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PENNING: Local man’s memory is stronger than the new pier

• Sep 13, 2018 at 2:00 PM

I watched the reconstruction of the pier at Grand Haven with as much interest as everyone else in our lakeside community. It was long overdue and a long process. I enjoyed watching the gradual progress and the unique feat of engineering and delicate construction in a narrow space on the water.

But I watched with unique interest, also. There’s a story about the pier not known to many. I thought of this story every single time I looked at the pier construction in progress, and it made me ponder.

Many years ago, back in the 1980s, a boy was on the pier when there was a smaller work project underway. Workers were patching parts of the pier surface with cement. The boy was near one of these patches and, as little boys do, he wrote his initials and the date in the wet concrete. He did not tell his parents.

His dad, Jack, did find out. When he did, he was not angry at his son. Instead, he felt a surge of love and memory — because Jack found out about his son fingering his initials in the wet pier cement years later, just before the recent pier resurfacing project, more than a decade after his son had died of cancer.

It is interesting to think about how we react differently to the same thing depending on the time and circumstance. Had Jack known about his son’s childish act when it happened, he may have been indifferent or annoyed. But to find out when he did, it was a reaction of loving nostalgia.

Years ago, Jack and his wife would take the kids from their home in Grand Rapids to have some summer fun in Grand Haven. As many of us know from our own enjoyment of the area, their kids once of a certain age would run free along the beach and on the pier. Finding the initials and the date no doubt brought about bittersweet feelings. It served as a reminder that his son, himself also a father when he died, is no longer with them. But it also had to bring back memories, gushing in like the waves that often wash against and over the structure.

So, Jack wanted more. He wanted this craggy piece of concrete for his condo in Grand Haven. It was just an ugly hunk of cement, but it had his son’s initials and a date, a piece from the past and something of permanence in the present, an act of his son preserved.

Jack took a photo of the piece of cement and noted its location, and then he went to the offices of the Army Corps of Engineers and sheepishly made his request. Could they save this piece of the pier for him? He was told they would.

Then the project was delayed. When he read in the Tribune that the project would start again soon, he went back to the corps. The man in charge remembered his request, he said, and even showed him the photo on the bulletin board.

But then, during demolition, the piece unexpectedly fell into the lake. It may have crumbled first, or it may have fallen in whole. Jack doesn’t know for sure. I asked him recently about it and he shrugged and said he had given up on getting that hunk of cement.

But all is not lost. Jack remembers. The piece of cement would have been a nice artifact. But Jack recalls his son. Even as he now cares for his wife as she struggles with a disease that affects memory, Jack remembers the boy who traced his finger in cement, and he knows the boy who became a man who left a permanent mark in the heart.

In our home, together in a frame next to the door to our deck, there are three aerial photos of our house and the adjacent Grand River that were taken years ago by Jack’s son, an avid photographer, from a plane flown by my brother-in-law. I often look at it when I go outside and think that is his view of us now. And when we visited Jack recently, there were grandchildren in the driveway, grilling burgers and laughing. There was something there stronger than the pier.

I thought of this and smiled recently, when I walked on the fresh and solid concrete of the new pier. I admired its smoothness and strength. But I did not smile in appreciation of a construction job. I smiled, oddly, at the realization that even this pier, solid as it looks, will one day crack and crumble, too. I smiled to realize that love endures through heat and frost, calm and storm.

It’s funny that we use the word “concrete” to denote something permanent, and “abstract” is derided as something nebulous that dissipates like the wind. That is not always the case. Sometimes love is carved in stone. More often it is seared in something stronger.

A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.

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