A week ago at this time, my family was on the shore of Lake Superior, celebrating my dad.
Dad loves the Upper Peninsula. He would always insist that you were not Up North until you crossed the Mackinac Bridge, getting excited as we drove across. And within the U.P., his favorite place of all is the northernmost county, Keweenaw (pronounced “KEY-wuh-naw”), where his dad was born on the family farm, while his mom was born just over the county line, in Houghton County. Full of ghost towns from the days of the copper mining boom, it remains the only place in the US where a plurality of the residents have Finnish ancestry. Dad took my mom to the Keweenaw for their honeymoon; Mom loves to tell how they sat in the Copper Harbor city dump and watched the bears come to scavenge. (We stumbled across the old landfill on this trip; the lady at the Copper Harbor information center said they shut it down and buried it so the bears would disperse. A sign now prohibits people from entering and giving marshmallows to bears.)
One of Dad’s favorite places is Great Sand Bay. On the map above, it’s the long and gentle indentation on the northern shore, between Eagle River and Eagle Harbor. Great Sand Bay is the site of many family memories, like the time in 1994 when our Toyota Previa minivan, parked along the side of the road while we went swimming, wouldn’t start and a friendly stranger jumped it for us. This time, I compelled Max to take a dip, relaying my dad’s advice: you just have to hang in there until your capillaries shut down and then the water feels nice! It’s fun! Max described this as “demented” even as he slowly progressed further and further into the waves, which he later described as a “sea of methane.”
But it makes a powerful impression to see one’s daddy barrelling gleefully into Lake Superior, demonstrating to his children early in their lives that this is what Fun looks like, just as his parents did for him. I’ve gotta admit that, even as I’m poking fun at our family by sharing Max’s reaction, I don’t fully grasp why someone wouldn’t want to tough out the initial cold water to swim at Great Sand Bay. (And Max did finally admit that he had gotten acclimated to the water. See? Dad was right!)
We decided to scatter some of Dad’s ashes in Great Sand Bay.
Let’s just speak frankly about this. This substance you’ve heard romantically referred to as “ashes” includes fragments of bone. This is horrifying if your mind smashes against it in the wrong way, perhaps while watching jagged little pieces of your loved one’s skeleton sink through the waves to rest on the rippled sand below.
But it was such a Dad place. I guess that helped cushion the mental blow. A little.
Mom scattered yellow roses into the water, too. Then we all did yoga on the beach, because Dad did this regularly whenever we found ourselves on the shore of one of the Great Lakes. I got a little choked up at this point, but I didn’t burst into sobs like I have at other times—or like my mom and sister did. That felt odd. It was the right time to be crying, after all. Well, maybe I was just numb.
The next night, we went up Brockway Mountain, which is between Eagle Harbor and Copper Harbor, Michigan’s northernmost town. This was another favorite place of Dad’s, and we’d been up there many times before to see the stars. (Check out Dark Site Finder to see just how great the astronomical view is in the Keweenaw. Dad was also an expert at spotting meteors.)
We scattered more of Dad’s ashes up there. The evening had been still, but as my sister did the honor of scattering, the wind picked up abruptly, whipping and swirling fragments of Keith Mannisto off the top of Brockway toward Lake Superior.
Ben and Max, the significant others who were also pallbearers for our daddy and have never to my knowledge been described as overly sentimental or prone to mystic spirituality, both remarked how surreal it was that the wind picked up the way it did. And once again, to my surprise, I did not cry. On the contrary: I felt like I was spending time with my dad, and if everyone could just hang in there for a moment, I’d like to continue using the star map book that my mom gave me for my birthday (which also happened to be that day), because I felt like Dad was there participating, as always.
The following day, we drove into Copper Harbor for some non-grief-related Fun Northern Wilderness Activities. Mom switched on John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and everyone started cheerfully, boisterously started singing along, altering the lyrics to suit our needs: Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong. Keweenaw, Lake Superior! Take me home, country roads.
And I lost it. An emotional one-eighty in five seconds flat. Unlike on the lakeshore, unlike on the mountaintop, I was sobbing in the backseat of the car because the main person I know who would sing those lines is my daddy, and he wasn’t there getting to participate.
Everyone who is bereaved needs to find the right time to cry or otherwise express emotion. For some, a memorial might provide the structured safe space to do it. For me, the memorials felt good—as much as anything can in this context—because we were talking about Dad. Dad wasn’t absent. Dad was included.
It feels awkward to cry at other times, like you’re bringing up sadness outside of the carefully prescribed lines. But this is when I most feel like doing so.
We drove home to Detroit on Tuesday, the last day of August. A more muted sadness hit me a few hours into the trip as we left Munising behind us: this small town on the northern shore of the U.P. was where our route departed from Lake Superior. What follows Munising is the infamous Seney Stretch, a long stretch of straight road through a boggy wildlife refuge where no lakes are visible and about which Dad always complained. Then, after about an hour, you reemerge on the shore of Lake Michigan, reunited with the water. We would usually pull over somewhere on the sandy shores along Route 2 to take another dip; when we were done, Dad would attach his swimsuit to the outer rear-view mirror and let it flap along outside the car to dry.
The previous August, my family had been in St. Joseph, on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan, where my sister and Ben live. Mom and Dad and I were getting ready to drive back to the other side of the state, and Mom, long forced to be the responsible one, was looking at her watch. But Dad and I protested:
“Please can we go see the lake one more time?”
So Mom said okay.
I said to my dad then that I thought the Great Lakes always seemed inspiring, in a way that, sitting here poking at the keyboard in September 2016, I have trouble putting into words. They are majestic. They are awesome in the non-slang sense. There is a spirituality to them. Regardless of my sudden lack of facility with English here in this blog, Dad immediately got what I meant. And he beamed. I think he was happy that his kid shared his sense of awe on the shore of these very special inland seas.
I want to ask him more about this.
As Max and Mom and I drove along the northern shore of that same lake a year later, that sense of profoundness rose up in me as I watched the sun sparkling on the waves. A second wave of sadness hit as we crossed the Bridge back into the Lower Peninsula, now leaving the point where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron merge behind. Hours later, as we passed through the outskirts of Saginaw on I-75, I noted to Mom and Max that we were only about five miles from Saginaw Bay, in case anyone else wanted to get off the freeway for a moment to see a little bit more lake.
But it was time to go home.
The aurora over the Keweenaw, in an album by Eric Hackney, a couple days after we left.