When you travel back to the place where you grew up, it can stir up all kinds of feels - to say the least. For me, home is a state of mind. However, when I find myself back in Michigan, a place that I struggled to call home for a long time, it’s not that easy to say goodbye.
I was an angry little 5-year-old when my parents moved our family from a sunny, beachside life in San Diego to the carpeted-basement floors of the metro-Detroit area.
My parents had lost all their money in a bad business venture and were completely broke. In desperate need to find free shelter and a good job, the only option was to turn back to their roots in Michigan. To them, home meant life-long friends, a big Lebanese-American family, and a place where kids ran free until the street lights came on.
I had another plan. My dad had been living and working in Los Angeles during the week, while my mom, baby brother and I lived with my grandma is San Diego. Since we only saw him on the weekends, why couldn’t he move back to Michigan alone?
It was very clear to me that him living at my grandma’s, his mother-in-law, was not an option. My bluestocking, Swedish-American grandma had never been afraid to share her harsh opinions regarding my dad, his background and my parents’ marriage. In fact, she had already told me that I would need to be careful in life because I had “his genes,” and not my mother’s. She also explained to me, ever so kindly, that no matter how much money my father would make, we would never be considered wealthy due history, ethnicity, Catholicism, and education - or lack thereof.
Being only 5, I decided to trust her because I liked how she, and her life, looked. Plus, she never made me angry. And I liked how she hard she made me work to win her approval; it felt like the kind of challenge that probably gave some kind of trophy away if I won.
Before we left San Diego and oblivious to my mother’s stress at the time, I argued, cried and pled with my mom to let me stay with my grandma alone. Finally, she curtly responded: you belong with us; end of discussion!
My beady eyes glared with a fresh coat of tears, thinking of the irony as I watched her and my brother board the plane back to Michigan without me. They couldn’t afford more than one plane ticket, so I had to drive across 9 states with my dad in a U-Haul. And, unable to afford motel rooms, we slept in the truck for 3 nights in a row. I replied my mom’s words just to sting my heart, so this was where I really belonged, eh?
One night while we were on the road, we pulled into a gas station to sleep for the night. I ranted as my dad made a bed for me in the gap between the seats and the truck wall. Hysterical, I told him I was scared, that I wanted to live with my grandma, that I missed my best friend Ilana, that I wanted a hotel, that I wanted to fly on the airplane, and that I hated him and Michigan…
Now, it’s not in my dad’s nature to be calm. But without my mother there to do the nurturing, he remained patient and comforting; reassuring me that we were safe, he would never let anything bad happen to us and we would be home soon.
Whimpering myself to sleep, I stashed that phrase away in my piggy jar of resentment so I could one day use it against him.
Which I did often. Throughout my entire upbringing in Michigan, I never felt like it was home and every year, I found something new to be angry about.
At 8, I was angry that we didn’t live in Grosse Pointe. At 10, when we moved to Grosse Pointe, I was angry that I had to change schools. Then at 12, I told my parents they were selfish for choosing to live in Grosse Pointe, where we, an ethnic-looking, Democrat-voting, blue-collar-working, under-educated, middle-class family stuck out like a sore thumb. I wanted to go to boarding school when I was 13 because I didn’t think my Catholic school teachers were intelligent enough to teach me (I kind of still stand by that one…). Then, at 16, I just hated society as a whole and twice tried running away to the woods - where I thought I could live off the land and meet my soul mate (thanks, Kerouac, Thoureau and Tom Brown Jr. for really pulling me out off my unrealistic expectations…).
Clearly, I took my parents for a long, winding, pot-hole-ridden, dirt road ride without any rest stops.
Eventually, and due to the many privileges my parents provided, I was able to shed the anger and found a much smoother, paved road that taught me that home was much more than a place. Home became whatever I needed it to be - my career, a home cooked meal, a loving a boyfriend, or the feeling when the plane lifted from the ground and every time it landed on a runway.
Had my parents not moved us back to Michigan, perhaps I wouldn’t have learned that lesson. Or maybe I would’ve kept thinking that it’s absolutely okay to judge people on where they live, how old their money is, or what they do for a living.
There are loads of reasons for all kinds of people to criticize places like Grosse Pointe, Detroit and Michigan. From the Flint water crisis and the poverty-porn from Detroit’s streets to systemic issues like historic racism and unequal distribution of wealth, the state is full of easy vilification targets for both Walmart shoppers and Walmart boycotters, alike. As a person who dedicated their entire childhood to judging all of the things, all of the places and all of the people, I get it.
Yet I cannot deny my positive experiences and overall outcome. It was a place that gave me an exceptional education with rare opportunities, surrounded by a well-intentioned, trustworthy community. I had early exposure to history, renowned art collections, dramatically-contrasting economies, racial tension, and differing societal nuances. I was able to witness the beauty that came with every season and experience the small character shifts that they inspire within a person. And, the biggest privilege of all, I was never far from my ever-loving, overly generous, multi-generational family who never made me feel like I had to do anything to win their approval. Well, except for maybe a few of the uncles who didn’t believe daughters should leave home, unmarried…but, that’s beside the point.
All I can say is that I’m sorry for my sweet, hateful grandma who clung to so many misunderstandings. Little did she or I know, that even without money or WASP-status, my parents have always been much wealthier than she ever could be.