A recent road trip to Lansing and Detroit took me right to the outskirts of my long-ago childhood home, a farm in Howell, Michigan. On the drive into Detroit, my wife, Heather, and I saw the signs: “Howell, Next Three Exits,” still halfway between Lansing and Detroit (as I’d always repeated since being four or five years old). I was surprised to see Howell was big enough to have three exits. After spending the day in Detroit, we were passing Howell again in early evening, and decided it might be worth pulling off, to see if we could find the old farm. If not, maybe we would find somewhere to eat, or something interesting. Among the top three Google results for Howell, MI was a story about the KKK, but that didn’t really get us anywhere.
Before leaving Missouri, the idea of finding my old house had popped up, but I’d shrugged it off. Now we needed the address, but no one remembered it. Heather texted my sister and my mom, both notoriously bad at texting responses quickly. “Norton Road,” lurked as a fuzzy recollection, but then I second-guessed it and said “Drury Lane,” which I think had something to do with the address in Illinois where I was born. Heather did find a Norton Road on GPS maps, and it wasn’t far. She called my mom, who launched into a ramble of mostly unhelpful associations, like how I should try to find the lady who used to babysit me.
“What was her name?” my mom asked.
“Who, the babysitter?” I said, “Mary Franks?”
“Yes! Don’t you think it would be neat if you saw her? Wouldn’t she be surprised?”
“Wouldn’t she be dead? I mean, she was older than you, right?”
“Oh, maybe she would be dead by now… I guess everyone gets old, just like me.”
“Yeah, I think she would be at least in her eighties by now.”
My mom asked my dad. He said something like 2118 Norton Road, which my mom said couldn’t be right. Then we asked if she knew a relevant crossroad, and she came up with Amos Road, then talked about how her painting teacher, Lillian van Houten, used to say that the row of trees on our road was the prettiest scenery IN THE WORLD, or something. Once Heather let my mom go, she searched for Norton & Amos Roads together. I had a good feeling about those two names, and I knew it should take us out to the edge of town, which it soon did.
I have only a scarce handful of memories from that place, but one assumes there is a formative sea of static churning beneath them, since I spent ages 2-6 there. I remembered nothing of the house’s interior, but there was a willow tree behind the house that was a big deal to me. I knew there should be a big barn, and the house had been white in 1979 when we left, but obviously that could change.
As things took a turn for the rural, we turned toward Amos Road, went through some huge trees that might have been the prettiest woods according to some lady, then saw some fields that were what I expected. I told Heather that this was looking right, and there was a row of metal barns in the distance that looked like where my dad used to work. Another quarter mile, and the road came to a T near a little house in front of a willow tree, across the road from a big weathered barn. I parked in front of the barn.
Sitting out in the front yard of the house was a burly man. At first glance, Heather thought he looked a bit like trouble, maybe still thinking of the KKK thing. I got out and walked toward him with a wave. When he stood up, I asked, “Did this farm used to be called Premier?” That’s what it was called when my dad worked here decades before.
“Yep, it was Premier,” he said with a surprising friendliness.
“Aha! I lived here when I was a really little kid, about... 35 years ago. My dad took care of Angus cattle here. Then we moved to Missouri in 1979.”
“Was your dad one of the Cottons?”
“No, but he worked for Larry Cotton… are they still around here?”
“No, but you can find them on Facebook.” He appeared incongruous with Facebook, but apparently that is a faulty snap judgment. “...I’d still like to get down to see Missouri someday,” he said. The guy had a slightly wacky, almost Canadian accent.
A nine- or ten-year-old boy popped up wearing a jack-o-lantern shirt and started chatting with my wife. I pointed out the willow tree, and we walked over by the barn. I told them how I fell out of the hay loft once, and threw pebbles at cars from the barn door one time, and thought there used to be frogs in a scummy drainage ditch near the road. My mom had said to ask to look in the house, but that seemed pushy unless we were invited in. Heather took our picture in the front yard.
We walked around a little more. The little boy told us (mostly Heather, since I was talking to the dad) about how he grows pumpkins. Heather said later that it was like talking to a chatty old man. He went on in detail about how people like to buy his pumpkins and corn stalks for Halloween, and Fall, and Thanksgiving…
“So, you’re the pumpkin man around here?” I asked.
“Yeah, but there’s a big place down (somewhere in town) that has a whole lot of pumpkins.”
“They’re pretty hard to compete with?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. His dad laughed. The pale gold field we passed coming in was knee-high wheat. The deep green field across the intersection grew soybeans. He’d been renting there about 15 years.
We went back to the car. I said, “Thanks for your time, good to meet you guys.”
The farmer said, “Well, it’s good you stopped here now, they’re getting ready to build a few hundred homes out here, so this will all be gone in a year, maybe less. They got it all platted out, the company that owns it in Illinois told us they sold it a while back.”
That sounded disappointing, as it was a pretty place. Pumpkin Kid and his dad would have to find land somewhere else, if they wanted to keep growing wheat and soybeans and pumpkins. It was already hard to imagine them doing anything else, though I hadn’t known them more than ten minutes.
We left without ever saying our names or asking for theirs. Later we kind of wished we had, so we could look them up… but then, sometimes I think it is good to toss some stuff back into that inaccessible ocean of static, to lighten the data load and allow wild spaces to exist, even if only in the soon-to-be bulldozed backroads of Michigan.