I grew up hearing about it. Go Blue! and U of M were like secret passwords in my house, a sure way to earn a smile or a clap on the back. Ann Arbor was a mystical, incorporeal place, where my grandparents met, where my relatives still lived, where it was winter so long no one saw the ground for weeks. It was maize and blue. It was football, The Big House. It was nothing I knew.
I’ve been told I was there at some point, but I must have been too young to remember. There are pictures of me, seven years old with a quasi-mullet, playing on the floor of some second cousin’s house outside Chicago. I think we may have gone for a wedding. Given my mom’s penchant for road trips, it’s likely that we drove a grand loop: St. Louis, Chicago, Ann Arbor. Her childhood homes and her mother’s childhood home. I remember none of it, really.
The Midwest was never a place I wanted to be, not even when I started college there. Stupid cornfields, stupid heat, stupid flat, flat land. Middle-of-nowhere Illinois, state full of nothing but Chicago, which everyone praised like a god.
Ann Arbor was far enough away it rarely seemed to matter. When asked where I was from, I proudly said Pennsylvania. I didn’t add But my grandmother’s from Michigan, didn’t say But my mother grew up in the Chicago suburbs, just like you. She lived there before they built Woodfield Mall. Even though I’d seen it by then, it was just a parade of houses that didn’t belong to me.
Here’s what I know now. The Midwest puts its hooks in you, like it or not.
The first time I remember being in Ann Arbor, I wasn’t really in Ann Arbor. I was in Tecumseh, Michigan, about twenty-five miles northeast, where my aunt Nancy (technically great-aunt) and cousin Sue-Ellen (technically first cousin once removed) lived. I was maybe nine. My aunt had a screened-in porch that backed up to the woods and my sister and I sat for hours watching the world outside. I remember seeing a chipmunk and being completely thrilled by it. My aunt taught us to play round-the-clock solitaire, gave us two decks of cards so we could race against each other. I have no recollection of why we were in Michigan. I think it was fall.
My grandmother lives in New Jersey now but every year she’d drive out to Ann Arbor for a football game in The Big House with Nancy, who had season tickets. They both graduated from Michigan in the ’50s, and ended up marrying brothers. My grandma enjoyed going back to visit, but she was there for the football, not the scenery.
By the time I graduated college, I thought of the Midwest as some kind of home. I’d driven the county roads at night, walked along the train tracks, and at some point during my last year there I got it, suddenly, how people could feel so rooted there. I moved to Washington and was heartsick for Illinois, its small towns, its barns and fields and crows, all of which I thought of as my own.
The only other time I remember being in Michigan, I was in Tecumseh again, staying with Nancy on my drive out to Illinois for my senior year of college. Sue-Ellen came over and we all went to a local Chinese place for dinner. The next day I drove six and a half hours back to school. I can’t tell you a single interesting thing I saw.
It’s the isolation of the landscape that gets to you, I think. It’s the miles between houses, the empty fields in winter, the thought that someone has to take care of all that. Sometimes I wonder why anyone would choose to live there.
There were trains in Illinois and trains when I got to Washington. You could hear them wailing in the night. I live in South Carolina now and there are trains here, too. They’re all going somewhere else.
There’s no reason to go to Michigan in January if you can avoid it. But if you’re there on a cold Saturday to bury your aunt, you might see things you never noticed before. You might have forgotten there was a small stream, now mostly iced over, just beyond her screened-in porch. You might wish you had a camera, and then feel ridiculous and a little ashamed at the thought. You might be reminded how breathtaking deer can be, walking silently through the woods, far enough away that you can only see them when they move. When you go to the grocery store, almost everything that can have an M on it will have an M on it, and no one will have to ask what it stands for. The great clouds of crows with their harsh, unmistakable cry—they were in Illinois, too, remember? You might be surprised you’ve forgotten, surprised at all the life this far north in winter. It’s possible that when the funeral procession makes its slow way to the cemetery, cars on the opposite side of the road will pull over, in that great midwestern practice of quiet solidarity. You might think you’ve forgotten the pull of this landscape, but when you’re leaving the cemetery with the sun setting behind you, you’ll look to your right, to the bare trees and the thin layer of snow, the parallel lines of the field, some horizon in the distance, the sun gilding the sky the way it only can when the land is this flat, and your heart will seize up a little and you’ll remember all of it, then, each time you’ve returned to this place only to leave again, and there is no question you’ll be back.