I spent the last several days in Northern Lower Michigan, visiting family. As I’ve noted before, I spend a lot of time writing in my head, essays and short stories and blog entries and novels – an English teacher once encouraged this behavior and it’s something I’ve never really been able to cease doing – I mine nearly every conversation and every experience for some sort of meaning I can put down on paper. It’s not as much work as it sounds like – it’s second nature to me at this point and not something I’m even aware of most of the time. Anyway, a weekend with family always leaves me twitching to write, and this weekend was no exception. Whenever I pass a significant period of time with my extended family I start thinking about all of the intricate threads that make a family narrative; in my family we tell the same stories over and over, year after year, adding in a new one here or there, reminding one another about the time the car broke down on the way to Uncle L.’s wedding in Iowa or what the homecoming was like for my father when he returned from Vietnam. We tell stories and offer toasts to those who have passed away and we make extravagant, unlikely plans for the future, someone ( a different person each time) always cries and others give away secrets and always there’s an argument or two and a long littany of complaints – who was treated badly as a child, who behaves poorly now, who doesn’t mourn the dead enough or who happens to mourn them, too much. All of the unbridled drinking probably doesn’t help, nor do all the sugary and fattening foods – we’re all blood sugar crashes and crippling hangovers part of the time. Throughout the long weekend I occasionally wondered what I would bring back to my blog. Would I write about my love for hunting dogs and large, loud manly men? Or would I write about a revelation from a certain aunt, a revelation both beautiful and shattering in its sadness? Or would I write about the soothing effects of the Sturgeon River, and the quiet way it settles the spirit?
Turns out, I’m going to share, instead, about the horrible man who runs the resort where we stayed, and the fact that I am apparently the last woman left willing to stand up for the right to be looked at in the eye when spoken too. (Hyperbolic? Yes, but it’s my blog and exaggeration to prove a point is fine by me)
In a proverbial nutshell, when I arrived at our resort (and I use the word resort in only its loosest sense) our reservation was messed up. I had reserved a two-bedroom cottage on the river with a pull-out couch (cottage 28) but they had inadvertantly put me in cottage 23, a one-bedroom with no pull-out couch. This cottage was intended to house six of us, and so a one-bedroom with no couch simply couldn’t do that. The latest in a series of mistakes made by the owners, I continuously tried explaining to the owner why I had reserved the cottage I did, and maybe a couple of numbers got transcribed, but could he please see if he had anything else available since he gave away my rightful cottage two days before. The scene went something like this:
Me: I understand you don’t have the original cottage I reserved available, but could you please see if you have anything larger than the one bedroom.
Him: We can’t sleep all of you in the cottage you have.
Me: I know that. That’s why I reserved a larger one in the first place. But do you have anything else available where we could put some extra people?
Him: You don’t want the cottage?
Me: I want the cottage. I also want whatever else you have left.
Him: But the cottage can’t sleep six people.
Me: I KNOW that. But do you have anything in else we could possibly…
Him: Hmm. Six people won’t fit in the one bedroom…
At this point, HE TURNS TO S. AND MY BROTHER.
Him: You don’t want the cottage, right?
S: No, we DO want the cottage, we also…
It has been a loooong time since a man looked at me, dismissed me, and consulted my husband instead. This man literally turned away from me, me with my credit card, and consulted S. and my brother as though FINALLY here was someone he could rationalize with, someone he could explain that, no, six people really couldn’t fit into the little cabin and maybe we could take our reunion, to, you know, the Upper Peninsula or something. And since it had been so long and I was so frustrated I stepped in front of S. and pushed him back. And the man kept trying to make eye contact with S. or my brother, and I kept physically blocking S. and my brother out of the conversation, and on and on it went like this until we finally established that I would keep the little cabin and excess family members could go to the Holiday Inn Express. And he knocked five bucks off the rate of the cabin.
But that’s not the big deal. I mean, it’s disappointing that little trolls like this owner happen to run around this world of ours, but as far as being treated badly by a man goes, that story is nothing much and I’m aware of it. The power of VISA, in northern Michigan, is apparently nothing compared to being born with a penis. No, the truly upsetting part of this vacation was the reaction everybody else had to the story. S. and my brother kept telling me I just needed to “chill out,” to have a beer and relax. People like that just exist and there’s nothing to be done. I kept trying to point out that really, I was only expecting the common courtesy of an eye-to-eye conversation with man who screwed up completely my reservation. While I was outraged, S. and my brother and my cousins started drinking and if I must confess I actually believe S. LIKED that he was consulted in lieu of me. So naturally I shared the situation with my relatives as the night progressed and my aunts and my mom all responded by saying :Oh, Honey. We fought that fight twenty years ago and it’s not worth it. YOu’ll be much happier if you just let things like that go. Otherwise, it’s a long tough road to hoe.”
I mean, seriously. I mean, really. I mean, excuse my language, WHAT THE FUCK? See, I’m still angry. I have visceral, throbbing, real anger at the fact that this man, who I was giving hundreds of dollars to, could not even manage to look a woman with her own money in the eye. And EVERYBODY, from my husband to my mother, thought I was being ridiculous.
And I’ll tell you what. I may be many things, but I am not ridiculous. Or am I? I mean, I didn’t spend all weekend stewing over the owner, no – I played games and drank beer and went for walks and spent long evenings watching the river with those I loved – but I am not ready yet to simply accept when I am treated badly, nor am I ready to reconcile encounters like these as simply the way things happen to be. It reminded me too much of the couple of years I taught women’s studies and my students kept reiterating how much they hated feminists, and how feminism was ‘totally over,’ how Adrienne Rich was ‘depressing’ and Maxine HOng Kingston “too hard, and also, unbelievable.” It’s a lonely feeling, to believe one thing so deeply and have that one thing greeted with the apathy of others.
But oh, all the other things I could blog about from the weekend! Even nearing thirty, returning to my aunts and uncles and cousins, my mom and dad, the company of a river and the unconditional love of bird dogs, well, it’s the safest thing I know. In the hearts and arms of my family I feel anchored and true, like living by the changing of the seasons and the beat of dog paws against river banks is the only smart and right choice around – the retelling of our family stories root me and remind me of the girl I once was, before moving around so much. Once all that really mattered to me was long sunny days near a body of water somewhere, picking berries or playing some make believe game, with all my aunts and uncles and cousins within reach of my voice and their laughter floating across the air like joy, unadulterated. I know I’m too old to feel this way, but when I leave ‘up north’ it feels like moving away all over again, if only for a minute or too.
But, of course, I’m glad that isn’t my every day life, because maybe then I, too would be okay with other kinds of men and women, men who could never look me in the eye and women who don’ t even notice when it doesn’t happen, and maybe I’d be reconciled to whole different kind of life, and while sometimes I covet its stillness, its quietude, more often then not I know I’m not quite ready for it yet.