Friday, May 16, 2014

"Go play!"

By Mary C. Tillotson

When my grandma died this spring, I felt like something had unraveled. She had been a kind of locus of unity in my extended family – she was how we were all connected. She was widowed a few months before I was born, so in my experience, she always stood alone as the pinnacle of the family tree. There was Grandma, then her three children and their spouses, and then us twelve grandkids. We would all go to visit Grandma, and we would all be together. Then she died, and I felt unstable, somehow. Would we all just drift, like astronauts untethered from their spaceship?

Grandma must have foreseen this, because she made sure it wouldn’t happen.

Caroline, Anne, Mary, Ellen:
The CAME club at my 2012 wedding shower.
They were my bridesmaids.
My family (two boys and three girls) lived about 20 minutes from her, and my Michigan cousins (four girls) lived within a couple hours, so we visited several times a year. The four of us little girls formed the CAME club, the best word our initials would spell. We ate ice cream out of little plastic cups and tried to turn them into toy boats to float down the river. Inspired by the paintings on her wall (which she’d painted) we held art contests in her basement, drawing sunsets with colored pencils on copy paper. We went for walks around her block. We ate the M&Ms, lemon candies, and pink candies she left in dishes around the house. We played house and fort and boarding school, crawling through the cupboards under the basement stairs and climbing over the wooden fence in the backyard, fortressed by a protective pine tree.

I still don’t know what the big kids did, other than exclude us, but we weren’t big kids and they weren’t little kids, and nobody seemed to mind. But there was another problem: our southern Indiana cousins. All three were boys, and two were little kids. We saw them once a year, for a few days just after Christmas, and we mostly avoided them. We didn’t know them, and they were boys. Plus, the initials of their first names – the two younger ones, I mean – spelled B.M. Ew!

Grandma had been close to her cousins when she was a kid, and she wanted the same for her grandkids. When the oldest was about 14 or 15 and the youngest was 3 or 4, she rented a lodge on Houghton Lake in northern Michigan, the beginning of a fifteen-year tradition. It was a two-hour drive for us Michiganders and a day-long trip for the Indiana family. We arrived, unpacked, and ran around doing kid stuff. The twelve of us grandkids fell fairly naturally into the six big kids and six little kids – some parent told the CAME Club we had to let the younger boys (B. and M.) play with us, and after some adjustment we found a way to fit them in.

A handful of us taking the boat out.
We spent the week doing all the things you’d expect from kids at a big lodge on a beach. We played hide-and-seek and capture-the-flag. We played water football and went tubing behind my uncle’s motor boat, affectionately named after my late grandpa. We drove into town to buy rubber band guns and suction-cup bow-and-arrow sets at the Indian store, then yarn and beads at the craft store. We rode the rusty old bikes to the park for tennis and the playground. We opened wintergreen leaves to smell them. We fought over who got to sleep in which room upstairs. One year we made chalk out of eggshells; another year we decorated popsicle-stick picture frames with glitter and buttons. The Mountain Dew flowed freely and we never ran out of Doritos. Our parents took lots of pictures.

Grandma wasn’t bubbly or extroverted. She would do crafts with us (the photo of all twelve grandkids standing in age order has been on her fridge for years, in the handmade popsicle-stick frame) and she would sit on the beach chatting with my mom and aunts, drinking something we weren’t allowed to try. Mostly, though, I think she enjoyed watching all of us be kids together. Then we were teenagers together. Then we started getting summer jobs and couldn’t take a week off, so while our parents stayed the whole week, we’d be in and out as we could make it. Finally, the youngest cousins were in college and the oldest ones were working entry-level jobs with no vacation time. Grandma had an empty nest.
Six little kids and Grandma at Houghton Lake, 2011

Almost three years after the last Houghton Lake week, Grandma died. Her grandkids were scattered all over the eastern half of the country. Four spouses and four children – one of them newborn – had been added to the family. But all twelve of us returned to our parents’ hometown in southern Michigan for the funeral. We hugged and cried and then went back to her house to be together. It was the first time we’d all been together in three or four years, and it was the last time we’d all be together at Grandma’s house.

The six little kids – now mostly grown up, with the youngest in college – were playing cards while trying to assign the responsibility of buying the lodge at Houghton Lake when my cousin David came into the room with a serious look on his face.

“Guys, we need to make some promises,” he said. “We always have to love each other, and we have to stay in touch.”

We all agreed, but the room was too merry (in that way reunions are) to consider them with the gravity David had intended. But we didn’t need to. All of that was an unspoken given – including buying the lodge, though it will be years before that’s a possibility. Grandma had wanted all of us to be friends, and she made it happen. Her tactic was simple. She took us all to the beach and said, “Go play.”

And we did.


  1. I just read your beautiful post,I know your parents and we met up north on Mackinaw Island. I feel inspired to continue to bring my family together. May you all continue to visit ever Summer in Houghton lake.Thanks for sharing your beautiful family summer tradition.

    1. Thanks, Mrs. Leyton! Yes -- I remember meeting you on Mackinac Island!

  2. Love this, Mary. I'm so sorry for your loss. . . . I hope to be this kind of grandm some day. :-)

    1. Thanks, Laura. I didn't realize how much my grandma was doing until I was much older!


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