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BROWN: Returning to Michigan's farm country for Aunt Marion's funeral

• May 22, 2018 at 3:00 PM

“Having once put his hand into the ground seeding there what he hopes will outlast him, a man has made a marriage with his place, and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.” — “The Current,” Wendell Berry

When I drive through Coopersville, it reminds me of the farming country where my grandma grew up, and this experience.

The sun is bright, even with my sunglasses on. We are driving, moving across the middle of Michigan, past signs announcing Portland, Okemos, Mason — a series of small towns just beyond the freeway.

This is farming country. It is also the center of agribusiness in Michigan. And strategically placed signs announce the presence of the Michigan State University School of Agriculture next to neat rows of corn, giving the landscape a sterile, artificial orderliness.

Red barns labeled with the faded white paint of family names line the roads.

I sit in the back with my grandma and watch farmhouses and fields pass — white house, red barn, gravel driveway and orange daylilies.

We are on our way to Dansville, Michigan, the town where my grandma grew up, to attend a memorial service for Aunt Marion. Aunt Marion was grandma’s sister-in-law, a deeply religious woman with a rough, gravely smoker’s voice and a hunched back. When I was little, I was afraid of her.

She was also hard of hearing and I had to repeat everything I said. She’d point to her left ear and say loudly, “Honey, speak up, I can’t hear very well out of this ear.”

Aunt Marion, a long-time widow, stood just over 5 feet tall and had soft, gray-blue eyes that sparkled when she talked. She took care of the family farm after her father died. She drove the tractor, cooked for the farm hands, worked at the church and helped her neighbors. Her gentle manner was balanced with an abrupt, quick-thinking, no-nonsense approach that comes from caring for others and hard work.

As the night supervisor of the nursing staff, her work extended beyond the hospital with house-calls to patients. Things in her life overlapped — the farm, family, church, neighbors. They were all intertwined.

Grandma tells me, “When Aunt Marion was a girl, they didn’t have a car, they just had a horse and buggy. Her father owned the livery and farmed ...” Her voice trails off and we sit quietly. When we pass the house where my grandma grew up, a simple white two-story farmhouse that’s too close to the road, I’m surprised. I had imagined a bigger house, with expansive views of open land and rolling fields.

In the 1940s, Marion was in car accident that almost killed her. The accident left her deaf in one ear and with a permanent neck injury — the doctors said she’d never have children. Marion’s son, Gene, was born a few years after the accident. Her nights working as a nurse put him through music school in Chicago, and Gene became a professional musician and a professor who lived in Victoria, British Columbia.

As we walk to the church, I ask grandma how often she visits Dansville. She says, “Only for funerals,” and keeps walking.

My grandma’s brother, mother, father and sister have been gone for many years. They are faces in photographs; black and white images connected with stories. I see my grandma as a 10-year-old, reaching up to cupboards while her mother, who had Parkinson’s disease, talks her through the process of making a cake step-by-step from a chair at the kitchen table. I see grandma and her brother Russ at the dinner table, laughing as Russ loads his knife with butter and flings it across the table at his little sister.

Russ died when I was small. I used to look at pictures of Russ in his World War II Army uniform — looking at his eyes, his farmer’s tan, his strong hands — trying to conjure memory.

An old farmer slowly steps up to the pulpit. This is what he tells us: “She said she wouldn’t let me die. ‘Not if I have anything to say about it.’ This is what she said.” She sat with him through the night and held his hand as the corn grew in the fields, as the temperature fell, and the sun rose. He said, “I am here today because of Marion.” He wipes his eyes, turns and slowly leaves the pulpit.

Judy, Marion’s daughter-in-law and Gene’s wife, cared for her at their home in Victoria as congestive heart disease gradually took its toll. She tells us how Marion wouldn’t sit to hull strawberries one summer night — she stood at the sink. This is what she knew — the sweet, red juice of strawberries on her hands, the familiar tug on the stem before it comes off.

After the memorial service, cookies, coffee and punch are waiting for us, neatly arranged in a meeting room with worn carpet and small vases of yarrow on the tables.

The afternoon sun pours through the church windows. Elderly women from the church replace paper cups, put out more cookies, quietly move around and between the friends and family of Marion Dowling, replenishing things as she had done for their families.

It’s an August night in 1940, the chores are done, and she is hulling strawberries for shortcake as the sun fades pink and red behind the fields.

— By Carrie Brown, Tribune community columnist

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