Just Downriver from Detroit

2019-05-13T11:23:02+00:00April 19th, 2019|

By Nancy Nelson

My eighty-five-year-old father is in surprisingly good physical health for someone with a list of diagnoses that runs to dozens, his once six-foot-five frame stooping over a walker as we take our walk through the nursing home’s long halls. A hip replacement still causes pain and a slight limp; his breathing is labored from emphysema. So much for quitting smoking back in ’68 (no lung cancer, at least).

His brain has discombobulated, however. Dementia began more than a decade ago, seeping into his thoughts, stealing small and now huge chunks of his life. My two teenage sons flew from his memory years ago. But me—I date back to the Eisenhower era—I’m still part of his mental landscape.

“Where do I live?” Dad wonders on one of my visits. “Do I live here, now?” He looks around MediLodge’s Memory Unit blankly. “I don’t live here, do I? I want to go home.”

Good question, I think. Where do you suppose home is, Dad?

But that’s not what I say. Instead, I say, “You live here now, Dad. Right here, in a building filled with nice people. The nurses take good care of you.” Even with hearing aids, he can’t pick up my words, so I say things repeatedly, louder and louder. I keep my sentences short, hoping he can understand.

“I want to go home,” he says again, as though I didn’t get the message. His eyes plead: Take me there, Nancy. But I can’t. I know what he has in mind, but it isn’t there anymore. The place I ran away from when I graduated high school, aching to escape, is everything my father remembers as home—the people and buildings fading to black, but the sense of belonging ineradicable unforgettable.

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A freighter on the Detroit River. Photo courtesy Nancy Nelson.

My father and I come from Downriver—a stretch of suburbs crowding the Detroit River from Detroit to Lake Erie’s shores. Jefferson Avenue parallels the river all twenty miles. To the west, downtown shopping districts dot River Rouge, Ecorse, Wyandotte, and Trenton, old storefronts, groceries, banks, and churches attracting pedestrians. In Wyandotte, Jefferson is called Biddle Avenue, after a nineteenth-century delegate to the U.S. Senate who settled there.

In the sixties, Dad worked at two banks on Biddle and could name each store owner up and down the strip. Every September, we bought my Stride Rite shoes at a local shop, where the salesman knew me by name. “When’s your birthday?” he’d asked when I was five and got my first pair of school oxfords—an important question when you’re that age. And every August 8, a birthday card came through the mail slot for me.

 

During my visits to to the nursing home, we’ve sometimes settled into chairs to time-travel through a photo album, as though I’m a tour bus driver, escorting him from one place of interest to the next. This coach stops only at the places he loves best, a custom route if ever there was one. We’ll open the photo album to a picture showing the two-story frame house Dad grew up in, a soft green not discernible in the black-and-white image. And so the tour begins.

The author’s grandmother, Mabel, by the porch of the house on Walnut Street. Photo courtesy Nancy Nelson.

First stop: 509 Walnut Street in Wyandotte. “There’s your house on Walnut, Dad, and your mother’s right there on the porch.” Mabel smiles in outdoor sunshine, her eyes crinkling in the brightness. Tall for a woman of that time, Grandma came from sturdy Swedish Lutheran stock in northern Wisconsin. Hard-working and mild-mannered, she lived in a world that revolved around “kirche, kűche, and kinder,” as the Germans say. She would know the words in Swedish: kyrka, kők, and barn.

I grew up riding my bike back and forth to my grandparents’ house, just a few blocks away. Together Grandma and I baked cookies and pulled weeds in the garden as she told stories about the days when her own children were young. She missed her daughter, Karen, who’d died of leukemia at age eleven, a loss she spoke of rarely. Grandma enjoyed having a granddaughter who looked just a bit like Karen, taking care to keep track of my life’s many details. Piano practice, nightly prayers, and the wearing of undershirts ranked high on her list. “Grandma loved to talk about you and your brothers and sister when you were small,” I tell Dad, as we inspect other pictures on the page. “‘Pete was foxy,’ she’d say. She meant you were good at sneaking cookies behind her back.”

I don’t ask if he Dad remembers anymore, because he doesn’t. “Mabel could sure cook, couldn’t she?” I say. “When she fixed a leg of lamb for Sunday dinner, you could breathe it right in the minute you opened the front door.” He quickens at the thought of roast lamb, eating still one of his specialties.

Our tour continues as I turn the page and find my grandfather, Gus, who worked at Pennsalt for three decades. “There’s your dad at his retirement dinner,” I say, pointing to a photo of Gus at a banquet table, next to Mabel. He looks snazzy in a suit and tie—chosen by Grandma, because he was color blind.

Second stop: Pennsalt Chemical Company, on Wyandotte’s southern-most section of the river. Pennsalt joined Great Lakes Steel, Wyandotte Chemical Corporation, Firestone Steel, McLouth Steel, Monsanto, Chrysler Engine, Ford Stamping, and three coal-fueled power plants on the Downriver suburbs’ stretch along the Detroit River. The factories dominated our lives—jobs, houses, politics, public works, recreation, education, and of course, the very air we breathed.

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The author’s grandparents at her grandfather Gus’s retirement banquet. Photo courtesy Nancy Nelson.

After teaching himself chemical engineering from mail-order textbooks, my grandfather worked his way up to supervisor of plant operations there. Built on natural salt deposits, Pennsalt split sodium and chloride to produce industrial chemicals, along with stinky, sulfurous, airborne by-products. As kids, we plugged our noses when we passed the plant at Pennsylvania and Jefferson, giggling at the rotten-egg stench.

Dad nods as I say all this. “Is my father still alive?” he whispers. “He gave me such good advice.” And he did, the two of them rocking side-by-side in recliners after our Sunday dinners, Grandpa talking on about his days running the plant. Gus, like his wife, came from somber, industrious, Swedish Lutheran immigrants. A deep sense of moral integrity flavored advice from a man who read his bible every day.

My grandfather died when I reached fourteen. My brother spent his days learning to fish and hunt with his grandfather and namesake, whose stories and thoughtful observations on life filled the long hours waiting for fish to bite. In my family, girls had no part in these pastimes, leaving me to wonder what I might have missed. I could have learned to fish and listened to my grandfather’s stories about his early days in northern Michigan. Maybe his moral guidance would have been every bit as good for girls as it was for boys.

On the same album page, a photo of a wedding at Wyandotte’s St. John Evangelical and Reformed Church shows Dad’s brother Milt and sister-in-law Bev beaming at the altar.

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Milt and Bev’s wedding at St. John’s. Photo courtesy Nancy Nelson.

Third stop: St. John’s, a parish church re-built in 1929, at 4th Street and Chestnut, less than a mile from the river. The neighborhood of brick and frame houses was home to employees who worked in the area’s factories. The closer you got to Wyandotte Chem, or Pennsalt, the more run-down the houses looked. Thousands of baby-boomer kids, dressed in hand-me-down pedal pushers and striped T-shirts, spewed from the over-stuffed houses to play games on scraggly patches of grass. Bars with names like Cozy Corner dotted residential streets, along with auto repair shops and mom and pop grocery stores. I was jealous of the fun big families like my aunt and uncle’s (with ten children) had. Still, I noticed they didn’t take piano lessons like I did, with just one brother competing for the family funds.

I search Dad’s face for recognition as he scans the sanctuary of his boyhood church. “Look, Dad, there’s that beautiful painting—on the back wall—that I loved to look at when I was little.” Jesus stands at a threshold: Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you. “Jesus looks so friendly in that painting.” Dad smiles again, a hint he remembers St. John’s, at least a little bit. In his younger days, he would have gone on and on (and on—Dad loved to talk) about Reverend Simon and parishioners young and old, people I’d mostly never heard of. No matter—he knew them.

A high-school photo of Mom, sitting on Theodore Roosevelt High School’s front steps, brightens Dad’s face. “There’s your wife, Jean,” I tell him, sure her face will jog his memory. “You met each other in high school and went together a long time.” Again, it’s my turn to provide the narrative because Dad cannot. I’ve heard it so often I know all the details by heart. “You and Mom loved to play tennis together at Bishop Park.”

Fourth stop: Bishop Park, a pretty green space on the banks of the river, is flanked on three sides by residences, downtown shops, and a power plant to the north. I’d played tennis there, too, next to enormous pyramids of black coal waiting to stoke the power plant’s furnaces. A fine film of particulate hung in the air, coating every horizontal surface. Our balls raised puffs of coal dust when they landed. “Look at the balls—they’re totally black!” I remember saying. Mom thought nothing of it.

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The author’s mother sitting in front of Roosevelt High School. Photo courtesy Nancy Nelson.

“You and Mom got drinks from the root beer stand when you finished,” I tell Dad. “You always said you appreciated that Mom was a cheap date.” While they sipped through straws, they sat on a bench to watch freighters and barges motor by in the deep-cut channel. It’s still possible to do that. I like to wave to the crew members on deck, close enough to see, yet far away in their foreign vessels. I like it even more when they wave back—proof that both of us are real.

Two pages show pictures from both sides of the family: Mom’s parents; Aunt Kitty and Uncle Larry and their ten children; Great Aunt Signe; Dad’s parents. They stand, laugh, ride bicycles, stick out their tongues, swim. Ladies lounge at a picnic table, squinting into the sun or looking like movie stars in their sparkly, rhinestone sunglasses.

Fifth stop: A backyard picnic at 458 Poplar, my grandparents’ house. “The McDonalds,” I point out to Dad. “Can you imagine trying to raise ten kids?” Dad, the banker, and Larry, his CPA brother-in-law (and fellow pillar of Downriver’s business community), were fast friends and golf partners. Their male banter consisted of endless jokes. “Joshing around,” they called it—about people they knew and ethnic groups other than their own. As a child I did not get that this language might be hurtful or offensive. Downriver humor, I understood at the time, sometimes required thick skin. Especially if you were at the pointy end of the joke.

“Is Larry still alive?” Dad asks—maybe thinking they can get up a golf foursome.

“Oh, no,” I say. “He passed away in the eighties.”

Sometimes I have difficulty focusing on the photo album, as my own mind wanders into the past. Those picnics, I think. There were so many. Bishop Park, Elizabeth Park, Kensington Park, backyard barbecues. My grandfather took pictures of us sitting at wooden tables covered in checked cloths, ketchup bottles, and mustard jars, waiting for the hot dogs to come off the grill. All of this in color, too. Grandpa bought color film the minute it hit the market, proud to be first in line. Everyone looked so…alive.

 

In March 2012, I said goodbye to cousin Bob McDonald when he died at age sixty-two. The priest who conducted Bob’s funeral mass seemed to emphasize we’d see him again in the next world. I didn’t know if Father Charles always did this or made a special point to do so when the person died before his time—perhaps because he knew of our family’s tendency, in the past few decades, anyway, to expire early left and right. I like to think it was the last—after all, he did mention that “Robert” (Bob) would join “James” (his brother, Jim), “Catherine” (Kitty, his mother) and “Lawrence” (his dad, Larry). Despite Father Charles’ Catholic insistence on using their given names, he understood the family history well enough to know what we needed to hear.

As I sat and listened, I expanded on his vision of a reunion—it sounded like my Dad’s idea of heaven. And maybe mine, too, if there is one. In my earlier life, picnics were just sunshine-filled outings I enjoyed, but took for granted. Then, in the ’70s and ’80s, two aunts, two uncles, and my mother died relatively young of various cancers. My grandparents died, too, as expected at their advanced ages. My dreams—the good ones, anyway—became slideshows filled with sunlight, picnic tables, and familiar faces laughing and smiling. I dreamt about my version of heaven, or whatever a not-very-religious person could tolerate in the way of paradise. Although I heard no voice, the message clearly said, “Oh, yes, you’ll see everyone again—they’re all up here at their picnic in the sky. You’ll join them when the time comes.”

At Bob’s funeral, the priest seemed to suggest that’s where he went, that old devil (Bob, I mean). Well, I hope so, and I’ll bet when he got there everyone was glad to see him.

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Wyandotte, Michigan’s municipal power plant with coal pile. Photo courtesy Nancy Nelson.

Pennsalt has departed, too, along with Wyandotte Chem’s south plant. On a weekend visit in the nineties, Dad asked if I’d like to see Wyandotte’s new waterfront park. Thanks to EPA funding, the factories’ remains had disappeared—torn down, scooped up, and carried away by remediation trucks. A cool green expanse, with walking paths, a boathouse, and view of a wooded island, took its place. So tranquil, I thought. And it doesn’t smell like anything but river water.

What would my grandfather have thought? A waste of valuable commercial property and jobs? An extravagance? Or would he have marveled at the transformation, as I did? It seemed impossible that this pretty retreat had replaced the smoke-belching hulks I’d driven past again and again. And yet it felt right that, at last, this little part of Downriver was at peace.

 

Dad and I can’t go on those tours anymore. He’s too far gone now. He just sits, quiet. The stop he wants to go to most I can’t take him to—not yet. The house on Walnut in 1939 or so, or a Fourth of July picnic in our own backyard, thirty years later. But those places and people have vanished. I have the feeling he’s looking ahead to doing just that himself, waiting for that one-way ticket to join Bob and the others.

I wouldn’t mind going there myself, now that I think of it. But I would need a return ticket. ■

 

 

Nancy Nelson has published several personal essays in Michigan newspapers and other publications, as well as a collection of essays titled Downriver from Detroit. A former occupational epidemiologist, she now lives and works as a freelance editor in Ann Arbor.

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