All my talk about Michigan centers on my dislike for the hockey team it has the misfortune to host, but the state actually played a formative (and positive) role in my life growing up. Besides being the birthplace of John Brannon, it's also my Mom's home state, and the destination of many childhood summer vacations.
My grandparents lived in a house on Clifford Lake, a little place north of Grand Rapids. It's a tiny place -- Yahoo! maps doesn't even locate it, and I think it may actually be considered part of nearby Greenville. But as a child I thought it was immense -- and was confused and a bit put off because it wasn't considered one with the surrounding Great Lakes.
It was a perfect place for a quiet, lonely kid with an overactive imagination. My grandparents' house was filled with all sorts of little oddities -- slot machines, a bar, old books and magazines. Out back there was a hill, leading down to a dock and pontoon raft. Just beyond the house next door, deep woods.
Memory is gracious, of course, but it really was a calming place. I remember the trips there as endless periods of books, the Detroit Tigers on tv, All-Star Squadron comics, swimming, baseball cards, and raft trips around the lake. Those excursions are the most memorable. We'd cut a slow, leisurely path around the lake -- which, again, seemed immense -- people-watching, stopping to swim, letting imaginations run wild over the nooks and crannies of the shore.
Everything seemed beautiful and nice, whether it was boiling hot or pouring rain. To this day, just a memory -- verbal or visual -- of the place sends me. Meijer's slushy drinks, the neighbor's collection of 1970s Justice League of America comics, the general store down the road that kept its Playboy magazines at a good level for a pubescent lad's eyes, my grandmother's willingness to purchase all the crap cereals my mother normally eschewed.
Our last trip out there was, I believe, in 1988; the next summer, we moved to Arizona, making the long road trips unbearable, and soon after my grandfather passed away. The house was sold, my grandmother moved, and Clifford Lake became a part of the past.
But one coda. A decade after my last trip, in the summer of 1998, my friends Kynan and Mary and I took a wide-ranging road trip from Colorado to Chicago and other points Midwest. While Mary was up on a separate Wisconsin excursion, and after Kynan had flown back early (due to commitments, certainly not because I'm a bad traveling partner. I think), I took a day to head up to Clifford Lake.
It had recently been battered by a storm, taking some of the sheen off, and it became clear to me on this trip that my love for the place, combined with youthful naivete, had glossed over some of the less-desirable aspects -- rather than the paradise I'd always imagined, many of the residents fell into the unemployed and frequently violently drunk demographic.
But after a night in a dingy motel well out of town, I went back to the site of my childhood joys and watched the sun rise over the lake, burning off the mist. That's the lasting image I'll take away from Clifford Lake -- a wonderful, peaceful sanctuary.