Exit 40A

I was sitting on the bed in the den of my great aunt and uncle’s house.

They lived in Grand Rapids, about three hours away from our home.   I knew the way exactly, because we drove the route so often.  I 96 west to exit 40A.   I would always sit in the back seat behind my mother, because my sister was the oldest, and therefore claimed the front seat by right.  My brother would be in the other back seat.

I couldn’t read in the car to pass the time; it made me nauseous.  I would ask my mother to crack the window at some point to let the cigarette smoke out, but often it wafted right back into my nose and lungs.  Sometimes I would remove the seat belt to make myself more comfortable.  But mostly I didn’t mind the trips.  We’d listen to what was then considered the “retro” station, which played 60s music.  Or, the Christmas carol station if it was that time of year.

We spent a lot of time in Grand Rapids.   I had three sets of great aunts and uncles there.

Aunt Katie and Uncle Dave lived in a rambling ranch on a busy-ish street.  He was the editor of the Grand Rapids Press.   He smoked a pipe and their family room always smelled of tobacco.   She baked everything under the sun.  We’d stay at their house sometimes, with our new sleeping bags rolled out on the living room floor.   He always told funny stories and jokes.  My mother and Uncle Dave would argue about politics; he would take an opposing side of hers just for sport. Their two children were grown and out of the house, living in far flung places like Minnesota and California.

Aunt Maurine and Uncle Dick lived in a small, three bedroom house near a pond on a dirt road.    He was gruff and bristly, the loud uncle that I never really felt entirely comfortable with.   She was kind and calm, and taught me how to play cards and crochet.  They never had any children.  They lived about a mile or two from my other aunt and uncle.  When we stayed there, the kids would be in the back bedroom with the double bed, while my mom would take the fold out couch in their office.

Aunt Sophie and Uncle “Bud” lived in the smallest house, a tiny Cape Cod with a walk up attic and scary cellar that dated back fifty years or more.  They had a large, quiet back yard filled with wild life.  My uncle would put out birdseed and suet to attract cardinals, blue jays, and other colorful birds.  Their second bedroom had been converted to a den with a day bed and comfortable chair and a TV.  They too had no children, so finding things to do at their house meant playing things like an antique typewriter or having my aunt play with my hair.  They too lived in close proximity to the other two aunts and uncles.

My grandmother had lived here too when she was alive.  I couldn’t remember anything about her except her funeral and her gravelly voice, made that way by genetics and years of smoking. She died just before my fourth birthday, and I heard stories all of the time about how fun Gretchen was, how she played golf with my uncles, how she moved out there to be with all of the rest of them after her husband died, how strong and sure she was.

Sitting there on the bed in my uncle’s house,  I was watching “Bewitched” on their little black and white TV.  I thought it was all real, of course, and I was trying to twitch my nose.  I was sure that if I tried hard enough, I could tap into something special inside me that lingered just under the surface, something that set me apart from everyone else, something that would make me unique.   My aunt was sitting next to me in her chair, and the silence was comfortable and easy.  I didn’t know it at the time, but her simple understanding of my thoughts and dreams was partially because she was slowly succumbing to early onset Alzheimer’s disease.   She listened to my ramblings, asking me about them, indulging me in my fantasy of the impossible.

My aunt and uncle would turn off the TV and tuck me in (my siblings and my mother would be scattered at the other aunts and uncles’ homes).  I felt safe and warm and protected.  In their cozy den just off of Exit 40A, I knew that no matter what happened back home, I could always come back here and find relief from all of the chaos that might be going on back home.  It was welcome respite for all of us, to be listened to and cared for.


One Response

  1. […] hours away in Grand Rapids, MI so often that the exit number was forever burned in my brain:  Exit 40A on I 96.  In fact, sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, I mentally walk myself through their rambling […]

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