“In the spring of 1932, I found myself inexorably settled on a farm which for several years had only been my summer home,” begins a narrative written on the last day of 1936 by my great-grandmother Irma Ann Heath.
My great-grandparents bought the farm on Old Mission Peninsula on the shore of West Grand Traverse Bay in 1929, and three years later she procured the white clapboard farmhouse and cherry orchards with her divorce settlement.
Irma hadn’t married my great-grandfather until she was 43, and a year later my grandfather was born. I always imagined their marriage a rocky one, each set in their ways by then — she a University of Michigan graduate, an intellectual who translated German to English for a living, and he a mason who troweled bricks and mortar together dawn till dusk.
So there she was, a single mother on an abject farm, dogged with a mortgage, practically no machinery, buildings in disrepair, poor soil, knowing nothing about farming. “I needed money and an agricultural engineer and had neither,” she wrote.
But Irma Ann took a deep breath and got to work. She hired a farmhand, bought a “cheap cow,” an old workhorse and a used plow, and bartered alfalfa for a few hens.
She planted a garden, bought the cheapest cuts of meat, turned stale bread into toast and puddings, bones into soup and “used apples in every possible form on the table.”
This bookish woman climbed up on sheds to repair roofs, cut herself splitting wood, gave up her car, learned to make butter and found solace in Emerson.
“I did everything that I had never done and never expected to do and was sufficiently happy doing it,” she wrote. “There was no time for tears.”
I doubt she had much time to enjoy the water that was a stone’s throw from the house. But I like to picture her walking down to the beach in the evening to wade in the water, her snow-white hair tucked under her straw hat, her aquiline features thoughtful as she watched the sun fade from the sky.
When I was barely a teen, my dad bought a 16-foot boat and rented a slip
at the Clinch Park Marina. He gave my sisters and me lessons on how to maneuver
the aluminum-sided boat in and out of the slip and then handed us the key.
When Irma Ann died in 1945, my grandfather brought his bride to the bayside farm.
A few years later he decided to end their tumultuous marriage, but my grandmother — in the spirit of her mother-in-law — stayed on the farm where she raised two children and kept the cherry farm afloat.
Like the rest of my farming family, my mother didn’t spend much time at the water either. Her most memorable moments with the bay are backing the cherry sprayer up to the water’s edge to fill it with water.
My grandmother eventually moved to town and the house sat empty while my parents waited for their chance to buy it and move us out there. My sisters and I dreamed of living on the water, but the house was sold unexpectedly after a family squabble.
The cherry orchards were razed to make way for a nondescript subdivision, the bones of my mother’s pets entombed beneath their paved driveways. The kitchen where my great-grandmother kept her day-old chicks warm by the cook stove was transformed into a designer space with French Provincial flair. In the meantime, my parents settled on a street in town that ended at the bay.
When I was barely a teen, my dad bought a 16-foot boat and rented a slip at the Clinch Park Marina. He gave my sisters and me lessons on how to maneuver the aluminum-sided boat in and out of the slip and then handed us the key.
We spent countless hours racing up and down the shoreline, pulling each other around on a fat black inner-tube tied to a ski rope. We water-skied in early May when the water was still so cold you lost the feeling in your feet after just seconds. We took the boat out to water so deep we didn’t have enough anchor rope to hold us in place. We turned off the engine and leaped from the bow until we were too tired to climb back in the boat.
Trips to Marion Island (now Power Island) were reserved for weekends and we would often compete to see which one of us could ski the seven miles out there without dropping. We’d pull our little boat up on the nearly deserted beach and unpack the cooler.
In the heat of the day, we’d explore the wooded trails leading to the top of the island or walk along the rocky shoreline looking for beach glass and Petoskey stones.
When I moved away, first to college and then to landlocked day jobs, it was the bay I missed most. I missed the early morning swims, the lazy afternoons spent with girlfriends — our chairs plunked on the shore’s edge — the evening cruises along the shore and jostling for bragging rights to see who would be the first one to put her head under the icy water each spring.
The bay, one day as smooth and silver as a mirror, and the next, churlish and wild, is what pulled me back to my hometown and what anchors me firmly to this place. When our girls were small, we bought a used boat so they could play on the bay as I once had.
As they venture into the world, no matter where they live, I hope the bay will keep them anchored here, too.
Freelance writer Cymbre Foster resides in the Greater Grand Traverse region.