In 1984, I was suffering through a divorce and living with my parents in Northbrook, Illinois. A woman in my poetry workshop told me about a new bed and breakfast in Lakeside, Michigan. Since it was Labor Day weekend and my soon to be ex was having a party – without me – I needed to get out of town a.s.a.p. I made an impulsive decision to drive to Lakeside, Michigan solo and visit this bed and breakfast called “The Pebble House.” I had no idea what a magical stew of memories and fate I was concocting.
As I drove over the Chicago Skyway, musings spun my brain around like a rusty home movie projector. Before air conditioning, it was a custom for the mothers and children of my parent’s crowd to spend the summer amid the cool breezes of Union Pier. We lived in a rustic cottage complex called Lubeznik Manor. The fathers stayed in the city weekdays to work and then joined their families in Union Pier every weekend.
The reason my parent’s clique chose Union Pier, from the charm bracelet of Michigan beach towns, is because we were Jewish. Union Pier was the only village that accepted us.
Still, we were happy in Union Pier and who wouldn’t be? It was an enchanted place. The trees were so tall I couldn’t see their tops. The air was an intoxicant all its own – wildflower fresh, musky with prairie grasses, tree frogs and the wonder of it all.
The kids went to the beach every day, where myriad adventures awaited such as jumping the waves, floating on rafts, swimming far into deep water (wearing life jackets) to be greeted by a surprise sand dune we could perch atop. Suddenly we were taller than Jack in the Beanstalk.
The nineteen fifties beach seemed infinitely wider than today – broad enough for a thousand sandcastles. Majestic sand dunes stood in the distance watching us like amused parents.
Bouncing out of the lake, our ritual was to run as fast as we could up the sand dunes. At the top, glistening pools of clay dared us to roll in their molten glory. We dipped our bodies, like Dairy Queen cones, in hardening chocolate. The hot sun set the clay, transforming us into what we called Clay people. I still remember the way it felt, sort of like a tight body mask. How did we become human again? We ran back to the water, which dissolved the muck, in order to start the routine all over again.
On weeknights, our mothers grilled us dinner in the grassy middle of Lubeznik Manor. On weekends, my father would bring out his record player and everyone danced. Moms and dads did the cha cha to Nat King Cole singing “Tea for Two.” Boys and girls made up their own dances, which usually meant plenty of falling down. Everyone luxuriating in the soft summer air on evenings that would never smell this sweet again.
Union Pier had a tiny bustling downtown. Sunday breakfast meant tramping to Captain Dan the Fisherman’s shop for lox and bagels. Union Pier also boasted a bowling alley with live pin boys and a jukebox that always seemed to be playing “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.” For Sunday dinner, we would drive to a Jewish hotel in St Joseph called the Whitcomb.
Beginning in the nineteen sixties, Union Pier and the rest of these lovely towns fell on hard times – lasting for decades. My parents and their friends stopped going to Union Pier in the late fifties, when they could afford to buy air conditioned new homes and join country clubs with swimming pools.
The first time I returned was that fateful Labor Day weekend in 1984. I loved the arts and crafts furnished Pebble House. As a single woman, I became friends with the owners, Jean and Ed Lawrence. I never felt the least bit lonely sitting at their communal Swedish breakfast table laden with meats, cheeses, and homemade treats.
The nineteen eighties were a tough time for me. When I needed a pick me up, I drove straight to the Pebble House to enjoy a weekend of sunning on the beach of my childhood. The lonesome train whistle punctuating my days felt oddly familiar. When I needed solace, Harbor Country opened its arms and welcomed me home.
I introduced my husband Dave to Harbor Country early in our courtship in 1993 and we
continued our romance with the Pebble House. In 2003, we bought a home in nearby Sawyer, Michigan. Later, we took the big plunge, sold our house in Chicago, and made Sawyer our permanent address.
Over the years, I have gone on detective missions in Union Pier to validate my 70-year-old memories. Here are the results: The beaches continue to flourish, but there’s no clay in their hollows. The venerable Whitcomb Hotel still stands now as a senior residence. Lubeznik Manor? I’m not sure. My current supposition pins it to some cottages on Victor Road. There is evidence of what was once Union Pier’s downtown – Captain Dan is long gone as well as the bowling alley.
The Pebble House is no longer a bed and breakfast, but the building still operates as a vacation rental. Oh … and Jewish people flourish in all the beach towns. Thankfully, Harbor Country’s dark secret vanished a long time ago.
So … I guess I never forgot this place, such a fertile landscape for blueberries, apples, puppy dogs … and people too. Sometimes at night, when I hear that lonesome train whistle, I am positively certain that it … remembers me too.