Though I lived in Michigan for 21 years, I’m not sure it has ever looked as spectacular as it did this month, when I spent six days with my family, celebrating my niece’s birthday. Together, with lots of friends, we drank hot mulled cider and ate birthday spice cake with cream cheese frosting and melty scoops of ice cream. The birthday girl wore a snazzy pink-and-purple dress and a party hat while she opened presents When I wasn’t eating or drinking or playing with the birthday girl, I was marveling at the wonder of autumn in Michigan, taking photos and asking myself how many years I would spend away from the Mitten State before I’d get to live in that kind of seasonal beauty again.
In the deep recesses of my mind, I’ve been trying to figure out what compelled me to move so far away from home, home being Michigan and my family. The answer, I have come to believe, is that I had to move away so I could appreciate what I had. That’s not to say I had no appreciation for the Midwest and its people; I’ve been cultivating a grateful heart for years. But from where I sit now, that appreciation feels small. These days, my heart feels full to bursting with love.
As I get older, I feel more of a pull toward my biological family. My niece Lydia was born four years ago this month, and she’s like a magnet to me, drawing me back to the clan, reminding me of our shared roots. I’ve been able to celebrate three of her four birthdays with her in person, surrounded by our big, feisty, loving family. Last week, I made the long journey out of Texas and up to Michigan, where I was greeted by the most stunning fall weather, the kind that made me want to weep with gratitude with its cool breezes and sun-dappled days. Never have I missed autumn as much as I do right now, living in the land of forever summer, where the sun is always shining and the temperature seems to bottom out at 90 degrees F. I thought I loved Texas, and I do, but we needed some time apart.
Michigan and my lovely family welcomed me with hugs and fresh apples, hearty nacho dinners and cups of morning coffee. I spent an entire day with my niece, and she proceeded to run the show, moving us from one activity to another without skipping a beat. We played Chutes and Ladders and built a playground for marbles. With her daddy, we inspected the garden, eating yellow cherry tomatoes straight off the vine and picking squash to bring into the house. And we went for a walk around the neighborhood together, where we petted her favorite doggie and I took pictures of our feet among the leaves.
I wore pants for the first time in three months and shivered in the deliciously cool air. I ate apples that tasted like candy and looked at trees, tall and regal. Party guests called me by my sister’s name, like they always do because we look so much alike, and I just smiled, knowing they’d figure it out later and come back to tell me, laughing at themselves.
What I tried to do most of all was be there, in the moment. In a way, it was easy to be there, as I had no desire to think about work or Texas or anything I’d left behind, with the exception of Matt, because he’s never far from my mind. Unfortunately, I came down with a cold right before I left town, rendering me spacey and sniffling with a sore throat. Hanging out with Lydia, I could have fallen asleep a few times, but I soldiered on and hoped that she didn’t notice how I wasn’t quite as perky as I usually am when I’m with her.
Being present and fully attentive let me see Michigan and my family through fresh, wide-awake eyes. I could not stop staring at the trees, with their leaves just starting to turn fiery shades of red and gold, on the cusp of letting go in anticipation of winter. The pine trees stood tall, stoic, majestic, ready for the chill and snow. One morning, I sat outside in the backyard with my brother and Lydia, shaded by the trees. We talked while Lydia played with her new Play-Doh set, pressing out pasta for us and asking us to “pretend eat it.” That she can ask us to pretend to do something makes me think she really is a big girl now, able to give us these precise instructions about what is real and what is pretend. Another time, Lydia and I were reading her new Little Critter books—my present to her, as I loved Little Critter as a kid and thought she might like him too—and she pointed to the grandma and said, “Big Critter.” Just like that, out of the blue, no prompting from me. My goodness, she gets it. She’s a big girl now. When did that happen?
There were urban treats as well, chances to enjoy the food and shops and people that I miss because I relocated to a Texas town where most of the residents are undergraduates. My mom and I had a shopping date at Kohl’s, where she bought me a pair of black heels and I bought my sister a fabulous high-sided skillet. We ate lunch at Panera, which used to be a regular dinner spot for me in grad school and is now a special treat when I travel. I love their creamy tomato soup, the one that comes topped with asiago bread croutons and tastes velvety rich on the tongue. My mom graciously let me steal quite a few sips of her pumpkin spice latte, which was perhaps greedy of me, but she didn’t complain. Next time, I owe her a latte! But what I loved most about our mama/daughter date is that it gave us time to share—not just a pumpkin spice latte, but our news, our joys, our fears and anxieties. The sharing part is why I find it so important to spend time with people one on one. It gives us both a chance to open up in a way that isn’t always possible when other people are around.
My sister and co-auntie, Theresa, took me out for another lunch-and-shopping date. We ate burgers at Max & Erma’s and gossiped about our love lives and our hopes for the future. I planted the idea that she should come visit me in Texas, and we should also visit San Francisco and Washington, D.C., both cities that I have yet to see in person. We shopped at the Gap, a store that I grew to love while living in Evanston because it was just down the street from Panera and an easy stop on my way home from the lab. Theresa bought a beautiful black sweater with this abstract beaded design on one shoulder, and I bought a grey-and-white striped shirt. Then we took a cruise around the aisles of Whole Foods, where I admired the beautiful produce and resisted buying a cart’s worth of food, knowing that I’d be leaving the next day. I did buy a bag of green beans and a head of cauliflower, which I’ll tell you more about very soon. I also stocked up on food for the long journey home: almonds, dried cherries, cinnamon raisin bagels, and crunchy peanut butter (to be checked in my luggage, yes, but available afterward for the road trip from Houston to College Station during dinner time). I adore Whole Foods peanut butter; it has this subtle caramel flavor that I find irresistible. I bought two jars and will stock up again when I’m back in Michigan in December.
The storyteller in me knows this post is a grab bag—eating, drinking, shopping, and celebrating with lots of people and lots of love. But it seems like the perfect vacation, filled with all my favorite things. It was a happy, relaxed trip, and somehow six days away from home felt much longer than that, in the best way. I can’t wait to return, only next time, instead of shades of green and gold, the land will be painted in tones of blue, grey, brown, and white. But the love will be the same, which is the most important thing.
PS I haven’t forgotten about our apple muffins! I shall return in a few days, recipe in hand, which gives you just enough time to go to a cider mill to pick some apples and eat some doughnuts. If you go, take me with you! Please?