Pieces of Me in Michigan
Nonfiction by Hannah Gordon
Perhaps the strongest memory I have from childhood is losing a Pikachu toy in a woodpile while staying at a cabin in Lake City. I remember it all so clearly. It was early afternoon, the sun blazing overhead, pine trees casting leafy shadows on the dirt drive. I’m not even sure where I got the toy — was it a prize from McDonald’s, shoved in a greasy Happy Meal bag? A dollar-store bribe from my parents, purchased on a day full of errands? Or was it a party favor from a friend’s birthday? It’s strange, really — since I was never into Pokémon — how attached I got, how truly devastated I was when I lost it.
I inexplicably think about it from time to time. I think about that devastation: of reaching for the toy, my fingers just a breath away, and leaving it behind, so sure it’d be waiting for me when we returned that winter.
Sometimes I wonder if this is a real memory, or a fabricated one. Maybe I dreamt it. Maybe there was never a woodpile in the front yard of that cabin. Regardless, I’ve lost so many things in Michigan. I like to think that they’re all still out there somewhere, bits of me littered across the state, waiting for me to return to them.
I recently moved to Chicago. Recently, as in, yesterday. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this. Though I’m still in the bubble of the Midwest, it’s my first time living outside of Michigan. I grew up in Adrian, went to college in Ann Arbor, and started my post-college life in Detroit. Each of these cities is vastly different from the other, yet it’s all in the place I think of as home.
The city of Chicago is bustling, unfamiliar. My apartment is close to Lake Michigan — just a quick bike ride away — and this is a comfort to me, a little slice of home even hours away.
I used to say I hated Michigan. Back when I was a teenager, back when I hated everything, I’d complain about it any chance I got. Say I couldn’t wait to get out. Say it was a shit hole. Say there was nothing worthwhile here. I wanted to go to New York, or California, or Europe. I wanted to be a writer somewhere else, somewhere better.
The older I got (meaning, once I aged out of my moody, teenaged years), I saw how wrong I was. I saw just how much Michigan had shaped me. How the cruel, unrelenting winters had given me a thick skin; how the unpredictability of the weather had made me resilient; how the woods that surrounded my house, so green and lush in the spring, so bone-bare in the winter, had acted as a sort of balm.
There is so much of Michigan in me — so much I don’t want to lose, no matter where I live. And there’s so much of me in Michigan: pieces lost, forgotten, or left behind.
In the woods surrounding my home, there are countless toys: deflated basketballs and volleyballs shrouded by high grasses, toy shovels and gardening gloves buried in the soil, and, somewhere, a favorite stuffed animal that I cried and cried over losing. Maybe some of these items have been picked up by neighbors, tossed into garbage bins and set out to be collected; maybe some have been buried by years of snow and ice. Maybe some are still there, waiting to be found.
In one particular sliver of woods, between my parents’ house and the neighbor’s, there are three, thin trees that form a circle, surrounding soft, sandy soil. We used to sit there — the neighbor kids and me. We called it the Ring of Fire. It wasn’t a magical tree house by any means, but it’s where we’d meet whenever we went outside to play. We made seats for ourselves out of logs. I remember burying countless notes in the sand there, little strips of paper purposefully left behind in the hopes that future neighbor kids would find them. I wish I could remember what I felt was so important to bury. Maybe it was something like, Don’t tell the adults about this place, or, We call this the Ring of Fire, or, Scary Jerry from next door will try to run you over with his truck. Ding, dong, ditch him every chance you get.
There are, undoubtedly, countless hair ties and hairpins all over the place, discarded without a care, rattling when sucked up into the vacuum, or long rusty from years of abandonment.
Lost homework assignments, half-empty notebooks, and almost every pen and pencil my mother ever got me during back-to-school shopping trips. By November every year I’d be borrowing pens from classmates, with the promise of returning them broken every time.
In the thick woods surrounding that cabin where I lost my Pikachu toy is one flip-flop, tossed out the front window of my dad’s F-150, because I’d stepped in dog shit, and we had a four-hour drive south looming ahead of us. Too late to scrape it off or grab a different pair from our bags in the truck bed, he snatched it off my foot and threw it out the window. I spent the rest of the ride half barefoot, the car’s AC making my toes go numb.
I lost my virginity in an old, dirty, Ann Arbor college house in the dead of winter. I remember walking home at 4 a.m., the streets quiet and frost-covered, feeling different. Feeling exactly the same. Feeling nothing except the bitter, Michigan cold.
I know that I will be fine here, in Chicago. I know that I will come to think of it as home, just as Adrian is home, Ann Arbor is home, and Detroit is home. I know that, should I move again, I will miss this place, and I will leave pieces of me here, too.
I think I do this too often — romanticize the idea of a place — and this is definitely the writer side of me. But what are we without place? What is a story without a setting? What is a character without a home, a background? Unmoored, ungrounded, unfinished.
If we can form a place, then a place can form us, and a place can form within us, a sort of foundation, I suppose. Something to fall back on. Something to retreat to.
When I was younger, I was so eager to leave Michigan, despite leaving pieces of myself all over the place. Now, I’ve finally left, but I have a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back home.