February 12, 2010

True North
Jim Harrison

Town and Country – Set largely in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Jim Harrison’s thoughtful novel already had me ruminating about my childhood and adult experiences with people and places “up north.” But those reflections only intensified as I finished reading the book shortly after my Uncle Roy died. Roy Froberg was one of my Dad’s boyhood friends from the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. They’d been friends for roughly 70 years. As a young man, Roy wound up marrying my Mom’s cousin, Marion. Mom and Marion had moved to Chicago from a small U.P. town called Bessemer. This weaving together of family and friendship contributed to a narrowing of geography, as well: Unlike others of my friends who were growing up in Chicago’s suburbs, my Dad’s roots in the city ensured my brother and I would become well-acquainted with the metropolis and my Mom’s roots ensured we would become equally familiar with the northern woods. My brother Joe and I spent many a long summer and winter in Bessemer and Ironwood, climbing tall, sticky pine trees, kicking up red dust from the red dirt of the gravel-paved roads, traipsing through smothering piles of white snow, and skiing on wobbly, ancient, too-big wooden skis down small, nearby bluffs. From time to time, our family’s vacation coincided with Uncle Roy and Aunt Marion’s vacation so our cousins Billy, Bonnie and Bobby joined us as playmates. One time – or were there more? – our families stayed together at a cabin on Lake Gogebic. I remember waking early one morning, walking outside into cool sunshine and joining Uncle Roy, who was seated on a folding chair at the end of a small dock, fishing. Flashing a wide smile (Uncle Roy always seemed to have a wide smile), he invited me to join him. I picked up a nearby fishing rod and when I cast my line I managed to somehow catch the hook in the back of my very own t-shirt. My immediate, thoroughly embarrassed reaction was to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened – even though I was sitting directly beside Uncle Roy. I then spent several minutes fumbling around in a silent Laurel-and-Hardy routine, with me playing both parts, trying to tug and flinch and unhook myself without being noticed. Uncle Roy did, in fact, pretend not to notice. He just kept his eyes on the still, wide lake before us. And I always loved him for that.


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