Michigan: A Divorce Story
“Take them off! Take them off!”
I cried out to my mother, but she couldn’t hear me. The cavernous hall of pop song beats and hockey puck slaps swallowed up my eight-year-old voice. With no time to hide the tears warming my cheeks, I skated on rigid legs past girls etching curly lace patterns into the ice with their steel blades. I wanted to tell my mother how the sensation of cold alchemizing into heat felt like a sock of prickling pins around my toes. I didn’t want to tell her she was right about winter sports being brutal no matter how dancerly they appeared on TV.
As her outstretched hand guided me to safety, concern rippled across her dramatic Anna Magnani features. She often claimed my pain as her own after nine months of her blood running through my veins. My tattoos, piercings, and broken bones impacted her, too, she said. I was never sure if my emotional turmoil resonated as deeply. Easing me onto a bench to loosen my boot laces, she rubbed my feet between her gloved hands and nestled them under her warm cashmere armpits. I had one overarching concern about my obvious failure on the ice. “Will they still give me [sob] hot chocolate, Mom?”
I was born a January baby, accustomed to the frigid East Coast winters of the early Seventies, but I had yet to acclimatize to the Mitten State’s razor sharp wind chill and bone deep snow. I woke after midnight under the heaviness of the fur coat she bought as a status symbol for her new position as academic dean of Cranbrook Academy of Art. A career coup for a woman, especially one who had just turned forty, she arrived a single mother and was warned the Detroit rock salt would rust the undercarriage of her 1965 Mercedes.
Being the end of the 1970s, car status was working class American muscle not forward-thinking European design, and we presented ourselves to the esteemed faculty and staff in a fake wood paneled Pontiac station wagon manufactured by Michigan’s own General Motors Company. The fur was meant to keep her warm, simultaneously implying the class lacking in the Pontiac. I also frowned upon the wagon’s vinyl seats and angular body but giving up the Mercedes was the least of my problems. We left my dad behind, as well. As she was stroking my hair, her Opium perfume surrounded me in a fantasy of safety. I curled around my Snoopy doll and asked, “Am I the only one it hurts, Mom?”
The doctor told us it was frostnip, the foreshadowing of frostbite, the potential death of flesh under extreme cold temperatures. The recurring nip of my toes would forever handicap my social ranking in the longest season in Michigan and the upper Midwest of North America.
If separation was the nip; divorce was the bite.
The day my mother moved us to Michigan would forever be the winter from which none of us recovered. She had accepted a prestigious position in academia but didn’t share the news until the moving van arrived. She didn’t say it was a way to leave my father, but that’s what it was. Their separation had been on a trial basis, we thought. He, who had had his share of bad days, later described this as the worst in his life.
I was his only child, and she was taking me from him.
A few months prior, a near reconciliation came in the form of a literal fracture. It was shortly after my mother sold the house of my birth with its abundance of pink azaleas and catkin willows. The mid-afternoon sun was cooking the asphalt on the urban playground, and I was trying to make my way across the monkey bars for the first time. My dad lifted me up like a trapeze artist at the top of her routine. After a few uncertain seconds and prodding words of support, I let go with one hand.
My father’s wisdom was, “Don’t think too much. Just keep going forward.” And it worked. I made it to the other end to my father’s cheers. When my mother arrived to pick me up I insisted on showing her what I could do. I remember her concerned look, as she wiped the bangs from my sweaty forehead.
“You look tired, sweetie,” she said.
“She’s been practicing for hours,” he said.
Looking back, I think my dad was proud to teach me something with a demonstrable result. Proud to prove to my mother that she could count on him as a co-parent. My dad put me on the first bar. My mother positioned herself underneath to catch me if I fell. I let go with my left hand and swung to the next bar. Then right. Then left. I heard my father’s encouraging words. I felt my mother’s presence close to my body. I then surrendered my grip midway and slipped through her arms. I was shocked to find myself on the tarmac. Wasn’t she there to catch me?
My father swept me up into his arms already running. My wrist bobbing to the rhythm of his footfalls. My mother followed close behind. Her expression told me my arm was broken. We climbed into my father’s black Beetle with the red leather seats that would forever define cool in cars for me. I perched on the floor between my mother’s legs, resting my broken wing on her lap. As my father put the car into gear, I remember looking up at my parents as a team focused on a shared outcome: saving me. Had I engineered my fall for a reunion?
In 1925, the Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen, designed the American equivalent of the Bauhaus compound on 174-acres of rural farmland west of Detroit. Originally purchased by George Booth, a newspaper mogul and philanthropist, the family’s vision of a summer home evolved into a utopian enclave for the study of art, crafts, and architecture. Named after Booth’s father’s home in Cranbrook, England, the campus, which comprises four schools, an art museum, science museum, and church, is on the list of National Historic Landmarks and deemed one of the most important groups of architectural structures in America.
At Cranbrook, I found myself in a magical world of art deco wall hangings, wrought iron cupolas and reflecting pools set against an abundance of wild and intended gardens, lakes, and woods. The Master of Art program, where my mother worked, was based on an artist-in-residence system. Each department had no more than twenty students under the tutelage of one master instructor. The atmosphere was intimate and deeply creative, as every inch was designed to inspire the organic investigation of space, material, and form.
Back when she taught ceramics and drawing at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C., my mother would wrap my infant body in fabric across her back while she handled clay and smeared charcoal. My father would later take me grocery shopping and to the liquor store where I collected recipe cards for elaborate cocktails. At home I dreamed up dinner menus with venison and pheasant accompanied by Midori flavored grasshoppers. In the kitchen, my father cooked up curried lamb, a dish he learned to make in Dar es Salaam. I remember sitting on a kitchen stool, eating a raw hot dog, and watching Soul Train on the small black and white TV while my parents hosted a couple my father knew from Nigeria who were waiting for visas. As their only child, adults were my only friends.
My first “friend” at Cranbrook was my mother’s secretary. She was sweet, her hair soft to the touch. She had braces. I thought only kids wore braces. She told me about another girl my age on campus, the daughter of the head of the sculpture department. The girl’s name was Rain or Reign or Rein. Rane, as it turned out, was never home. I stopped imagining having a friend my age and became the unofficial assistant to everyone in the office. Pushing illuminated buttons for various phone extensions. Memorizing the inventory of the office supply cabinet, a fondness for paperclips, colored pens, erasers, and cello-tape developed.
One day, I was mesmerized by the pages spitting out of the Xerox machine when my mother’s secretary broke my spell with an announcement. Rane was home if I wanted to meet her. The Xerox was relentless with hundreds of pages yet to print and hand-collate. I knew it was an important job to complete, but I fled the office to meet Rane before she disappeared again.
I remember Rane’s house as a first impression more than I do her. An unofficial folk art museum, her father, an artist called The Duke, had been quietly investing in Outsider Art for over a decade. There was a room for duck decoys. A room for jar heads. A room for whirligigs. All of this was to be Rane’s inheritance in the form of charitable donations, but The Duke collected out of love. I was taken with the organized chaos of the Carl Milles house named after the original head of sculpture. The dark wood paneling. Black and white tile floors. Arches with grape vines in a stone laid courtyard. The Duke made grape jelly every year, the only food I remember eating at Rane’s house, aside from our self-imposed Boredom Hunger Strikes which involved raiding the sparse pantry for Cheerios upon which we’d compete to make whipped cream towers.
Cranbrook was 319-acres of guarded private land. As long as we had Rane’s plastic horses and a tape recorder, we could be gone for hours without any question. To be sure, Saarinen didn’t envision two girls cavorting through the gardens in rhinestone studded corduroys when mapping out the unique property, but it was our playground of hidden mosaic treasures, secret flagstones that triggered water from the eyes of marble Greek gods protected by ancient Chinese Foo dogs made of stone.
And then I saw the rink.
The campus skating rink offered figure skating for girls and ice hockey for boys. While Rane was a confident skater having grown up in Michigan, she was rarely at the rink. The Duke did things differently. If his kid didn’t want to skate, she didn’t have to. I think they found it prissy. I, on the other hand, loved the balletic roots of figure skating. The sparkly tights. The Lycra skin-colored tops that shimmered with fake gemstones.
I asked my mother to take me to Skate & Ski Hut to buy my first pair of ice skates. The salesman went on about Dorothy Hamill’s clean style. I was drawn to the classic white leather, mid-calf boot worn at the 1976 Olympic games when she won the gold. The height of the boots with their fourteen laces restricted my ankle mobility, but they were so cool. The salesman made sure my mother could fit a finger snuggly between the leather and my shin bone. He demonstrated by poking his index finger into his own shoe. My mother helped me up like Geppetto with a wooden-legged puppet. “Are you sure? Winter sports can be brutal.” I nodded my head and went to bed with visions of medals around my neck.
My mother took me to the campus rink for my first skating lesson. I analyzed the hierarchy on the ice. A group in the middle was winning regional competitions. Their postures were erect, legs in second position, hair pulled back creating strong cameo profiles. At the end of the rink the ice hockey team in gladiator padding was warming up with slap shots on goal. Their practice started later, but the boys lived and breathed the sport and couldn’t sit still on the sidelines. The baby skaters were at the other end of the rink, the 4 – 6-year-olds who grew up on the ice practicing flawless turns.
My training began with pushing off, turning and stopping. I held hands with the coach until I had the confidence to try on my own. Picking up speed, I relished the cold wind and the freedom of gliding on one-millimeter steel blades. My mother watched from the side in her fur. She said she caught glimpses of me smiling as I picked up speed. The wind toyed with my hair as I attempted what I imagined were pirouettes. Then, she said, my face became tense, and she could feel my pain.
“Take them off! Take them off!” I cried out.
But she couldn’t hear me.
I wanted desperately to excel at a winter sport even if it was one I invented. My solution was a pair of Moon Boots. A seventies fashion trend made of sponge foam covered with copper-colored latex, the zero-gravity boots allowed me to moonwalk on snow, mimicking the moves of a skater with much softer conditions. Rane donned her tall moccasin boots, and we shuffled onto Kingswood Lake where the water had solidified so quickly a Canadian goose was frozen on the surface. Its neck craned; its head underwater.
I turned slowly in place to admire the horizon blanketed in crisp white. Branches of towering pine trees sagged with fresh snowfall. It was so quiet. I remember feeling light. Rane later told me she remembered the tails of my French braids from under my hat as I turned away from her. That’s when we heard the crack. As if in slow-motion, the rupture announced itself before appearing. Rane stepped back to solid ground. I fell through. My first reaction was to laugh. We often destroyed curated beauty with our play, a knee through the pane of a greenhouse roof or a hand yanking a scalloped brass handle off of a door.
Rane inched forward with light steps. I wrapped my hands around her ankles. She walked backwards to pull me to safety. My Moon Boots doubled in weight with freezing cold water. I peed my snowsuit in a flash of warm relief. Later that evening, I tucked my feet under a heating pad, defeated yet again. Rane assured me winter would become my friend in time, but winter was running out. My father was scheduled to visit, and I was hoping for the reconciliation of my family.
When my mother arranged for my father to lecture at my school about African Art, they were soon sleeping in the same bed and having coffee in the morning. The calm of my earliest memories and first home was restored until I heard a clatter from the kitchen. I found my mother in a silent rage. My father cowering in the corner by the refrigerator, hands held high as if surrendering to the police. On the floor was a metal mixing bowl with a dent disfiguring its base. It would never sit right again.
My mother recalls this event as my ah-ha! moment. She says it was the first time I’d seen them argue. I once asked my father why he didn’t fight for me. He said he and my mother had had an agreement to share me when they separated, the nip. But one of her “feminist friends” encouraged her to hire a lawyer and assure custody through divorce, which meant freedom to leave without getting permission from my father.
“You tell her,” my mother said as she left the kitchen. My dad showed me a wallet-sized photo of a baby. “This is S.. He’s your brother.” I scrutinized the unremarkable baby with his reddish hair and putty face. “You remember L.?” he said. “L. is S.’s mom.”
Trying hard not to do the math. Yes, I remembered L.
I wrapped my scarf around my nose and mouth, recycling the maple smell of morning pancakes on my breath. I stepped onto the packed snow. As if in a vacuum-sealed universe, the crunch of my footfall broke the dead air. With my skates over my shoulder swinging like a pendulum, I climbed to the top of Daffodil Hill. I put on my Dorothy Hamill skates and took off down the slope, my cheeks plump against the cold wind. Instead of retracing the same piste, I started each run on untouched snow. I was exhausted by the time I turned every inch of pristine white to mud.
Daffodil Hill perennially lived up to its name with a saffron sea of blooms cupped towards the sky, but when the frost thawed that Spring, my dad back on the East Coast starting another family, the erratic welts from my blades scarred the land. The daffodil bulbs were unearthed like an archeological dig of a mass grave.
Four years after our arrival at Cranbrook my mother accepted a job as vice president of a major college of art, part of a lifelong ritual of abandoning places once they felt safe. When I look back now, however, she was the definition of success and retired as president of the only all-female art college in the country.
Just last year, I sat on the front steps of her casita in the Andalusian sun and asked why we left Cranbrook with all of its freedom and inspiration, all of its support and care, where my best friend and great artists roamed, where she owned half of a building to create art. Meanwhile, we spent years looking for exactly these things everywhere we went. I lived in 13 houses and three states by the time I set out on my own only to circle back to her in my forties with my partner.
She thought for a while and said, “You know, sweetie. I just couldn’t take another Michigan winter.” I realized in one single moment how the course of my life followed the whim of the woman who carried me inside her for nine months. At 84, she is crossing a threshold from independence to dependence, a very uncomfortable position for a former president. She’s careful not to impose herself on me, but I feel the pain of her relationship with a body that no longer performs as fast as her brain works.
I see that as much as I thought I was in control of my independence, my destiny, I will be with her until her last breath.
M Tamara Cutler is a narrative screenwriter with a visual arts background. Works of creative nonfiction are published/forthcoming in Hunger Mountain Review, Under the Gum Tree, and Brevity Blog. She has a diploma in Advanced Creative Writing: Nonfiction from Cambridge University and an MFA in Film from New York University. She splits her time between Southern California and southern Spain. Twitter: @thatplaceUlove