The Long Way Home

I drove the 260-mile trip home to Michigan countless times over 20 years. In the early nineties, just a few months after I moved to Chicago, I brought a nervous new boyfriend home to meet my family. Two years later, we ventured back as an engaged couple, clinking blue-stemmed champagne flutes with my father and stepmother. In another several years, we took our infant son there for Thanksgiving, two overwhelmed first-time parents, cringing as our baby wailed for what seemed like the entire four-and-a-half-hour car ride.

Sometimes, pre-kids, I made the trip home alone and stayed with friends. Post-kids, we went as a family and stayed with my aunt, who had been a mother to me when I was young, or with my dad. We planned our visits around holidays, so they were equal parts stressful and joy-filled. I wanted my husband to help me wrangle our two children, but even more than that I needed the cushion of his emotional support.

I needed it more than ever as we made our latest trek to Michigan, to my cousin’s house in Brighton. Our previous trip there had been to visit my bed-ridden aunt, whose frail, 92-year-old body was unable to bounce back after a bitter bout with pneumonia. She died shortly afterward.

Now, eight months later, we were on our way to her memorial.

On that early Saturday morning in our atypically quiet car, my husband focused on the road, the kids on their iPod games, and me on the prospect of keeping it together in front of my relatives and their friends. This wasn’t a funeral; it was a celebration. It was no place for tears, mine or anyone else’s.

As we passed the exit signs on our journey east on I-94, landmarks we usually pointed out went unnoticed. Not even the Climax, Michigan, sign, which normally elicited a dirty-minded snicker from my husband or me, seemed to register. When we finally reached Brighton, we missed my cousin’s street. I noticed my marker for it — a strangely constructed, half-underground house — but forgot to tell my husband to make the turn. Nothing felt familiar. Everything had changed.

It’s sad and strange to go home when the people you loved the most are no longer there.

I reminded myself that everyone at the memorial had lost my aunt, not just me. When we arrived at my cousin’s house, I forced a smile on my face, hid my sad eyes behind Ray-Bans and headed into the party. My aunt had taught me as a little girl to always say hello to everyone who visited us. So there, at what used to be her home, that’s what I did.

After an hour or so of small talk with relatives and friends, a few of my cousins and I gathered in my aunt’s living room to watch some old videotapes of family parties. My aunt, the matriarch, had dominated our family get-togethers. I felt her presence as we watched the videos, even when she wasn’t on the TV screen.

My beautiful aunt, our family’s matriarch

When dinnertime came, we all felt her presence — in the menu. We dined on the foods she had served at family gatherings: beef brisket, ham, potato salad, cole slaw, cucumber salad and butter tarts. We shared a toast after the meal, each of us raising a shot glass of watered-down scotch with an ice cube in her honor. My aunt had loved her scotch and water — every day at four o’clock and even in her nineties.

The guests departed gradually after the toast, but my husband, children and I stayed well into the evening. We sat in my aunt’s living room with her children, my older cousins, trading stories and catching up on one another’s lives. Their company was familiar, soothing. I didn’t want to go because leaving would mark a conclusion. How could I place a period at the end of the last sentence of such an important chapter of my life?

We did leave eventually, as parents of tired children must. We said our goodbyes and drove up the gravel driveway. That’s the point where I would normally burst into tears after visiting my aunt, sobbing and shaking until at least the end of my cousin’s street. I hated leaving her. I hated being left.

This time I hadn’t cried, which I didn’t realize until we reached our hotel. The memorial had been a good thing, I told my husband. It gave us all closure.

When I woke the next morning, I felt an overwhelming desire to run, fast and far away. I had my closure, and I needed to leave Michigan, my ghost town of memories, and return to my present.

I rose quickly, showered and packed before waking my husband. “I need to leave,” I told him. “Now.” He understood.

We made a quick stop for Coney Island hotdogs — a Detroit-area tradition — on our way out of town. At our table in the diner, I watched my children scarf down pancakes and bacon while my husband and I noshed on our Coneys. My tension ebbed.

The past was painful, but I didn’t have to run from it. I had punctuated the end of my Michigan sentence long ago.

We finished our food and began our 260-mile journey home to Illinois.


P.S. My cousin, the talented blogger behind The Three Under, shares her thoughts on the memorial party and growing up in Brighton here

63 thoughts on “The Long Way Home

  1. Oh wow, such a beautiful tribute to your aunt. I`m glad there was no tears, just memories of the gorgeous matriarch of your family (she is so pretty). Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Carrie! She and my uncle and my father and mother were like movie star couples. My cousins and I look back at their photos and can’t believe how glamorous they were.

  2. The way you describe your return journeys and how they changed through time was remarkable- I’m sure many of us can relate. You almost never know what you’re going to get on those trips “home”: sometimes they’re filled with joy and comfort, other times with anger, and others still with pain.

    I’m sorry for the loss of what sounds like a really special woman.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I didn’t touch on it here, but any tenseness in my visits home was almost always related to my strained relationship with my stepmother and father.

      Times with my aunt and uncle (when he was still with us) were golden. I cherish those memories.

  3. Such a beautiful woman she was, obviously both inside and out. So difficult to lose someone dear, especially the matriarch of the family. That kind of loss can never be replaced…just remembered. You have honored her well here.

  4. What a lovely tribute to some who obviously made such a lasting impression in your life. I do understand the pain associated with losing someone so near and dear to your heart. It’s nice to have such warm memories. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Perfectly said….I just hope you’ll be able to come back to the Mitten and have good memories in the future…really, it’s not so bad here! 🙂 Hugs.

    • Thanks, Kristie. I actually do have a lot of fond memories of Michigan. I guess, for me, it’s about leaving behind a state of mind rather than a place.

  6. This was a beautiful story and your aunt was very beautiful as well. The part where you describe the scotch really struck a note with me- beautifully described.

    • Thanks so much! I left out that I (not by choice) was the one who gave the toast when we did our scotch-and-water shots. Oh, how I stumbled through that one! My husband says it didn’t show, but I was terrified.

  7. What a lovely post. Beautifully written and relatable. This post did a great job of capturing the variety of emotions that come with grieving important, much loved figures from childhood. I especially liked how you captured the urge to “run away to the present.”

    I’m sorry for your loss.

    • Thanks! I truly did wake up feeling like running out the hotel room door. It was such a strange morning. I did learn a valuable lesson though: Coney dogs make everything better.

  8. “Nothing felt familiar. Everything had changed.” That is the way I feel visiting my elderly parents, especially my dad. Old age just happens. To everyone if they are lucky. But it doesn’t make it or the separation of death any easier. A lovely tribute and essay on the passage of time.

    • Thanks, Jamie. Of all my life’s regrets (alas, I have many), spending more time visiting with my aunt is one of the biggest. Once I had kids, they became my excuse to visit less often. Crazy. Stupid. I kick myself for it. I hope you are getting in as many visits as you can. You’ll never regret making time for them.

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    • Thanks for the hugs, dear friend. The memorial was perfect. I think it really did give us all some closure, and it was wonderful to reconnect with my cousins.

  10. Great post Kath!
    I know Mom ment the world to you as she did to all us. I loved sharing my teen years with you as we both grew up in the same loving home. You bring back so many wonderful memories in your post thank you. We will always carry some of the same memories. We will always be close I hope.
    Love you

    • Thanks, Marsh. The memorial was wonderful. You guys outdid yourselves. It was so nice to spend time with you all. As I said in the post, I didn’t want to leave.

      You were such a great “big sis” to me when I was little. I will never forget that.

      I hope we will stay close too. Mom would have loved that.

  11. I am so sorry for your loss.

    My grandmother died 18 months ago and I haven’t been to my hometown since her funeral. And my mom even lives there — she drives the 70 miles to see us. There’s some part of me that can barely stand the thought of going home and not seeing my grandmother.

    Beautiful piece…

    • Thank you and I am so sorry about your grandmother.

      I completely relate. My dad died six years ago and I rarely went home after that. Just the sight of the I-94 to Detroit sign would set me off. I couldn’t handle it.

      I regret not having gone back more to see my aunt after my dad died. Lesson learned: Don’t let your grief over those lost rob you of making memories with those who are still here.

  12. “I hated leaving her. I hated being left.” A very moving tribute to your aunt. Nicely conveyed. I also liked, “I reminded myself that everyone at the memorial had lost my aunt, not just me.” Such insight and self-awareness during this very difficult time. I identify most as “aunt.” If my niece or nephew writes anything close to this I will have led a good life. Really nice post.

  13. Thanks, Stephanie. I really appreciate it.

    Because I no longer live in Michigan, my grief feels isolated. I guess I had to remind myself that all those who were there loved her in their own way and just as much if not more than I did. She was an amazing woman. Really. They just don’t make ’em like that any more!

  14. This was a beautiful and touching piece. Seriously, honestly, truly. My condolences for the loss of someone so important to you. Thank you very much for sharing this.

  15. Oh, how sad. My heart aches just reading this. I hope you know that it’s okay to cry, even at the end of a celebration. Beautiful post.

  16. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story of love and good byes with us.
    Your words painted a lovely picture of your beautiful Aunt, and I could feel the sadness you described. It sounds like a very fitting memorial, and I hope that the closure has helped you!

  17. I have to tell you, this was one of the best posts I have read recently, I mean every single word was perfect and powerful and beautiful. You actually just made me cry, which I was not expecting at all. I am so sorry for your loss. But I am so grateful for having found your blog, and for being reminded of the family visits that I need to plan, that I keep putting off for whatever insignificant reasons. I need to go call my grandmother now. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  18. Wow! Thank you so much! Your comment just made my morning — and not just because of the praise (although, of course, I do appreciate that). 🙂

    More important, I’m glad my post inspired you to call your grandma. As I mentioned in a reply to a previous comment, not visiting home more has been one of my biggest regrets. Make those calls. Make those plans. You’ll never regret doing either, but you will regret it if you don’t.

    Glad to have the chance to connect with you.

  19. I loved the – I need to leave now. I have done that before and I think husbands are able to pick up on the urgency… and the picture of your aunt is beautiful!

  20. What a beautiful story about a beautiful woman (her picture and the story you tell of her). This line was so touching: “It’s sad and strange to go home when the people you loved the most are no longer there.” Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • Thanks, Melisa! I tweeted that line on the way to Michigan and this post evolved from it. So many emotions. It felt good to put them to paper and let them go.

  21. I’ve been back to my hometown a couple times since my mother passed away, including once when my grandmother passed and it’s no longer the same place it was while I was growing up. Similarly, I hit my hotspots and move on. It’s just not the same, though.

  22. Any woman with a scotch and water penchant has my respect. You did her proud, both in life and in telling her story. I am sorry for your loss.

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