excited state. The tree indeed, did not look natural, it was a huge, round trunk, and then nine feet off the ground, it was a table, with three amazing main branches soaring to the sky. You’d expect a tree of this age and size to have it’s branches leading off, not a mere nine feet off the ground, but much much higher up. You also would never see such an odd shape without human intervention, and these changes are old as can be, you can tell they were carried out in the tree's youngest years.

It was all overwhelming and mystical and great rolled into one. I didn’t want to leave the tree or the yard or the house for that matter. After sometime though, it was time to leave.

I took Cathy hands in mine, and gave them a small shake. As if to say, “Thank you for taking us into your home and sharing your amazing secrets.” She looked me in the eyes once more and said “Thank you for coming, I know this house would do so well with you two. I really would love if it went to you.” “I wish so too” I said, half knowing that taking of a second home, no matter how small, might be too much for our young family.

“You were meant to come here, we were meant to meet. If I could just give you the house I would. I know you wouldn’t hurt the tree." Cathy added as we went for the front door.
We stood there saying some last goodbyes. Abbey, who was still hanging around, thanked Cathy for the tour. Jon and I promised to do the math and really think about the house.
"Wait!" Cathy raced up the small staircase and emerged a minute later with a small, white paperback. "Here" she said, this is the book that I just finished working on, it's coming out in a month. It was the tribal history of the Odawa's, quite fitting for the day. I thanked her again and we took our leave.
Traveling down the small road in Abbey's "Obama mobile" as she called it, we laughed about how eccentric that visit was, and I waxed poetic about the house and an idelic life to be lived there. I spent the rest of the weekend in a daze. Wishing, hoping, imagining that tiny house being ours. The asking price was quite a bit too high, but Harbor Springs is Michigan's most ritzy resort town. It holds court with old money from Detroit and Toledo and Chicago. Old, old money. The oil people, the railroad owners, the steel manufacturers of the past. Blue bloods that passed along their hulking summer homes on the exclusive point, to their blond haired progeny on wicker basketed bicycles. Beyond the cost and the taxes and the fact that the house is a good four and a half hours from home, the dream was over, if I had to be realistic and rational. It just wasn't a great idea for our young family.

"You were meant to come to my home. This was meant to be, you're the one destine to save the Odawa Indian's council tree. It's in the stars, please, please help them!" Cathy's urgent voiced boomed over the telephone.
My heart raced and my mind went into overdrive on that autumn afternoon in my kitchen.
I was the one to save the tree! I am the one to save the tree! All of the fun drama and talk of sacred trees and rituals, ghosts of tribes past and being charted in the stars, swept me up. I started to sweat and panic. Cathy and I began a conversation, back and forth; me half declining the responsibility, she, trying to sweeten the deal with a lower price and occasional esoteric statement thrown in.

"Cathy, I'm so sorry, I really am. I feel terrible....."
"I know" says Cathy. "It's just that maybe this is possible. You can change around your budget, allocate things differently."
Not really wanting to get into specifics, but knowing, after Jon and I did the math, the second mortgage and additional "non-homestead" taxes, and the insurance and the gas to get up would just be too much. No matter how badly we wanted the place.
"Cathy, I am SO sorry. I wish there was a way, I do. Thank you for calling me though, I hope only the best for you and the little house. It will be ok, I just know it."
There was a sad, sad silence from Cathy's end of the line. She sighed, and I knew her frustration.
Not wanting to disappoint further, and also feeling as though my hands were tied, I thanked Cathy for her call again and said that I needed to be going. We wished each other well and said goodbye, both of us quite sad.....

It really ate me up inside. I felt the weight of the universe, the mamoth amount of dark matter pushing down on my conscience all together and at once. How could I, how could I !? How could I not ensure the safety of the council tree? How could I just let this house be destroyed, the tree chopped down!? This is more than a plant, it is huge, it is history, it's the spirit of a whole people. I knew what Cathy meant, I understood that if I didn't buy this $230,000 teeny, tiny half-falling-down house and it's gigantic, magic tree, then who would!?

Tears rolled down my cheeks after we got off the phone. I didn't really know what to do, but I did what I always seem to do, I called my Mother. She basically wrote me off as ridiculous and I knew that the only other step to take was one that I sensed wouldn't play out well, I had to call Jon. So I turned up the tears a notch is desperation, dialed his work number and then extension. I was ready to beg for the poor council tree's life. That poor, poor council tree, at the mercy of heartless dozers and diggers, with their jagged teeth.

(Sniffle, sniffle, SOB!!!!)
"Jon, I just got a call from Cathy." (sniffle)
"Who's Cathy?" He said.
"Cathy! Remember Cathy, from the little house in Harbor Springs?" (sniffle) (Nose blow)
"Wait. What's wrong? What's going on?"
"Well....(sniffle) Cathy called and said that it's still for sale and she's about to move and if we don't buy it, she just knows that somebody will knock the house and the council tree down and...." (SOB!!!!!!)
"Oh my God." said Jon. "THAT, is what this is all about?" "Come on, calm down. What did she say?"
"She said that she is willing to lower the price to $219,000." I said, while taking deep breaths.
"Really?" said Jon with a pause.
"Really, and she said that it's just intuitive, that we are the ones to save that tree!" I wailed.
"Lauren, please, calm down. Listen, you know this, I just think it would be so much money, the upkeep. It would be stressful and we'd have no extra spending cash, let alone time. We'd have to always be up there fixing and maintaining the house. It's just too much. I'm sorry...."
"I know, I know..." I said, calming down a bit. "I feel so bad though, and so guilty!"
"Don't though" said Jon. "Don't feel bad, this isn't your responsibility. She just wants to sell her house. Someday if we have the extra money and time, we'll get a place up there. I have to go now, but let's talk later."

So we hung up the phone and I felt crumby the whole evening and into the night. In fact, I felt terrible and crumby about it this entire year. Just plain, guilty. Many, many times I've thought about the old council tree and the happy, little house and their destiny. I worry about them. I blamed myself.
"Can we just go by?" I asked from the passenger's seat, as we rolled down the hill and into town.
"I guess so" said Jon, but I don't know what you expect.
We made a quick right and went straight up Judd hill, a road so steep, it's closed four or more snowy months of the year. Up we went, to the top of the bluff, past my old house and rounded the corner. And there is was, peaceful and still, the little yellow house, as shiny as ever.....and the council tree.
"They're still here!" I said, a huge smile across my face. "oh what a relief" I said an sighed. "Oh what a relief!" I felt like crying. "I've been worrying about this all year Jon. I just felt so badly that I couldn't help to save this place." I frowned. "It's been eating at me ever since." I said.

Jon turned and looked at me with a partially confused, partially dumbfounded look on his face. He pulled by the side of the road. "Lauren" he said.... "You don't have to feel bad. Don't you think, with all of the Odawa's MILLIONS of dollars from the TRIBAL CASINO AND RESORT in Peotosky, wouldn't they just buy this place in a heartbeat if it meant something?!" "They could buy the house like it was candy...stop worrying!"

And just like that I did. Because gosh, what a naive idiot I am...............

And the moral of this story is, if you meet a lady that has seen your ghosts, and she's pretty strange but fun, and has a magic tree in her yard - that doesn't necessarily mean you NEED to buy her house. And don't feel guilty if you don't. Oh and go see Northern Michigan, it's a nice place.



Lolo said...

Hmmmm....maybe it's a little too short.

Nobody is going to read this, are they?

Lolo said...

OMG! Like, did it take you three weeks to write this or something!?

Lolo said...

Actually, yeah, it did.


Twins-Plus-1 said...

Holy crap are an amazing writer. I felt all your emotions during that whole story.

Lolo said...

WTF !? Andrea? You read the WHOLE thing!? Ok, I am forever your servant. Send the ironing over!
Thanks for taking the time to read my...ehem...."cheesy"....account of this whole house/tribal tree thing.

Oh my gosh and you know those million times I was all.."Oh yeah, sorry, I'm just trying to get this one post done." ?
Yeah, this was it!

Thanks again. :)

Laura said...

Wow, what an amazing, powerful story! I was on the edge of my seat at the end, to see if the house and tree were still there. I can understand why you felt a connection with the house, it is very special indeed. Hopefully, the current and future owners will always remember that.

Judy said...

WOW, Lauren - I was riveted the whole time - this is a GREAT piece of memory!

That house is adorable...I can see why you were so drawn to it on so many levels.

wallace said...


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

We bought the home next to Cathy's in 1989. Back then she told us she wanted to sell her little home and move back east. When she did leave, she'd rent it out and start over the next year saying she wanted to sell it. Funny thing was, her price was always so much more than what we paid for our home. It is cute, but it only had a wood burning stove for heat on the main floor and space heaters upstairs. Some of the walls were tilting and the window were not great - AND - she didn't even have her own GHOST!!!

Kendra Lynn said...

I read it. I didn't know you could write like that, Lauren! I love it!
I felt like I was there....great writing.
Love you.